A Fresh Approach to Understanding Sexual Assault: A Conversation with Betsy Levy Paluck

It was a chilly Saturday night in April 2016, and hundreds of Princeton University students were getting ready to party. The place: one of the university’s famous eating clubs. They double as both dining halls and social-event spaces, and more than 70 percent of Princeton’s undergraduates are members.

Outside the club, in a tent strung with Christmas lights, Ana Gantman sipped coffee, ordered pizza, and prepared for a different form of evening entertainment—a field experiment that would last until 2 a.m.

Gantman, now an assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College, along with Princeton Psychology Professor Betsy Levy Paluck and graduate students Jordan Starck and Ajua Duker, was testing whether she could change the way students perceived and understood issues around sexual assault and consent if those students took a pledge before the party. The idea for the pledge had come from the students themselves: a few months before their spring experiment, Paluck and Gantman read about an eating club that had started requiring its members to take a consent pledge before entering a party. (In 2014, students reported two sexual assaults at eating clubs on campus.)

The original legalistic pledge partygoers were required to read aloud.

Paluck, Gantman, and the team, along with the enthusiastic eating-club leaders, wanted to measure the impact of that original pledge, and to test whether altering its language might influence students’ attitudes and perceptions—how responsible they felt for preventing assault, how much they understood the concept of consent, and whether they thought pledging was something everyone should do, for instance.

The researchers took the original pledge, which was written in a legalistic language, and developed a second pledge with behavioral insights-infused language that invoked morality, identity, and social norms (“a psychological sledgehammer,” Gantman joked). They tested the pledges at two different eating clubs—the one where students had already been taking the original pledge and another where students had never been exposed to any pledge.

The new pledge, designed by Gantman and Paluck.

Here’s how it worked: bouncers at the door of the parties randomly assigned party attendees to one of two conditions—to read aloud either the legalistic or the behavioral pledge—and gave them different hand stamps depending on which condition they were in. After the party, Gantman and her crew enticed students to complete a short survey in the tent outside with the promise of free, hot pizza. “People went into the parties looking cleaned up and walked out looking pretty sweaty,” Gantman recalled. The pizza proved to be an effective recruitment strategy.

At the original eating club, the moral pledge had a greater influence on what Paluck and Gantman call “moralized thinking.” By their definition, this meant that students considered the issue of consent and sexual assault to be objective, clear, and something that requires action. To measure this, Paluck and Gantman asked questions that corresponded to those indicators, like “How responsible are you for preventing sexual assault?” and “Is consent confusing?” Across these indicators, students at the original club who received the moral pledge were more likely to consider the issues of consent and sexual assault to be objective, clear, and requiring action than those who received the original pledge.

There are limitations to the conclusions they can draw from these results: for instance, they had no control condition (everyone got one pledge or the other, so there wasn’t a “no pledge” baseline for comparison), and they changed so much of the language between the two pledges that Gantman acknowledges it’s hard to pinpoint whether the evocation of norms, morality, or identity in one pledge, or students’ prior exposure to a different pledge (in the case of the first, original eating club) accounted for the effects. She also notes that although there’s research that suggests strong moral beliefs could affect behavior, they are not trying to make that connection or prove that point with this study.

Even more importantly, another finding limits the conclusions Paluck and Gantman can draw: the results at the second eating club were completely different. There, the original, more legalistic pledge had a stronger influence on moralized thinking. Two similar populations and two very different reactions. As the authors explain, there is no single solution across contexts—even two eating clubs on the same college campus don’t necessarily respond exactly the same way to an intervention.

The behavioral perspective says you have to consider that you are more a part of this problem than you would like to be.

While there’s reason to believe these interventions can be effective, this research is just a start. Even at an early stage, these findings illuminate a larger lesson about how Gantman and Paluck think current approaches to reducing assault and harassment need to change: when designing solutions on campuses and in workplaces, we need to reconsider off-the-shelf trainings, and tailor interventions to situational context and community norms. In other words, we need to take a behavioral approach. “That means we’re interested in both the people in this situation and the way that situations and institutional contexts change their behavior,” Paluck told me. This focus on situational factors is something of a shift; previously, clinical approaches to understanding and reducing harassment tended to focus on the characteristics of the perpetrator. Those approaches are known as the serial predator or rapist model.

The “serial” label is used to purposefully invoke a serial killer heuristic, and the idea that predators have a method and a ritual to target victims, Gantman says. While the behavioral approach recognizes that there may be people like that out there, it also implies the serial predator model is incomplete. “The data show that people assault at different rates over the course of their lives and that different situations in the world are more associated with sexual assault,” says Paluck. “So there’s more to this story … If you take the example of a college campus, everybody can agree that it feels different to be in a fraternity or the women’s center or a vegetarian co-op. These are very different situations that are going to trigger different perceptions that a person has of themselves, their partner, or anyone else.” These are also situations that could trigger different perceptions about consent and assault—concepts that may seem much clearer in the library at noon than they are at 1 a.m. inside a frat party. The pre-party pledge can make consent memorable at a moment when it can be easy to forget.

While Paluck and Gantman’s findings are still under review, Paluck previewed her work at the ideas42 Behavioral Summit on October 25. After her presentation, I asked her a few more questions about how her and Gantman’s work might extend to workplace harassment, the impact of #MeToo on our perceptions of assault, and why we need to bring back the concept of the “banality of evil.” Our edited conversation is below.

Elizabeth Weingarten: In many ways, taking a behavioral approach to assault—acknowledging that situational and institutional contexts matter as much, if not more, in shaping an individual’s behavior than “innate” traits—seems obvious. And yet, we’ve continued to perpetuate the narrative that there are a handful of bad men out there responsible for most of the assault while the rest of us are innocent. Why have we been so slow to integrate a behavioral approach?

Betsy Levy Paluck: It’s really hard to switch out of a paradigm. The serial predator model has been a dominant paradigm, which means it takes time for any new frame to catch on. But there are also some specific features of this particular frame that act as drag factors and make the switch slower. The idea that most sexual assault is perpetrated by a handful of serial predators is a very appealing story. It means that probably your friends, your sons, and your family members are not predators or perpetrating any of this, and that you yourself are not implicated in the support or abetting of sexual assault.

The idea that most sexual assault is perpetrated by a handful of serial predators is a very appealing story. It means that probably your friends, your sons, and your family members are not predators…and that you yourself are not implicated in the support or abetting of sexual assault.

This is not to cast doubt on the existence of serial perpetrators, but there is a lot of data showing that they’re probably not responsible for all assaults. Or maybe even the majority of them. The behavioral perspective says you have to consider that you are more a part of this problem than you would like to be.

It’s a more complicated story to tell. Many of us still don’t prefer complicated stories, and policymakers and politicians cannot advocate for complicated solutions. The behavioral perspective is a story about complicating the picture. And that’s a really difficult message to sell.

How do we overcome our bias against simpler stories—particularly the ones that have clear distinctions between good versus bad men?  

One way to get around this problem of complexity is to shift the narrative from people to situations. There might be a relatively simple story to tell about particular situations that increase the likelihood to sexually harass or assault.

But then we still need to deal with this idea that everyone has the potential to do this, or to be complicit in it.

Grappling with that idea is actually how social psychology started. In the aftermath of WWII, people were trying to understand how millions of people in Germany could stand by when the Holocaust was happening directly in front of them. The conclusion was that situations, and in particular, interpersonal dynamics, can give rise to very bad behavior. It seems like we’ve gotten away from that a little bit. This idea of the banality of evil and the banality of wrongdoing—that’s a message we need to bring back.

That’s a message that might force us to rethink the whole idea behind calling in a character witness for alleged assault perpetrators. How else has our focus on the serial perpetrator narrative influenced anti-sexual assault policy and practice?

One insight that came out of the serial perpetrator or serial rapist model was that if the people who are perpetrating the majority of rapes on a college campus are beyond the reach of traditional messaging, persuasion, or behavioral change interventions, then the best way to protect one another against them is to try to interrupt the perpetration process as bystanders. The problem is that there isn’t much empirical evidence to support the idea that bystander interventions are doing anything to prevent or reduce sexual assaults.

And yet, researchers still seem excited and hopeful about the promise of bystander interventions, as are some leading researchers; they were recommended, for instance, in the 2016 United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report on harassment. Why are so many people holding fast to this idea, when the efficacy is still so unclear?

The bystander model tells you a good story about humanity—that most people are willing to help, that we can do this together, and that it’s just a matter of speaking up because there’s a silent majority who is in favor of fighting this problem. But this drastically underestimates the amount of pressure that someone who speaks up is facing, along with fears about reading the situation wrong and the potential of being ostracized for speaking out. If you look closely at bystander intervention training now, training guides don’t even recommend the “stand up and speak out” behaviors that you might imagine because they’re realizing it’s just not possible for people to do, and sometimes not even safe. It’s extremely difficult in the moment to assess whether someone is unhappy with what is happening, to know the power differential between individuals, and to also judge what kind of situation we’re in. It’s putting a huge burden on bystanders. And it assumes much more perfect information than they actually have.

This gets to the heart of a question that has come out of the #MeToo movement—people wondering why bystanders didn’t intervene sooner, when so many of these assaults were open secrets. How have our perceptions and biases around sexual assault—who does it and why—informed #MeToo stories? And vice versa: how have #MeToo stories changed our perceptions about assault?

Understandably, a lot of the stories that came out first were about serial perpetrators, because they do exist and because it takes so much momentum, support, and common experience for survivors of these incidents to come out. And then we saw more complicated stories come out. These were stories where it wasn’t necessarily a large number of people speaking, or the story did not seem as black and white. #MeToo was really interesting because it could have been read as an affirmation that the people doing this are serial perpetrators. But at the same time, the movement opened up discussions about the fact that assault can be done by others, even when it isn’t a well-kept secret and is widely known. Those cases were met with a lot more controversy, and the people telling their story were less widely embraced by the public. #MeToo both reflected these biases in the way we think about sexual assault but definitely pushed on them too.

What messages should workplaces and college campuses take from your work about how to redesign sexual harassment and assault interventions?

There are are a number of interventions that we have right now that are less about actually intervening and more about liability. It’s important for colleges and workplaces to get the message out that this behavior is unacceptable here, and we need to have proof that everyone has gotten the message. At the same time, we should be thinking and worrying about the off-the-shelf interventions that go beyond that basic idea about getting the message out, like online trainings. Online trainings haven’t been studied well, and are usually handled by for-profit organizations that have a conflict of interest in evaluating them.

It’s surprising that people can hold two thoughts in their mind: one, that young men are predators and have these natures that make them want to take sexual contact by force, and the other that they need to be protected against false accusations—that this is the real problem.

With online trainings, I worry about how much backlash they’re creating in terms of resentment about the topic. These standardized trainings and messages can alienate a lot of people in their communities, and turn them away from this notion that this is an important issue we should all be involved in and caring about.

So how do workplaces and campuses get beyond the one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf interventions?

They should be thinking about tailoring approaches to their significant subcommunities, because these groups often operate by different internal rules, have different norms, and have their own influencers. The athlete population, for example, is often siloed in interesting ways from the rest of the university. In workplaces it might be a particular work team or department.

In the work that Ana, Jordan, Ajua, and I did in the eating clubs, the idea for the intervention of asking people to read and agree to a message about consent actually came from those people in that subcommunity. They realized, here’s a moment when people have the motivation to get in to the party. We have their attention, and a chance to significantly change the way they see the situation and the people around them.

What’s surprised you about your findings so far?

It’s surprising that people can hold two thoughts in their mind: one, that young men are predators and have these natures that make them want to take sexual contact by force, and the other that they need to be protected against false accusations—that this is the real problem. Both of these ideas are very popular, and they seem to be in conflict with one another.

In order to hold both thoughts in your mind, you need to think that there are just two types of men—serial predators, and completely innocent people who are being accused of things the serial predators are doing. I don’t think that anyone would realistically agree with that notion. Everything makes sense when you look at it from one particular angle. That’s the simplicity of the serial predator story and why it would be appealing. But on other hand it’s surprising that it’s had that long of a life.