The brain science that could help explain sexual harassment

By: Mary Slaughter, Khalil Smith & David Rock
(Psychology Today, February 2018)
Read the full article here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-brain-work/201802/the-brain-science-could-help-explain-sexual-harassment

This article is a recommended read by Symmetra to raise awareness of those in positions of power in your workplace and those around them as to the profound impact the possession of power can subconsciously have on thinking and behaviour.
The notion that power differentials is a frequent factor which underlies acts of sexual violence and sexual harassment is not new.

However, what is new is the attempt by the authors to map out exactly how possession of power generates cognitive impulses which predispose one to perpetrate acts of sexual harassment.

The authors take as their starting-point the oft-cited work of Pamela K Smith, who studies the effect of power on people’s thinking, motivation and behaviour. Smith’s work led her to conclude that possession or acquisition of power has a profound impact on interpersonal relationships as a result of subconscious cognitive/processes brought about by the sense of power.

Following this theoretical foundation, the authors conducted a meta-study of the literature on power and conclude that there are four major ways in which cognitive effects explain harassment. ‘

  1. Power blinds you to others’ perspectives
    People who lack power are forced to ruminate on what is going on in the heads of powerful people because they are dependent on the powerful for many things. Powerful people are more concerned with their own thoughts, and actions and develop a degree of cynicism about complaints from others attributing hidden agendas to them
  2. Power turns people into abstract thinkers
    The ability to think abstractly increases people’s sense of power and using abstract language make people seem powerful. This type of abstract thinking enables the powerful to distance themselves from the hard-concrete realities of sexual harassment unless faced with questions or challenges in the most direct physical terms as to how they might have engaged in such behaviour.
  3. Power leads to unrealistic optimism about goals
    Powerful people have a difficult time remembering – or even imagining – things that can get in the way of goals. This means that they underplay or even ignore the potential and well-known risks associated with aberrant or unacceptable behaviour such as sexual harassment.
  4. Power leads people to see the world in terms of goals
    The result of this is that they treat others as instruments by assessing how those others might help or be used to achieve goals. This results in inhibitory mechanisms being turned down particularly when the powerful person has a sexualised goal
    The authors conclude that they do not have all the answers as to how power is causally linked with sexual harassment.

Nevertheless, it seems that they have laid the groundwork for further investigation which may lead to more effective ways of countering this pernicious threat to respect and safety in the workplace.

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