The Psychology of Nakedness


In an article for Wired, author Jonah Lehrer concedes that “We judge books by the cover and minds by their appearance. We are a superficial species.”

The article focuses on two elements that we use to evaluate strangers:

1. agency, which is the ability to plan, act and exert self-control, and
2. experience, the ability to feel and perceive.

A team of psychologists studied the reactions of undergraduates to photographs of only the faces of a man and woman and then studied them again when they were shown full torsos of the same man and woman. When the pictures only showed a face, viewers imagined that they had lots of agency. But when they saw the person’s torso, they suddenly imagined them as obsessed with experience. Same person, same facial expression, but a hint of seeing the person’s body changed the viewer’s perception.

The psychologists pondered these questions: “Do people’s mental capacities fundamentally change when they remove a sweater? This seems absurd: How could removing a piece of clothing change one’s capacity for acting or feeling? In six studies, however, we show that taking off a sweater–or otherwise revealing flesh–can significantly change the way a mind is perceived.”

All it takes is a peek of skin before a thinker morphs into a feeler.

Read the full article here. Women, do you feel objectified by men because of your body? Men, do you find that seeing a woman’s body causes you to take her less seriously?

Join our conversation (13 Comments).
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  1. 1

    Are we talking about how strangers judge each other?   I’ll  assume yes.

    My reaction to men who have their shirt off in online dating profiles is usually disgust.   No matter how buff he is.   He doesn’t ‘morph’ from a thinker to a feeler.   He morphs into someone who has nothing upstairs or who is only looking for a physical relationship.  

    I’m guessing the reaction for men is similar.   No matter how smart a woman is, if she is showing too much skin for the context, she will not be taken seriously.     

  2. 2

    I read the article. For a “learned” magazine, the grammar causes the message to be possibly misleading. Namely:
    “when people glance at strangers who look ‘different’ — perhaps they dress funny, or belong to a different ethic group — they endow these strangers with less agency, a fancy term for the ability to plan, act and exert self-control.”
    This sentence can be confusing. Does it mean that when I look at a stranger, I loose the ability to plan, act and exert self-control in how I interact with them? Or does it mean that when I look at a stranger, I think these strangers have a lesser ability to plan, act and exert self-control than other people I know?
    The sentence could have been written better. Reading through the whole article does not make this any clearer!

  3. 3

    Interesting. And the comments to the article were more interesting than the article itself. Taken at face value (because I’m not equipped to get into arguing methodology), this makes some sense. I guess I subconsciously at least, knew that putting sexy pictures on my online dating profile was counterproductive, since I wanted to attract men who would be interested in my brain. Showing too much skin implies that I don’t have anything else to “sell.” And yeah, seeing guys with shirtless pics made me think he didn’t haven anything else to offer.

  4. 4

    This information is highly relevant to online dating.
    I think its a basic online “sorter” to have the main profile pic wearing plenty of clothes yet smiling and having fun. I dont want men cruising my pics and saving them to their private files as an anonymous piece of gal flesh (yes they do this and they ASK for more pics)
    I believe that glamour photos with lots of makeup and cleavage seem to encourage easy objectification of me as a woman. I find men who bother to meet me ALWAYS are pleasantly surprised how girly, sexy and gorgeous I am (their words , not mine) in the flesh… I would rather this be a happy surprise to a man who is interested in my other qualities of agency, not just my experience, and who bothers to meet me in person 🙂

  5. 5

    back in the day when I was online dating, I did have professional pictures with lots of “makeup and cleveage”. Partially because I am not really a photogenic person and it takes a professional to take a photos that resemble what I look like in real life. But also I was going for  a hard sell, and the guys I wanted to attract (and did in fact attract) do objectify women.  That said, I also put my degree, my occupation and  my income in the profile – i believe that is a better way to convey how smart you are rather than dressign down in your photos.

  6. 6

    This all seems quite obvious to me.   Of course we judge people on what they are wearing, if they are complete strangers, and sometimes even if we do know them.   If the first time I meet a guy is on the beach my perception of him will be way different then if I had met him in the office in his business suit.   How about a women at a club?   If she’s wearing a minnie skirt heels and showing cleavage, she’ll be labeled ‘easy’.   Compared to the woman next to her, who is wearing jeans and a sweater.   We start building a perception of people the minute we see them, it continually adapts based on our experiences with that person.   Think about how long it takes to truly get to know a romantic partner.   Your perception of this person changes greatly through this process.   Could you imagine how much you would learn about the ‘real’ aspects of others if we spent as much time with them as we do getting to know our SO’s?   Unreal!

  7. 7

    @ Ray #1:

    How do you feel about women who are wearing bikinis in their profile pics?   Do you think they are disgusting?

  8. 8

    Evan wrote: Women, do you feel objectified by men because of your body?

    Yes, at first, early in the relationship often. My dates are too overly focused on that, maybe getting me into bed. Me, on the other hand, am not even thinking about their anatomy I can’t see. I know some women do and even ask very personal ?s about size, etc. but to me that’s tacky, indecent, rude, you name it. Could be my Catholic upbringing and girls schools’ (2!)  manner/demeanor.
    I called a platonic male friend once about the merits of sending a naked pic to a man I was interested in, was in the early stages of dating and he said “NO! His curiosity will be appeased and you will ruin things”.   So I took his advice (not that I do that stuff too often). lol

    But my gut tells me he is sorta right about that and that you can’t beat mystery for driving a man mad.

    That said, I have this one photo of me in short shorts and high wedges I often put on websites, then pull when I have second thoughts. Weeks I put it up there I get deluged with emails. When I pull it the emails slow to a crawl. 🙂

  9. 9
    ofw dating

    this is a bit awkward but is actually true. and its human nature. i dont know, its a big turn on when you actually see the body.

  10. 10

    I found this to be one of those amusing “my grandmother could have told you that!” kind of behavioral studies.   Did anyone else think of Some Like It Hot when they were reading the article?

  11. 11

    I have been with a couple of men who absolutely loved my body, but they loved me first. When I was with them, and as a result of becoming more independent and athletic, I have become a lot more confident and do love my body, however I am struggling with thinking about the great new guy I am dating seeing me naked for the first time.

    I am very physically fit, but the reality that I have given birth to 4 children (and am just past 40 now) does show. People regularly think I am in my late 20’s, but they are not looking at me NAKED.  I have a lot of friends that get botox, tummy tucks, and have gotten breast implants, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Because of this, I think I am a little more  aware of my breasts not being full and that soft part of my tummy (lots of muscles but that extra soft skin from having babies will always be there after being stretched so many times).

    I’m just going to wait until my confidence is there and til I feel right about the whole thing, but, dang, I hope this won’t be a bummer for my new guy. I do know he is not a guy that prefers “fake” breasts…but not sure he’s got a clear picture of what he’ll be getting! 🙂

  12. 12
    Mike Wallens

    Wow we’re certainly intent on demonizing & shaming every single male sexual impulse im the worst possible light these days aren’t we? There’s nothing inherently shameful about it nor is female sexuality somehow magically blamelessly stainless & superiorly virtuous!

    You can study blood flow in people’s brains using fMRI but you still don’t know what the neurons are doing. Sometimes decreased bloodflow means more efficient bloodflow. If you believe this feminist pseudoscience you might very well stupidly think it’s completely impossible for a man to desire a woman & still treat her as a person.

    That’s toxic idiotic rubbish & it’s also a psychologically abusive assumption that encourages male self-loathing in their natural sexuality. Men simply are not the lesser evil-minded malicious creatures they’re painted to resemble compared to women. Most of us men actually love & appreciate the women we make love to & celebrate their bodies. The sloppy disgusting pseudoscience here is replete with unapologetic shameless agenda-driven confirmation bias.

    For all the supposedly superior female empathy (we keep hearing about) they sure seem to have little to no reservation with shaming & dehumanizing men for their normal behavior… That doesn’t jive to me. Empathetic people simply don’t constantly shame, chastise & belittle others because they instinctively well recognize how that feels to be on the receiving end!

  13. 13
    Pan Darius

    Simply put, humans are animals.

    Men: want sex.

    Women: want resources/protection (for their children).

    In the end, we are all machines, doomed to live out our genetically programmed existence.

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