The Effect of Objectification on Aggression
Funded by General Research Fund, Research Grants Council of Hong Kong
Objectification is defined as being treated by someone else as an object that can be used or manipulated. Prior studies on this topic have mainly focused on sexual objectification (i.e., treating women as objects that satisfy men’s sexual desires); meanwhile, relatively little research has examined how non-sexual forms of objectification influence people’s well-being.
When people are objectified, they are treated as mere tools that aid others to achieve certain goals, while their autonomy, needs, feelings, and opportunities are denied. Therefore, objectified people should feel a lack of control over their situation. Because people have a strong need to master their destiny and feel fulfilled in life, people should be motivated to behave in ways to regain their feelings of control after being objectified. We developed a new model to explain why objectification increases aggression through a reduced sense of control and how a brief control-restoration exercise weakens the effect of objectification on aggression. A multi-method approach was adopted to empirically test the hypotheses that were directly derived from the theoretical model. We proposed that objectification should increase aggression because aggressive behavior can restore thwarted feelings of control by symbolically asserting superiority and control over others.
This study aimed to fill this research gap by addressing the following objectives:
1. Examining whether objectification increases aggression;
2. Examining the reason behind the effect of objectification on aggression;
3. Examining whether a situational intervention weakens the link between objectification and aggression;
4. Examining whether the effect of objectification on aggression changes depending on the context where the objectification occurs.
We further proposed that when objectified people’s feelings of control are restored through interventions, they should no longer behave aggressively; and that objectification should only increase aggressive behavior when the context of the objectification is harmful to their well-being, but not when the context of the objectification is beneficial.
When compared with participants who did not experience objectification, participants who experienced objectification had higher levels of aggression, for example, reporting higher aggressive inclinations in hypothetical situations and assigning more painful and harmful treatments to others
Objectified people showed higher levels of both retaliatory aggression toward the perpetrators of objectification and even displaced aggression toward innocent strangers
Reduced sense of control mediated the effect of objectification on aggression, even after controlling for the effects of negative mood
A short control-restoration exercise weakened people’s aggressive tendencies following objectification
People who perceived that their aggression had significant costs reported lower antisocial tendencies following interpersonal maltreatments
Given the ubiquitous nature of objectification and aggression in daily social interactions, it is critical to understand how objectification can influence aggressive behavior. This research demonstrated that objectification increases people’s aggressive tendencies through a reduced sense of control. Moreover, restoring objectified people’s sense of control can effectively reduce their tendencies to behave aggressively. Through showing when and why objectification increases aggression and how to weaken the effect, these findings advance our existing knowledge of objectification.
This research also carries both theoretical and practical significance. Theoretically, it advances current theories of objectification and creates new avenues for future research to further examine the consequences of objectification and identify why they occur. Practically, it provides insights for practitioners to design theory-driven intervention programs to combat objectification and related forms of interpersonal maltreatment.