A new study on sexual harassment has found a significant gap between people’s self-reported intentions and their actual behavior. The research indicates that while people say they would call out or report sexual harassment, they often fail to do so after actually observing it.
The findings have been published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“We began this project with broad interests surrounding courage, gender, and ethical behavior. We were also inspired by the spectrum of bystander reactions during the #MeToo movement,” said study author Rachael Goodwin, a PhD candidate at the University of Utah and a research fellow at Harvard University.
The participants completed an online survey regarding ethical decision making, which included one scenario about sexual harassment in the workplace. Then they completed various assessments of personality along with questionnaires intended to only be distracting material to obscure the purpose of the research.
After completing the questionnaires, the participants were told they would be engaging in an online team task with two other people. However, the two other teammates, who appeared to be a man and a woman, were actually pre-programmed bots.
“We used a pseudo-triadic, computer-team-harassment paradigm on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. To minimize harm to participants we designed our ‘interaction’ so that it occurred online, rather than face-to-face. Such a design also provided an opportunity to study observer interventions in an efficient manner with high experimental control,” Goodwin explained.
The team members were asked to introduce themselves, say where they were from, and what they liked to do. During the introductions, the female teammate indicated that she liked to play volleyball and surf at the beach, to which the male teammate responded: “I can’t wait to see your hot ass on the beach.”
The participants had the opportunity to directly reply to the comment. Following the online interaction, the participants were provided with three opportunities to report the sexual harassment in a post-discussion questionnaire.
The researchers found that people were more likely to say that they would report sexual harassment than they were to report it. The majority of participants said they would report sexual harassment if they witnessed it, but only a minority of them actually did.
“If you were meeting new people and one harassed the other, what do you think you would you do? Most people think something like, ‘of course I would speak up if I saw someone else being harassed.’ We found that most people are well intended to confront a harasser or report them, but they don’t,” Goodwin told PsyPost.
Goodwin and her colleagues also uncovered several personality factors associated with the likelihood of responding to or reporting the harassment. People with heightened moral courage were more likely to combat sexual harassment, while those with heightened narcissism were less likely.
“Women are more likely to report than men. Those who are willing to violate social norms are also more likely to actually confront a harasser immediately or report them later. Your personal values also matter; If you value loyalty you are less likely to oppose sexual harassment, whereas if you value fairness, you are likely to oppose sexual harassment,” she added.
The study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“More research is needed to identify whether our findings generalize to face-to-face sexual harassment situations. There is also a greater need to identify how different ways to oppose sexual harassment may be used to increase bystander involvement,” Goodwin explained.
“More work is also needed to discover whether and how organizations can create a culture of speaking up for victims and bystanders and taking action, whether it be through direct confrontation, through reporting or other types of action. This work is relevant to any area of injustice — not just sexual harassment. For example, we are currently using a similar pseudo-triadic experimental platform to try to understand bystander involvement when people encounter racial remarks in online team work.”
The study, “Good intentions aren’t good enough: Moral courage in opposing sexual harassment“, was authored by Rachael Goodwin, Jesse Graham, and Kristina A. Diekmann.