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Women Are Just as Cognitively Sharp Under the Male Gaze, Scientists Find

Good news for women who have to exist under the male gaze: it doesn't, as one might think, make you dumber.

In an interview with PsyPost about her recent study looking into the effects of self-objectification on concentration, Northwestern psychology professor and paper co-author Renee Engeln said she wanted to see whether being aware of the male gaze could harm women's ability to focus.

What she and her colleague medical social scientist Anne Zola discovered was that although many of the college-aged women who took part in the study did focus on their looks, they weren't so distracted that they couldn't concentrate on other things, too.

"We didn’t find that being objectified had a measurable effect on women’s working memory," Engeln said. "Most women have likely had a lot of practice staying focused on a task even when someone is evaluating their physical appearance. Research on this topic may have overlooked women’s resilience in response to these experiences."

As they laid out in a paper published by the journal PLOS One last fall, Engeln and Zola drew their conclusions using an ingenious scheme: by recording some of them, and telling others that they were being recorded for a dating study and that the videos would be evaluated by men.

These two groups, termed respectively as the "self-objectification" group and the "male gaze" group, were tempered by a third control group that wasn't told they were being recorded at all. The participants in each were randomly selected from the 376 young women aged 18-25, mostly college students.

Each group was first asked to take a pre-test rating their guilt and anxiety levels going into the experiment. After that, they were instructed to listen to, mentally solve, and verbally repeat aloud math problems which they then were told to write up on a whiteboard.

Against prior expectations, the researchers found that being recorded did not have a significant impact on the memory processing of the self-objectification and male gaze groups, suggesting that although they were tasked with additional psychic baggage while doing math problems, they were nevertheless able to solve and remember them just fine.

Curiously enough, Zola and Engeln also uncovered something entirely unexpected: participants' guilt and anxiety self-scores went up across the board after completing the exercises, regardless of whether they were recorded or not.

"We were surprised at how unpleasant our participants found the experience of having to answer relatively simple math problems out loud," Engeln told PsyPost. "Math anxiety wasn’t the focus of our study, but it’s certainly a reminder that even very academically talented women like those in this study can still experience substantial anxiety about their abilities."

While one study certainly can't prove or disprove any hypothesis on a topic this complex, these novel results, the psychology professor said, open up future research avenues.

"Women may respond differently when their appearance is evaluated in a non-sexual way (as it might be during a job interview, for example) compared to when they are openly sexually objectified (like when a woman is cat-called)," Engeln said. "We also know very little about how women cope with being objectified or how they minimize the effects of being objectified. That’s an important area for future research."

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