The Situationist

Sarah Palin – Objectification – Reaction – Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 16, 2009

Sarah Palin Convention - By Tom LeGro, NewsHour

Eric Deggans, has a nice article in the Saint Petersburg Times summarizing research by psychologists from Univesity of South Florida, Jamie L. Goldenberg and Nathan A. Heflick.  Their research examined the objectifying effects of thinking about Sarah Palin’s appearance.  Immediately below, you will find excerpts from Deggans’s article.  Below that, you’ll find some reflections from Jamie Goldenberg regarding the negative reaction of some conservative media to her research.

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Two researchers at the University of South Florida have developed a study that suggests . . . that a random group of Republicans and independents asked to focus on Palin’s attractiveness felt less likely to vote for the GOP ticket in last November’s elections.

“The idea is that when you focus on a woman’s appearance, this objectifies her, or turns her into an object in your eyes,” said Jamie L. Goldenberg, an associate professor of psychology at USF and co-author of the study, titled “Objectifying Sarah Palin: Evidence that Objectification Causes Women to be Perceived as Less Competent and Fully Human.” “What we found is these perceptions influenced people’s likelihood of voting.”

In their experiment, Goldenberg and graduate student Nathan A. Heflick assembled a group of 133 undergraduates at the school a month before the election. After noting their characteristics — 27 percent were male, 45 percent were Democrats, 24 percent were Republicans and the rest were independents — they were randomly separated into four groups.

Two groups were asked to write about Palin and two groups were asked to write about actor Angelina Jolie. Within each pair, one group was asked to write their thoughts and feelings about the subject’s appearance, and the other was asked to write about the person. They then asked respondents how they would vote in the coming election.

Goldenberg said that, after factoring out Democratic respondents (who solidly supported Obama), the Republicans and independents asked to write about Palin’s appearance said they were less likely to vote GOP than those who simply considered Palin as a person.

“There was an overall tendency to perceive Sarah Palin as less competent than Angelina Jolie,” said Goldenberg, noting their results fell in line with previous studies indicating that, in high status and political jobs, attractive women were perceived as less competent in ways attractive men and women in other jobs were not.

. . . .Goldenberg said the study, which is to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, may spark more questions than it answers.

“What you can’t tell from this is what did they finally do in the end?” said Joel Cooper, a professor of psychology at Princeton University and editor of the journal publishing Goldenberg and Heflick’s study. “But at the moment they thought of (Palin) as a beauty queen, they were less likely to consider voting for (her) … Knowing that is important for campaigns and how we understand each other.”

Another question: Are female politicians who play down their appearance, like Hillary Clinton, instinctively on to something?

“We wouldn’t say attractiveness is a bad thing,” said Goldenberg. “But having people focus on your appearance and not what you say and who you are, is a bad thing.”

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From Miller-McCune, here are some excerpts from “Peeling Away the Media Reaction to ‘Objectifying Sarah Palin’“:

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Over the few months time we spent on our latest study on the objectification of women in the public eye, our lives as scientists played out normally.

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But then the media got hold of our findings and the subsequent reaction was always surprising – and often appalling.
In his Psychology Today blog, Dr. Stanton Peele reviewed my (Goldenberg, the female member of the research team) appearance on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” with an insulting recapitulation. He mocked my performance, and then he drew attention to my “revealing top” (a round-neck T-shirt, worn on an 85-degree day in Florida and with no foreknowledge that I would be on national television that day).

Dr. Peele’s criticism of my failure to describe the study in a brief sound bite was not atypical of media and Internet blog reactions (although it was all the more surprising since it was written by a “scientist”). But, in Peele’s case, and others, we were silently amused by the irony. Here I was, being objectified and described as incompetent, while the people reporting our findings failed to make the connection to our research findings (some even argued that my appearance invalidated the findings)!

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We believed that, if anything, the study would be spun to be pro-Palin (“she would have been perceived as competent if only the media would have focused on her personality instead of her appearance”). However, the right-wing media reaction was most often defensive and downright hostile. There appeared to be two primary sources of contention. One, people were incensed at the comparison of Palin to a mere actress, Angelina Jolie. And two, people assumed that the study tested and concluded that attractiveness and competence are incompatible — no matter that this was neither tested nor concluded.

In response to the first accusation, the critics failed to comprehend that we are social psychologists with a basic interest in the consequences of objectifying women . . . .

The results also revealed a general tendency for participants in the study to perceive Palin as less competent than Jolie. This is not entirely surprising considering that Jolie was likely evaluated for competence as an actress and Palin as a prospective vice president of the United States. And while the majority of our participants described themselves as Democrats, the study was not designed to shed light on this difference. Nevertheless, Bill O’Reilly harped on this difference . . .and became most frustrated when I, Goldenberg, tried to explain to him that this was not a central component of the study.  [Take a look at the video below (warning: the video is quite low-quality, but it nicely illustrates how some in the media may be unable to "get it.")]

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Why is it that the media and Internet bloggers responded to this research with such an uproar?

Here is our take: For one, the nonscientific community was suspicious of our agenda. In a medium where most information serves some political/social/personal agenda, it was simply inconceivable to most people that this research lacked those motivations. In addition, the insensitive comments that were expressed over the Internet (and in hate mail directly sent to us) also demonstrate a type of dehumanization. Viewing us through a television screen or computer monitor (or not at all) most likely functioned to dehumanize us, brazening people to say things that they would never say to a “real” person.

In addition, we were confronted with real-life evidence of the tenacity of people’s efforts to protect their beliefs. This is a common finding in social psychology, that when people have an existing belief — that liberal academics will attack Palin – they will ignore contrary evidence (that this was a scientific study and it could be seen as supporting Palin).

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To read all of Goldenberg’s reflections on her first major encounter with the media, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Objectification,”Hillary Clinton, the Halo Effect, and Women’s Catch-22,” “Legal Academic Backlash – Abstract,” ” Naive Cynicism – Abstract,” ” The Situational Power of Anonymity,” Internet Disinhibition,” and The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing.”

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3 Responses to “Sarah Palin – Objectification – Reaction – Situation”

  1. Nathan Heflick said

    Well, we can another media outlet to the “good” section. That makes about 6/40.

    Thanks for covering our response to the media. The whole thing really was alarming, especially the hate mail Jamie got after being non O’Reilly.

    It is just a shame that correcting the media isn’t that juicy.

    Nathan Heflick
    (lead author and researcher on the project).

  2. tamara said

    I am not surprised. These findings are consistent with some of the other work done which I cite in a new, unpublished piece entitled “Onslaught: Commercial Speech and Gender Inequality” in which I argue that there is some evidence, albeit still far from complete, that objectification of women has constitutes an obstacle to gender equality. The article can be found here http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=625132. The Heflick/Goldenberg article isn’t cited but I’m am going to add it now!

  3. BETTER QUALITY VERISON OF THE INNER-VIEW http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJeChwkAlQI

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