In the workplace, one button undone on a women’s dress shirt without a camisole underneath can make the average viewer see her as less intelligent.
Studies about clothing are limited, and most focus on making a good first impression rather than looking at how a women’s characteristics are judged based on how she is dressed, but Dr. Regan Gurung, a social psychologist and the director of General Psychology at Oregon State University, has been conducting a series of studies looking at this very thing.
Gurung’s studies have unearthed a number of unconscious biases, and he went over his findings during his talk on OSU’s Science Pub.
Gurung made it clear his goal was to find bias in the way people are viewed due to their clothes, not change how people dress. He spent a good amount of the talk touching on how an objectifying gaze may cause the person being viewed to have negative impacts including body shame, low self-esteem, and lower cognitive performance.
In one of his earlier studies, Gurung compared how people thought of women who were Olympic athletes when they were wearing their medals and in their uniforms versus in their more provocative, publicly available photos. The same woman would be thought of as more attractive and sexual, but less intelligent, less capable, and less determined in the provocative picture, according to Gurung.
In a later study, Gurung found that clothing could even effect how competent a woman was judged to be. A woman in an outfit for a party was seen as less competent, less determined, less independent, and less intelligent than if they were to wear the same clothes while doing math or holding an athletics trophy. In pictures without any display of competence, the women in party wear were also seen to be more promiscuous.
When viewing the results of the studies, it is important to note that in most of Gurung’s studies the viewers of the photos, the people who rated intelligence and such based on what they saw, were mostly women. All subjects were also screened for the trait of sexism.
Our Biases, Their Origins, and How to be Informed
Gurung said that everyone has biases.
“These help us to manage the immense information we have to deal with,” Gurung said. “Unfortunately, they can lead to prejudicial behavior and mistakes. The key is to draw conscious attention to the biases we may have and then intentionally aim to change them.”
Automatic thoughts are normal. “But we can train ourselves and others to notice and then to modify them,” Gurung said.
These biases can have a number of detrimental effects on society at large, as well as on the person being viewed and judged.
“Just because something is automatic does not mean it is ok. Furthermore, we need to focus much more on those who are doing the wrong perceiving (e.g., acting on a false stereotype by making a sexist or hurtful comment) than on the person being perceived (e.g., a woman in a tight outfit),” Gurung said.
So where might these stereotypes come from? They are almost always learned behaviors.
“Mostly by learning through the media,” Gurung said. “We get conditioned to associate certain types of clothing (e.g., tight) with certain types of characteristics (e.g., promiscuous). Parents and guardians should be ready to point out stereotypes in TV shows and when [these] kind of maladaptive associations are being portrayed.”
Bias can also be addressed in workplace training as well. “There is evidence that this can be effective,” he said, “and if we practice it enough and the training is widespread enough it can bring large scale change.”
Though many of his studies focus on the objectification of women, a few are designed to reveal what processes may contribute to rape culture.
Gurung is working on one such study currently with student Megan Sherman, trying to see if exposure to different kinds of videos will make observers less sexist.
“The data is still coming in. So our work and that of my lab is unpacking the elements that may contribute to the automatic perceptions formed that in turn can lead to aggressive behavior,” Gurung said.
Though there is a lot of research happening in these areas, sometimes information doesn’t disseminate well from academia. Science Pub is one way that the university is trying to showcase the research being done and what researchers have found.
Gurung also uses other platforms to talk about his findings.
“I blog for Psychology Today to get word out and often contribute to different general public magazines. There is good research but we academics need to be better at translating it to get it out,” he said.
For more information about his research, check out Dr. Gurung’s Science Pub, where he touches on the intersection of race in this conversation, as well as going into further detail and discussing things like perception about a person wearing a University of Oregon shirt in Downtown Corvallis. His page on Psychology Today is here.