No one, in the history of the universe, has ever been moved to change a behavior, or reevaluate a long-held belief, based on facts or statistics alone. And yet, many of our sexual harassment prevention or DEI-related training programs incorporate facts and statistics as the primary educational engine – and, when these programs fail, we think that perhaps we should just find more horrifying facts and statistics. These “shock and awe” strategies aren’t successful because the information we’re sharing is not value-neutral: it’s contested, fraught, and in many cases, implicates our own actions and beliefs. Our emotional reaction to the content triggers an immediate defensiveness, swatting away those facts and statistics with the instinctive response of a pro tennis player. If we truly want to move beyond a compliance training model to one that drives toward cultural change, we’re going to have to reinvent the paradigm. The way my team does this is through the strategic use of humor.
Before I explain how and why that works, it is essential to briefly identify why people resist traditionally presented content. There is a lot of fascinating research on this topic, but for the sake of brevity, I will highlight the research on “Identity-Protective Cognition,” and the role of the amygdala in mediating our emotional reactions to challenging information.
Yale Law professor Dan Kahan identifies identity cognition as,
… the tendency of culturally diverse individuals to selectively credit and dismiss evidence in patterns that reflect the beliefs that predominate in their group … Individuals are also more likely to accept misinformation and resist the correction of it when that misinformation is identity-affirming rather than identity-threatening. (Kahan, 2017)
While much of Kahan’s research focuses on why some people resist scientific data regarding climate change, it is still useful for understanding why individuals would fight the facts about sexual harassment. His research revealed that people evaluate the veracity of facts through the prism of their cultural values; if someone’s cultural group, e.g., their religious or ethnic affiliation, had prescriptive norms about what constituted appropriate behaviors and relationships, they would apply that lens to their interpretation of facts, laws, policies and consequences. I would argue that, while the United States is full of unique communities and identity affiliations, there are still broadly shared cultural beliefs about gender identity and sex roles. These beliefs speak to the systemic nature of sexism. While there may be variations of intensity in these beliefs, American culture can be counted on to excuse or explain cis-male sexual harassing behaviors, while foisting responsibility for deterring those behaviors on those being sexually harassed.
This culturally driven analytical lens is only part of the problem. What precedes any intellectual reaction to factual information is the emotional reaction to those facts. And, when those facts incriminate us, our brains have a strong and instinctive response to them – author and psychologist Daniel Goleman calls this the “amygdala hijack.”
While many of us are familiar with the “fight, flight or freeze” cognitive responses to threat, we often envision that threat as a physical one, e.g., a bear attack or an intruder entering our home. Remarkably, our amygdala also kicks into gear, flooding us with adrenaline and cortisol when it senses that who we are – our identity – is being threatened.
To understand how this works with regard to high-stress topics, picture a bear teaching your next sexual harassment prevention class. Would you be able to process anything the bear said? Nope. You would be freaking out, freezing under a desk or running like mad, confused that anyone would ever have certified a bear to teach sexual harassment prevention. While it’s hard to imagine ideas being as terrifying as the threat of evisceration, now picture that the bear is made of ideas, implying that you are a bad person who has done bad things.
Part of the reason these ideas are so traumatizing is due to how sexual harassers are typically portrayed in training videos and covered in the media. Whether the offender is Harvey Weinstein or Roger Aisles, they are characterized as monsters. This is what the average sexual harassment prevention attendee is picturing when they are asked to consider the impact of potential behaviors. Admitting they may have engaged in any of these behaviors equates them with being a monster – and few people, even certifiable monsters, wake up every day and think of themselves that way. This is why prevention educators meet with such instantaneous defensiveness and denial when we present tough content: Our participants’ brains are saying, “You made me feel bad, so you must be wrong.“
This brings me back to the novel approach my team and I use – the strategic use of humor to engage participants on sexual harassment and other challenging issues. While I could write a book (and hey, I am!) about the different ways humor can be used strategically, for the purposes of this article I will focus on two: the use of analogies and the power of “we.”
Analogies can be powerful teaching devices for a few reasons. First, if they’re funny, they can reduce the tension and defensiveness in the training room. This is essential if there is any hope of cultivating a positive learning environment. In addition, the brain retains novel information. If you can create an amusing analogy, your concepts and arguments will have greater staying power. Second, they create a visual representation of the concept that can cut through someone’s cognitive and emotional defenses. Because the analogy isn’t a literal representation of sexual harassment, it provides enough distance for the learner to reflect on the argument being made while not feeling implicated by it. Third, the analogy can illustrate core values or principles held by the learners and serve as a transition to the literal content of the workshop – “If you believe this, then you must also agree how important it is for everyone to feel safe in their work environment.”
Earlier, I used the analogy of a bear attack in order to explain the impact of emotionally challenging content on the average learner. My first instructional move was to have you picture your panic were you to be confronted by a bear. This required not only your cognitive imagination, but your emotional one, as well. My second instructional move was to make the connection between that physical fear and the fear posed by challenging ideas. I needed you to understand that the emotional fear someone has of being shamed or judged is very real and incites genuine panic. That panic keeps anyone from learning, from processing, from reflecting. And then, I closed it with a joke about the serious flaws in the HR Bear Certification Program. By “sealing” the content with some humor, I anchored the moment as a pleasant experience. I have reduced tension, I have stayed likable and I have also advanced an argument.
The second humor tactic, the use of “we” borrows directly from the stand-up comic tool kit. Think back to the last time you watched stand-up comedy. The comedian often begins a joke by asking the audience if they’ve ever noticed something – something that it is likely everyone in that audience will have noticed. The comedian’s objective is to get the audience to reflect on either how strange that phenomenon is, and how weird it is that, as a culture, we’ve just accepted it as normal. This strategy enables the audience to reflect (and laugh) without shame; we’ve all done or tolerated something that, upon consideration, is ridiculous or out of line with what we say we believe. This provides the double benefit of distance and community; we are given the opportunity to see the behavior from a safe distance and reflect on it, and yet we are not solely implicated in it. It’s not personal: we as a culture have missed the mark. This strategy is incredibly helpful when teaching tough subjects like sexual harassment; it enables us to have an intense, critical discussion of how we’ve internalized toxic norms without getting defensive. It also shifts the responsibility for changing the culture on us as a community, not on prior victims or the vulnerable.
I have utilized these practices throughout my nearly 30-year prevention education career; it is a synthesis of my years of experience as a stand-up and improvisational comedian, and my doctoral research on the role of humor in teaching and learning. They are among the most powerful educational tools we have in engaging learners in tough but necessary conversations, and using that dialogue to positively change the culture. I think that by using humor strategically and intentionally, we can transform not only sexual harassment prevention training, but our entire workplaces, for the better.
Dr. Gail Stern is the co-founder and chief visionary officer of Catharsis Productions, co-author of the non-stranger rape prevention program “Sex Signals”, and author of the programs “Beat the Blame Game” and “Teaching Rape as a Moral Issue”. She has been a SME for the White House and each branch of the Armed Forces on issues related to sexual violence prevention. Dr. Stern and colleague Heather Imrie are the co-creators of the innovative Force of Awesome Institute, a program for violence prevention educators that enables them to design and deliver more effective presentations in their own communities. Based on Dr. Stern’s and Imrie’s extensive research and experience, the Institute incorporates a combination of lecture, group work and coaching, effectively transferring the training capacity to participants.