Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jan 28, 2019

A Fresh Approach to Understanding Sexual Assault: A Conversation with Betsy Levy Paluck

Blurry group of people at an outdoor gathering at night under floating lights

It was a chilly Saturday night in April 2016, and hundreds of Princeton University students were getting ready to party. The place: one of the university’s famous eating clubs. They double as both dining halls and social-event spaces, and more than 70 percent of Princeton’s undergraduates are members.

Outside the club, in a tent strung with Christmas lights, Ana Gantman sipped coffee, ordered pizza, and prepared for a different form of evening entertainment—a field experiment that would last until 2 a.m.

Gantman, now an assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College, along with Princeton Psychology Professor Betsy Levy Paluck and graduate students Jordan Starck and Ajua Duker, was testing whether she could change the way students perceived and understood issues around sexual assault and consent if those students took a pledge before the party. The idea for the pledge had come from the students themselves: a few months before their spring experiment, Paluck and Gantman read about an eating club that had started requiring its members to take a consent pledge before entering a party. (In 2014, students reported two sexual assaults at eating clubs on campus.)

Paluck, Gantman, and the team, along with the enthusiastic eating-club leaders, wanted to measure the impact of that original pledge, and to test whether altering its language might influence students’ attitudes and perceptions—how responsible they felt for preventing assault, how much they understood the concept of consent, and whether they thought pledging was something everyone should do, for instance.

The researchers took the original pledge, which was written in a legalistic language, and developed a second pledge with behavioral insights-infused language that invoked morality, identity, and social norms (“a psychological sledgehammer,” Gantman joked). They tested the pledges at two different eating clubs—the one where students had already been taking the original pledge and another where students had never been exposed to any pledge.

Here’s how it worked: bouncers at the door of the parties randomly assigned party attendees to one of two conditions—to read aloud either the legalistic or the behavioral pledge—and gave them different hand stamps depending on which condition they were in. After the party, Gantman and her crew enticed students to complete a short survey in the tent outside with the promise of free, hot pizza. “People went into the parties looking cleaned up and walked out looking pretty sweaty,” Gantman recalled. The pizza proved to be an effective recruitment strategy.

Continue to read the post at Behavioral Scientist.


By Elizabeth Weingarten

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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