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Devoid of Morals: Explaining Sexual Harassment with Game Theory

In the recent past, many celebrities have been found guilty of sexual harassment. This is partly because of the rise of female empower movements, encouraging women to speak up about their experiences. We can actually use game theory to trace through why someone would choose to report or not report their harasser. Keep mind that we currently live in a patriarchal society. Consider two players, Person1 and Person2. The first set of moves available to Person1 is to harass or not harass, and the moves available to Person2 is to report or not report. If Person1 chooses to not harass and Person2 chooses to not report, then both people continue with their lives as normal, the game ends, and neither are better or worse off. If Person1 chooses to harass, and Person2 doesn’t report, then the game ends. Person1 receives a positive payoff and Person2 receives a negative payoff. If Person2 chooses to report, both people will receive some negative payoff. If it is a false accusation, then Person1 will have a larger negative payoff. Otherwise, the negative payoff is the same. Person1 now has two options: admit or deny. If Person1 admits, then the payoff will be negative. Admitting to false allegations will result in a larger negative payoff than denying. However, admitting to true allegations will have the same negative payoff as denying true allegations. If Person1 chooses to admit (which they probably won’t), then the game ends. Person1 has negative payoff, and Person2 has gained some positive payoff back. If Person2 chooses to deny, then the game continues. Now the game can either be proven or not, which is on Person2. If Person2 can prove the allegations, then Person1 will receive the highest negative payoff. However, if the allegations can’t be proved, then Person2 will receive the highest negative payoff, especially if the allegations were true, and Person1 will regain some positive payoff.

Laid out like this in a game with no other considerations, Person1, the potential harasser, will always choose to harass; that’s the dominant strategy, and Person2 would choose not to report as that leads to the least negative payoff. In the real world, Person1 would ideally have morals and choose not to harass. However, this isn’t always the case. When a person does choose to sexually harass someone, this simplified version of events with game theory helps visualize why they might get away with it.


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