Stereotypes in Space: How Vertical Location Can Transmit Gender Stereotypes
Have you ever sat reading a magazine, measuring where every image was on each page as you read? No? That’s probably normal — for everyone except researchers who study media. My dedicated team of research assistants, for example, spent months meticulously measuring the locations of images on hundreds of magazine pages. We then showed some of those pages to research participants and measured their beliefs about women and men. The results of this research showed that the location of people on a page can subtly communicate gender stereotypes about power that affect readers’ views.
Specifically, my colleague, Max Weisbuch, and I found that across roughly 560 images taken from popular U.S. magazines such as Time, Sports Illustrated, and Entertainment Weekly, images of men were, on average, higher on the pages than images of women. We called this pattern male spatial elevation. We were interested in how male spatial elevation might influence people’s beliefs about women and men.
A growing body of research has supported the idea that vertical location can communicate power. In 2005, Thomas Schubert, a Professor at the University of Oslo, published research testing how quickly people were able to identify a powerful individual — indicated by words such as “king” or “teacher” — when the word was located high versus low on a computer screen. People identified powerful words more quickly and accurately when the words were high than low on the screen. The opposite was true for words implying low power: people identified words such as “servant” or “pupil” more quickly and accurately when the words were low rather than high.
Our question was whether male spatial elevation in magazines would influence beliefs about women’s and men’s power in the same way. We photo-edited magazine pages to generate two kinds of pages. Some of our research participants were shown pages with male spatial elevation on which men’s pictures were high and women’s pictures were low. Other participants saw exactly the same pages except that the spatial locations of the pictures were flipped so that women were high on the page and men were low (female spatial elevation).
We then measured participants’ stereotypes about women and men. For example, we asked participants to rate women and men on characteristics such as personality dominance and power. We found that people who saw pages on which men were higher endorsed gender stereotypes more strongly than people who saw pages on which women were higher. In other words, when images of men were located higher than images of women, people were more likely to endorse the idea that men are more powerful and dominant than women. Importantly, our research showed that this is how images are commonly arranged in magazines.
This effect of male spatial elevation was fairly consistent across different studies but was modest in size. Nonetheless, we think the effect is important because male spatial elevation is common, and people are likely exposed to it frequently. Although we may often see images that convey male spatial elevation in magazines, webpages, and elsewhere, we are probably not aware that men are consistently depicted higher in space than women. Therefore, we are unlikely to counteract the negative effects. If people don’t know that images of men are often higher than those of women, they don’t have the opportunity to think, “location shouldn’t influence my beliefs about gender.”
Therefore, this subtle cue — where someone’s picture is located on a page — may help to maintain gender stereotypes within a culture. One potential way to intervene is to address how male spatial elevation is created in social environments. For example, what leads magazine editors and designers to place men higher than women on the pages of magazines? I am currently exploring this question in collaboration with my colleagues Anne Maass and Caterina Suitner at the University of Padova. We are studying if and why people choose to place images of men higher than images of women in their personal environments – such as when decorating an office or drawing a picture.
In the meantime, my research assistants and I have retired our rulers until our next project. However, we now take special care to counter male spatial elevation in our own environments. For example, we make sure to place images of women and men equally high on the walls. Our studies suggest that this practice may have a meaningful cumulative impact on gender stereotypes.
Lamer, S. A. & Weisbuch, M. (in press). Men over women: The social transmission of gender stereotypes through spatial elevation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2019.103828
Lamer, S. A., Weisbuch, M., & Sweeny, T. D. (2017). Spatial cues distort the visual perception of gender. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146, 1366-1371. doi:10.1037/xge0000339
Schubert, T. W. (2005). Your highness: vertical positions as perceptual symbols of power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 1–21. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
Sarah Ariel Lamer is an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she studies how adults and children learn social biases from patterns around them.