In light of international headlines, psychology professor's research on sexual harassment receives renewed attention

photo of Jonathan KunstmanAs the international #MeToo movement continues to shake up the traditional power structures in the media, politics, and business worlds, assistant professor of psychology Jonathan Kunstman's 2011 research exploring the origins of sexual harassment has gained important new relevance.

Kunstman's original research, conducted with Jon K. Maner and published in 2011 with a follow-up in 2012, has recently been highlighted in both The Washington Post ("What makes some men sexual harassers? Science tries to explain the creeps of the world.") and Harvard Business Review ("Sex, Power, and the Systems That Enable Men Like Harvey Weinstein").

The research involved 74 participants, who were placed into leader-subordinate pairs and asked to work together on a joint exercise. The goal of these experiments, as stated in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ("Sexual Overperception: Power, Mating Motives, and Biases in Social Judgment"), was "to test whether power led to heightened expectations of sexual interest from the partner and whether this effect depended on the availability of the partner."

Results indicated that "power over an opposite-sex subordinate led to heightened perceptions of sexual desire from the subordinate." In turn, this led to the leader engaging in "greater sexualized behavior within a face-to-face social interaction" with his partner.

"Power seems to bias how people interpret others' behavior, which leads to these inaccurate overestimates of romantic interest and flirtatious behavior that could ultimately be experienced as harassment," said Kunstman. “"Powerful people sometimes misperceive interest from their subordinates and behave in ways that are not welcomed by subordinates."

For more information on his research, contact Jonathan Kunstman (