Uncommon Knowledge

Objectifying the mystery woman

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Hello, you mysterious object

Why do men objectify women? Maybe they’re just confused by them. New research from male psychologists at the University of Kansas suggests that objectification can result from well-intentioned but uncertain social interaction. In one experiment, men who wanted to get along well with women but were assigned to write about uncertainty in dealing with women were subsequently more likely to report that a woman’s appearance was more important than her personal background. Likewise, men who read an article promoting positive relationships with women but then read an article arguing that it’s hard for men to know what women want were subsequently more likely to think about women in terms of physical characteristics rather than personality. And this wasn’t just about objectifying women. Both men and women who were assigned to role-play as managers but were given an indeterminate assessment of their management skills subsequently reported being more concerned with their ability to manage employees’ personality quirks and, as a result, were more likely to objectify their employees and punish an employee who violated company policy.

Landau, M. et al., “Subjectivity Uncertainty Theory of Objectification: Compensating for Uncertainty about How to Positively Relate to Others by Downplaying Their Subjective Attributes,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Alibis of the innocent

When a criminal suspect is unable to come up with a solid alibi for his whereabouts during a crime, it doesn’t bode well for his case. But a recent study found that alibis are harder to establish than you might think—even if you’re innocent. Study participants were asked to come up with alibis—and to suggest corroborating testimonial and/or physical evidence—for two-hour time periods that were days or weeks in the past. Participants then attempted to verify their own alibis and corroborating evidence over the next two days. Although nearly everyone came up with an alibi, only a small minority of alibis could be corroborated with even moderately credible evidence, and about a third of the alibis were “mistaken.”


Olson, E. & Charman, S., “‘But Can You Prove It?’ —Examining the Quality of Innocent Suspects’ Alibis,” Psychology, Crime & Law (May 2012).

Fair today, racist next week

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If you’re a white male looking for attention, it’s fine to look to the future. If you’re a woman or a minority looking for attention, better act now. That’s the conclusion of a new study on the psychology of discrimination. E-mails were sent to over 6,000 professors from researchers pretending to be a prospective student requesting a 10-minute meeting to discuss research opportunities. The only variation among the e-mails was the racial and gender identity of the sender’s name and whether the meeting was requested for today or a week from today. For meetings today, there were no differences in the response or acceptance rate. For meetings next week, however, white male names got a significantly better response and acceptance rate. And although minority professors were somewhat more likely to respond to names of the same race, they were also more favorable to white male names when the request was for a meeting next week. Even more surprisingly, Chinese and Indian names—which are generally associated with academic success—had the worst response and acceptance rates.

Milkman, K. et al., “Temporal Distance and Discrimination: An Audit Study in Academia,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Is Wikipedia biased?

If you use the Internet, you’ve probably used Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. One of the most visited sites on the Web, written by volunteers, it has become a de facto authority on just about every topic under the sun. But is it a neutral authority, as it claims, or, as rival site Conservapedia claims, is it politically biased? A recent analysis of Wikipedia articles that mention the word “republican” or “democrat” finds some bias—as measured by the use of phrases more characteristically used by Democrats than by Republicans—especially in articles written during the website’s first few years. But bias has attenuated over the years, such that topics like foreign policy, trade, and abortion now have no bias. Today’s lower bias doesn’t seem to be the result of changes to older, more biased articles, but rather because of the addition of counterbalancing articles.

Greenstein, S. & Zhu, F., “Is Wikipedia Biased?” American Economic Review (May 2012).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at