An Invisible Mental Trap

Social Sciences5 MIN READ

Jin Goh unearths people’s perceptions of sexual harassment victims—and the consequences of those mental images

By Kardelen Koldas ’15
December 10, 2020

If you had colored pencils and a piece of paper in front of you, how would you imagine and draw a woman whose male boss accidentally bumped into her? What about a woman groped by her male supervisor? Would the two women look alike?

You might think so, but Assistant Professor of Psychology Jin Goh’s research found otherwise.

“You can really see the differences in how people actually drew,” said Goh, whose most recent paper used this method—rarely employed in psychology—to uncover people’s mental images of sexual harassment targets.

This experiment was the first of 11 studies carried out by Goh and his coauthors for their article accepted to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The studies, divided into three sets, examined how more than 4,000 participants (either in person or online) imagined and perceived sexual harassment targets and their experiences in a series of scenarios. The researchers’ findings came with implications for harassment reporting and litigation.

Types of sexual harassment in this study, as defined by most psychologists, were sexual coercion (like promising rewards in the workplace for sexual favors), unwanted sexual attention (such as sexual assault), and gender harassment (sexual insults, for example).

“A lot of the time, sexual harassment is not even about sexual attraction; it’s not even about sex or attractiveness. It’s about punishment.”

Assistant Professor of Psychology Jin Goh

The use of this broad definition of sexual harassment was intentional.

“We wanted to see that our theory is not limited to just one form of sexual harassment, that … it’s pervasive,” Goh said. And across all studies, scholars found that people are more likely to see prototypical women—with feminine features, interests, and characteristics—as victimized compared to non-prototypical women, even when the women experienced the exact same situation. “Being able to show this actually in different contexts allows us to make such a generalization.”

To arrive at that generalization, the first series of tests, including the drawing task, aimed to understand how people visualized victims of sexual harassment. The results revealed that people are more inclined to think of victims as prototypical women.

But this wasn’t true, Goh stressed. In fact, sexual harassment targets non-prototypical women more than prototypical women.

“Because we have this mental representation that we tend to connect sexual harassment with a prototypical woman, we miss out on non-prototypical women as a result.”

Female CEOs or women in other non-traditional career paths, for instance, get harassed more than those in traditionally feminine careers, Goh noted, because they are seen as breaking traditional gender roles. “A lot of the time, sexual harassment is not even about sexual attraction, it’s not even about sex or attractiveness,” he said. “It’s about punishment” for not conforming to gender roles in society.

In one study, researchers used a perceptual task called reverse correlation, allowing them to visualize people’s mental images. Participants completed 500 trials of reverse correlation, and in each trial, they compared two images, selecting the one that they thought looked more like a sexual harassment victim. Reflecting these selections onto the base image, the researchers came up with an image of a sexual harassment victim. The unselected ones produced the image of an anti-sexual harassment victim. Then, another group of participants rated how prototypical the women from these composite images looked.

Throughout, participants perceived sexual harassment victims to be more prototypical than non-prototypical.

That’s where the second and third sets of studies gained importance, as they sought to expose the consequences arising from these kinds of mental representations.

The second series tested whether people are more likely to believe a prototypical or non-prototypical woman when they experience the same ambiguous situation, e.g., a supervisor putting his hand on a woman’s waist or a principal asking a woman about her dating life. In the same scenarios, participants were less likely to believe non-prototypical women than prototypical women.

In the third series of studies, the paper looked at the civil rights and workplace implications of the earlier findings. Examining how participants viewed the severity of psychological harm that prototypical versus non-prototypical women endured from sexual harassment, the researchers found that people believed non-prototypical women were less psychologically harmed and also saw them as less credible than prototypical women.

To Goh, this was unexpected.

“I would imagine that people would think being sexually harassed would be seen uniformly as harmful and traumatizing,” he said, adding how concerning this was to him. “But somehow, we think a certain type of woman would be more harmed by sexual harassment than others.”

“Despite having the exact same experiences, people consistently think that prototypical women are more believable, more credible, and more psychologically harmed than non-prototypical women.”

Assistant Professor of Psychology Jin Goh

And these perceptions have serious ramifications for women. If a non-prototypical woman is harassed at work, for example, her case might not be taken up or be successful, Goh said.

Did the gender of the participants make a difference in their perception of victims of sexual harassment? Surprisingly, no. But that’s consistent with a lot of psychology studies, Goh explained, because prototypes are beliefs shared within the same society.

“We have knowledge of various different stereotypes about men and women because we learn them early and are continuously being taught and reinforced in our society,” he said. “People think similarly about how people behave or how they should behave.”

Prototypes are mental shortcuts that make our daily lives easier but come with a price, as teased out by this study. “These mental shortcuts basically are hard to break,” he said; change requires a lot of mental effort, continuous training, and conscious decision-making.

Those are essential for people in positions, such as Title IX and human resources officers, evaluating sexual harassment claims. “They are the ones making the decisions; if they are biased against women—a certain type of women—then the system itself is flawed,” he said. “The burden should not be placed on the victim and survivors of sexual harassment.”