The brain science of sexual harassment prevention training

Todd Maddox says training can help prevent further harassment at work – but it has to be the right kind of training. 

2017 was quite a year. The #metoo movement and the ‘silence breakers’ exposed a huge number of public figures who had engaged in inappropriate sexual behaviour toward another, usually a man behaving inappropriately toward a woman.

The trend continues in 2018. These movements have increased awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment, and the importance of effective soft (aka people) skills in the workplace and society in general. They have also spurned a surge of interest in implementing effective training tools to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment and more broadly to improve soft skills training.

I recently published comments on sexual harassment prevention and soft skills training, and the promise of virtual reality (VR). In this article I evaluate sexual harassment prevention training tools from the perspective of the brain science of learning. 

Text and slideshow training are sub-optimal

Two forms of sexual harassment prevention training are common and both are sub-optimal. One form of harassment prevention training is no training at all. This statement is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the point is that the ‘head in the sand’ approach is common, and obviously ineffective.

Behaviour change means that the focus should be on the ‘how’, and this means recruiting the behavioural skills learning system in the brain.

The second form of harassment prevention training is focused on legal protection, compliance, and box checking. Not surprisingly nearly all of this is computer based and involves reading text and watching slideshows focused on definitions.

This is all about training people to classify behaviour as harassment or not so that they know the ‘what’ and the ‘what not’.

From a brain science perspective, focusing on the ‘what’ recruits the cognitive skills learning system in the brain. Knowing the ‘what’ and ‘what not’ is important, but in the end, harassment is about behaviour. Ultimately your goal is to teach an individual ‘how’ to behave.

Behaviour change means that the focus should be on the ‘how’, and this means recruiting the behavioural skills learning system in the brain. Thus, text and slideshow training are ineffective at instilling behaviour change because they do not target the behavioral skills learning system in the brain.

Third-person video training

Another approach to sexual harassment prevention training is to show learners video footage of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. This is definitely a step in the right direction because it allows the learner to experience appropriate and inappropriate behaviour visually.

The learner can pick up on the subtle cues associated with harassing behaviour as well as the subtle behavioural responses of the victim. Although the learner can generate accurate mental representations of appropriate and inappropriate behaviours from watching videos, which can be used to facilitate behaviour change, the focus is still predominantly on the cognitive skills learning system.

The difference, and why this approach is superior to text and slide show training, is that the ‘what’ that is being learned is snippets of potential behaviour, both appropriate and inappropriate. This can be leveraged in subsequent behaviour change training.


First-person, observational, computer-based or virtual reality training

Over the past year, there has been a surge of interest in first-person computer based (CBT) and virtual reality (VR) training approaches. There is much to like about these approaches. First, they offer a method for ‘stepping into someone else’s shoes’.

Although this involves passive, observational learning, and thus does not target behaviour change specifically, it targets emotional processing centres in the brain and helps the learner understand at a visceral level what it is like to be in a position of weakness, and to be the direct target of harassment.

The experience is especially powerful in VR where the learner is completely immersed and has a feeling of true ‘presence’. This is a powerful experience that can increase empathy and leave the learner poised for behaviour change.

Part two of this feature will be published next week.


About the author

W. Todd Maddox, Ph.D. is a contributing analyst at Amalgam Insights, Inc.


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