Online Interactions and Harassment

Individual differences and interpreting online behaviour: harassment or over-sensitivity?
23 April 2019


Depicting online flirting and deciding whether or not to press enter


That initial flirt can be hard... 

Especially in an online environment lacking many social cues such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. You just sent a winking emoji. That's ok, right? What about a winking selfie? Still good? What about a naked winking selfie? Oh, did that proverbial line get crossed? Ok, so maybe that one seems obvious... Or maybe not. Maybe it's just you who thinks that. How can you be sure? What if you've been flirting for a while? Is it ok then? Or, let's backtrack, what if the winking selfie was deemed too much to start with and now, you're banned from the chatroom for harassment? Seem a bit much? Or, again, is it just you who thinks like that?

Depicting that some might not want that winking emoji

Online or offline, behaviours that can be classed as sexual harassment range from well-intended compliments, to rape. With so many grey areas in-between and so many differences in opinion as to what constitutes sexual harassment behaviour, it can be difficult to get it right. Online interactions are an increasingly common source of such inappropriate behaviour, with legal boundaries being difficult to define. So how do we figure out what the average person considers too much? And how do we determine the differences between those who play it safe and those who don't? Simple. We ask you.

Researchers at Swansea University, in collaboration with the Welsh Government, have created an online survey assessing individual differences in relation to perceptions of various online behaviours. What’s important to note, is that this research is not trying to stipulate what is right or wrong – it is seeking the general opinion of the general public, for them to tell us what is right and wrong. By using standardised measures of aspects such as, amongst others, personality, demographic information, sexual competitiveness, and mate-value, and comparing these to the perceived acceptability and consequences (positive or negative) of potentially harassing behaviour, we can establish the “norm” of perceptions regarding those pesky grey areas. Only once it is understood what, from the view of the average Joe (or Jane), is interpreted as harassment, can action be taken. Such action can extend to policy formation and legislation that can help to protect others from such behaviours. We can also assess who (based on the aforementioned multiple measures of individual differences), in comparison to the typical individual, is more likely to engage in such behaviour (whether intentionally or not). Then we can figure out what to do about it.

As demonstrated by multiple findings throughout the decades, males and females do not always (or even usually) communicate or perceive things in the same way. Based on such evidence, we predict that sex will account for at least some of the weight behind different perceptions of harassment behaviours. And that’s ok: Sex differences are real, natural, and unavoidable. As such, it's our view that punishment and therapy shouldn't be the primary approach; education for prevention should. Just because one individual doesn’t think they are engaging in harassment doesn’t mean that their counterpart agrees; however, a line must be drawn as to what is acceptable, and what can reasonably warrant company and/or legal action being taken. This line should be based on evidence, not on subjective conjecture. Further to this, the general public need to know where this line is too! Legislation and/or company/website policy must be able to use clearly defined terms in relation to these matters. There are still many unreported cases of sexual harassment occurring; not only do victims need to know what they can make a stand against (and that their voice will be heard), but in many cases, potential perpetrators also need help: Help to realise that certain behaviours they perceive as harmless, may in fact not be considered acceptable by the majority. Help to recognise when to stop.

stop sign

Simply educating on such matters could serve to improve males and females understanding of and ability to communicate with each other. If we all know where the line is, what can be done in times of need, when we may simply need to clearly point out to someone that they are crossing that line, and how to avoid such mistakes that lead to becoming a perpetrator, many incidents of sexual harassment could be prevented. No perpetrator, no victim. No need for a court case, for job loss, for a financial settlement, for therapy, for sentencing, for rehabilitation. No negative labelling, no stigma. All because someone was able to confidently state to another “that’s too far” and know that they have rights. Or all because that “cheeky flirt” understands that their actions might be harmful, so they respectfully refrain. To coin a phrase, knowledge is power. And in this case, we want to give that power to you, to everyone, to enable and encourage them to think twice and make informed decisions. Wouldn’t that be nice?

To achieve this, and to form the optimal educational tool, we are taking a step back to the very roots of those sex differences. We are attempting what no other research, policy, or intervention to date has done and are applying an evolutionary psychological lens to the forensic issue of sexual harassment.

Rather than, as with typical interventions, appealing to the culturally-defined social expectations that we believe our brains should adhere to, we should appeal to the very core of what makes us human; our evolved psychological mechanisms. We have the ability to mediate between our instincts, thus they should never be considered justification. We just need to hold an attitude that would make us inclined to do so.

Admittedly it would be naïve to assume that everyone will take this information on board and simply stop engaging in sexual harassment. Quite simply, not everyone is that nice. But this research can help in other ways too. By ascertaining what factors indicate those more likely to engage, a predictive model that may be used within the court-room by expert witnesses, or to identify where further rehabilitation techniques are necessary can be developed. That said, re-education itself may prove to be an effective therapeutic tool, and, if education on the evolutionary differences in perceptions of interaction between males and females can be introduced as early as possible, harmful sexual attitudes may be thwarted before they ever develop. What’s more, as this research is looking to our evolved mechanisms, it can be generalised to all. No matter what culture you reside in, what ethnicity you are, what socio-economic status you have achieved, or what education level you have obtained, we are all human, and we have all evolved in the same way. Stone-age minds, yes, but universally stone-age minds. Which means, far down the timeline of this research, we could tailor this intervention for each, and every, individual. Further to this, if an evolutionary approach works for the issue of sexual harassment, it could then be applied to other forensic psychological issues, to prevent other criminal behaviours from occurring. Ultimately, we want to help everyone, in every way possible. And why not? So, let’s get the ball rolling, shall we?

caveman using computer

As eloquently put by Cosmides and Tooby, “Our modern skulls house a stone-age mind”

The survey can be taken by following the link, or by scanning the QR code below

Swansea Survey link

And please, be honest. It may just save the future you, or millions like you, from becoming a victim or being considered a perpetrator. Your participation will be greatly appreciated.


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