It may actually be harder for powerful people to understand sexual assault victims

In addition to highlighting our current political divide, the past week has shown a glaring gap in our collective understanding of human behavior.
In addition to highlighting our current political divide, the past week has shown a glaring gap in our collective understanding of human behavior.
Image: Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP
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Last week, on TVs all across the US, a fifth of Americans watched the testimonies of US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the clinical psychologist who accuses him of sexual assault. Senators were divided in their assessment, to say the least. New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker described the hearing as a “moral moment in our nation,” while South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said it was “the end of the rule of law.”

In addition to highlighting our current political divide, the past week has shown a glaring gap in our collective understanding of human behavior. It seems people in power are bewildered by the fact that those who experience sexual harassment and other toxic behaviors often don’t speak up, report, or otherwise draw attention to what’s been done.

Yes, the attempts to discredit accusers by saying their accounts should have surfaced earlier may be entirely partisan—their makers may consciously know they are making bad faith arguments. But the way our brains function could also help explain why some Senators, particularly because they are powerful people, would honestly believe this.

In social and brain science, the leading definition of power is “asymmetric control of resources.” One person, or group of people, controls the land, the money, the promotions, or something else of value, and others don’t. Decades of research has shown that when people are made to feel powerful, they gain psychological distance from everything. Yet power is also highly relative and context-dependent. The executive who feels powerful when addressing and directing his or her direct reports, may suddenly feel, and act, less powerful in a room of more powerful peers.  

The psychological distance that power brings has a number of effects, whether it’s being less sensitive to detail or less sensitive to other people’s experiences. In organizations, you see this play out in how executives are so often at risk of being stuck in the big picture and unable to appreciate detail. In some cases, this distance can be helpful. It skews leaders’ thinking toward big-picture vision over concrete detail, and rewards over risks, which can lead to daring decisions and bold action. Powerful people are also more distant from others’ points of view, limiting what’s called “perspective-taking,” or the amount that you’re able to imagine what it’s like to be someone else in a given situation. This can sometimes be beneficial, as when a general needs to send troops to war, or an executive needs to close down a division to save a company.

But it can also be destructive. Perspective-taking is hard even for people who aren’t powerful. When you try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you’re still carrying your own psychological footprint (as one recent paper on the subject put it in its title: When I Think of You I Project Myself). If you’re powerful—like, say, a sitting senator—then it will be difficult to imagine life in non-senatorial terms. It’s going to be difficult to imagine how that person would act, given his or her lifetime of experiences, rather than how you believe you’d act, given your own set of lifetime experiences. If you lived a privileged youth in a powerful demographic group, and then went on to all manner of professional and public success, it’s going to be monumentally difficult to imagine the mental and emotional life of someone whose background has significantly less privilege. Again, this is not an excuse, but a cognitive explanation.

Which brings us to the last cognitive element that may contribute to the erroneous belief that sexual assault victims would tell someone about their assault shortly after it occurred: voice, more commonly known as speaking up. When people feel powerful, risks become less salient or noticeable—for themselves and for others. Indeed, in some very clever experiments, people who have been made to feel powerful (through recalling a time they felt like they were in control) literally had a tougher time remembering and coming up with things that might get in the way of their goals. But these obstacles are incredibly salient for those who are low in power when they consider speaking up.

Organizational psychology has documented this thoroughly in a domain called employee voice, which is upward communication that is constructive in its intent, but challenging. It’s what happens when a direct report calls out an action that a leader has taken that imperils the group or the mission—like a nurse telling the doctor that there were seven sponges on the cart before the operation, and now, as the surgery draws to a close, there are only six. (Perhaps the last sponge is in the patient?) Through 375 in-depth interviews with employees across industries, the management scholars James R. Detert and Amy C. Edmondson found that people impose implicit self-censorship on themselves for a number of reasons, like needing better data or well-developed alternative suggestions, not wanting to bypass the boss upward, fearing negative career consequences, not wanting to embarrass the boss, or not wanting to appear critical. Not only that, but the human brain hates uncertainty, and would much rather default to inaction rather than risk action—hence a very human bias towards saying or doing nothing, like the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility. So if you’re relatively low-powered—or less privileged—then you’re going to be sensitive to all these risks that higher powered, more privileged people will cognitively gloss over. Unhelpfully, experiments also indicate that powerful people take more cynical views of other’s actions—like, say, speaking up.

All of this research suggests that the powerful and less-powerful have diametrically opposed perspectives. This isn’t only about the majority of senators being white and male: Power creates similar effects on everyone: Ask an associate at an investment bank, a recruit at a fraternity, or a member of a lower caste in India.

Power, and its effects—for better or worse—are largely predictable without strong systems in place to help hold the powerful to account. If we don’t become wise to the cognitive effects of power, they will continue to lead the powerful to misguided notions of other’s experiences, including the idea that if you experience sexual misconduct, you’ll immediately speak up.

Heidi Grant, Khalil Smith, and David Rock are executives at the NeuroLeadership Institute.