September 27, 2018


Anti-sexual harassment trainings should teach people how their brains work (Elizabeth Weingarten, September 26, 2018, Quartz)

One crucial part of any training is to deepen participants' understanding of the nature of the problem--especially why it continues to be so pervasive. Some experts do this through exercises that show participants gaps in their own knowledge.

For instance, gender stereotypes can contribute to harassing behavior or "gender policing.": The latter occurs when women ( or men) don't act in accordance with their gender stereotypes--for instance, if a woman is in a male-dominated field like mining--and they are harassed and disparaged not for sexual purposes, but in order to drive them from that field and make them question their belonging. In order to shed light on how pervasive and blinding these stereotypes can be, Eden King, an associate professor of  industrial-organizational psychology at Rice University, asks her students to solve a common riddle.

The riddle sets up a story about a father and his son who get into a car crash that kills the father. The son is rushed to the hospital. But just as he's going into surgery, the surgeon yells, "I can't operate on this boy, he's my son!" How is this possible? Of course, the surgeon is the boy's mother -a reveal that both often surprises participants (especially if they couldn't get the riddle) and also demonstrates the pervasive nature of a problematic way of thinking.

In her trainings, Gerberg  relies on a different kind of reveal. She asks her participants to guess the percentage of sexual harassment that's reported, and then shares the actual (very low) numbers. Piquing participants' interest in this way, she says, means they'll more actively engage with the material, and remember it better.

It also sheds light on a critical cognitive gap between our perceptions and reality. Although much of what motivates human behavior hinges on a simple question--is everyone else doing it?--we're not great judges of what other people are actually doing, particularly if we can't see them in action.

That's particularly true when it comes to sexual harassment. Researchers have found, for instance, a significant gap between men's perceptions of how many of their peers are engaging in harmful harassing behavior, which they estimate to be nearly everyone, and the reality, which is much smaller. This misperception may prevent men from intervening to stop bad behavior (rendering things like bystander intervention training less effective), or even make them more likely to engage in the behavior themselves because, they reason, everyone is doing it. For instance, someone may privately think it's wrong to make sexist jokes, but mistakenly think that everyone else holds a different view--that sexist jokes are no big deal. Behavioral scientists call that phenomenon "pluralistic ignorance." It's a brain behavior that can keep people silent, willing to look the other way, and give rise to toxic and hostile workplace environments that tolerate or normalize sexual harassment. Explaining pluralistic ignorance is another way to help elucidate why sexual harassment happens, and to give people an opportunity to discuss what kinds of harassing or sexist behavior have become normal in their office. It's this dialogue that can shift cultural norms, which can ultimately help drive behavior change.  

Power is another factor that can widen the gap between perception and reality, and another potential discussion point in a training that incorporates cognitive science explanations for why harassing behavior so often flows from an unequal power dynamic. Having power can, for instance, make individuals more likely to think others will be romantically interested in them, sometimes leading them to perceive romantic interest when it doesn't exist. This is known as the overperception bias. Researchers also find that regardless of power and gender, many of us underestimate how hard it can be for the recipient of an unwanted romantic gesture to say "no" to a request, a fact that can be useful for any employee thinking about hitting on a colleague.

Learning about moral licensing could also help close the reality-perception gap by exploring our tendency to dismiss or excuse certain kinds of negative behaviors. We engage in moral licensing when there's a disconnect between our behavior and the perception we have of ourselves as good, moral people. In this case, we're forced to justify our behavior so that it matches with this image, lest we experience cognitive dissonance. One way we do this is by using a virtuous act  like running a 5K to offset a weekend of Netflix and chilling. At work, we may excuse or dismiss bad behavior (like sexual harassment) by remembering our past good behavior (like starting a women's empowerment initiative).

Just as we morally license our own behavior, we can do the same for the behavior of people with whom we work. If you've seen your boss do good things--for instance, starting that women's empowerment initiative--you might be more likely to forgive him for a few inappropriate comments at a meeting, or even for making a pass at you at a party. Could an understanding of this dynamic give you more confidence to call him out next time it happens?   

Once we understand a little bit more about our own brains, we can journey into the minds of our colleagues through a tactic called perspective-taking, which some research suggests could also prevent harassment. 

Posted by at September 27, 2018 4:14 AM