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When Good People Sexually Harass: The Role of Power and Moral Licensing on Sexual Harassment Perceptions and Intentions

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posted on 2021-06-21, 22:00 authored by Tuyen Dinh, Laurel Mikalouski, Margaret StockdaleMargaret Stockdale

History has shown that people who embody responsibility-focused power have been credibly accused of sexual harassment (SH). We seek to understand why. Drawing on Power-Approach Theory (Keltner et al., 2003) and moral licensing theory (Effron & Monin, 2010) we present two complementary studies examining how responsibility-focused power triggers moral licensing, which, in turn, decreases perceptions of SH (Study 1) and increases intentions to engage in SH (Study 2). In Study 1, 376 adults read scenarios of a man who embodies responsibility-focused power, egocentric power, or low power and then made moral crediting ratings (a form of moral licensing). Then they read a case where the man had been accused of SH. SH judgments against the responsibility-focused power holder, compared to others, were less severe, and several effects were mediated by moral crediting. In Study 2, 310 adults were primed to experience responsibility-focused power or low power. Responsibility-focused power increased SH intentions through effects on communal feelings and moral crediting. This research develops a new theoretical perspective on why SH occurs and why we deny perceiving it. We provide practical recommendations for abating the effects of power and moral licensing.


Declaration of conflicts of interest


Corresponding author email

Lead author country

  • United States

Lead author job role

  • Higher Education Faculty 4-yr College

Lead author institution

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Human Participants

  • Yes

Ethics statement

Our research conforms to APA standards on ethical treatment of participants and was approved by the Indiana University Institutional Review Board.


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