Would You Stand Up to a Sexual Harasser? Think Again

A woman being sexually harassed.
Sexual harassment involves unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. (Image credit: aerogondo2, Shutterstock)

When a sexual harassment case hits the news, people often "blame the victim," arguing that the harassed person didn't do enough to deflect the unwanted attention. Now, new research finds that this victim-blaming stems from the human tendency to overestimate oneself.

The more people assume they'll stand up to a harasser, the more they judge women who don't, a new study finds. The catch? Most evidence suggests people don't confront their harassers, even if they believe they would. 

"They really falsely condemn them," said study researcher Ann Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame. "The basis of their condemnation is that they themselves would have done something differently, and chances are good they would not have."

Overestimating ourselves

Previous studies have found that people assume they'll stand up for themselves more in a confrontation scenario than they really will, a psychological tendency called behavioral forecasting bias. In one 2001 study published in the Journal of Social Research, for example, researchers asked women what they'd do if they were asked sexually inappropriate questions during a job interview. They all responded that they'd tell the interviewer off, report him or get up and leave. However, in an experiment that actually exposed women to sexual harassment in a fake job interview, not a single woman confronted or reported her harasser. [6 Ways Sexual Harassment Damages Women's Health]

When you imagine standing up to a sexual bully, your main focus is on fighting back, said Kristina Diekmann, a professor of business ethics at the University of Utah and a co-researcher on the study. In a real job interview, however, other motivations become more important: avoiding an uncomfortable confrontation, getting along with others, getting the job.

"They're not thinking about taking action, they're thinking about just getting through this interview and getting the job," Diekmann told LiveScience.

Blaming the victim

To find out whether this overestimation bias influences how people view victims of sexual harassment, Diekmann, Tenbrunsel and their colleagues conducted a series of five closely related experiments. In the first, they had 47 female undergraduates read a short scenario about a woman being interviewed for a job. During the interview, the male interviewer asks inappropriate questions, including whether the woman has a boyfriend and whether she thinks it's important for women to wear bras to work.

The undergrads were asked what they'd do in that scenario. All told, 83 percent said they'd do something confrontational, whether it was getting up and walking out, reporting the interviewer or refusing to answer the questions. Notably, the more women were certain that they'd act this way, the more they condemned the woman in the scenario for taking the harassment quietly.

In a second, online study with 81 women of more varied ages, the researchers found the same results. They also learned that the more confrontational a woman imagined herself to be in the harassment scenario, the less willing she'd be to say she'd want to work with the passive woman from the vignette.

Reducing judgment

Next, the researchers looked for ways to reduce people's bias and judgment. They first gave 59 female undergrads the same harassment story to read, but asked a third of them to first reflect on the motivation to get hired during a job interview. Another third were asked to think about how important it might be to get along with a job interviewer. The final third were given no instructions prior to reading.

Sure enough, forcing people to think about their in-the-moment motivations as a job hunter reduced their likelihood of assuming they'd act confrontational in the sexual-harassment scenario. A follow-up study with 52 different female undergrads found the same, and also revealed that thinking about these motivations increased sympathy and decreased judgment of the passive woman in the story.

Finally, the researchers conducted an online study of 101 women, this time asking them to think about a scenario in which they'd been intimidated in the workplace before reading the vignette. Putting themselves in the victim's shoes in that way also reduced judgment of the sexual harassment victim. [The 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]

How to fight back

The findings hint at how to help sexual-harassment victims get support from their co-workers, Tenbrunsel said. If people stop and think about their own actions realistically, they're less likely to condemn a victim who suffers in silence.

"It's not just understanding the reaction — certainly compassion is a great end goal of that — but it's also to direct our attention in ways that are going to bring down the behavior in the first place," Tenbrunsel said. In other words, she hopes these sorts of thought exercises will encourage people to condemn the harasser, not the harassee.

The findings also offer help to people who'd like to live up to their imaginary, harasser-confronting selves, Diekmann said. First, you have to realize that you're unlikely to spontaneously respond the take-no-prisoners way you imagine you will, she said. Next, you have to plan and prepare, rehearsing what you want to do just as you would practice fire drills in case of a real emergency.

"You first have to understand it and you have to understand the consequences," Diekmann said. "Then you can plan and prepare for it."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.