Photographee eu/Shutterstock Source: Photographee eu/Shutterstock Have you ever found yourself in the annoying position of having to reject a friend’s advances, a co-worker’s unwanted attention, or a stranger’s persistent come-ons? Maybe you’ve been subtle, but they just don’t get the message? Have you had to deal with repeated uncomfortable encounters, despite your efforts to deflect the attention? Has it ever been harder to get your point across than it should be? New research from Cornell University helps reveal why it is so hard sometimes to make it clear that you’re not interested, and to be understood in the way you intend. At a moment in history when we’re shining a spotlight on sexual harassment and misconduct, this research offers critically important insight into the pressures at play for women trying to reject unwanted advances. To examine the experiencing of rejecting someone’s advances, Bohns and DeVincent (2018) focused on a sample of participants in STEM (the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — fields in which sexual harassment is a documented problem for the retention of women). Their full sample of 942 participants included a core sample of 277 participants who provided details about past misadventures in rejection — indicating that they had either been pursued by someone whose attentions they did not want, or that they themselves had pursued someone, but been rejected. The researchers thus were able to gather data about both being the target of an unwanted pursuit and being the pursuer. A second study extended their first by using experimental methods and asking participants to read a vignette about a romantic scenario between two work colleagues. Participants were randomly assigned to imagine they were romantically interested in their work colleague (i.e., they were the suitor), or they were being romantically pursued by their colleague (i.e., they were the target). Thus, the researchers had access to both viewpoints once again, as in Study 1, but this time in a hypothetical scenario that they carefully controlled. Why can it be so challenging to reject undesired romantic advances? The data from both studies point to five main reasons (Bohns & DeVincent, 2018): 1. Suitors are oblivious to the discomfort they’re creating. In both studies, suitors thought that their targets had more freedom to say no and were more comfortable saying no than targets reported. Targets «found it difficult,» «felt guilty,» «felt bad,» and «felt uncomfortable» saying no to a significantly greater extent than imagined by the suitors. 2. Suitors don’t think targets are as worried as they are. The professional consequences of rebuffing a colleague are often on the minds of targets dealing with unwanted romantic pursuits, and trying to say no. Suitors don’t see their targets as worried when, in fact, they really are. 3. Suitors don’t realize targets are rearranging their daily lives to avoid them. If you’re dealing with unwanted romantic attention, the research suggests that you are probably changing your behavior much more than suitors imagine. Targets are expending energy avoiding their suitors, avoiding suitors’ friends, and even considering other places to work, so they won’t have to deal with these unwanted advances.

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4. Suitors do not see their attention as distracting. When targets are navigating the process of trying to say no while having no adverse consequences, they suffer in their work productivity. They have trouble focusing on work. In other words, the harmless flirtation that a suitor thinks he or she is engaging in is actually negatively impacting the target’s everyday life far more than imagined by the suitors. 5. Suitors aren’t aware of their target’s reputation concerns. Targets of unwanted advances in professional settings experience much more concern about what an unwanted suitor might say about them after a rejection than the suitors typically imagine. Such concern makes these situations highly uncomfortable and uncertain for targets, who may feel like they’re walking a thin line.

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In sum, a primary take-home from Bohns and DeVincent’s new study is that undesired romantic suitors are profoundly unaware of the awkward, emotionally stressful situations they create for the person to whom they’re attracted. Suitors are dramatically underestimating how uncomfortable it is to reject a romantic advance, and such bias has important implications for their behavior and the resulting emotions, stress, and behaviors of their targets. This egocentric bias — which the authors suggest could be greater in contexts with power differentials — appears to be an under-discussed, but highly important, player in the problems that occur in romantic courtship. Women, who disproportionately represented the targets in this study, are set up to be on the receiving end of this bias. The findings suggest that clear, direct language is often appropriate to curtail unwanted attention, and that more direct approaches could be viewed as acceptable by suitors, who see targets as having the freedom to assert themselves in this way. References Bohns, V. K. & DeVincent, L. A. (2018). Unwanted romantic advances is more difficult than suitors realize. Social Psychological and Personality Sciences, Advanced Online Publication. Romantic suitors generally underestimate the discomfort their unwanted overtures cause those on the receiving end; believing that their targets feel more comfortable and willing to reject their advances than is actually the case. This isn’t just a problem for men; while women report being targets of unwanted workplace advances more often, when they are the ones pursuing an unrequited romantic relationship they are equally unable to judge the comfort level of their targets. But there is a solution: instead of simply specifying problematic behaviors to be avoided, encouraging employees to imagine how it would feel to be on the receiving end of unwanted attention could increase that employee’s perspective on their behavoirs.

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The revelations of the #MeToo movement seem to have caught many men by surprise. Comedian Aziz Ansari was “surprised and concerned,” believing his encounter with a woman to be “by all indications completely consensual.” Well-known actor Richard Dreyfus was “bewildered to discover” an incident wasn’t consensual, leading him to “reassess every relationship I have ever thought was playful and mutual.” Although there are numerous explanations for the widespread sexual harassment and assault allegations that have recently come to light across various industries, in our research we have identified one potential contributor related to the psychology of avowed unwitting perpetrators: a cognitive blind spot that makes them oblivious to how trapped their unwanted advances can make their targets feel. In two studies soon to be published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, we found that romantic suitors generally underestimate the discomfort their unwanted overtures cause those on the receiving end; they believe that their targets feel more comfortable and willing to reject their advances than is actually the case. Interestingly, we have found that this isn’t just a problem for men; we also found that while women reported being targets of unwanted workplace advances more often, when they were the ones pursuing an unrequited romantic relationship they were equally unable to judge the comfort level of their targets. Extensive research has demonstrated the myriad ways in which we are prone to misunderstand others’ perspectives. We are especially bad at appreciating the role discomfort plays in driving others’ behavior. Studies have shown that targets of various types of requests find refusal extremely uncomfortable, whether the request is commonplace, such as being asked to loan a stranger one’s cell phone, or more dubious, such as being asked to vandalize a library book. However, when we are the ones making such requests, we incorrectly assume that if targets are uncomfortable with something, they will simply say “no.” In our forthcoming research, we explored how this cognitive bias plays out in the domain of unwanted romantic or sexual advances in the workplace. Earlier this year, we asked 942 STEM graduate students about their experiences as suitors and romantic targets in the workplace. Of our survey respondents, 277 people reported having either made a romantic advance on a colleague who was not interested in them, or having been pursued by someone they were not interested in. We asked those individuals who reported being pursued by someone they were not interested in to indicate how difficult it was for them to say “no,” and how bad and uncomfortable they felt doing so. At the same time, we asked those who had pursued a colleague and were subsequently rejected what they imagined their romantic targets had felt — i.e., how difficult they imagined the other person found it to say “no,” and how bad and uncomfortable this person felt. Suitors’ assessments of how their targets felt paled in comparison to how targets actually felt: Initiators of romantic advances overwhelmingly thought their targets would feel freer to say “no” than targets reported feeling. Participants in this survey were not randomly assigned to the conditions of “suitor” and “target,” raising the risk that people who identified as suitors and targets in our survey were either different types of people or were recalling different types of experiences. To address this concern, we ran another study in which we asked 385 STEM graduate students to read a hypothetical scenario about a single, sexually compatible co-worker who asks another single co-worker out on a date. Participants were randomly assigned to imagine this scenario from the perspective of either the “target” or the “suitor.” Similar to our first study, participants assigned to the role of “target” reported that they would feel more bad and uncomfortable rejecting their co-worker’s advance than those assigned to the role of “suitor” imagined. To return to the accused and confused men noted who have surfaced in the light of the #MeToo movement, let’s assume some of them were romantic suitors who assumed his target felt freer to say “no” to his advances than she in fact felt, and who therefore experienced the encounter as mutual or consensual. But before we write off their behavior as an incontrovertible fact of human nature—people are just bad at perspective-taking —our research suggests that in the context of romantic or sexual pursuit, people are not just bad at perspective-taking, we are systematically biased. We all seem to have a blind spot that leads us to view our own actions as less coercive than they are experienced by others. This bias may lead suitors to misattribute targets’ reluctance to say “no” to their advances to genuine romantic interest, leading seemingly innocuous romantic overtures to escalate to the level of sexual harassment. An additional finding in one of our studies hints at an intervention: Participants who reported previous experience as a target of an unwanted romantic advance were more likely to appreciate the difficulty and discomfort their targets would experience saying “no.” This suggests that workplace interventions designed to foster perspective-taking could potentially be effective at reducing the bias identified by our studies. For example, instead of simply specifying problematic behaviors to be avoided, an intervention along these lines would encourage employees to imagine how it would feel to be on the receiving end of such behaviors. Ultimately, fostering employees’ perspective-taking skills should help colleagues — men and women — to initiate romantic encounters that are mutually desired, and better avoid ones that aren’t.

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