“I’m used to that,” said Harvey Weinstein, in a telling moment, to the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez.
It was March 2015, and Ms. Gutierrez was wearing a wire furnished by New York Police Department’s Special Victims Division, in a sexual abuse investigation of the Hollywood producer. As The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow reported earlier this month, Gutierrez asked Mr. Weinstein why, during a business meeting in his Tribeca office the previous day, he had lunged at her and groped her breasts. This was Weinstein's response: that he was used to it.
How does someone get used to committing sexual assault? While responsibility ultimately falls squarely on the perpetrator, experts say holding power can make it harder to control impulses and easier to justify selfishness, even to the point of disregarding other people’s humanity. The good news is that not everyone is influenced by power quite the same way, and that its effects can be mitigated with social equality.
“Status and power can change the way people think and the way that they act,” says Joe Vitriol, a postdoctoral researcher at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who studies stereotyping and social cognition. “They perhaps are less concerned about the consequences of their behavior; they feel more entitled to resources.”
In extreme cases, power – defined as the ability to influence the world, particularly through social interaction – can fuel a sense of entitlement over other people's bodies and can smooth the path to sexual impropriety, or, as the cascade of revelations over the past month have shown, sexual assault.
“Money tends to create the context of the impulsive pursuit of sex,” says Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied power dynamics for two decades. “Wealthy people are more likely to have sexual affairs … they’re more likely to flirt inappropriately.”
This impulsive pursuit can include everything from "pursu[ing] relationships" with junior colleagues, as journalist Mark Halperin admitted to last week, inappropriately touching women from behind, as former president George H.W. Bush admitted to last week, to illegally dispensing hypnotic-sedatives to women before having sex with them, as comedian Bill Cosby admitted to in 2005. And it can be prolific: on Saturday, actress Asia Argento posted a list of 82 women who say they were victimized by Weinstein. For director James Toback, that number stands at 310.
That said, people in positions of power can and do wield their power responsibly. Indeed, power typically flows to those who advance the greater good. But as a person rises higher in a social hierarchy, it can become more challenging to maintain a sense of kindness and empathy, a phenomenon that Keltner calls the Power Paradox. And social psychologists have repeatedly shown that power can often cloud people’s moral judgments. Understanding the way power can fuel harmful behavior can also help better mitigate its effects.
Lab experiments, surveys, and observational data reveal that the higher a person is on the socioeconomic ladder, the more likely he or she is to betray a spouse, cheat at a game involving a cash prize, shoplift, and endorse bribery and embezzlement. On college campuses, male athletes, who tend to occupy the upper rungs of the campus social scene, are more likely to admit to acts of sexual aggression. People who drive expensive cars are more likely to cut off other motorists and blow through crosswalks with pedestrians waiting to cross. One experiment even found that rich people are actually more likely than poor people to steal candy that had been set aside for children.
What's more, those who score high on a psychological measure that assesses a person’s likelihood of committing sexual harassment are more likely to unconsciously associate power with sex, which helps explain why many powerful men who make unwanted sexual advances seem surprised to learn that their actions are inappropriate. For those prone to sexual aggression, experts say, simply experiencing power can turn the mind to sex.
This association can lead powerful men to believe that sex is in the air, and that women are happy to be in their presence, an assertion that Keltner doubts. “Our data are suggesting that it’s not necessarily thrilling and exhilarating, and it's more a source of anxiety and shame,” says Keltner.
'Drunk' with power?
Like alcohol, power can have a disinhibiting effect, research shows, increasing a person’s impulsivity, risk-taking behavior, and disregard for social conventions. Power can also interfere with the ability to pay attention to other people's emotions: Studies find that powerful people are less able to “read” the faces of those around them.
Powerlessness, by contrast, inclines people to be more inhibited, more anxious and risk-averse, and more empathetic, although they more readily interpret ambiguous behavior as aggressive.
“You’re sending out these signals of anxiety and fear, and regrettably powerful people don't pick them up, they don't discern that this person they're interacting with is worried or fearful about what might happen,” says Keltner. “I think a lot of problems ensue from that myopia.”
Power and powerlessness are not fixed traits: Indeed, they can be induced in a laboratory setting. In one experiment, known as the “cookie monster” study, Keltner and his colleagues gave groups of three people a group writing task, and randomly assigned one to a position of leadership. Thirty minutes into the task, the experimenter placed a plate of five cookies, allowing each subject to take one cookie and for at least one to comfortably take a second cookie, thus leaving one cookie on the plate for the three people.
Nearly every time, the leaders helped themselves to the final cookie. During the experiment, the researchers noticed that the leaders were more likely to chew with their mouths open, smack their lips, and let crumbs fall on their clothes.
In another experiment conducted in Keltner’s lab by psychologist Paul Piff, now a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, subjects played a rigged game of Monopoly, in which one player, randomly selected with a coin toss, started the game with $2,000 and got to roll two dice, while the other player started with $1,000 and could roll only one die.
Within 15 minutes of play, the researchers observed changes in how the advantaged player behaved. They would speak more rudely, use dominant body language, slam their pieces on the board more loudly, and even hog a bowl of pretzels left out for the players.
After the advantaged player inevitably won, and the experimenters asked them about their experiences, they would attribute their success to their strategy in buying properties, not to the coin toss.
A just world?
“What happens with people of status and privilege – earned or otherwise – is that, because they infer that they’ve acquired that standing by virtue of characteristic qualities unique to them, while discounting the role of chance and situational factors or the presence of others,” says Dr. Vitriol, “they believe that they’re entitled to the benefits that come with that social standing.”
Such rationalization is common. We are disposed to believe that the universe is basically fair, that smart, moral choices bring rewards and that unwise, wrongful actions invite trouble. At its best, this so-called just world hypothesis can give people a sense of control over their lives and can help them better accept negative events, experts say. At its worst, it can justify victim-blaming.
“It may be easier for some people to believe that women and victims of sexual violence and injustice are themselves to blame for these acts than to accept the possibility that we live in a chaotic, uncertain, and, at times, immoral world,” says Vitriol. This thinking, he says, “detracts … from perceiving the perpetrator as wholly responsible for leveraging their position of power and influence to exploit somebody in need.”
Reducing the potentially toxic effects of power will ultimately require making our hypothetically just world a reality. Take Hollywood. Even though women comprise 52 percent of moviegoers, among the top 100 grossing films of 2016, women made up only 19 percent of producers and just 4 percent of directors. “In really unequal situations where women don’t have power or money or authority within an organization there is more of this, ‘I have beauty and I’ll trade it for wealth,’ ” says Keltner. But, he says, “when you move toward more egalitarian power structures with respect to gender, that doesn't work.”
And power does not affect everyone the same way. Power-holders who make an effort to take seriously the interests of the less powerful and link their power to socially responsible goals, as opposed to self-oriented ones, can use their power to effect positive social outcomes.
“This is not inevitable,” says Dr. Keltner. “When you give really good people – nice people, kind people – power, they become kinder.”