Gender Identity, Perception of Gender, and the Tolerant Society

Tue 3 Nov 2015 18:22:18 2 comments

There’s been a bit of chit-chat around the gender-sphere lately about a petition pushing for Germaine Greer’s speech at the University of Cardiff to be cancelled. The petition was based on the fact that Greer had expressed trans-exclusionary views and on the premise that:

Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society.

Many of the responses reached a more moderate conclusion, that: Greer should still be able to give her talk in spite of her views on trans gender people. A common opinion is that Greer’s views might “have sold just fine forty-odd years ago” but now are outdated, and that Greer’s view “will die with today’s [Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist] leaders and in a decade or so, among feminists it will be confined to a few cranks.

In this post I’m going to argue that Greer’s views ought to be heard because of, not merely in spite of, her views on trans-gender people. I’m not writing in order to specifically defend Greer or her views; she is enough of an intelligent and independent thinker with more than enough experience as a provocateur to defend her own views. Nor is this a post about the issue of academic freedom or censorship; I’ve already made more than a few comments on that issue in the thread over at Alas.

This post will argue that while trans-inclusive views on gender have made an important contribution to our collective understanding and appreciation of gender, and that protecting trans individuals remains an important social justice goal, alternative views on gender, particularly a perception rather than a self-identification based view, will continue to have a significant contribution to make to the gender debate and are an aspect of people’s gender that should not be suppressed. In short I’m arguing for the inclusion of views on gender that might be trans-exclusionary (but not the exclusion of trans-inclusionary views on gender).

Read more…

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The Hunter and The Demon

Sat 18 Apr 2015 20:17:06 Leave a comment

[Yes, I realise I never finished the Gaming the Studies series. Life got busy, work, law exams, illness, etc. and I got distracted. This post is related to what has been distracting me for the past week or so, since reading my way through a heap of Hugo nominations from this year and a few previous years as well.

I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, back when time was cheaper, and I still enjoy the adventure of a good fantasy story. Before I started reading the nominations, I had a few seeds, a few elemental ideas, floating around my head for a character I might get to create if I were to ever play again. With my mind awash with creativity from all the great stories I had read, those seeds grew into something else entirely.

This short story is the first substantive piece of fiction I’ve written, asside from the dribs and drabs for D&D, since… well, I was struggling to pass high school English. So it might be a little rough and in need of an edit or two. It’s also a little longer and a little more reflective than I had expected. And it gets a little dark.

I hope you enjoy.]



Drip… drip… drip.

Hearing was always the first sense to return. Pellwyn had noticed the pattern whenever he regained control. He tried to focus with the little energy he could muster to block out the buzzing in his mind. He could hear his raspy breath, rushing in and out. There was the crackle of a fire and the bubbling of a boiling liquid. Some sort of mechanical device was whirring and clicking across the room. Pellwyn returned his focus to the dripping. It’s repetitive nature soothed his tired mind as memories began to return as well.

Read more…

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Gaming the Studies – Problematic Pictures

Sun 2 Nov 2014 12:49:38 Leave a comment

This post is part of a series on the research studies on sexism cited in the FeministFrequency video series Tropes vs Women in Video Games. The first post in that series covered my views on the FeministFrequency videos and can be found here.

This post in the series examines the two studies in the “Objectification Leads to Depersonalization” article by Loughnan et al (2010).1 I cover some relevant background material in two posts here and here.


Before getting into the details of the experiments, it’s probably worth making a few comments on the approach I’ll be taking. The primary purpose of these reviews isn’t to establish the academic merit of the studies or consider if they offer any novel insights into the human mind. The purpose is to consider whether the studies can be reasonably used to support the claims being made by FeministFrequency and by implication whether they can be reasonably used to justify calls for change within the video game industry.

I’ll give brief overview and cover a summary of the method and results of each experiment, focusing on details I plan to comment on. I’ll also include the most significant observations and comments made in the article.

After that I’ll cover my own views and consider the article against three different criteria:

  1. Relevance: How relevant is the study to gaming? i.e. How well does the experiment replicates circumstances related to video games in the real world?
  2. Significance: How significant is the study to the gaming community? i.e. Do the results indicate there is a potential problem or is this a case of streetlight psychology?
  3. Confidence: To what extent can we be confident the experiment actually supports the theories put forward by the authors? i.e. Are the any flaws in the experiment or any alternative theories that might explain the results?

Objectification Leads to Depersonalization:
The denial of mind and moral concern to objectified others

Loughnan, Haslam, Murnane, Vaes, Reynolds & Suitner (2010)1

I wasn’t exactly sure what sort of studies I would find when I started this review project. I have a reasonably healthy respect for the peer-review process, but I had concerns as I had heard many disparaging remarks about ideological bias present in the field of social psychology. Those concerns weren’t exactly alleviated by the first words of the first article:

“When objectification occurs, the person is depersonalized”
— Andrea Dworkin

The two experiments are about the way the objectified images of people influence the perceptions of mental attributes and moral status (“personhood”). The first experiment attempts to extend the work of Schwarz & Kurz (1989)2 on face-ism to cover photos where the head is excluded. The second looks at the impact on the mental and moral perceptions of people either fully clothed or wearing revealing clothing.

The studies are intended to look at the effects of objectification in media where research has shown different genders are presented with different amounts of face and body.3 The article doesn’t mention the priming effect however the experiments do involve manipulating a first stimulus (photo) and then measuring the response to a second stimulus (questionnaire). It does cover the harmful effects of self-objectification and cites studies they may support some of the other claims my in the FeministFrequency video.4 It also notes some research that identifies how people view moral agency and moral patiency as different aspects of personhood.5

Study 1


This study used photos of three women (“targets”) in swimsuits from the internet, each modified into three different forms: head-only, body-only or full body. The subjects were 86 college aged people (54 f, 32 m; mean age 20.5). Subjects viewed a head-only, body-only and full-body photo with each one photo being of a different target. They rated the targets on a four of different scales. The ratings are all done scales (e.g. 1 = “not at all” to 7 = “very much so”) but I’ll be normalising results to percentage changes when discussing them.

Women in a bikini

What a full-body photo of a women in swimsuit
may look like (from the internet not the study).

The Mental State Attribution (MSA) scale consists of asking subjects about how much the targets possessed the ability to do 20 different things such as see, hear, feel fear, feel joy, reason, think, wish, plan, etc. The General Mind Attribution (GMA) scales directly asks “how much mind does this woman have?”. The blatant moral scale involves asking general questions about the target such as “how unpleasant would it be to harm this woman?”. The Experience Scale (ES) asks about the capacity of the person to have hunger, fear, plain, rage, desire, personality, consciousness, pride, embarrassment and joy.


Compared to the head-only photos, the full-body photos resulted in a marginal decrease (~3%) in the ratings of the MSA and ES (the more complex scales). Compared to the head-only photos the body-only photos resulted in a small decrease (~8% – ~15%) on the mental scales and a marginal decrease (~4% – ~6%) on the moral scales.

Discussion in the Article:

I think the article’s discussion of these results can be summed up by this quote:

The results of Study 1 indicate that participants deny objectified women both proposed aspects of personhood: Mind and moral status.

While a small decrease in perceptions of mind and moral status are not insignificant, the language appears to be rather indulgent. I’m not sure a shift in viewing a particular mental capacity from “moderately” to “somewhat” can be reasonably described as “denying” that capacity. The discussion does make note of the interesting lack of difference on the blatant scales (GMA and blatant moral scale).

Study 2


This study used images of 2 men and 2 women from the internet. There were 2 images of each target: one “objectified” image where they were wearing a bikini (women) or shirtless (men) and one “non-objectified” image where they were fully clothed. The photos were controlled to ensure they all contained equal proportion of faces to remove any face-ism effect. They were also pretested to ensure there was no difference in attractiveness or emotionality between the objectified and non-objectified images.

The subjects were 80 college ages people (40 f, 40 m; mean age 19.2). They rated each target on the MSA, GSA, ES and moral patiency scale (PS). They also estimated IQ and rated competence at 4 jobs: lawyer, manager, stockbroker, scientist. In a final measure they were asked how many pain-inducing tablets they would give the target to induce a specific amount of pain.


The mental scales (MSA, GMA, IQ & Competence) were all lower for objectified images (~6% – ~21%). The gender of the observer (subject) had only one significant effect. Women rated objectified men lower on the MSA compared to non-objectified men, but did not rate objectified women lower compared to non-objectified women.

The gender of the target made a significant difference on the moral scales. On the ES and PS only men were rated lower when they were objectified (~6% – ~9%). On these two scales women were not rated lower when they were objectified. There objectified targets given slightly more pain-tablets on average (~12%) with no gender effect present.

Discussion in the Article:

The discussion covers these results reasonably well, albeit with the same use of the word deny:

The main effect of objectification emerged for all comparisons with objectified targets denied both mind and moral status, although some effects were qualified by interactions. Interestingly, participant gender appeared to have little effect on ratings. This perhaps suggests that both men and women depersonalize the objectified. … This result surprisingly suggests that objectification may have an equal or even greater effect on the perception of males as it does on the perception of females.

My Perspective


These studies are not particularly relevant to video games. There is no indication if video game images cause objectification of video game characters that the objectification caries over into real life (that is dealt with in later studies). However, it is perhaps interesting from consideration of character or avatar design. Developers could leverage the face-ism and revealing clothing elements of their appearance to bias player perceptions in both normative and subversive ways. It is also perhaps of interest in players’ selection or modification of avatars in multiplayer games and the degree to which it may bias the way other players perceive them.


Given the limited relevance to video games it’s not that clear how significant this study really is. To the extent that it is significant, it does highlight that objectification of men is at least as significant as the objectification of women. Here it is important to consider the difference between video games and other popular media in terms of the extent of gender representation. It seems uncontested that men are far more frequently depicted as characters in video games. That means that many of those men, from the shirtless barbarian wielding a sword to the shirtless slave building a pyramid, are going to be the most significant examples of objectification in the medium.

Video games - Objectifying men since at least 1987.

Video games – Objectifying men since at least 1987.


There are a number of issues with both of the studies. In both studies it is not clear that the level of face-ism or clothing is the only or even the dominate factor in influencing outcomes. I discussed a number of studies in my second background post that identified many elements of appearance that can influence perceptions of people. These include appearance of health, facial expression, stance, make-up and clothing brand. While there was an effort in the second study to ensure no over-all difference in emotion or attraction, there was not systematic effort to ensure all other factors were eliminated. The low number of photos, less than a dozen over both studies, doesn’t given confidence that any variations would balance each other out (compare the Naumann et al study which used over 200 photos).6 Clothing is of particular concern with the competence measure as all the jobs are white-collar and would have clothing expectations beyond simply wearing some.

Brad Pitt in a tracksuit
Brad Pitt in a suitsuit

Which non-objectified Brad Pitt is the most intelligent and competent?

I found the use of the pain measure in the second study is a little confusing. The study cited as a source of the measure uses it as a comparison between two targets.7 That is the subject is told there a 5 tablets that must be distributed between 2 targets. This would necessitate the mean result overall is 2.5 tablets per target. However, the results from the second study have both non-objectified targets (2.19 tablets) and the objectified targets (2.47 tablets) are below this value. The wording in the article is “they must decide how many tablets to give to the person in the image to induce a specific amount of pain”, which suggests that it is a measure of how much the target can tolerate pain rather than how much they do or don’t deserve pain relative to another.

Brad Pitt as a fighter
Brad Pitt as a goof-ball

Which objectified Brad Pitt has the most moral status or is most able to endure pain?

While I clearly chose the pictures above to best illustrate my point, I doubt the researchers would have selected pictures as obviously biased. However, as we saw in the Doyen et al (2012)8 study in my first background post it can be quite possible for even diligent experimenters to allow bias to creep into a study. The esteem these researchers appear to hold for Andrea Dworkin and her theories does not give rise to confidence in the neutrality of the sample pictures. This leaves the statistical confidence in the results as simply reflecting a confidence that if the same photos (or perhaps photos selected by the same researchers) were shown to a similar sample of college aged students that the rating results would be match. It does not provide confidence that the result would apply across “objectified” generally.

Overall I do not have much confidence that the results seen in these studies reflect a causal relationship with objectification. That said, it is important to note this conclusion does not imply that the objectification theories are wrong, just merely that they are not well supported by these particular two studies.


It is probably worth highlighting the actual conclusions of the study to anyone using it in support of a claim that objectification of women in video games is problematic while also claiming the objectification of men is not problematic. It might also be tempting to cite this study in support of claims that objectification is a greater problem in video games for men than it is for women. However, the lack of confidence I have in the design and execution of the studies means I will not be doing so.

  1. Steve Loughnan, Nick Haslam, Tess Murnane, Jerosen Vaes, Catherine Reynolds & Caterina Suitner (2010). Objectification leads to depersonalization: The denial of mind and moral concern to objectified others. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(5), 709–717.
  2. Norbert Schwarz & Eva Kurz (1989). What’s in a picture? The impact of face-ism on trait attribution. European Journal of Social Psychology, 19, 311-316.
  3. Dane Archer, Bonita Iritani, Debra Kimes, & Michael Barrios. (1983). Face-ism: Five studies of sex difference in facial prominence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 725–735.
  4. I’m not planning on covering those studies as part of this series, but may investigate it later.
  5. Heather Gray, Kurt Gray & Daniel Wegner (2007). Dimensions of Mind Perception. Science, 315, 619.
  6. Laura Naumann, Simine Vazire, Peter Rentfrow & Samuel Gosling (2009). Personality Judgments Based on Physical Appearance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1661-1671.
  7. Kurt Gray & Daniel Wegner (2009). Moral Typecasting: Divergent Perceptions of Moral Agents and Moral Patients. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(3), 505-520.
  8. Stephane Doyen, Olivier Klein, Cora-Lise Pichon & Axel Cleeremans (2012). Behavioral Priming: It’s all in the Mind, but Whose Mind? PLoS ONE, 7(1): e29081.

Gaming the Studies – Judgemental Minds

Fri 31 Oct 2014 16:47:09 1 comment

This post is part of a series on the research studies on sexism cited in the FeministFrequency video series Tropes vs Women in Video Games. The first post in that series covered my views on the FeministFrequency videos and can be found here.

This post in the series is continues covering background information about the relevant parts of the field of social psychology, the beginning of which can be found here. I plan on doing detailed explanation and analysis of each study in subsequent posts.

Operationalising Imagery

The studies cited by FeministFrequency mostly rely on presenting sexualised imagery of women. There are other elements involved, such as the objectifying virtualised behaviour in the Leisure Suit Larry game, but manipulation of appearance is consistent. For this reason it is important to consider what other effects have been observed from manipulating appearance.

In a 2009 study,1 researchers took photographs of 113 individuals and had subjects judge the individual’s personality from the photographs alone. No individual knew they were going to be photographed beforehand and they were each photographed twice: once in a natural position and once directed to hold a neutral expression and posture. The subjects judged one photo of each person and rated them against 49 different criteria covering a range of personality traits. The photographed individuals were also judged against the same critiea by three ‘informants’ who knew the individual well in real life. Each of the photos was also independently coded for visual cues such as smiling, folded arms, tiredness, etc.

The results demonstrated to what extent various cues influenced peoples perceptions. Results for static cues present in both natural and neutral poses showed that healthiness, distinctiveness and neatness could affect perceptions of range of personality traits including extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, likability, self-esteem, and politcal orientation. Results from dynamic cues, present only in the natural poses, showed that smiling, stance energy and stance tenseness could affect perceptions of the same range of traits. The results also indicated that the perceptions based solely on naturally posed photos correlated well with the views of the ‘informants’ on a number of traits including extraversion, agreeableness, openness, self-esteem, loneliness and religiosity.

Other studies have identified other influentual cues. A study by Jane Workman and Kim Johnson2 found that the college aged women perceived their peers as less moral when they wore more makeup. A study by Norbert Schawrz and Eva Kurz3 in 1989 found that subjects would rate individuals as possessing more intelligence, assertiveness, ambition, etc when looking at a photo cropped to portrait-style and resized than when looking at the original full-body photo. This effect was found to be mostly consistent across genders. Finally, a recent study by Laurden McDermott and Terry Pettijohn4 showed that the impact of certain factors can intersect and have a reverse affect. They studied the perceptions of both African American and Caucasian women wearing sweatshirts with either “Kmart”, “Abercrombie & Fitch” or no logo. The results showed that subjects were less likely to consider African American women as potentional friends when they were wearing the “Abercrombie & Fitch” compared to the “Kmart” logo, while the effects were reversed for Caucasian women.

It is evident from these studies that a wide range of visual cues influence perceptions of people including perceptions of their mental capabilities and moral worthiness. This can only add to the complexity of using human images rather than words as stimili in experiments on priming effects. It also raises the question of how people might form their judgments.

Reasonably Moral

The majority of the FeministFrequency studies utilise questionaires that probe the subjects for responses about views on sexual harassment, rape or the mental attributes and moral worth of women. In order to be able to interpret the meaning of these responses the best we can, it is worth considering what we know about how people form their views about moral issues. This is an area of social psychology that is at least as much about philosophy as it is about empirical research, yet it may still offer some insight into what is going on in people’s minds.

The most prevalent theory on moral reasoning comes from the work of Lawrence Kolberg. Kolberg’s theory is that as individuals age they progress through a series of steps that represent capacity to reason about morality in a particular ways. The six steps are divided by their relationship to ‘conventional’ reasoning:

Pre-Conventional 1. basic obedience;
2. self-interest;
Conventional 3. conformity;
4. authority;
Post-Conventional contract; and
6. universal ethical principles.

The level of moral reasoning is assessed by asking subjects to address moral dilemmas, such as the Heinz Dilemma, in an open ended manner. The structure of the responses is then scored against the six forms of moral reasoning in the theory.

In a 20 year longitudinal study5, Kohlberg and others recorded the development of moral reasoning in a group of boys. The study revealed how the moral reasoning most commonly used moved through stages as the boys aged. Kohlberg managed to produce only limited evidence for the use of stage 5 reasoning and eventually concluded he should drop stage 6 from the theory due to the lack of consistent evidence of its use.

I’ve reproduced the graph from that study and included an indication of the mean age of the subjects in the experimental studies cited by FeministFrequency. Although the maximum ages in the studies indicates some outliers (e.g. 37, 44), the fact that the minimum age (18) in the studies is close to the mean implies the majority of the subjects fall roughly in the area of the lines. As seen below, this suggests any results may be reflective of only certain forms of moral reasoning.

Kohlberg vs Studies Graph

Kohlberg’s theory is not without its critics. Feminist Carol Gilligan has criticised Kohlberg’s theories as too focused on the male perspective. In her 1982 book A Different Voice6, Gilligan proposed an alternative theory of moral reasoning which she called the Ethics of Care. Gilligan’s theory frames female moral reasoning as focused on obligations to care for one another, rather than about the pursuit of abstract justice. She put forth three stage development process that consists of:

Pre-Conventional 1. self-interest;
Conventional 2. self-sacrifice; and
Post-Conventional 3.responsibility to care and avoid harm.

Researchers Nancy Clopton and Gwendolyn Sorell have seemlingly offered a compromise between these two different theories. They considered both perspectives in a study on parents of both abled and disabled children.7 A number of different dilemmas were put to the parents that varied between low personal relevance (i.e. about a someone else’s child) and high personal relevance (i.e. about their own child). One of the dilemmas include a hypothetical disabled child that was theorised to have more personal relevance to the parents of disabled children.

The finding contradicted Gilligan’s theory of a gender basis for moral reasoning. Analysis of the responses showed no variation in moral reasoning approach between the mothers and the fathers. Instead, analysis showed that the responses varied in relation to the personal relevance of the dilemma. An ethics of care approach was typically used for dilemmas of high personal relevance, while a justice approach was used for dilemmas of low personal relevence. This suggests the moral reasoning could vary depending on circumstances of the dilemma but not directly on gender. One of the conclusions was that the different life experiences of men and women would explain discrepancies in the different ways they might prioritise or report the forms of moral reasoning they use.

Kohlberg’s theory has also come under criticism from a conservative perspective. Conservative critics observed that placing forms of reasoning associated with progressive ideals (social contract, universal ethics) above the conservative ideal of law and order demostrated a progressive bias in the theory. There haven’t been any major theories put forward from the conserative perspective (perhaps for not-so-good reasons), however there have been some studies looking at the relationship between moral reasoning and political orientation.

A 1973 study by James Fishkinm, Kenneth Keniston and Catherine Mackinnion supported such a relationship.8 They found that use of stage 2 reasoning (self-interest) correlated with favourable views of violent radicalism, use of stage 4 reasoning (authority) correlated with conservative views and use of stage 5 and 6 reasoning (post-conventional) correlated with rejecting conservative but not accepting radical views. Although not published in a peer-review journal, I also found an potentially interesting thesis dissertation by Jeffrey Kunka9. He conducted a study and observed that subjects who reported conservative political views scored lower on moral reasoning when expecting their responses to be anonymous. He also found when subjects expected to have to justify their views to others, there was a sizable increase in the moral reasoning level used by conservative subjects. This suggests that the use of moral reasoning may be as much about personal values and circumstance as it is about capacity to reason.

Reactively Moral

In a 2001 essay10 Jonathan Haidt proposed a theory that turned the moral reasoning approach on its head. He theorised that people form their moral conclusions first and then subsequently form a rationalisation in order to justify it. In a 2007 study,11 together with Jesse Graham, he proposed five moral foundations people intuitively use to react to moral issues, and in 2012 proposed adding a sixth.12 Haidt’s moral foundations are:

Original 1. self-interest;
2. Fairness/cheating;
3. Loyalty/betrayal;
4. Authority/subversion;
5. Sanctity/degradation;
2012 Addition 6. Liberty/oppression

They measured the relevative weight of each foundation by directly asking subjects to what extent they were thinking about it (e.g. “How important is whether or not someone acted unfairly?”). They also asked subjects to rate their political orientation from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. The results showed those with extremely liberal orientation felt that the first two foundations were much more important that the others. Those who had an exteremly conservative orientation felt that all the foundations had roughly equal importance.

A 2012 study by Lars Hall, Petter Johansson and Thomas Strandberg13 supports Haidt’s post-hoc rationalisation theory but perhaps not necessarily the importance of the moral foundations. They conducted an experiment where they surveyed people to rate their views about general moral principles and contentious issues reported in the media. Once people had filled out their responses they used a simple trick to reverse the meaning of two of the prompts and hence reversed the meaning of the ratings. After the trick the experimenters interviewed the subject about the questions and confirmed the meaning of each issue with the subjects. The results showed “a full 69% of the participants failed to detect at least one of two changes”. Perhaps more striking is that they also found that “participants often constructed coherent and unequivocal arguments supporting the opposite of their original position”.

Those results strongly suggest that peoples’ moral views are vulnerable to manipulation. Combining the study above with the conclusions from Kunka’s study, we see that people are prone to morally defending a position they are expected to even though is not their own, and that the reasoning they use may depend on their audience. This suggests that views on morality may well be driven by the popular narratives of the company people choose to keep.

The discussion of the theory of priming in my previous post provides another possible form of manipulation. Priming could conceivably activate one form (or part of one form) of moral reasoning or foundation causing it to be more likely used and tehefore result in a potentional shift in moral conclusions. Given the nuance contained within each of these theories, and the general issues with priming research I covered in my previous post, it could be quite challenging to construct an experiment that provides confidence the results are related to one particular theory and not another.

Morality Objectified

The theories put forward by the studies cited by FeministFrequency are all based around the concept of objectification. As put forward by Martha Nussbaum14, objectification consists of seven features:

1. instrumentality;
2. denial of autonomy;
3. inertness;
4. fungibility;
5. violability;
5. ownership; and
5. denial of subjectivity.

The measurements in the studies focus on issues of sexual harassment and rape. This indicates that violability, that is violating boundaries, is the key feature of objectification that is being investigated. They also look at perspectives on women’s mental characteristics which indicates that denial of autonomy, intertness and denial of subjectivity may also be relevent.

The impact of objectification on how people make moral choices would seem to be something that could occur within a particular moral reasoning or intuition rather than as a result of a shift in the method. For example, within Kohlberg’s stage 3 reasoning of conformity, the denial of subjectivity feature could be a result of the perceived target norm of conformity shifting away from the objectified person’s perspective. Likewise,violability could represent a relative decrease in the importance of the care/harm or authority/subversion foundations when morally judging the objectified person or actions harmful actions against them. Given that moral reasoning or intuition can be influenced by circumstance, is it not unreasonable to theorise that objectification represents a mechanism through which this occurs.

Wrapping Up

I think that’s quite enough background information and hopefully that will provide some perspective of the broader research context. I had originally expected to cover all of it in a single post, however I found quite a bit of interesting information that can be related to the issue at hand. I should stress that although I’ve cited many studies, this does not mean I stand by them or their conclusions as some form of definitive evidence. I do feel that the studies I’ve cited are at least as convincing as any of the studies cited by FeministFrequency, and thus form a valid basis for criticism.

In my next post I’ll be setting out some criteria that I’ll be using in my assessment of the studies and how well they support the various claims.

  1. Laura Naumann, Simine Vazire, Peter Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling (2009). Personality Judgments Based on Physical Appearance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1661-1671.
  2. Jane Workman & Kim Johnson (1991). The Role of Cosmetics in Impression Formation. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 10, 63-67.
  3. Norbert Schwarz & Eva Kurz (1989). What’s in a picture? The impact of face-ism on trait attribution. European Journal of Social Psychology, 19, 311-316.
  4. Jane Workman & Kim Johnson II (2011). The Influence of Clothing Fashion and Race on the Perceived Socioeconomic Status and Person Perception of College Students. Psychology & Society, 4(2), 64-75.
  5. Anne Colby, Lawrence Kohlberg, John Gibbs & Marcus Lieberman (1987). A Longitudinal Study of Moral Judgment. Monpgraphs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 48(1), 200.
  6. Carol Gilligan (1982). In a Different Voice. Harvard Univesity Press. as discussed in: Candida Peterson (2012). Looking Forward Through the Lifespan: Developmental Psychology. Pearson Australia.
  7. Nancy Clopton & Gwendolyn Sorell (1993). Gender Differences in Moral Reasoning: Stable or Situational? Pschology of Women’s Quarterly, 17, 85-101.
  8. James Fishkinm, Kenneth Keniston & Catherine Mackinnion (1973). Moral Reasoning and Political Ideology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 109-119.
  9. Jeffrey Kunka (1986). Sociopolitical Orientation and Self-Presentation in Measurement of Moral Judgement. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
  10. Jonathan Haidt (2001). The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment. Psychological Review, 198(4), 814-834.
  11. Jonathan Haidt & Jesse Graham (2007). When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98-116.
  12. Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, Peter Ditto & Jonathan Haidt (2012). Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42366.
  13. Lars Hall, Petter Johansson & Thomas Strandberg (2012). Lifting the Veil of Morality: Choice Blindness and Attitude Reversals on a Self-Transforming Survey. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45457.
  14. Martha Nussbaum (1995). Objectification. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24(4), 249-291.

Gaming the Studies – Beginning in Earnest

Mon 27 Oct 2014 11:20:50 6 comments

This post is part of a series on the research studies on sexism cited in the FeministFrequency video series Tropes vs Women in Video Games. The first post in that series covered my views on the FeministFrequency videos and can be found here.

This post in the series is focused on background information about the relevant parts of the field of social psychology. While I present a table briefly summarising the studies that are the focus of this series, the purpose of the next two posts is to cover some background information and my approach to reviewing the studies. I plan on doing detailed explanation and analysis of each study in subsequent posts.

I feel I should point out that I am not a researcher in the field, nor do I possess qualifications that major in any form of psychology. I do have an ongoing interest in psychology, and I have studied a few psychology subjects during my time at university, and it is that experience and knowledge that I used as a springboard for the research done for this post. If anyone spots any errors in the way I’ve presented the information please let me know in the comments.

Studying the Studies

In order to understand what studies in social psychology can tell us about ourselves, it’s necessary to understand the basic process they typically follow. A sample population (“subjects”), usually undergrad students roped into it with promises of partial credits, are given a task where some are exposed to some stimulus material while others form a control group. The researchers then make observations of the way the subjects react to the stimulus in comparison to the control groups. Although the subjects are aware they are being experimented on, they are usually ignorant of the details of the experiment until a debrief session after the observations are made.

The most common way to make observations in social psychology is to get the subjects to fill out self-report questionnaires. These questionnaires involve subjective questions or prompts to which the subject response on a scale such as “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” or “very likely” to “very unlikely”. These responses are numerically coded and then used to produce statistical results. This constrasts to experiments in cognitive psychology where observations are made with regards to the performance or capacity in undertaking a specific task. Tasks are often focused on word recognition, logic puzzles and/or reaction times.

To get a basic feel for the types of experiments that have been cited by FeministFrequency, I have listed the stimulus material along with the socially significant observations made. Notably, one of the studies (Fox & Tang) is an online study that seeks to examine correlations rather than explore causative effects through experimentation.

Study Stimulus (Priming) Material Main Observation
Loughnan1 Images of men & women with varying levels of clothing Self-reports of attitudes and beliefs about the individuals pictured
Rudman2 Sexist/sexual advertisements and a subsequent simulated job interview Levels of sexual and dominating behaviour were independently observed
Dill3 Images of sexist stereotypes in video games Self-reports of beliefs about women and sexual harassment
Yao4 Playing either Leisure Suit Larry, The Sims II or Pacman II Self-reports of beliefs about women and likelihood to sexual harass
Fox5 Virtual Reality environment with avatar wearing revealing or conservative clothing Self-reports of body-related thoughts and beliefs about rape
Fox & Tang6 This was study was an online survey that measured the correlation between demographics, gaming exposure, attitudes, beliefs and sexism in gaming.

The next step is to look at the theories that social psychologists use to explain why they expect the given stimulus to provoke a measurable response.

Prime Words

The foundation for these studies is the cognitive psychology theory of priming. The basic premise of the theory is that exposure to certain stimuli activates the mental features related to that stimuli, and that as a result they become ‘primed’ and more readily accessible for subsequent use. The primary focus of the theory is on words and Wikipedia provides a useful example:

“For example, if a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater than if they are not primed.“

Experiments with priming need to involve two distinct stimuli. The first stimulus is used to prime some of the subjects. The experimenters then attempt to measure the reaction to a second stimulus and compare the differences between the primed subjects and the control subjects. This is the relationship between the two columns in the table above.

Importantly, this effect has been demonstrated even where the subjects are not consciously aware of its effect. A 1982 study lead by Endel Tulving7 asked subjects to study a given set of words. The subjects were then tested in 2 ways: conscious recognition of the words, and the ability to recognise the words when prompted only a few letters. For example, if two of the words the subjects studied were “ADENOID” and “EPITAPH” the subject may have later been asked (Yes or No) if they recognised the word “ADENOID” but then asked to complete the word “_PI__PH”. Half the words the subjects were tested on were not words they had studied to enable the relative effect of the priming to be measured.

When tested 1 hour after studying the word subjects were able to both conscoiusly identify which words they had studied and which they had not with reasonable accuracy, and more easily recognised the partial words that they had studied compare to words they had not. When retested 7 days later, the benefit to conscious identification had significantly diminished but the ability to more easily recognise partial words had not. This study provided evidence to support the theory that priming can work even when subjects are not consciously aware of its effect.

The priming effect has been demonstrated to go beyond simple word recall and extend to the priming of semantic concepts. One more widely known concept that is related to this is subliminal messages. The stroop effect also provides an accessible and practical example. Another relatable example of the basic concept is how memories are become much easier to recall when listening to familiar music, smelling familiar scents or simply reading the name of an old acquaintance.

Primed for Uncertainty

The studies I’ll be reviewing aim to extend these basic theories of priming both by extending the stimulus from words into multimedia, and extending the observations from cognitive performance into social beliefs and behaviours. While priming is a recognised cognitive theory, it is not without criticism and not necessarily a straight forward topic to study especially when extended to research the social and behavioural domains of psychology. Many of the studies in social psychology I’ve read in researching this post tie their social conclusions to the priming theory by including word recognition tests developed in cognitive experiments. They do this to establish that their priming stimulus has caused at least some cognitive effect, however they still face challenges in experimentally linking the priming to subsequent views and behaviours in the subjects.

In a 1996 John Bargh8 lead an experiment to study the effects of priming with words related to elderly stereotypes. Some subjects were primed with a scrambled sentence task that involved words such as “worried, Florida, old, lonely, grey, selfishly, etc”, while controls performed the task with neutral words. When the subjects left the room they were unknowingly timed by the experimenters using hidden stopwatches. The results showed that “Participants in the elderly priming condition (M = 8.28 s) had a slower walking speed compared to participants in the neutral priming condition (M= 7.30 s)”. In the subsequent discussion it was stated the results “suggest that exposing individuals to a series of words linked to a particular stereotype influences behavior nonconsciously.” They go on to note that the lack of time or speed related words indicates it’s the activation of stereotype that drives the differences in behaviour.

However, a subsequent study in 2012 lead by Stephane Doyen9 aimed to replicate the Bargh study and produced some striking results. In a first attempt to replicate the study, Doyen replicated the study increasing the number of subjects and using automated infra-red timing hardware. This effort failed to result any priming effect.

A second experiment in that study was conducted which was identical to the first with two exceptions. First the experimenters were divided into two groups: half were told the priming was expected to cause the subjects to walk slower, while the other half were told the priming was expecting to cause the subjects to walk faster. Second the experiments were asked to do manual timing with stopwatches under the false pretence that the infra-red equipment was faulty. The results of the automated timing showed that the subjects only slowed their movements when the experimenters were told to expect the prime to result in slower walking speed. Compared to the automated timing, the manual timing produced results correlated with experimenters expectations rather than consistent with the actual priming of the subjects.

This rather awkward result was not received terribly well by the original researcher. Perhaps not surprisingly, another failed attempt to replicated the “Elderly-related Words Prime Slow Walking” effect is (currently) the most read replication attempt on, a site designed to provide access to unpublished replication attempts. In a Science News article10 on the priming controversy, the researcher behind both that replication attempt and the site itself, Hal Pashler, was interviewed and voiced concern about the impact of publication bias on psychological research. It was also noted that there are four other replication studies in social psychology that Pashler has undertaken that have failed to reproduce the results of the original and that have not been published in journals.

It has become evident that priming is a cognitive process that is extremely sensitive to corruption by unintended factors. When studying the subtle response to a subtle stimulus it is important to ensure all other potentially confounding factors are appropriately excluded from the experiment. This presents an exceptional challenge as the research has shown that stimuli of which people (including the researchers themselves) are not consciously aware can still have a priming affect. Given the complex and opaque nature of the human mind, it seems studying the priming effect may require a process of elimination. A simple a demonstration of a causal effect in a particular combination of circumstances that happen to include the focus stimulus may not be sufficient.

For this reason it is important to ensure maximum capacity to examine and reproduce a particular experiment. The most important part of that is providing detail on the stimulus material, as this will allow review of that material against alternative theories and tested in alternative scenarios. During my research I found what I thought was a great example of how to provide information on stimulus material in a 1984 study into priming and the stroop effect. The study found a correlation between the level of conscious awareness of the prime and the magnitude of the priming effect, but this wasn’t the only thing I think is interesting. Note the level of detail cognitive psychologists Jim Cheeseman and Philip Merikle11 recorded their description of the stimulus material:

During the experimental trials, each stimulus display was composed of a letter-string prime and color-patch target. The color patches were centrally located rectangles of blue, green, yellow, and orange, which measured .95 cm (.6°) horizontal X .65 cm (.4°) vertical. They were enclosed by black borders that formed a larger rectangle measuring 1.25 cm (.8°) horizontal and .95 em (.6°) vertical. An identical rectangle drawn on a white card served as the fixation stimulus throughout the experiment.

The primes were letter strings that could appear either above or below the color patches. The primes included the four color words, BLUE, GREEN, YELLOW, and ORANGE, as well as a letter string consisting of five Xs. All primes were printed in uppercase 28-pt Helvetica Medium Outline Letraset (No. 2517). The dimensions of each letter were approximately .65 em (.40) horizontal X .80 ern (.5°) vertical, and the vertical distance from the center of a color patch to the center of a letter string was 1.45 em (.9°).

There were three different relationships between primes and targets. For congruent trials, the prime had the same name as the color patch, whereas on incongruent trials, the prime and the target had different color names. For control trials, the letter string of five Xs served as the prime.

This is an example of a description of a stimulus that ensures that competing theroies can be applied to the experiments to consider if they can provide an alternative or supplementary explanation for the impact of stimulus on the resulting measurements. It’s important to note that the stimulus is not the only part of the experiment, and also that it will obviously not be possible to document every single detail of all parts of an experiment. Existing theories can provide a guide as to which elements are important to record even if the experiment isn’t designed to exclude them as possibilities.

Valuable Boundaries

Moving on from controversies about the methods social psychologists study priming, some studies have looked at what factors can have an impact on the priming effect. A 2008 study lead by Dirk Smeesters12 looked at how the consistency of people’s views affected the capacity of priming to have effect. In one experiment the subjects were surveyed to measure how consistently they answered Social Value Orientation (SVO) questions which are designed to elicit either pro-self or pro-social responses. Subjects were then subconsciously primed with religious words (e.g.“priest”, “forgiveness”), business words (e.g. “manager”, “turn-over”), or non-word letter patterns (“XXXXX”). The subjects then participated in a ‘dictator game’ where they could decide how many chips they would keep and how many they would give to another unknown person.

The results showed that people who gave consistent pro-social answers were more giving in the game. The more interesting results were that people who gave more consistent SVO responses (whether consistently pro-self or consistently pro-social) were not affected by the prime while those who gave less consistent SVO responses were affected. The discusson noted “These results are in line with our theorizing that individuals with a highly accessible self-concept (such as high consistent SVO individuals) are less susceptible to priming influences than are individuals with a less accessible self-concept (such as low consistent SVO individuals).”

A second experiment duplicated the first, except that half the subjects were first primed though a translation task with words that would encourage a sense of self (“me”, “myself”) while the control were primed with locations (“city”, “village”). The subjects were then primed a second time as per the first experiment and participated in the same dictator game. The results showed that being pre-primed with a sense of self resulted in no effect from the religious or business word priming, while the others showed similar priming effect to the first experiment. The discussion talked about two boundary conditions for priming:

A first, and important, boundary condition for priming effects is the chronic accessibility of behavioral responses… high consistent SVO individuals were impervious to primed religious and business constructs …
A second boundary condition is the activation of the self. … we found that primes only determined the behavior of low consistent SVO individuals when the self was not activated.

A similar 2008 study by S. Christian Wheeler13 looked at how self-consciousness moderated the effects of priming. It found that a strong internal-state-awareness (e.g., “I am alert to changes in my mood”) reduced the magnitude of the priming effect while high self-reflectiveness (e.g., “I’m always trying to figure myself out”) resulted in increased priming effect. These studies show that priming can be as much about the individual subjects involved as it is about the priming stimulus.

Considering the qualities of the subjects brings us back to something I noted at the beginning of this post: the widespread use of psychology undergraduates as subjects for psychology experiments. One of the contempory concerns in researching psychology is how this makes results WEIRD. That is, the results only reflect people from Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic societies. Also important to note is that the subjects are typically in the 18-25 year old range. Given the recent change in views that adolescence extends throughout this range, it raises the question of how widely applicable the results of psychological studies are to even western societies. That is something that’s more closely linked to something I’ll look at in the next post.

Moving On…

In this post I’ve focused on the priming theory and how social psychologists have attempted to study its social and behavioural impacts. In the next post I’ll be moving on to focus on some of the principles behind the self-reporting of values and beliefs that dominate the measurements in the FeministFrequency studies.

1. Steve Loughnan, et al. (2010). Objectification leads to depersonalization: The denial of mind and moral concern to objectified others. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(5), 709–717.
2. Laurie A Rudman & Eugene Bordgia (1994). The Afterglow of Construct Accessibility – The Behavioral Consequences of Priming Men to View Women as Sexual Objects. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 31(6), 493–517.
3. Karen E. Dill, et al. (2008). Effects of exposure to sex-stereotyped video game characters on tolerance of sexual harassment. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(5), 1402–1408.
4. Mike Z. Yao, et al. (2010). Sexual Priming, Gender Stereotyping, and Likelihood to Sexually Harass: Examining the Cognitive Effects of Playing a Sexually-Explicit Video Game. Sex Roles, 62(1), 77-88.
5. Jesse Fox, et al. (2013). The embodiment of sexualized virtual selves: The Proteus effect and experiences of self-objectification via avatar. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29(3), 930–938.
6. Jesse Fox & Wai Yen Tang (2014). Sexism in online video games: The role of conformity to masculine norms and social dominance orientation. Computers in Human Behaviour, 33, 314–320.
7. Endel Tulving, et al. (1982) Priming Effects in World-Fragment Completion Are Independent of Recognition Memory, Journal of Experimental Psychology 8(4), 336-342.
8. John A. Bargh, et al. (1996) Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 230-244.
9. Stephane Doyen, et al. (2012) Behavioral Priming: It’s all in the Mind, but Whose Mind?, PLoS ONE, 7(1): e29081.
10. Bruce Bower (2012), The Hot and Cold of Priming, Science News, 181(10), 26-29.
11. Jim Cheesman & Philip M. Merikle (1984), Priming with and without Awareness, Perception & Psychophysics, 36 (4), 387-395.
12. Dirk Smeesters, et al. (2008) When do primes prime? The moderating role of the self-concept in individuals’ susceptibility to priming effects on social behavior, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45, 211-216.
13. S. Christian Wheeler, et al. (2008) Does self-consciousness increase or decrease priming effects? It depends (2008), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 882–889.

Gaming the Studies – A Prelude in Defence of a Messenger

Sat 25 Oct 2014 17:02:35 2 comments

The outbreak of the Great Gaming Flame War of 2014 (a.k.a. #gamergate) has caused the intersection of gaming, on-line harassment, ethics and sexism to become a popular focus of discussion. As someone with a strong interest in both gaming and gender politics, this focus has re-energised my interest in writing on this blog. However, I wanted to write something that was a little more than simply adding a ‘me too’ to cacophony of voices already echoing across the internet.

To that end I decided to focus my energy on writing a review of the pay-walled academic studies that have been cited in by the FeministFrequency Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. These studies have been used to support the claim that sexist and/or sexual gaming content is propagating sexist view and conduct within the gaming community. However, given the on-going hostile context surrounding this topic I thought I’d start by saying some positive things about the video series (even though it’s not really in my nature) before moving onto reviewing the studies.

FeministFrequency – Before Video Games

I’m going to start this by pointing out I was something of a ‘fan’ of the FeministFrequency series before it gained in popularity during the Kickstarter campaign. The videos that stick out most in my mind are the ones covering the way Lego has been marketed. Although my own opinions often vary significantly from common feminist viewpoints, the videos are a great vehicle to critically reflect on popular culture and its potential for significant social impacts.

When judging the series it’s important to remember that Antia Sarkeesian is presenting herself as a feminist pop-culture critic. Sarkeesian is not presenting herself as some great feminist philosopher presenting novel insights into modern society. Nor is she presenting herself as an astute sociological researcher who is capable of backing feminist ideals with bountiful evidence. It is not fair to judge the video series (or Sarkeesian herself) on the basis that the videos need to achieve either of those things.

The purpose of the videos is to use established feminist ideals and concepts to critique patterns within the broad subject of popular culture. Their intended outcome is to bring considered attention to patterns (‘tropes’) that might otherwise be uncritically accepted as simply ‘the way things are’. One does not necessarily need to agree with the feminist perspective or the videos’ conclusions to see the validity of such an approach to critique regardless of medium.

The quality of the videography is one of the key draw cards of the series. The audio-visual format offers a more convenient way to engage in the topic than reading long written articles. Additionally the videos were a step above a lot of the basic vlog-into-a-webcam or faceless-rant-over-powerpoint-slides style videos that are quite common on YouTube. The combination of consistent lighting, quality sound and the quality editing made the videos easy to watch. The articulate and well-enunciated vocal commentary and inclusion of supporting multimedia content greatly lowers the barriers to engaging in what is often a fairly abstract and complex topic.

Numerous links are provided with each video posting on the FeministFrequency website. Consistent with the series’ purpose, these provide the sources for the ideas presented in the videos along with opportunities for further reading. It’s only recently that links have started to referencing academic journal articles and it’ll be these articles that are the focus of my subsequent posts in this series. It’s a little surprising that this detail is neither included nor directly linked from the YouTube description, however given the FeministFrequency address is regularly provided at the end of each video the information is not that difficult to locate particularly for anyone dedicated enough to actually read the linked content.

FeministFrequency – The Kickstarter

The Tropes vs Women in Video Games series was an ideal project for crowd sourced funding. The proposal was put forward by someone with an established record of quality content creation. The project represented a modest increase in scope over previous works. The initial budget was reasonable and could be easily justified by the cost outlay for software and hardware, as well as possibly some modest compensation for the time required to make the videos. The only criticism I’ll make is that the original completion time frame of 6 months was perhaps overly optimistic for reviewing “100’s of games”, and was possibly based on the previous experience of producing videos covering less time consuming media.

The Kickstarter campaign gained a fair amount of notoriety and with that came a fair amount of criticism. From all that I’ve read on the topic, I’ve not seen one major criticism of the way the Kickstarter was run that can be reasonably justified. The fact that the campaign reached 26 times the initial funding goal, and 6 times the highest stretch goals is quite significant. This entirely justifies a substantial increase in the scope of the project and the consequential delays.

To the extent that this funding outcome was inspired by the media coverage of the harassment and threats is in no way inconsistent with the underlying feminist principles on which the project was founded. Neither would the promotion the feminist views of the project through other means, such as attending and speaking at gaming conferences, be an unreasonable use of any excess funds (I’m not assuming this is happening).

There is perhaps some reasonable criticism in the way the rewards have been handled. Despite the promises made to most categories of supporters, I haven’t seen a single Kickstarter supporter named on either the FeministFrequency videos or website. However, given the well published harassment going on it is perhaps reasonable to not deliver on this promise for the time being. Other rewards cover physical goods, including DVDs of all the videos. Given production of the videos is still in progress, it is natural that the physical rewards have not yet been delivered.

Contrary to the sceptical predictions from some observers, Sarkeesian has managed to deliver 5 videos in the project to date. The videos are of a quality and format consistent with both the previous publications and the details of the proposal. The scope of each proposed video is greatly expanded. The new videos encompassing multiple parts of 20-30 minutes each in comparison to the much shorter 5-10 minute videos previously produced. My all reasonable measures, the outcome so far has been entirely consistent with expectations which stands in contrast to many other Kickstarter projects.

FeministFrequency – Existing Criticism

It’s worth briefly noting some of the substantive criticism directed at the substance of the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. Youtuber KiteTales has posted a reasonable response to the videos on the Damsel in Distress trope. For the videos on the Women as Background Decoration trope, some people have observed that the games might be being misrepresented. However, at least one video game producer has come out and acknowledge the criticism of their game had merit.

There have also been accusations made that the FeministFrequency videos includes fanart and let’s play footage without the source being notified, linked or provided consent. While this might be an important issue, I won’t be addressing it here.

FeministFrequency – The Claims & Sources

“So why does any of this matter?”
“…the effects on people of all genders are quite clear and serious.”

In part one of the Women as Background Decoration episode, a number of claims were made that went beyond observations of the content of video games and began to comment on the impact the videos games on individuals and society. Accompanying the video on the FeministFrequency website is a list of sources that include a number of academic journal articles reporting on social psychology studies. The fact that these studies are behind a pay-wall does seem to be a source of frustration for critics.

However, I think it’s a positive step for the research that underlies various claims to be linked from online discussions. It has the potential to both lift the quality of online discussions of contentious political or ideological issues, and possible also shift the focus away from personal ad hominem attacks and towards a debate on the substance of the issue.

Given I have access to the journals I thought I would review the studies to see how well they support the claims made in the video. If feminists are going to advocate that gaming communities and the gaming industry ought to reshape itself in response to these claims, then I think it’s important to understand the basis for the claims and ensure such a response is justified.

The studies cited are listed below:

  1. Steve Loughnan, et al. (2010). Objectification leads to depersonalization: The denial of mind and moral concern to objectified others. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(5), 709–717.
  2. Laurie A Rudman & Eugene Bordgia (1994). The Afterglow of Construct Accessibility – The Behavioral Consequences of Priming Men to View Women as Sexual Objects. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 31(6), 493–517.
  3. Karen E. Dill, et al. (2008). Effects of exposure to sex-stereotyped video game characters on tolerance of sexual harassment. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(5), 1402–1408.
  4. Mike Z. Yao, et al. (2010). Sexual Priming, Gender Stereotyping, and Likelihood to Sexually Harass: Examining the Cognitive Effects of Playing a Sexually-Explicit Video Game. Sex Roles, 62(1), 77-88.
  5. Jesse Fox, et al. (2013). The embodiment of sexualized virtual selves: The Proteus effect and experiences of self-objectification via avatar. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29(3), 930–938.
  6. Jesse Fox & Wai Yen Tang (2014). Sexism in online video games: The role of conformity to masculine norms and social dominance orientation. Computers in Human Behaviour, 33, 314–320.

The studies are all published in reputable journals which means it is not surprising that they are behind a pay-wall (even if it is frustrating). About the only point worth noting is that the Sex Roles journal is limited to articles written from a feminist perspective. I would expect there would be a certain ideological focus to the discussions in these studies but I would not expect that the methodologies employed would be any different.

Five of the links for the Women as Background Decoration video are not original research. I do not have access to the “How Fantasy Becomes Reality” book. I have read the other articles and watched the video, however I will only be commenting on the directly studies published in academic journals.

In the table below I have listed the various claims and attempted to match them with statements made in the conclusions of the studies.

FeministFrequency Claim Quote from Citation
exposure to [sexually objectifying] images negatively impacts perceptions and beliefs about real world women Loughnan – “The main effect of objectification emerged for all comparisons with objectified targets denied both mind and moral status. …objectification diminishes a second aspect of personhood, perceived moral status
reinforces harmful myths about sexual violence. Dill – “Detailed analysis revealed that males who saw the sex-typed images were most tolerant of sexual harassment when judging a real-life case of sexual harassment between a female college student and her male professor.
after having viewed sexually objectified female bodies, men in particular tend to view women as less intelligent Loughnan – “Objectification leads to people being viewed as lacking mental states…
view women as … less competent Rudman – “subjects [who viewed sexual advertisements] … (4) judged her as significantly less competent
express less concern for [women’s] physical well being and safety Loughnan – “objectified targets [were] given more [pain inducing] tablets than non-objectified targets

Loughnan – “Objectification leads to people being viewed as … being less deserving of moral status.

these sexist attitudes carry over to perceptions of all women … regardless of attire, activities or profession
after long-term exposure to hyper-sexualized images, people of all genders tend to be more tolerant of the sexual harassment of women Dill – “those with more reported long-term exposure to violent video games increased tolerance towards sexual harassment
more readily accept rape myths Dill – “Subjects with higher violent video game exposure showed greater Rape Supportive Attitudes
Viewing media that frames women as objects or sexual playthings, profoundly impacts how real life women are perceived and treated Rudman – “subjects [who viewed sexual advertisements] … sat closer to [the woman], display more dominance during the interview, and behaved in a more sexualized manner.

Yao – “the present study found that playing a sexually-charged video game for merely 25 minutes might increase a self-reported tendency to engage in inappropriate sexual advances

women internalise [sexually objectifying] images and self-objectify. Fox – “this study has demonstrated that women can be affected negatively by the avatars they wear. Women may be at risk for experiencing self-objectification and developing greater rape
myth acceptance
[viewing sexually objectifying images] results in all kinds of social issues, everything from eating disorders
clinical depression
body shame
habitual body monitoring Fox – “Women in sexualized avatars reported more body-related thoughts than women in nonsexualized avatars
decreases in self-worth
decreases in … life satisfaction
decreases in … cognitive functioning
those who most strongly believe that media is just harmless entertainment are also the ones most likely to uncritically internalize harmful media messages.

A number of the claims do not appear to be directly supported by the cited studies. It’s possible that support for this claims is contained within the book “How Fantasy Becomes Reality”. The background commentary in the studies I have read did include references to similar claims, so it is likely that supporting studies do exist. However, I do not plan to address these claims as I am focusing on the directly cited studies.

A surface level check of the studies does show clear support in the concluding discussions for most of the claims made in the FeministFrequency videos. Coupled with how they are described in the “Spillover Effect” effect article on the Psychology Today blog, it would seem their use by Sarkeesian is reasonable. However, being something of a sceptic I will be exploring the details of these studies before considering accepting the claims. To achieve that my next post leaves the pop-culture critic behind and enters the world of social psychology studies.

Freedom Bound

Sat 2 Mar 2013 01:42:15 Leave a comment

On Wednesday, the High Court ruled on two cases that involved questions about the extent of free speech in Australia. These cases are of interest because they provide an indication of the situations where the High Court might permit the government to interfere with free speech in a way the US Supreme Court might not. The first case involved the issue of whether the Adelaide council has the power to pass by-laws preventing preaching in the streets. The second, and perhaps more controversial case, involved the issue of whether the federal government has the power to criminalise sending offensive letters through the post. The important question answered was whether each of these laws unduly restrict the freedom of political communication implied by the constitution.

Constitutional Freedom

Before looking at the arguments in each of these cases, it’s important to consider the nature of the freedom as the law stands in Australia. The freedom is constructed out of sections 7 and 24 of the constitution which make reference to parliamentarians being ‘directly chosen’. The High Court has historically interpreted this as being part of a framework of ‘responsible government’. It has interpreted the phrase to mean the government had a positive duty to provide a mechanism for the choice (i.e. elections) as well as a duty to not interfere with that choice. The court interpreted the choice in a broad way by inferring the inclusion the pragmatic element of freedom of political communication, as a practical requirement of responsible government and consistent with the democratic expectations. As the government is bound by the constitution it cannot legislatively interfere with this political communication (at least to any extent that it will practically interfere with the people’s choice of representation). This makes it a limited pragmatic and public freedom in contrast to the ‘absolute’ formal or  private right associated with free speech in the United States.

This can be seen in the way the High Court formulates the legal test:

  1. Does the law effectively burden freedom of communication about government or political matters in its terms, operation or effect?
  2. If the law effectively burdens that freedom, is the law reasonably appropriate and adapted to serve a legitimate end in a manner which is compatible with the maintenance of the constitutionally prescribed system of representative and responsible government and the procedure prescribed by s 128 of the Constitution for submitting a proposed amendment to the Constitution to the informed decision of the people?

It’s important to note that these questions must focus on the law itself, and not the actions of the individual in the particular cases. The facts of the particular case are at most a convenient illustration of the issue. In both these cases it was conceded that the laws did effectively burden freedom of communication, and thus the first question was answered positively. The arguments in the cases focused on how the court dealt with the second questions.

Common Law Right

Judgements in these cases also makes reference to the common law right of free speech. This is a related but separate right to the constitutional freedom. Although this right is much broader, having the generalised scope of the free speech right in the US, as it is part of common law it is something that parliament has the power to override. It’s significance is that when interpreting legislation, the courts will presume that parliament did not intend to infringe the common law right unless that intent is sufficiently clear in the legislation. Given the capacity of parliament to override it with properly drafted legislation it is not as politically significant or interesting as the constitutional freedom. It forces the politicians to clearly infringe the right in the legislation they pass and so in a sense provides some political protections against underhanded infringement,  but generally interest in the common law right is limited to those who draft and interpret legislation.

Street Preachers

The first case involved two brothers who felt they had the right to preach their faith in a public mall in Adelaide without having to get authorisation from the council. The by-law was “for the management of roads” and included:

Activities Requiring Permission
No person shall without permission on any road:

2.3 Preaching and Canvassing
preach, canvass, harangue, tout for business or conduct any survey or opinion poll provided that this restriction shall not apply to [a] designated area as resolved by the Council known as a ‘Speakers Corner’ and any survey or opinion poll conducted by or with the authority of a candidate during the course of a Federal, State or Local Government Election or during the course and for the purpose of a Referendum;

There are a number of key points in the law to note. Firstly, the purpose of the law is to manage the roads under its jurisdiction. In it’s judgement, the High Court accepted this was an important and legitimate function of the law, and it noted that proper management of the roads could even improve the capacity to communicate via efficient transportation. Secondly there are clear exceptions in place for dealing with communication explicitly to do with elections. Finally there is the possibility to gain permission for exceptions not identify directly in the law itself. The majority of the court concluded that these elements made the law reasonable and thus concluded it was valid under the constitution.

Heydon J, the dissenter, preferred to focus on the common law right. He used this to interpret the legislation empowering the by-laws as being worded too broadly include a power to infringe the right of free speech. This meant he considered the council lacked such a power and hence the section of the by-law was invalid as it exceeded the power of the council.

Offensive Letters

The second case involve a man sending offensive letters to families of soldiers who had died in Afghanistan. The Criminal Code (Commonwealth) creates an office in section 471.12 covering where a person uses the postal service:

… in a way (whether by the method of use or the content of a communication, or both) that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, menacing, harassing or offensive.

For this offence, the code also requires the conduct be reckless. This means a person’s offensive use of the postal service will only constitute an offence if:

(a) he or she is aware of a substantial risk that the circumstance exists or will exist; and

(b) having regard to the circumstances known to him or her, it is unjustifiable to take the risk.

This can be simplified into three elements that must be met for the use of the postal service to be an offence:

  1. a ‘reasonable person’ would consider the use offensive;
  2. the sender was aware of the risk that a reasonable person might find it offensive; and
  3. given this, the use was (objectively) unjustifiable.

The issues in this case line up differently than the first and for this reason it is more controversial. Firstly, the judgements identified the key purpose of the law as defending the individuals from unwanted intrusion in their private homes and businesses. Protection of individuals from the speech of others can be contrasted to manage a public space for a public purpose. Secondly the nature of the communication also shifted from communication in a public space to communication between private individuals. Arguably private communication is more important to the process of political communication and holding the government of the day responsible. These factors both suggest that the law in this case is less reasonable than the first case.

The High Court was split on the matter, ultimately leaving the decision of the Supreme Court in place and the law intact. Crennan, Kiefel and Bell JJ issued a joint judgement upholding the law as valid. They felt that there was sufficient flexibility within  the ‘reasonable person’ test and the ‘unjustifiable’ test to protect those using the post for political communication. They felt juries would see the vast majority of political communication as either not sufficiently offensive to a reasonable person particularly given the importance of political communication, or if it was considered offensive that the political nature would justify the risk. Their conclusion was that the law was sufficiently adapted for its purpose to be compatible with the constitution.

Arguing the law was invalid, French CJ and Hayne J both argued that preventing offence was not a legitimate purpose of the law, one completely incompatible with the constitutions democratic framework, and hence the question of reasonableness did not  even arise. Their concern was that in the legislation the term ‘offence’ was broad and the definition of ‘postal service’ was vague that it would cover an excessive amount of political communication, in particular communication in the form of robust debate.

In his final judgement before retiring, Heydon J briefly agreed with French CJ and Hayne J and then went on to sympathise with the families, quote some poetry, discuss how we shouldn’t have such a constitutional freedom in the first place and ultimately conclude:

Those who drafted the Constitution, those who secured legislative approval of it by each colonial legislature, and the people who approved it by their ballots would each say, if they could examine the authorities on the implied freedom of communication: “Non haec in foedera veni“. Yet in compacts other than constitutions, clearness and obviousness are common conditions precedent to the implication of terms.

Close examination of the implied freedom of political communication would involve analysis of these issues. That examination may reveal that it is a noble and idealistic enterprise which has failed, is failing, and will go on failing. That close examination cannot usefully take place until some litigant whose interests are damaged by the implied freedom argues in this Court, with leave if necessary, that the relevant authorities should be overruled. No endeavour of that kind was made in these appeals. Hence these appeals offered no occasion for close examination of the relevant questions. On the existing law, there is no alternative but to make the orders proposed by Hayne J – a result which, some may think, demonstrates how flawed that law is.

This perhaps suggests that the foundations of the constitutional freedom remain uncertain even while there is controversy over it’s application. Perhaps its just a call for one of the other judges to take on the role of the “Great Dissenter“.

Historical Context

The two cases where the constitutional freedom developed both involved laws directed at the political nature of the communication. Nationwide News v Wills involved a law that prevented bringing the Australian Industrial Relations Commission into disrepute. Australian Capital Television v The Commonwealth involved a law that heavily regulated the ability of political advertisements during election periods. The fact that both laws were directly regulating communication about political offices proved significant. In both cases the High Court held the laws were invalid because they were incompatible with the constitution.

Later in Lange v ABC, the High Court revised the limits of common law defamation to be consistent with the freedom of political communication identified in earlier cases. It was in this case that the court developed the second ‘reasonability’ part of the test used in later cases. The court held the general restraint on speech by defamation law was acceptable however extended the qualified privilege defence to those communicating defamatory political imputations. The defence required circumstantial and procedural hurdles be met in order to invoke the defence. Behaving as a responsible journalist would provide a shield against liability for defamation even if the facts turned out to be wrong, while shamelessly printing any old rumour could result in damages. While defamation law has since been reformed by legislation, the balance found in the modified defence provides an important example of the way the court views the issue.

These new cases can be seen as clarifying limits of the freedom established in previous cases. The laws in these cases involved imposed limits on communication generally, whether by mode (in the street) or content (offensive nature). Thus, like the law of defamation, they are capable of reasonably balancing their legislative purpose with the democratic nature of the constitution. The judicial split in the letters case indicates that the Commonwealth law has pushed limits of what is acceptable.

Beyond Streets and Letters

Other than the ‘reasonability’ test applied in the cases there remains no clear indication on the limits of the constitutional freedom in contexts. Any limits will need to be determined on a case by case basis as the matters reach the High Court.

One point to make is that the offence regarding offensive use of the postal service is essentially identical to an offence covering the use of a the use of phones or the internet (section 474.14 of the Criminal Code). The internet does provide functionally different modes of communication to the postal service, however such factors could easily be considered within the reasonable person or justifiability tests. I don’t see this as significantly changing the arguments either for against the validity of the law. So I wouldn’t count on freedom of political communication to protect people  in Australia that might act offensively on the internet.

There is also an ongoing debate over whether the political freedom should extend beyond communication to include association. There is a case the court is currently considering so there may be a resolution to that debate soon. Hayne J (at [136]) already made a reference to political association in the street preachers case:

Preventing the obstruction of roads is conducive to the maintenance of roads as a means of travel, interaction and association (including political interaction and association) among the people.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the capacity to organise candidates to be chosen from is seen as an important part of representatives being ‘directly chosen’ and hence freedom of association would be seen as an important democratic element. However I suspect that any freedom of political association will be similarly qualified to the freedom of political communication, and that ultimately it won’t be useful in invalidating well conceived laws. It will be interesting to see how the arguments pan out and how the court rules.

Personal Views

I’m as divided on the letters issue as the court. I don’t have a problem with the specific conduct in either case being sanctioned by the law. I think the law regulating the use of roads is perfectly reasonable, particularly with the express political exceptions included. I also think the law has a place in providing protection in situations where people are known to be especially emotionally vulnerable. There is no place in a lawful society for the callous exploitation of vulnerable people, whether for laughs or politics.

However, I do share the concern about the breadth of the postal service offence. The capacity of the reasonable person and justifiability elements to protect political communication relies on proper determination of fact. Mistakes in determination of fact are not as easy to appeal as mistakes in law. Review of decisions by higher courts is not likely to be effective in ensuring its application remains consistent with the constitution’s democratic framework. All it would take would be an over-zealous prosecutor and a jury influenced by a shift in the political winds and the law could become a significant burden on political communication. Going back a few decades, how difficult would it have been to make a convincing argument that posting same-sex marriage propaganda incorporating graphic depictions of homosexuals being affectionate and raising children constitutes offensive material?

Constructing the law to provide protection without excessively intruding on freedoms is a significant challenge. One step could be to specify a set of key factors that need to be considered in assessing whether the conduct was ‘offensive’ or ‘justifiable’. The qualified privilege defences that form part of modern defamation laws are an example of such an approach. It would still be necessary to avoid any hard definitions to avoid people exploiting them as a ‘legal loophole’.

Ultimately I think the Commonwealth should have drafted the legislation better and the protection of political communication is important enough that the law should have been considered invalid. I can also see the point that Heydon J was making about the very existence of such a constructed constitutional freedom, yet I think if it remains properly bound to a substantive notion of democratic ‘choice’ it will continue to serve us well.