Lecture Naomi Ellemers on social safety: "our ethics are fading"

On Thursday, September 14, Naomi Ellemers, professor of Social Sciences at Utrecht University gave a lecture on social safety. She has done a lot of research in this field and has been featured in the media several times. She thinks we should intervene much earlier in cases of transgressive behavior, even in those cases where “it was just a joke”. “Our ethics are fading: we increasingly do things simply because we are used to doing them that way. We’re no longer critical of whether our behavior is ethical.”

photo Jack Tillmans

Ellemers knows she is speaking in front of scientists so she has quite a few research examples to share. For example, it turns out that nearly three-quarters (!) of harassment complaints involve a problem with the supervisor. While we might quickly associate the term harassment with sexual harassment, there are many other forms that occur and affect our academic performance, such as exclusion, humiliation, threats (both physical and mental) and academic sabotage. Even “small” unpleasant remarks at the coffee machine. “Oh come on, it was just a joke” is often the response. But these too can be very harmful. Especially if you hear them regularly. We underestimate their effect.”

“We see that when people enjoy a high degree of independence, they become less critical of their actions. And we have the tendency to want to avoid legal consequences, so we often downplay the victim's feelings with comments like “the victim may be confused, there are always two sides to the story, they’re making it worse by spreading the word.” It’s a slippery slope. “Our ethics are also fading: we increasingly do things simply because we are used to doing them that way. We’re no longer critical of whether our behavior is ethical. And when we do notice something unethical, we often stay silent because the perpetrator is someone we like; maybe they have done something for us in the past. Or because we’re afraid to cross the line of their autonomy.”

Different cultures

Dean of Mechanical Engineering Patrick Anderson says in his preface that he was recently appointed and felt it was important to do something with social safety, especially given the wide range of nationalities in his department. “Different cultures within the department mean that your actions can be perceived differently than you might expect. Upon consultation with HR, the idea came up to invite Naomi.” The lecture attracted about 40 interested people in De Zwarte Doos.

Ellemers quickly puts forward a few “logical” statements. For example, that we need to work together to excel academically, that we must be professional and that academic integrity is important. Everyone agrees with those, right? But she says the social safety aspect is at least equally important for academic excellence. “There is less focus on that and for many people, the concept of social safety is somewhat vague.”

Science is not a top sport

“The truth is, we will always be competing for scarce assets, such as lab space and permanent contracts,” Ellemers acknowledges. “And that can breed bad behavior. The question is: do we leave people to fend for themselves and see who survives or do we help them discover for themselves if this place suits them?” Ellemers co-wrote the article “Rivalry is not doing science any favors.” In it, she and three other professors argue that comparing science to top-level sports (that competitive climate) is not a good idea. “It makes people less likely to share knowledge, because you're not going to help your opponent of course. This leads to more envy and stress. That way, there is too much focus on the end result and it no longer matters how you behave to get there, even if that means misbehaving.” Here she implicitly advocates for the Recognition & Rewards system. “A little competition is fine but we shouldn’t tear each other apart just to get a grant. It’s not worth the money.” 

Call to account

Changing behavior also means a lot of practice. It is not a matter of “I want to do this differently and tomorrow it will be perfect.” So does it help if we call people to account for their wrong behavior? This is what Ellemers and her fellow researchers investigated in the lab. “We found that this caused people to become stressed; their blood pressure and cortisol levels increased and their brain became less active causing them to partly forget the message. So they literally check out. Then how do we deliver the message in such a way that it actually gets through to people?” Cursor was not aware of the event until late and was unable to cover the entire event. At the end, tips were shared with the participants to provide better feedback. This event was organized as a pilot by the Department of Mechanical Engineering along with HR. If it proves to be a success it may be repeated in the future.

Early intervention necessary

Ellemers advocates for early intervention in case of problems and preventing things from escalating. “If you intervene at an early stage, perpetrators get the chance to adjust their behavior sooner, as opposed to “leaving” being the only option. In addition to being perpetrators, they are often good researchers who you don't want to lose, and that is what happens when you intervene at such a late stage. Then the “nuclear option” becomes the only option.”

Recommended reading

If you want to delve deeper into research on this topic, Ellemers recommends the paper Sexual Harassment in Academia: Ethical Climates and Bounded Ethicality by Ann Tenbrunsel et al.

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