Business Psychology

Article No. 333
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Looking at Chests

New research points to performance costs for a common interpersonal behavior.

If you’re a woman, you know very well what it’s like to talk with a man whose eyes seem to rest on your chest. If you’re a man, you know very well the attraction women’s chests present for you. Indeed, there are billion-dollar industries at work on both of you to inflate the importance of women’s chests.

To what effect?

Some women will tell you they’re annoyed with the attention on their chests, and they reserve choice contemptuous remarks for men who fail to be discrete in their looking. Some men linger with women who offer revealing opportunities for observation and provide special favors as a reward. Overall, there are few men or women who don’t have an opinion on the subject of women’s chests that they freely punctuate with personal examples.

To what effect?

Is there a consequence that is important for supervisors? Is there an effect on work performance? These were questions posed by Sarah Gervais from the University of Nebraska and answered recently in a revealing experiment. Ms. Gervais recruited two men and two women and trained them to perform the role of “lookers.” They were 20-22 years old, and she taught them to “look over” 150 undergraduate psychology students who served as subjects in her experiment. The average age of the undergraduates was 19. Each student was “looked over” in precisely the same manner during an interview which began with head-to-waist and waist-to-head, slow sweeping looks. Also, periodically during the interview, lookers rested their gaze on the subjects’ chests.

Gervais manipulated the encounter so subjects would believe that the “lookers” were classmates summoned to the experiment in the same manner and for the same reason they were. Their chairs were placed 2 feet apart. The procedures were rigged so that “lookers” would always be selected to interview the subjects. Lookers then asked the subjects five questions, and before and after the first, third, and fifth questions, the lookers rested their gaze on the subjects’ chests. Finally, lookers commented about subjects’ appearance in written feedback read by subjects as the interview ended, i.e. “Sally was looking good.”

When this phase of the experiment was over, subjects were given a number of questions to answer and a math test to complete. The math test consisted of 12 math problems adapted from quantitative and logic problems on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). The additional questions related to body image and intensions to have further contact with the lookers.

Gervais crafted a meticulous study. She had female “lookers” gazing at male’s chests and control groups where men interviewed women and women interviewed men with no chest gazing at all. When she crunched all the numbers, she had some results she wasn’t expecting.

Women whose chests had been repeatedly looked at performed significantly poorer on the math test than any other group, even women whose chests had not been looked at at all. It was a 20% decline in performance. Further, women who chests had been examined were especially drawn to the lookers and wanted to have more contact with them. That result surprised Ms. Gervais. As with the math test, women who had experienced chest gazing stood out with a reaction peculiar to them.


Much theory has examined the likely reactions of women exposed to sexually flavored behavior in social situations, and Ms. Gervais considered several possible explanations. The most plausible to this writer seemed to be that the young women were distracted from the tasks they were asked to perform (the math test), and their attention was directed instead to thoughts surrounding their physical appearance and their interpersonal relationships. Specifically, the possibility of a fledgling relationship with a higher status (older) classmate of the opposite sex.

Gervais’s findings and this interpretation seem quite relevant for male managers supervising the work of younger women. Actions that may seem harmless and even encouraged by young women may prove to have consequences that hinder both organizational objectives and proper expectations of the outcomes of supervisory behavior. Supervisors have no interest in discouraging performance, and they can do without encouraging entangling romantic expectations they are most likely to frustrate.

Reference: Gervais, Sarah J., Theresa Vescio, and Jill Allen (2011) When What You See is What You Get: The Consequences of the Objectifying Gaze for Women and Men. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35(1), 5-17.

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