How To Avoid Feeling Objectified

New research shows how expressions of gratitude can guard against objectification.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 6, 2022

A recent study appearing in the Journal of Positive Psychology explores how feeling and showing gratitude can make people feel less used and objectified.

"Objectification causes severe consequences, ranging from interpersonal indifference, reduced empathy and helping, aggression and bully, to even killing and genocide," says psychologist Xijing Wang of the City University of Hong Kong. "Therefore, it is important to find interventions to alleviate objectification."

According to Wang, objectification refers to treating others as things or tools that can help in one's goal achievement while denying their autonomy, needs, and emotions.

"Employees can be treated as mere instruments to aid the financial success of their employers, students can be treated by their classmates as note-takers, and women can be perceived and treated solely as an object of sexual desire without regard for their personality or dignity," states Wang.

Combining classical definitions of objectification, Wang suggests that objectification is marked by seven key features:

  1. Instrumentality: When someone treats a target as a tool for his or her own purpose
  2. Denial of autonomy: When someone treats a target as lacking in autonomy or self-determination
  3. Inertness: When someone treats a target as lacking in agency or activity
  4. Denial of subjectivity: When someone treats a target as someone whose experiences and feelings need not be taken into account
  5. Fungibility: When someone treats a target as interchangeable with other objects
  6. Violability: When someone treats a target as lacking in boundary integrity and violable
  7. Ownership: When someone treats a target as though the target can be owned

Over a series of three studies that included writing gratitude letters and imagining the effects of gratitude in an environment prone to behaviors of objectification, Wang's research concluded that gratitude, both as a feeling and as a gesture, lowered the levels of objectification in a given environment.

"The effect of gratitude on weakening objectification can be due to its ability to reduce peoples' focus on their own needs," says Wang. "That is, when people become less concerned with their own wants and desires, they are less likely to see others as instruments to fulfill those needs and are less likely to fail to consider others' personhood."

For people who wish to cultivate gratitude in their daily lives, Wang proposes three simple tips:

  1. Reflection: Spend a few minutes every day thinking about the wonderful things in life (such as a movie, books, a TV show we enjoy, or even being able to bask in the sunshine).
  2. Showing Appreciation: Writing a thank you note or verbally appreciating or thanking someone.
  3. Exposing ourselves to nature: Spend time in nature by traveling to a place where you can enjoy a magnificent environment.

Wang concludes, "Expressing gratitude doesn't need to cost you anything financially. So just do it."

A full interview with Xijing Wang discussing her new research on gratitude can be found here: How gratitude helps us feel whole