Peeling Away the Media Reaction to 'Objectifying Sarah Palin'

What's it like to have your work misinterpreted by the mainstream media? Two psychologists, who asked whether a popular politician would be hurt by media coverage focused on her appearance, tell their story.
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Over the few months time we spent on our latest study on the objectification of women in the public eye, our lives as scientists played out normally:

• Design the study — Which women should we use to be rated? Should we include this measure or that one?
• Analyze the results — Yes, the results are significant and as hypothesized.
Publish the academic article — We got accepted!

But then the media got hold of our findings and the subsequent reaction was always surprising — and often appalling.

In his Psychology Today blog, Dr. Stanton Peele reviewed my (Goldenberg, the female member of the research team) appearance on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor with an insulting recapitulation. He mocked my performance, and then he drew attention to my "revealing top" (a round-neck T-shirt, worn on an 85-degree day in Florida and with no foreknowledge that I would be on national television that day).

Dr. Peele's criticism of my failure to describe the study in a brief sound bite was not atypical of media and Internet blog reactions (although it was all the more surprising since it was written by a "scientist"). But, in Peele's case, and others, we were silently amused by the irony. Here I was, being objectified and described as incompetent, while the people reporting our findings failed to make the connection to our research findings (some even argued that my appearance invalidated the findings)!

Our article, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, reports a study demonstrating that focusing on a woman's appearance reduces people's perceptions of her competence. We examined reactions to two women — Sarah Palin and Angelina Jolie. Participants were randomly assigned to write about one of these women's appearance or personality. For both women, when participants were primed to focus on their appearance, they were perceived as less competent. And, in Palin's case, it also reduced intentions to vote for the GOP ticket prior to the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

We believed that, if anything, the study would be spun to be pro-Palin ("she would have been perceived as competent if only the media would have focused on her personality instead of her appearance"). However, the right-wing media reaction was most often defensive and downright hostile. There appeared to be two primary sources of contention. One, people were incensed at the comparison of Palin to a mere actress, Angelina Jolie. And two, people assumed that the study tested and concluded that attractiveness and competence are incompatible — no matter that this was neither tested nor concluded.

In response to the first accusation, the critics failed to comprehend that we are social psychologists with a basic interest in the consequences of objectifying women (based on the insights of University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum). We viewed Sarah Palin, and the media frenzy surrounding her appearance, as merely a relevant application of the psychological phenomena. The comparison of Jolie was meant to depict the generalizability of our findings to another woman who, like Palin, is also often evaluated for her appearance.

The results also revealed a general tendency for participants in the study to perceive Palin as less competent than Jolie. This is not entirely surprising considering that Jolie was likely evaluated for competence as an actress and Palin as a prospective vice president of the United States. And while the majority of our participants described themselves as Democrats, the study was not designed to shed light on this difference. Nevertheless, Bill O'Reilly harped on this difference — take a look here — and became most frustrated when I, Goldenberg, tried to explain to him that this was not a central component of the study.

The other accusation, that we were suggesting attractive women cannot be taken seriously, is also completely preposterous.

Although Tom Jacobs described the study accurately in an initial story appearing on Miller-McCune.com (for which Heflick was interviewed), the vast majority of Internet stories headlined the equivalent of "Palin's good looks hurt the GOP ticket." Most articles warped the study claiming that Palin was perceived as incompetent because she is attractive, and further, that she needed to "dowdy down" to win votes, as the Los Angeles Times suggested.

In actuality, the study compared reactions to two conditions, each depicting Palin (or Jolie) as equally attractive. What varied was the amount that the perceiver focused on the woman's appearance. In the interview with O'Reilly, Goldenberg made this point explicitly, stating "it (the study) is not suggesting that women cannot be attractive and competent," to which O'Reilly replied, "I am just not getting why anyone would think a good-looking woman in politics would be any less competent than an ordinary-looking woman."

Why is it that the media and Internet bloggers responded to this research with such an uproar?

Here is our take: For one, the nonscientific community was suspicious of our agenda. In a medium where most information serves some political/social/personal agenda, it was simply inconceivable to most people that this research lacked those motivations. In addition, the insensitive comments that were expressed over the Internet (and in hate mail directly sent to us) also demonstrate a type of dehumanization. Viewing us through a television screen or computer monitor (or not at all) most likely functioned to dehumanize us, brazening people to say things that they would never say to a "real" person.

In addition, we were confronted with real-life evidence of the tenacity of people's efforts to protect their beliefs. This is a common finding in social psychology, that when people have an existing belief — that liberal academics will attack Palin — they will ignore contrary evidence (that this was a scientific study and it could be seen as supporting Palin).

Although our recent encounter with the mainstream media and bloggers left us a bit media squeamish, it was a relief to have had a number of positive encounters with intelligent and professional media outlets. In addition to the original Miller-McCune article, Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times and Jim Galloway of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as well as Jezebel.com, all covered the research accurately (and either interviewed us or actually read the JESP article). Syndicated radio host Michael Smerconish also did an excellent job on his shows, allowing one of us (Heflick) to accurately describe the study, understanding it himself, and asking well-thought-out questions about applying our research to network news.

In the end, we are flattered to have received such attention for our research. Hopefully this article has "peeled away" some of the misunderstandings and criticisms surrounding our findings. In sharing our experience, we hope to better prepare other researchers who might one day find themselves in an unfamiliar media spotlight.

We acknowledge that Peele's blogs contained some constructive criticism in a sea of non-constructive insults. Scientists could use better training in media relations. I (Goldenberg) learned that in my crash course via a 5:45-minute interview with Bill O'Reilly.

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