Leadership? No. Followership? No. Contagion? Yes.

Since the precipitous, scandalous descent of sequential sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein, not just the dam broke, but the floodgate opened. Not only at home, also abroad.

More than half a million women have flooded Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, using the hashtag #MeToo to volunteer that they too had experienced sexual harassment or assault. More specifically, in Sacramento, California, upwards of  140 women – including state legislators and lobbyists – came forward to charge sexual misconduct in the nation’s most powerful state legislature. “Women complained of groping, lewd comments and suggestions of trading sexual favors for legislation while doing business in Sacramento.”* And, in France, tens of thousands of women have similarly stepped up, using social media to post disturbing accounts of sexual harassment and abuse. Though most did not identify their assailants, given France’s famously chauvinistic culture, which forever has “enabled powerful men to misbehave with impunity,” it was a sign the times are changing.

How did this happen? What explains this sudden torrent of women complaining so furiously, so publicly, about behavior they previously endured in silence?

This is one of those cases where leadership explains nearly nothing. Nor for that matter does followership – though it comes closer. No, this most recent open outpouring of previously private grievances is best explained by a phenomenon referred to by social psychologists as social or behavioral contagion. The term refers to our propensity to emulate behavior exhibited by someone else – especially if that behavior resonates with our own emotion or experience. In other words, when a handful of women started to speak out on this issue, many, many others were emboldened by them finally to do the same.

Social or behavioral contagion is not so common – certainly not globally. But, when the time is right, it’s remarkable how powerful are peers!


*All quotes in this piece of from The New York Times, October 18, 2017.


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