Democracy Dies in Darkness

Speaking of Science

What makes some men sexual harassers? Science tries to explain the creeps of the world.

December 22, 2017 at 3:15 PM

Accusations of sexual harassment and coercion have been pouring out about powerful men like Harvey Weinstein (above), Charlie Rose and Mario Batali. Psychologists and recent research offer answers for why some men engage in such behavior. (Reuters/Steve Crisp)

The list of alleged sexual harassers keeps getting longer and the details of sexual assault and harassment ever more disturbing. The torrent of cases pouring out in news reports and Twitter — tales of men grabbing women, emerging naked from showers uninvited, threatening women's careers, or worse — raises a horrified question: What makes these men behave this way?

Sure, some of the behavior can be chalked up to boorish personalities or outright misogyny. But how much of the behavior is driven by the man himself and how much by the culture around him? What exactly makes one man more likely to harass than another? And what is going on inside their heads when they make unwanted advances?

These are questions that social scientists and psychologists have puzzled over in recent years. And their growing body of research has yielded interesting and at times provocative answers, which are especially relevant in this cultural moment.

What causes some men to harass and not others?

For more than three decades, John Pryor has tried to come up with an answer to this question. As one of the pioneers in the study of sexual harassment, Pryor developed a test in 1987 to measure a man’s tendency to harass. Called the “Likelihood to Sexually Harass” scale, Pryor’s test has become a cornerstone of research on sexual harassers.

His test consists of 10 scenarios. Imagine that you are an executive hiring a new secretary, one scenario starts out. A female candidate explains she desperately needs the job and looks at you in a way that possibly conveys she is attracted to you. How likely are you to give her the job? Offer the job in exchange for sexual favors? Ask her to go to dinner to discuss the job?

Over the years, Pryor — a psychologist at Illinois State University — and others have used socially engineered situations in laboratories to study how well the test predicts people's behavior. And over time, they’ve identified these factors as the most distinctive in harassers: a lack of empathy, a belief in traditional gender sex roles and a tendency toward dominance/authoritarianism.

They also found in studies that the environment surrounding such harassers has a huge effect, Pryor said in a phone interview.

“If you take men who score high on the scale and put them in situations where the system suggests they can get away with it, they will do it,” he said. “Impunity plays a large role.”

Time magazine has named the “Silence Breakers” of the #MeToo movement as its Person of the Year. (AFP photo/Time Inc./Billy & Hells)

Why are people in positions of power so often doing the harassing?

In recent years, a growing body of research has shown how power warps one’s perception of others and alters people's behavior.

“In study after study, we’re seeing that power makes you more impulsive. It makes you less worried about social conventions and less concerned about the effect of your actions on others,” said Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkley.

One of Keltner’s experiments, for example, found that people who see themselves as wealthier were more likely to cut pedestrians off on a crosswalk. Another found that those who felt powerful were even more likely to take candy from childrenOther experiments have shown that powerful people become more focused on themselves, more likely to objectify others and more likely to overestimate how much others like them.

“It becomes a kind of solipsism. You think what’s inside your head is true about the world around you,” Keltner said. “Someone like Harvey Weinstein may think 'I’m so horny right now, so the whole world must feel that way.' ”

What makes these men think women want to see all that? 

One of the most puzzling and icky details from the recent string of high-profile cases is this signature move of several powerful men: Exposing themselves to women, apparently with the expectation that those women are attracted to them or will be once they see their bodies.

There is, surprisingly, a scientific explanation for this. A particularly eye-opening 2011 study found that people in leadership often pick up phantom sexual signals from subordinates that aren’t really there.

The experiment designed by Jonathan Kunstman and Jon Maner took 78 adults and paired them with a member of the opposite sex. Those pairs were assigned a Lego-building project, with one person put in charge of the other. In private interviews at the end of the project, those who were appointed leaders were much more likely to have perceived sexual interest from their subordinates, even when the subordinate said in surveys that they had no sexual interest at all.

When researchers studied video of most pairs interacting, they found the leaders much more likely to act on that misperception, touching the subordinate's leg or engaging in eye gazing.

“Power creates this perfect mental storm for misconduct,” said Kunstman, an experimental social psychologist at Miami University in Ohio. “This tendency to overperceive romantic interest can lead to a feeling of freedom to touch, which can then lead to misconduct.”

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After the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, more women and men have come forward against a growing list of well-known male figures with similar stories of harassment and assault. (Erin Patrick O'Connor, Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

So what are these men really after? Sex or dominance?

“The hackneyed phrase everyone always says about sexual harassment is that it’s not really about sex, it’s about power,” said Illinois researcher Pryor. “But that’s not really true. It’s about both.”

In recent years, psychologists trying to understand the relationship between power and sex have found that, for many men who score high on the harassment scale, the two ideas are often intertwined.

“They are two sides of the same coin and so strongly fused that it's impossible to cleave them apart,” Pryor said. “If these men have power over someone, they find it difficult not to have those sexual ideas come to mind. And more they think about it, the more that association is reinforced.”

Why is it almost always men doing the harassing?

There’s a statistical answer for this: The way our society stands now, with all its flaws, discriminatory biases, and historical and cultural baggage, there remain many more men in leadership positions than women. (At least one woman in a position of power, however, has recently been accused of harassing a male subordinate.)

There’s also a feminist structural reading of such harassment: that harassment often serves as a vehicle to exert dominance and put women in their place.

But behavioral science has also shown there are behavioral differences between the sexes, said Louise Fitzgerald, a psychologist at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

“It’s not like women are somehow immune from dark personality traits,” she said, “but we know from gender research that men are more aggressive, more socialized to seek sex and believe they have a right to it.”

How likely is the #MeToo movement to change anything?

Fitzgerald, who has spent three decades studying the devastating effects of sexual harassment, is surprisingly pessimistic about the current movement producing momentous change.

“I remember thinking the same thing during the Clarence Thomas hearings, that the cultural moment had come and everything would change,” she said. “But here we are 20-some years later when people are suddenly rediscovering yet again that sexual harassment exists.”

The cases now making headlines, she noted, largely involve high-profile folks in Hollywood and media. “Will that have an effect on the woman being harassed at her job at Walmart or on the factory floor? I don’t know.”

But one thing the #MeToo movement may be changing is the stigma of sexual assault and harassment, said Pryor, the longtime harassment researcher. “The #MeToo movement shows just how common these experiences are. And that may take away the silence that often allows the harassment to be hidden.”

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The viral #MeToo campaign started a global conversation about sexual harassment and assault. The Post spoke to a number of people about what #MeToo means once the social buzz has faded. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Another important byproduct of the #MeToo movement may be increased interest in sexual harassment research, say Pryor, Fitzgerald and others.

When Pryor began studying sexual harassment in the 1980s, there was little support for the work. Pryor funded many of his earliest studies himself, and had to work in his spare time to develop research like his "Likelihood to Sexually Harass" scale. In the decades since, the situation has improved but only marginally, said Pryor, now semi-retired.

“With everything we’re seeing now, that will hopefully change — maybe too late to make a difference in my career — but for others this could be a turning point,” he said.

Read more:

Why are people still racist? What science says about America’s race problem.

President Trump and accusations of sexual misconduct: The complete list

Eight women say Charlie Rose sexually harassed them — with nudity, groping and lewd calls

The growing list of sexual harassment scandals, as satirized in cartoons


William Wan is a national correspondent covering science and news for The Washington Post. He previously served as the Post's China correspondent in Beijing, roving U.S. national correspondent, foreign policy reporter and religion reporter.

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