Delusions of Power: Brain Biases that Contribute to Sexual Harassment

Posted on Tue, Dec 19, 2017 @ 01:39 PM

As 2017 comes to a close, sexual harassment cases continue to dominate the American news. Time Magazine—known for highlighting a “person or people of the year” based on who has had the greatest media influence over the previous 12 months—has given this year’s title to “The Silence Breakers.” These are the hundreds of women and men who have, in Time’s words, “unleashed one of the highest-velocity shifts in our culture since the 1960s.”

 Whatever you may personally believe regarding the guilt or innocence of any one of the accused, the fact is, given humanity’s long history of oppressing others, it’s not surprising so many women (and a number of men) have had experiences of the sort that we now describe as “sexual harassment.”

Each case has to be tried and concluded on its own merits. My aim here is not to judge guilt or innocence; rather, it’s to consider some of the influences power can have on a person’s thinking.

It’s no secret that power can be heady and addictive and wildly misused. Um . . . Nero, Caligula, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini . . . enough said. But it doesn’t take the level of power wielded by a dictator to seduce the human brain into self-delusion. In fact, all it takes is the illusion of power. If we aren’t alert to the potential pitfalls in our own thinking, we are all subject to the biases and shortcuts that are natural to the human brain. And some of these can lead to the same behaviors that have recently toppled so many public figures.

Perhaps the most relevant to this issue is something known as the sexual overperception bias, where people falsely conclude that someone has a sexual interest in them. This bias has been studied for decades, and some interesting patterns have emerged in the research over time. It seems certain people, more than others, are highly susceptible to picking up sexual signals that aren’t really there. For instance:

  1. Heterosexual men in general are more likely to mistakenly perceive sexual interest from the women they know, whereas women are more likely to assume the men they know are interested in friendship.
  2. People in leadership positions are more likely to mistakenly perceive sexual interest in subordinates than vice-versa.
  3. Men in general are more likely than women to rate a neutral smiling face as flirtatious rather than friendly—and those who score high in measures of casual-sex proclivities are even more likely to do so.
  4. Those who score high in measures of sexual-harassment proclivity tend to place the blame for harassment on victims.

Add to this the fact that power can have a dampening effect on empathy, as well as on the ability to interpret the emotions of another person, and you have a recipe for sexual harassment.

This is not to say that everyone in power is suspect. Certainly, being aware of these pitfalls, as well as alert to and honest with ourselves about our own motivations, can go a long way toward ensuring that we handle power appropriately. And it’s important to remember that even though the sexual overperception bias affects men more than women, women are not immune. That said, the majority of cases we’re seeing in the news recently involve men wielding power over female or male subordinates, which is not surprising given that men hold positions of power more often than women do.

Had they known that it’s possible to perceive sexual interest where it doesn’t exist—and be tempted to act on it—a number of the public figures in today’s news may have been able to avoid some of the outrageous behaviors they’re now accounting for. But other missteps can also affect people in ways we don’t intend, though most of them can be avoided by exercising a healthy degree of empathy and concern and by respecting personal and professional boundaries.

Ideally we would all function in a world where everyone has others’ best interest at heart—a world where everyone, regardless of gender, could count on being treated respectfully, and where humor could be enjoyed by everyone because it wouldn’t embarrass or denigrate anyone. I do believe it’s in the realm of possibility. But clearly we’re not quite there yet.



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Tags: self delusion, cognitive bias, workplace relationships, sexual harassment