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Research Ethics

Psychology has a sexual harassment problem…

… and tackling it requires reckoning with the past that brought us here, argue Jacy L.Young and Peter Hegarty.

16 April 2020

A psychologist (a man) brings you (a woman undergraduate student) into the laboratory and asks you to read aloud to them a series of 12 explicit sexual words and two sexually graphic passages of text.

How do you feel in this situation? What thoughts run through your mind? Would it surprise you if you learned later that the experiment's topic is in no way related to sex?

This scenario is not merely a thought experiment centred around the common experience of being a student in psychological research. It's the reality of a 1959 social psychology experiment as experienced by 21 women. Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills' study at Stanford University lent support to the then-new theory of cognitive dissonance. In the decades that followed, the study's particulars faded from view even as it was regularly upheld as an exemplar of a well-designed social psychology experiment. This narrative continues in textbooks through to the present day.

This is just one example of the lively presence of sexual harassment within psychology over the discipline's history. In our Feminism & Psychology article we began to trace the long history of sexual harassment in psychology. We described the various ways in which sexual harassment has been embedded in the practices of social psychology across at least three terrains, as (1) a research technique, (2) a subject of investigation, and (3) a behaviour amongst research psychologists.

But sexual harassment within psychology is not merely a footnote in history. In the wake of the #metoo movement, recent cases of sexual harassment have received widespread attention and even, in some cases, a measure of redress (Hartocollis, 2019). What the broader #metoo movement challenges us to recognise is that such cases are not isolated instances of individual bad actors, but rather illustrative of larger structural factors that sanction, if not encourage, abuses of power. Those factors are, of course, social psychological factors, and their recognition or occlusion is also part of this history.

Sexual harassment as normative

Drawing on the work of Donna Haraway (1997) we use the presence of sexual harassment in three realms to triangulate on the masculinist scientific cultures of psychology. Such cultures can render psychologists' harassing behaviour normative.

In the case of the Aronson and Mills (1959) study, the particularly gendered nature of its legacy comes into further relief when seen in companion with other cognitive dissonance research of this era. In the early 1960s Dana Bramel, who like Aronson and Mills was a graduate student in Leon Festinger's research group, brought men participants into the laboratory and presented them with 'photographs of handsome men in states of undress' (1963, p.319) and then falsely informed them that their accompanying physiological responses indicated latent homosexual arousal. The participants were then provided with opportunities to resolve their dissonance by projecting homosexuality onto others. Unlike the acclaim accorded Aronson and Mills' work, Bramel's research was quickly derided as unethical for the possible long-term harms to the self-regard of the men who participated in this experiment, and for conjuring up the spectre of latent homosexuality that can haunt masculinity (Kelman, 1967).

The stark difference in responses to these two cognitive dissonance projects reveals a gendered empathy, one which attuned concern to men participants in Bramel's work while failing to register any such concern for the women in Aronson and Mills' experiment. This gendering of disciplinary empathy is part of a longstanding broader 'gendering' of psychology (Rutherford et al., 2015). As is now well recognised, scientific psychology's earliest years were not only dominated by men but explicitly structured so as to exclude women from scientific participation, particularly from the key spaces in which disciplinary power and prestige were obtained or enacted, such as laboratories and professional societies. Less acknowledged is how practices of exclusion have not been fully eliminated – consider the continuing dominance of men as keynote speakers or, particularly in America, the not infrequent occurrence of all men panels (or 'manels') – even as the absolute number of women in psychology has increased immensely.

The move of greater numbers of women into the profession challenged the discipline's masculinist cultures but failed to overthrow them. Women who entered psychology in the mid-20th century faced regular sexual harassment from colleagues and superiors. These experiences are documented in a number of forms, including in the oral histories collected as part of the Psychology's Feminist Voices ( project and in the reflective writings of psychologists themselves.

Such harassment was not simply a reaction to increasing numbers of women in spaces formerly dominated by men, but also a means of challenging the priorities women brought with them into the discipline. Psychologists active in the nascent field of the psychology of women, such as Fran Cherry and Esther Greenglass, note that harassment came from those in positions to judge their work and in ways that were dismissive of the value of work on the psychology of women (Cherry, 1995; Greenglass, 2005).

Even as masculinist scientific cultures persisted, psychologists made efforts to address sexual harassment more broadly. In the late 1970s psychologists began documenting the particulars, prevalence, and differing perceptions of sexual harassment, in the process helping reify the then newly named phenomenon. This work offered the basis from which psychological expertise was brought into the courts and government policy, including through the research of Barbara Gutek and the activism of psychologist Bernice Resnick Sandler (Gutek et al., 1980; Sandler, 2007). Much of this first occurred in the United States, where 'sexual harassment' was coined, but proved broadly influential internationally.

Henri Tajfel

In the context of burgeoning attention to sexual harassment as a social issue in need of correction, harassment continued to be normative in psychology. To elucidate the masculinist scientific cultures that sanction harassment, in our Feminism & Psychology piece we offered a detailed account of the conduct of one psychologist who will be familiar to UK readers: social psychologist Henri Tajfel.

Tajfel – co-originator of Social Identity Theory and a founder of the European Association for Social Psychology – figures centrally in our narrative about the history of sexual harassment in psychology because of a unique set of oral history interviews from the late 1990s. In these, Tajfel's former students and colleagues acknowledge his tendency to direct unwanted sexual attention to the women around him. Those interviewees offered firsthand accounts of this sexual harassment that they had experienced, witnessed, or were aware of for other reasons at the time that it was happening.

This case history contributed to our analysis of how the masculinist scientific cultures of psychology can render sexual harassment normative. Norms of conduct in the psychology department at the University of Bristol during Tajfel's tenure there in the 1970s and 80s sanctioned sexual harassment. Such norms were hardly unique to this department – and Tajfel's own conduct predates this period (see Rupert Brown's 2019 Tajfel biography, and article in this issue). Nor are these norms especially particular to social psychology as a field, as other firsthand accounts of harassment in 20th century psychology attest. All that is unique is the existence of these oral history interviews, which allowed a rich description of a masculinist scientific culture, a culture that one interviewee – Margaret Wetherell – explicitly described in these terms (quoted in Young & Hegarty, 2019).

Consequences of sexual harassment

Disciplinary cultures that sanction sexual harassment have real consequences on who remains an active member of those cultures. Marilyn Webb left her graduate program at the University of Chicago in 1967 after being sexually harassed by multiple professors, including a prominent moral development expert. It was only some 50 years later that Webb returned to the university and received her doctorate (Kristof, 2019). For Webb and others, escaping harassment means leaving departments, programs, and professions. In the process, their stories have been lost to the historical record. Sexual harassment does not just mean particular people (most often, though by no means exclusively, women) are pushed out of the discipline. It also assists in sidelining certain avenues of inquiry. Hostile educational, research, and professional environments exclude the perspectives of these people from disciplinary discourse. There is both an individual cost here as well as an intellectual one, and the extent of either will never be fully known.

Powerful members of the discipline are those who set much of its agenda. For Tajfel, this meant foregrounding socially engaged research, particularly that on the vital topics of racial, ethnic, and nationalistic prejudice and discrimination, while dismissing related issues of gender as unimportant (Young & Hegarty, 2019; but see Williams, 1984). The centring of particular perspectives on certain topics to the exclusion of others can have profound implications for what counts as psychological knowledge. Productive work on the psychology of women, including a rich outpouring of critical qualitive feminist psychology in Britain, is all the more remarkable and historic when considered in relation to this uniquely influential school of social psychology in Britain at this time (Rutherford et al., 2011; Wilkinson & Burns, 1990).

Making sexual harassment public

Toward the end of June 2019, our piece on the multifaceted, multi-sited history of sexual harassment officially appeared in press. This was followed by the 1 August announcement by the European Association of Social Psychology (EASP) that it was renaming its lifetime achievement award. Since its establishment in 1982, the Henri Tajfel medal has been the association's highest honour, bestowed upon a host of luminaries in European social psychology, the majority of whom (10 of 12 awardees) have been men. Following documentation of his harassment, Tajfel's name will no longer grace the award.

Whatever the context, talking publicly about sexual harassment is almost always met with some measure of resistance. As moral philosopher Kate Manne (2017) has argued, discussions of harassment regularly provoke gendered empathy or 'himpathy', Manne's term for the way in which sympathies in conversations about sexual harassment or assault lie with men accused of this behaviour, rather than the individuals who have been harassed or assaulted. This can be seen in recurrent concerns about a lack of 'due process' within such conversations, which imposes the language and standards of the legal system on decision making more broadly.

This kind of framing can be seen in EASP Past-Presidents Fritz Strack and Wolfgang Stroebe's open letter in response to the EASP decision, wherein they note both that 'These are serious and potentially libelous accusations, which should not be made without "due process"' and express their concern that the EASP's decision making 'procedure violated Henri Tajfel's fundamental rights'. Yet only Tajfel's legacy, not Tafjel himself, can be affected by these facts coming into clearer view now. Significantly, this kind of prioritisation of the imagined repercussions to those accused of sexual harassment – even in cases where individuals, like Tajfel, are long dead – forestalls action to address norms that allow harassment in the present.

For us what has been most heartening is the overwhelmingly positive reaction to our work and the willingness of psychologists to engage with the larger issues it raised. In response to the article, and a thread on Twitter one of us posted about the piece, there was sustained discussion of the necessity of changing disciplinary norms, including from established figures in social psychology: Michelle Ryan, Ilka Gleibs, Rhiannon Turner,  Lexi Suppes, Celia Kitzinger, Alexander Haslam, and Stephen Reicher. The recognition that sexual harassment is a problem to be addressed, and that aspects of the disciplinary culture must be changed in order to do so, is a vital step in making such change a reality.

Commemoration and disciplinary identity

Grappling with the history of sexual harassment in psychology provokes questions about how the discipline constructs its identity through acts of commemoration, and the broader effects of such decision making. Who the discipline chooses to celebrate is a political act, as choices about how to recount psychology's past and the actors within it reflect the discipline's values. In doing so, commemoration establishes a people's identity through social representations of history (Liu & Hilton, 2005). This conceptualisation of the relationship between history and identity is itself informed by Social Identity Theory and ironically, in positioning women as a 'social group' but not a 'people', it too limits what can be done with regard to gender.

Overly generous narratives about individual scientists reflect a disciplinary identity shaped by the fetishisation of 'genius' and the impunity often afforded such figures. The male-by-default genius is an entity psychology has itself been instrumental in constructing (see Christine Battersby's 1989 book Gender and Genius; and Hegarty, 2013). Attempts to limit narratives to the science, and leave aside the conduct of the scientist, imply that all that matters is the content of the science and that this exists apart from those involved in its creation (see McNeill, 2019); that reprehensible behaviour is excusable, even forgettable, so long as one's scientific contributions are deemed valuable by those situated within and benefiting from masculinist scientific cultures.

Mythologising the singular genius, whose intellect is unrivalled, not only fosters norms that such individuals are impervious to critique but obscures the contributions of those lower status people around them upon whom their scientific achievements depend (Shapin, 1989). Conceptions of individuals as brokers of knowledge working alone leave out the broader communities instrumental in cultivating ideas and carrying out research projects – what musician Brian Eno once termed the 'scenius'. Science is carried out by intellectual communities, each shaped by norms of conduct. Tajfel's minimal group paradigm was not an individual achievement, nor was Social Identity Theory. This is reflected, in part, by the co-authors listed on these publications. Yet more often than not scientific achievements are, to the detriment of larger disciplinary cultures, associated with an individual scientist who is singled out and celebrated.

Moving forward

For psychology, the #metoo movement arrived in the midst of the discipline's ongoing replication crisis and its attendant conversation about ethics in the conduct of research. Common to Questionable Research Practices (P-hacking, HARK-ing, data fabrication, etc) and sexual harassment are disciplinary norms that sanction unethical conduct. Both #metoo and the replication crisis challenge us to take seriously problematic professional practices writ large. These norms are not necessarily one and the same but are mutually supporting as they sustain questionable, if not outright unethical, conduct on the part of psychologists, be it methodologically, interpersonally, or at the nexus of both. Embracing feminist ethics and making these core to the discipline offers a means of addressing some of the discipline's most pressing dilemmas of the present.

Taking unethical conduct in psychology seriously requires us to consider carefully not only its presence but the broader disciplinary milieu in which it has been fostered. Longstanding masculinist norms of practice have shaped the cultures of psychology. The recurrent presence of sexual harassment in the field has (re-)produced psychologists who sexually harass, or who overlook such conduct on the part of their colleagues, perhaps regarding it as slightly irritating but normal. But sexual harassment is not a fly that lands on your dessert. It is a bit of poison served at every meal. Reckoning with sexual harassment consequently involves interrogating not simply the actions of individuals, but the disciplinary norms that permit harassment and which seek to keep histories of sexual harassment out of public discourse.

More broadly still, institutional factors also encourage ongoing harassment, including the regular use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) by British universities (Weale & Batty, 2016). This practice removes problematic individuals from particular institutions, while facilitating ongoing harassment elsewhere, as this silencing allows individuals to move unimpeded between institutions. It also ensures that these histories are being actively forgotten in our own time.  

For psychology, a necessary part of grappling with sexual harassment in the current moment is contending with its longer history in the discipline. Openly discussing unethical behaviour in our histories allows us to face head on the norms that support such conduct. To focus exclusively on Tajfel is to miss the point – it's time for greater reflexivity amongst psychologists about our own role maintaining or reshaping these disciplinary cultures.

-  Jacy L. Young is at Quest University Canada
   [email protected]

-  Peter Hegarty is at the University of Surrey
   [email protected]

Illustration: Michelle Kondrich


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