The Psychology of Nakedness

Jonah Lehrer in Wired:

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 03 20.47And this brings me to a fascinating new paper by an all star team of psychologists, including Kurt Gray, Joshua Knobe, Mark Sheskin, Paul Bloom and Lisa Feldman Barrett. The scientists nicely frame the mystery they want to solve:

Do people’s mental capacities fundamentally change when they remove a sweater? This seems absurd: How could removing a piece of clothing change one’s capacity for acting or feeling? In six studies, however, we show that taking off a sweater—or otherwise revealing flesh—can significantly change the way a mind is perceived. In this article, we suggest that the kind of mind ascribed to another person depends on the relative salience of his or her body—that the perceived capacity for both pain and planned action depends on whether someone wears a sweater or tank-top.

In order to understand why sweaters and tank-tops influence the kind of minds we perceive, it’s important to know about the different qualities we imagine in others. In general, people assess minds – and it doesn’t matter if it’s the “mind” of a pet, iPhone or deity – along two distinct dimensions. First, we grade these minds in terms of agency. (Human beings have lots of agency; goldfish less so.) But we also think of minds in terms of the ability to have experience, to feel and perceive. The psychologists suggest that these dual dimensions are actually a duality, and that there’s a direct tradeoff between the ability to have agency and experience. If we endow someone with lots of feeling, then they probably have less agency. And if someone has lots of agency, then they probably are less sensitive to experience. In other words, we automatically assume that the capacity to think and the capacity to feel are in opposition. It’s a zero sum game.

What does all this have to do with nakedness? The psychologists demonstrated it’s quite easy to shift our perceptions of other people from having a mind full of agency to having a mind interested in experience: all they have to do is take off their clothes.

More here.