Could the #MeToo Movement Inadvertently Lead to More Sexual Harassment?

This is part of our “Ask a Behavioral Scientist” series, where we give readers the opportunity to pose a question to leading behavioral scientists. The question below comes from a reader who works in the field of international development. Have a question? Ask it here.

Q: I’ve been thinking a lot about Bob Cialdini’s research on “the big mistake.” This is the idea that messages sometimes backfire. So if I tried to discourage people from wasting water, cheating on taxes, or going off trail in national parks by telling them about others who do it, I might inadvertently lead them to do it more.

With this in mind, I struggle to come to terms with the #MeToo movement. Isn’t exposing the fact that most women have been sexually harassed at some point in their life going to make men think that “well, it seems like everyone else treats women badly”? Are we running the risk of actually encouraging, rather than discouraging, sexual harassment, at least in its milder forms?

As you point out, the social proof principle says that we determine how we should behave by watching and learning about the actions of others. So does that mean that highlighting the large number of women who have been sexually harassed—and therefore the many men who have harassed women—will lead men to believe that harassing behavior is widespread and therefore acceptable? Given the short lifespan of the #MeToo movement thus far—it went viral in October 2017—we don’t yet have any research evidence to back up this hypothesis.

What we do know is that social proof itself is a driving force behind the ubiquity of the #MeToo movement. When the #MeToo hashtag launched, increasing numbers of women started reporting sexual harassment after seeing other women reveal their stories with favorable results. As more and more people contributed to the movement and the public believed their disclosures, it became ever more socially acceptable and less individually risky to step forward. As such, the #MeToo movement is social proof in action, shaping norms around the reporting of sexual harassment.

The key to reconciling these seemingly opposite forces—on the one hand, social proof suggests that #MeToo could lead to more harassment through its normalization, while on the other hand, there is now a real movement against harassers—may lie in the framing. Cialdini suggests that the principle of social proof operates most powerfully when the people whose behavior we observe are like us. The women contributing #MeToo stories feel empowered to do so because they are able to, on some level, identify with the other women sharing their experiences first. Men watching the movement from the sidelines, on the other hand, are less likely to identify with the harassers given the social stigma surrounding them and their actions (just look at what happened to Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, and others). Therefore, men may be less likely to emulate harassers’ behavior, even if widely publicized, because they do not identify with the perpetrators.

What’s more, the principle of social proof can help the #MeToo movement encourage positive male behavior. Notice how many articles and commentaries in the wake of #MeToo revelations have emphasized how most men do not harass women. By actively creating an in-group of “good men” and shifting perceptions of what “most men” are doing, the #MeToo movement can build momentum behind the positive behaviors that it wants to encourage.