What does psychology consider harassment?

Because certain entities on the web feel like redefining all forms of internet harassment and threat as “trolling” just because it happens online or via unusual media, I decided to look at what actually qualifies as harassment in psychology (rather than in law, since we’re talking about whether it affects people, not whether it’s illegal). I looked at a couple psych studies that were doing experiments on the effects of harassment, and excerpted the part where they describe the form of experimental harassment they subjected their test subjects to, as well as relevant results:

Harassment used in experiment:

For subjects in the harassment condition, scripted harassing comments were delivered on a fixed schedule, at minutes 2, 6, and 10 of the task, by an experimental assistant of the same gender as the subject. All experimental assistants (three women and three men) were trained to deliver the harassing statements in a firm, authoritative, but neutral (i.e., not angry) tone of voice.


The harassed subjects reacted more strongly than the control subjects to the stressor on all cardiovascular and cortisol measures and recovered more slowly than the nonharassed controls. In addition, several gender differences in response to the stressor and during the recovery period were observed. The harassed men exhibited the largest reactivity on cortisol and DBP indices, whereas the harassed women showed a more pronounced response on the subjective ratings of hostility and HR. The harassed groups were the only ones to show significant cortisol responses, with cortisol reactivity in harassed men approximately twice that of their female counterparts. Control groups did not exhibit significant cortisol reactivity. During the recovery period, harassed men exhibited attenuated return to baseline on cardiovascular indices and cortisol, whereas women, overall, tended to exhibit an overcompensation response on cardiovascular measures.

Harassment used in experiment:

For subjects in the Harassment condition, the procedure for the first four TAT cards was identical to that just described for subjects in the Nonharassment condition. Before the fifth card, however, the experimenter said that the last four stories had been “somewhat boring,” and that the subject should try harder to make the next few stories interesting. After the fifth card, the experimenter said “you still do not have it right.” After the sixth and seventh cards, the experimenter again indicated that the stories were inadequate, and said “I cannot see what the problem is,” and that “you should make some effort” to improve them. During the eighth story, the experimenter interrupted the subject with a critical comment.


Results indicate that the harassment manipulation affected increases in [heart rate], [systolic blood pressure], and [diastolic blood pressure]. Furthermore, among subjects in the Harassment condition, anger repressors showed greater HR reactivity than low anger expressors, but similar HR reactivity to that shown by high anger expressors. […] among subjects in the Harassment condition, anger repressors reported levels of anger arousal similar to those of low anger expressors, but lower than those reported by high anger expressors. For subjects in the Nonharassment condition, no such effects emerged

There are other definitions, e.g. cyberbullying being typically defined as intentional and/or repeated harassment, which is ok except intent is hard to prove and easy to deny; and vague definitions that include terms like “verbal abuse”, which don’t explain anything. When studying entire organizations, there tends to be also a requirement of “creating a hostile environment” for harassment, so that even when each person only commits a harassing act once, it still counts.

Conclusion: Even mild interruption, ridicule, and criticism elicits stress responses, and all these mild stress-response-elicitors count as harassment in psychology. That doesn’t mean we should stop criticizing people, and it doesn’t mean that people who want to be skeptics, scientists and/or activists don’t need to learn to deal with a certain degree of both criticism and “trolling”. However, as with microaggressions, a constant barrage of aggression (some low-grade some decidedly less so) is typically more wearying/damaging than the occasional blatant, massive outburst. Consequently, telling a person who’s subjected for months to non-stop criticism, “satire”, parody, “trolling”, and plain old “as defined by every college campus everywhere” harassment* on multiple fronts that they aren’t being harassed is pure, unadulterated bullshit. Even the thickest skin will eventually be worn down** my months, or even years, of this sort of thing.
What this means in effect is that even harassment that doesn’t quite live up to persecutable legal standards*** still causes harm to people. Real, measurable harm.

What the pitters & their associates have been doing to certain individuals for months, even years now is definitely this kind of long-term harassment that creates a toxic environment and has negative physiological effects on people.

And the Horde isn’t entirely guilt-free here, either. The Reset rule and the Three Post rule exist for a reason, m’kay?

EDIT: more studies on this and related topic can be found at the bottom of this comment, because I’ve talked about this before.

– – – – – – –
*for example, NDSU defines it as “unwelcome verbal or physical behavior which has the intent or effect of unreasonably interfering with the individual’s employment or academic endeavors or creating a hostile, intimidating or offensive environment. Harassment may include (but is not limited to) jokes, derogatory comments, pictures, and/or direct physical advances.”
**interestingly, the second study cited here also points out that people who repress their anger still have a hightened physiological response, but they don’t seem to perceive it (or want to disclose it to the researchers)… so “thick skinned” people may well not actually all be that thick skinned, just good at repressing their emotions. The physiological harm is still there though.
***according to USLegal.com, the legal definition of harassment in the US is determined by state, but typically includes this basic core:

Harassment is governed by state laws, which vary by state, but is generally defined as a course of conduct which annoys, threatens, intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety. Harassment is unwanted, unwelcomed and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim. Harassing behavior may include, but is not limited to, epithets, derogatory comments or slurs and lewd propositions, assault, impeding or blocking movement, offensive touching or any physical interference with normal work or movement, and visual insults, such as derogatory posters or cartoons.

No, it’s not my job to teach you

“It’s your job to teach me about feminism. Now do it.” is a square on the sexist-bingo card, and it’s a trope that pops up in just about any other subject of the culture wars, be it racism or evolution (think of all the e-mails PZ and other famous atheists get that basically demand that the whole universe be explained to the writers of the emails, personally)or any number of other topics. When being a n00b, the attitude of feminists/atheists/etc of linking to previous discussions, suggesting reading material, or just flat-out refusing to get into the discussion can be frustrating*, and look very arrogant, cowardly, and generally off-putting. But it is a necessary tactic, since one’s free time is a limited resource, and having the same conversations over and over, for the benefit of just one individual, is neither an enjoyable nor an efficient use of one’s time.

For that reason alone, places like Pharyngula are so very precious and important. It might be the culture of valuing evidence-based discussion, or the knowledge that the discussion there is read by many people (so that any argument can inform more than just that one individual being adressed), or something else entirely, but a place where many knowledgeable people are willing to share their knowledge in personal discussion, and where these discussions are archived for posterity, is a very valuable resource. Similarly, places like the feminism101 blog, or the TalkOrigins Archive make it possible to shortcut many conversations by simply referring the person to already existing, laboriously collected, answers to their n00b questions.

What I really wish we had were similar repositories for links to, and summaries of, various scientific papers that support many of the feminist points (the name-on-resume study, various scholastic achievement studies, etc.). I used to have a vast collection of links to such studies, but I misplaced a lot of them, and sometimes finding them again is impossible, or at least very time-consuming. A nicely alphabetically sorted archive of feminist causes and the science to explain/support them would be epically useful, and linking to the whole archive would be a nice little “I’ve got science, what have YOU got” Fuck You to those who insist that feminists argue from emotion alone.

– – – – – – – – – –
*I admit freely to feeling that frustration as well. For example, I would not be opposed at all if SC just stopped doing anything else and taught me everything she knows. But unfortunately, I’ll have to do it myself, and just be grateful for the book suggestions :-)