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Is the Objectification Of Others Driven By An Honorable Motive?

2012 May 18

Researchers have identified a few reasons why we objectify others. One explanation relates to instrumentality. When somebody is seen as instrumental to achieving a goal — whether it be sexual, professional, or recreational — people are more likely to treat them as tools to be used or obstacles to be overcome. Another explanation is that we objectify in response to threats. By de-humanizing somebody through objectification, it’s possible to minimize the threat they pose to our perceived superiority or cultural worldview.

A group of researchers from the University of Kansas has now put forth a new explanation, termed “Subjective Uncertainty Theory” (SUT). The basic idea in its super-simplified form is that we’re occasionally so afraid of realizing we can’t understand a person’s complexities, we just pretend those complexities don’t exist and instead focus on their concrete traits (e.g. appearance, professional duties, IQ, etc.)

Here’s the basic idea in slightly less simplified form: We generally want to feel we can positively relate to others, but this can be difficult because other people have a certain amount of subjectivity — things like unique beliefs, judgments, goals, and personality characteristics. As a result, we feel “subjective uncertainty,” doubts about our ability to understand and navigate another person’s subjectivity well enough to engage with them and confirm we are capable of relating to others in a positive manner. When subjective uncertainty is sufficiently high, rather than risk proving our inability to relate by failing to navigate the uncertainty, we sidestep the issue by choosing to ignore a person’s subjectivity and view them only in terms of their concrete traits.

Rather than regale you with details of the experiments the researchers conducted to support their theory, I want to jump ahead to a fascinating and counterintuitive implication of their work.

SUT yields the hypothesis that the more people desire positive relations with others, yet feel uncertain about their ability to effectively understand and control people at a subjective level, the more likely they are to compensate for that uncertainty by downplaying targets’ subjective attributes and focusing instead on concrete attributes.

Within American culture the motivation for objectification is viewed as something thoroughly negative. The stereotype is that those who objectify are selfish and use others without valuing them for who they are. Subjective uncertainty theory runs counter to all that. It says that objectification can arise from desperately wanting to deeply understand someone. It just so happens that when uncertainty about the person’s subjective qualities makes you afraid you’ll fail to understand them, you respond by focusing on concrete qualities like appearance.

Last but not least, and on a somewhat unrelated note, I cannot express how disappointed I am that the authors did not begin the paper with the following epigraph:

“Mr. Treehorn treats objects like women, man.”  – The Dude

Landau, M., Sullivan, D., Keefer, L., Rothschild, Z., & Osman, M. (2012). Subjectivity uncertainty theory of objectification: Compensating for uncertainty about how to positively relate to others by downplaying their subjective attributes Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.05.003

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