As the sexual harassment scandal facing the nation continues to bring forth new accusations, people are turning towards an Illinois State University professor to help explain why sexual harassment happens.
ISU psychology professor John Pryor developed a test in central Illinois in the 1980s that predicts who is likely to engage in sexually harassing behavior and why.
As part of his test, Pryor created conditions where harassment could happen, with a graduate student overseeing the study and a woman who was trained to be the target of the subject’s potential harassment.
Pryor found that a person’s environment has an impact on whether they will engage in this kind of behavior.
“People do these kinds of things under circumstances where there’s some sense (that) these kinds of behaviors have been permitted or legitimized,” Pryor said. "Even men who have a proclivity (for this kind of behavior) typically don’t do that unless there’s some sort of permission given by the social norms and the situation they’re in.”
Pryor said other studies have also found a link between positions of power and sexual harassment, especially among those who have newly acquired these positions.
“People who are in powerful positions come to believe that those they have power over are attracted to them,” Pryor said. “There are some clever studies that have been done where you can actually give people power and find there’s that relationship.”
Entitlement is to blame here, rather than the idea that these people know their behavior is wrong and do it anyway, according to Pryor.
“I think some people feel entitled to exert themselves,” Pryor added. “Entitlement is unfortunately something that many people in power seem to feel, that because they have wealth and power, they think that they deserve it, and they deserve all that goes with it.”
Pryor said those who aren’t in positions of power then see this behavior being modeled and emulate it.
“In essence, when you see a person who is in a position of authority do those kinds of things, it kind of legitimizes that sort of behavior,” Pryor says.
“I think if you work towards having more women in positions of power and authority in organizations and institutions throughout the country, that’s going to be something that’s going to undermine the degree to which people who work in these organizations are going to be likely to do these things,” Pryor says.
Pryor is a distinguished professor emeritus of psychology at ISU.
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