Imagine that you’re in the middle of a job interview, and the interviewer asks you whether you think it’s important for women to wear bras to work. What would you do? Tell the interviewer that the question is inappropriate? Refuse to answer it? Would you feel angry that someone would ask you this question?
If you’re like most people, you believe you would do something if you encountered such behavior. Indeed, many responses to the recent revelations of sexual misconduct — in Congress, in Hollywood, in the media — include some variation of: Why didn’t she come forward earlier ? Why didn’t she tell him to stop? As Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) said in October, “I think we also need to start talking about the power that women have to control the situation,” adding that “men get away with this because they are allowed to get away with it by the women.”
But according to psychological studies, this certainty about how women would and should respond to harassment, and the certainty about how we would react if we saw or experienced it ourselves, doesn’t match how people deal with harassment in the real world.
To find out how closely people’s beliefs about how they would respond to sexual harassment line up with their actual responses, psychologists Julie Woodzicka and Marianne LaFrance conducted an experiment with 247 participants. They had one group of women imagine that they were asked three inappropriate questions during a job interview and think about how they would feel and how they would react. A separate group of women was asked these inappropriate questions during what they thought was a real face-to-face interview for a research assistant position.
Woodzicka and LaFrance found that 68 percent of the 197 women who imagined their responses said they would refuse to answer at least one of the inappropriate questions. But when this played out in the interview, not a single woman refused to answer those questions.
These results reflect a general truth about both men and women: We inaccurately predict how we will respond to all sorts of things — from mundane matters, like how much we will enjoy eating a snack , to more serious situations, like how we will respond to hearing a racial slur . In short, we pay attention to different things when we think about an event than when we experience it. When we imagine an event, we think about it abstractly and focus more on high-level principles and values; when we experience it, we focus more on pragmatic factors and concrete details that are specific to the situation.
This is why we underestimate how often we’ll eat junk food or get impatient with our kids, and we overestimate how often we’ll go to the gym. We think we should exercise, but when the alarm goes off at 5 a.m., concrete problems set in: We’re tired and we have a lot of other things we need to do. By the end of the year, our snooze button is worn and our membership card is dusty. And yet, at the beginning of every year, we find ourselves renewing that gym membership. Our imaginary future self pays far less attention to being tired or busy than our real-life self does.
Our imaginary future self also pays far less attention to things like being afraid of losing our job or being embarrassed or uncomfortable, which are all feelings that sexual harassment and assault victims report experiencing. It’s not that victims care more about keeping their jobs or avoiding embarrassment than other people do; it’s that we all care less about these things from a hypothetical perspective than when we’re actually faced with them. Our beliefs about what we would do if we were sexually harassed or assaulted might say less about us and more about the circumstances of our beliefs. It’s easy to say we would be willing to risk everything to “do what is right” when the risks are hypothetical. It’s harder to say we shouldn’t care about our job when there’s a real threat of losing it.
Woodzicka and LaFrance’s study revealed another interesting facet of how we respond to sexual harassment. The women who imagined the inappropriate questions thought they would feel angry if they were in the situation, but the predominant emotion that women felt in the interview was fear. Even though anger and fear are both negative emotions, they can motivate us to act in different ways. Anger makes us more likely to want to fight, while fear makes us more likely to want to flee. When we can’t even predict how we will feel, it can make it hard to predict how we will act.
Moreover, even if we correctly predict that we will feel scared, it can still be difficult to know exactly how this fear will affect our behavior. Physically arousing feelings such as fear or pain are difficult to simulate through imagination. The difference between knowing we would feel scared and actually feeling scared is not unlike the difference between knowing that delivering a baby will be painful and actually feeling the contractions. If we are not currently experiencing these feelings, it can be difficult to realize just how much they might divert our attention away from our other goals.
This disconnect extends to events we witness, not just things that happen directly to us. For instance, psychologist Kerry Kawakami and colleagues found that people expected feeling much more upset and being more likely to respond after witnessing a racial slur than those who witnessed the slur were. Likewise, it’s easier for people to believe they wouldn’t stand for sexual harassment in the office than it is for them to do something when they see it. And, according to the research, an employee who witnesses harassment or assault in the workplace is subject to some of the same fears that a victim has: fear of a negative backlash if they report the incident.
Given that responding to sexual harassment and assault is harder than we think, we need to adjust our expectations for victims. The responsibility to “do something” can’t fall solely on them or even on bystanders. Instead, employers need to build workplace cultures that prevent sexual harassment and assault from happening in the first place. An environment that shows low tolerance reduces some of the barriers to responding and makes it more likely that people will act on their ideals.
This isn’t just a job for human resources. There are some things that everyone has the power to do. We can all be more careful in how we judge victims. We can remind ourselves that responding to sexual harassment and assault is more difficult than we imagine. We can stop assuming we’d have acted differently in someone else’s shoes. Chances are, we wouldn’t have.