To Reduce Sexual Misconduct, Help People Understand How Their Advances Might Be Received

April 26, 2018 Vanessa K. Bohns

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The revelations of the #MeToo movement seem to have caught many men by surprise. Comedian Aziz Ansari was “surprised and concerned,” believing his encounter with a woman to be “by all indications completely consensual.” Well-known actor Richard Dreyfus was “bewildered to discover” an incident wasn’t consensual, leading him to “reassess every relationship I have ever thought was playful and mutual.”

Although there are numerous explanations for the widespread sexual harassment and assault allegations that have recently come to light across various industries, in our research we have identified one potential contributor related to the psychology of avowed unwitting perpetrators: a cognitive blind spot that makes them oblivious to how trapped their unwanted advances can make their targets feel.

In two studies soon to be published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, we found that romantic suitors generally underestimate the discomfort their unwanted overtures cause those on the receiving end; they believe that their targets feel more comfortable and willing to reject their advances than is actually the case. Interestingly, we have found that this isn’t just a problem for men; we also found that while women reported being targets of unwanted workplace advances more often, when they were the ones pursuing an unrequited romantic relationship they were equally unable to judge the comfort level of their targets.

Extensive research has demonstrated the myriad ways in which we are prone to misunderstand others’ perspectives. We are especially bad at appreciating the role discomfort plays in driving others’ behavior. Studies have shown that targets of various types of requests find refusal extremely uncomfortable, whether the request is commonplace, such as being asked to loan a stranger one’s cell phone, or more dubious, such as being asked to vandalize a library book. However, when we are the ones making such requests, we incorrectly assume that if targets are uncomfortable with something, they will simply say “no.”

In our forthcoming research, we explored how this cognitive bias plays out in the domain of unwanted romantic or sexual advances in the workplace. Earlier this year, we asked 942 STEM graduate students about their experiences as suitors and romantic targets in the workplace. Of our survey respondents, 277 people reported having either made a romantic advance on a colleague who was not interested in them, or having been pursued by someone they were not interested in. We asked those individuals who reported being pursued by someone they were not interested in to indicate how difficult it was for them to say “no,” and how bad and uncomfortable they felt doing so.

At the same time, we asked those who had pursued a colleague and were subsequently rejected what they imagined their romantic targets had felt — i.e., how difficult they imagined the other person found it to say “no,” and how bad and uncomfortable this person felt. Suitors’ assessments of how their targets felt paled in comparison to how targets actually felt: Initiators of romantic advances overwhelmingly thought their targets would feel freer to say “no” than targets reported feeling.

Participants in this survey were not randomly assigned to the conditions of “suitor” and “target,” raising the risk that people who identified as suitors and targets in our survey were either different types of people or were recalling different types of experiences. To address this concern, we ran another study in which we asked 385 STEM graduate students to read a hypothetical scenario about a single, sexually compatible co-worker who asks another single co-worker out on a date. Participants were randomly assigned to imagine this scenario from the perspective of either the “target” or the “suitor.” Similar to our first study, participants assigned to the role of “target” reported that they would feel more bad and uncomfortable rejecting their co-worker’s advance than those assigned to the role of “suitor” imagined.

To return to the accused and confused men noted who have surfaced in the light of the #MeToo movement, let’s assume some of them were romantic suitors who assumed his target felt freer to say “no” to his advances than she in fact felt, and who therefore experienced the encounter as mutual or consensual. But before we write off their behavior as an incontrovertible fact of human nature—people are just bad at perspective-taking —our research suggests that in the context of romantic or sexual pursuit, people are not just bad at perspective-taking, we are systematically biased. We all seem to have a blind spot that leads us to view our own actions as less coercive than they are experienced by others. This bias may lead suitors to misattribute targets’ reluctance to say “no” to their advances to genuine romantic interest, leading seemingly innocuous romantic overtures to escalate to the level of sexual harassment.

An additional finding in one of our studies hints at an intervention: Participants who reported previous experience as a target of an unwanted romantic advance were more likely to appreciate the difficulty and discomfort their targets would experience saying “no.” This suggests that workplace interventions designed to foster perspective-taking could potentially be effective at reducing the bias identified by our studies. For example, instead of simply specifying problematic behaviors to be avoided, an intervention along these lines would encourage employees to imagine how it would feel to be on the receiving end of such behaviors.

Ultimately, fostering employees’ perspective-taking skills should help colleagues — men and women — to initiate romantic encounters that are mutually desired, and better avoid ones that aren’t.

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