- The Psychology of Beauty and Sexualization
Previous work on sexualization explains that it manifests in response to heteronormative patriarchal conditions where men hold power at the expense of women. These conditions create an environment where women are constantly looked at and evaluated, especially for their physical and sexual attractiveness to men. As a result, women internalize physical attractiveness as their primary source of self-worth, with a host of negative psychological repercussions (including but not limited to reduced assertiveness and disempowerment). This framework predicts that sexualization is largely driven by gender inequality and that it is associated with reduced female agency, yet 8 studies from our lab have challenged the centrality of these assumptions.
In our work, we have identified a novel driver of sexualization that suggests that sexualization is, counter-intuitively, an agentic strategy some women employ to socially climb and enact high status. That novel driver is status anxiety, which my work shows is robustly correlated with sexualization across cultures. We have also experimentally shown that engaging in sexualization increases women’s psychological and behavioural assertiveness, and that the same economic conditions which exacerbate status anxiety—namely, income inequality—are also robust predictors of sexualization. This latter investigation encompassed five studies across 113 nations, and also showed that there was no association between gender inequality and sexualization, once income inequality was entered in the model.
To be clear, there could be very good reasons why gender inequality was not associated with sexualization as predicted by previous work, and this work does not argue that gender imbalances have no relationship with sexualization. Rather, it highlights that researchers have overlooked income inequality as an important sociostructural driver of sexualization, and the very real relationship between women’s investment in their physical appearance and their agentic status-seeking.
- Twitplat and Locatarithm
The rise of open source social media platforms – including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – has seen a dramatic increase in self-objectification, a phenomenon in which people believe their primary worth derives from their physical attractiveness. Self-objectification is widespread globally but has reached almost epidemic levels in Australia, where people have more cosmetic surgery operations per capita than any other country worldwide and spend $22 billion each year on personal grooming. Self-objectification has widespread implications for the health and wellbeing of Australians, and though the individual drivers of self-objectification are well-documented, the political and economic contexts connected with it are poorly resolved.
To better understand the conditions driving self-objectification, The ECE Lab is currently undertaking research into the role of status-seeking, self-promotion and social media use. Despite a seemingly endless array of social media content, there are several technical limitations to accessing this enormous volume of data on human behaviour. For instance, Twitter limits data availability to live streaming or past searches of only a week, and the data is very difficult to geolocate using standard techniques that require latitude/longitude vectors (as only ~1% of all tweets contain this information); thus, limiting the timeframe over which one can answer targeted research questions and the ability for researchers to identify cross-cultural differences.
In response to the problem of data availability, in collaboration with computer scientists, Dr. Blake compiled a longitudinal database of all publicly available Twitter posts. The resulting TwitPlat database (available soon!) now contains more than 6 billion tweets, making it the largest freely available database of its kind. Spanning the years 2012 to 2019, the TwitPlat database contains content from millions of individuals and posts. Locatarithm was developed to deal with gelocation issues utilising user location field text and matches it to a huge range of world locations. With very high granularity (e.g., all cities worldwide with populations >100K; all suburbs of Australia), our research produces geolocation for around 35% of all users.
Moving forward, The ECE Lab is using this data to compare the sociostructural effects of self-objectification across all world regions and human development levels. This project combines the power of cross-cultural, big data insights with experimental tests of the effects of inequality and self-objectification on fundamental social motives. Understanding how social structures and motivational drives affect self-objectification may allow for targeted interventions, reduced community burden and improved health outcomes.
- The Mating Market and Human Competition
An array of literature spanning economics, sociology, biology, and psychology suggests that the availability of romantic partners has profound consequences for individuals and the societies in which they live. For example, within environments where there is an imbalance in the number of men and women, the sex in oversupply must compete for access to a limited number of sexual partners. One way that women are thought to compete is through increased self-sexualization. Recently, The ECE Lab has applied biological and evolutionary theories to investigate how variation in mate availability affect women’s willingness to enhance their physical and sexual attractiveness to men. We are interested in conducting research that helps to understand the environmental factors influencing sexualising behaviour in women.
In a recent experimental design , we led women to believe that their local dating environment contained either more or less men, compared to women. We measured women’s satisfaction with their body image, their interest in enhancing their sexual attractiveness to men, their acceptance of cosmetic surgery, and their overall belief that they were a high-quality romantic partner. We expected that when there were fewer potential sexual partners, that women would have an increased tendency to enhance their physical or sexual attractiveness. Contrary to this expectation, we found that the number of potential partners did not influence women’s tendency to enhance their physical or sexual attractiveness. What we did find was that if individuals perceived themselves as a high-quality mate, this made them more likely to engage in self-sexualising behaviours. Whereas women who perceived themselves as a low-quality mate were more accepting of cosmetic surgery.
These results suggest that women have complex motives for sexualisation and beauty enhancement. We predict that although attracting a mate is likely a strong motivator, it is not the only reason that women engage in these behaviours. Other research from The ECE Lab support this claim. For example, we have demonstrated that when concerned about social status, women can use beautification to out-do and compete with one another. Similarly, we are also interested in how income inequality is related to self-promotion and sexualisation. As this research continues to provide insight into female behaviour, we are excited to continue our work in this field.
- Intimate Partner Violence
Aggression is a complex social behaviour that can present differently across diverse contexts, individuals and cultures. When we talk about Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), we are specifically referring to verbal and physical aggression between people who are, or have previously been, in an intimate relationship. Intimate violence may be perpetrated by a male or a female, although trends in Australia suggest that women are more likely to be the victims of physically aggressive behaviour. In contrast, women are more likely to engage in aggression which is verbal or indirect (e.g., social exclusion). Despite its widespread prevalence, the literature on aggression in women is relatively sparse.
At The ECE, we are interested in improving knowledge surrounding female-perpetrated aggression, including IPV, sexual and alcohol-related violence. Although male violence often causes greater physically and psychological harm, our research revealed that women are as likely (if not more likely) than men to engage in IPV. Despite the potential societal impact, very little is known about the development of aggression in women. Distinct in our approach, we focus on using laboratory settings to identify potential brain mechanisms and how hormones may be implicated in behaviour. We also research the impact of social environments (e.g., the rise of gender equality) on perceptions of violent behaviour.
We feel it is important to highlight that our research does not intend to victim blame or reduce accountability of violent male behaviour. Instead, our goal is to improve understanding of the general causes of aggression, so that we may reduce conflict between individuals and groups. The ECE Lab is continuing to address intimate partner violence from both the male and female aggressor.