Researchers used brain scans to show that when straight men looked at pictures of women in bikinis, areas of the brain that normally light up in anticipation of using tools, like spanners and screwdrivers, were activated.
Scans of some of the men found that a part of the brain associated with empathy for other people’s emotions and wishes shut down after looking at the pictures.
In the study, Fiske’s team put straight men into an MRI brain scanner and showed them images of either clothed men and women, or more scantily clad men and women. When they took a memory test afterwards, the men best remembered images of bikini-clad women whose heads had been digitally removed.
The brain scans showed that when men saw the images of the women’s bodies, activity increased in part of the brain called the premotor cortex, which is involved in urges to take action. The same area lights up before using power tools to do DIY.
In the final part of the study, Fiske asked the men to fill in a questionnaire that was used to assess how sexist they were. The brain scans showed that men who scored highest had very little activity in the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions that are involved with understanding another person’s feelings and intentions. “They’re reacting to these women as if they’re not fully human,” Fiske said.