GIVING VIRTUOUS PEOPLE THE LICENSE TO HARASS: THE ROLE OF RESPONSIBILITY-FOCUSED POWER EMBODIMENT AND MORAL LICENSING ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT PERCEPTIONS
When the #MeToo movement hit its height, many of the powerful figures who were accused of harassment were people who had been previously seen as virtuous (Stockdale, Bell, Crosby, & Berdahl, 2019). The present study investigated how embodied power influenced sexual harassment (SH) judgments by manipulating the initiator to embody responsibility-focused, or self-focused power (compared to a control), and whether moral licensing, operationalized through moral crediting and moral credentialing, would mediate relations between power embodiment and SH judgments. Participants were 376 adults (42% female) residing in the U.S. who were recruited through Mturk. Moral crediting was significantly higher for perpetrators described as embodying responsibility-focused power, compared to a control condition (no power cues), which in turn was higher than perpetrators described as embodying self-focused power. Moral crediting was positively related to false accusations, SH severity (opposite of predictions), and severity of punishment. Additionally, there were gender differences in moral crediting such that the effects of power-embodiment on moral crediting were stronger for women than for men, though both were significant. Taken together, the findings of this study indicate that some initiators evade censure as their actions are seen as less severe when others believe them to have embodies responsibility-focused power. This should serve as an indication that SH is not always done by “bad actors”, but by those who appear to be virtuous. These findings should inform future SH policies, research, and training.