MJ Akbar Accused Again: Why Women Chose Silence to Avoid Losses
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.(Photo: Arnica Kala / The Quint)

MJ Akbar Accused Again: Why Women Chose Silence to Avoid Losses

(This is a personal blog. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

Another day. Another skeleton out of the closet. More specifically, from MJ Akbar’s closet.

National Public Radio journalist Pallavi Gogoi revealed in an article in the Washington Post on Friday, 2 November, how she, in the 1990s, was emotionally and verbally abused – and raped by Akbar (over a period of time) – while working under him at the The Asian Age newspaper.

As ‘demi-gods’ continue to fall from grace, some of the questions that have emerged in the wake of India’s #MeToo movement are:

  • Why now?
  • Why did the survivors ‘acquiesce’ in the first place and not out the predators back then?
  • Is it fair for them to speak up now, often after several decades?

Also Read : MJ Akbar Must Quit for the Sake of a Free & Fair Investigation

Using Game Theory to Decode Predatory Practices

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Such questions reveal the predilection of the human mind to treat such problems as uni-dimensional problems – driven by simple cost-benefit analyses.

Women, over the years, paradoxically have followed a code akin to that of the Omerta – forbidding betrayal of the perpetrators of such abuse, to authorities or society at large.

Their decision not to speak out has been typically viewed as a conscious and deliberate choice, with ‘selfish’ benefits outweighing costs.

We take a Game Theory-based approach to understand the ‘game’ of predation. We use the ‘Ultimatum Game’ for this purpose – a famous, asymmetric, sequential two-player game, studied intensely in Game Theory.

In its simplest version, one player called the ‘Proposer’ is given a valuable good, usually money, to be shared with a second player, called the ‘Respondent’. The Proposer makes the offer. The Respondent has the right to either reject or accept the offer made by the proposer.

If the respondent accepts, the money is shared according to the offer. If they reject it, neither player receives anything. If both the Proposer and Respondent are ‘rational’, using a cost-benefit analysis, the former will offer the lowest denomination possible and the latter would accept it. So, for instance, if Rs 100 were to be shared, the Proposer needs to offer only Re 1 (say the lowest denomination possible) and the rational Respondent should accept the same.

Also Read : #MeToo: ‘I Was Raped,’ Journalist Pallavi Gogoi Calls Out Akbar

Why Can’t ‘Ultimatum Game’ be Replicated in Workplaces?

Let us consider a variant of the Ultimatum Game in a workplace setting. The ‘dominant’ male proposer (predator) could make an offer to the ‘dominated’ female respondent. Such an offer stems from the power that has been bestowed upon him and could take the form of an offer of a job, a raise, a role etc. We could think of this game being played in several rounds with a single proposer and several respondents, with offers being accepted or rejected.

As in the textbook ultimatum game, the respondent here has the power to reject what she considers as an ‘unfair’ offer. If all respondents (aka women) were to reject the proposer’s offers (advances), he loses his power, much in the same way that he would forfeit the money bestowed upon him in successive rounds of an ultimatum game.

When played for money across different cultural settings, experiments reveal that respondents choose to be ‘irrational’, demanding fairness. They accept offers only in the range of 40 to 60 percent, contrary to what rational theory would have us believe, thereby ‘punishing’ the proposers for unfair splits by rejecting them.

Why is such behaviour not replicated in workplace settings, with women at workplaces rendering power dominance of males infructuous through rejection of unfair offers and punishing them?

Explanations for such behaviour can be understood in terms of two powerful behavioural principles: Loss Aversion and Social Proof. Loss Aversion refers to the phenomenon of ‘losses outweighing equivalent gains’, and hence the human tendency to avoid losses at all costs. Social Proof is an informational influence, where, in ambiguous situations, people are uncertain as to how to behave and look to others for information or cues.

Also Read : #MeToo: All the Accusations of Sexual Harassment Against MJ Akbar 

Why Women Chose to Remain Silent

In traditional workplace settings, sexual harassment creates ambiguous situations, with women uncertain as to how to react and respond to predatory advances.

In such situations, they tend to rely on informational cues from others (especially women) in the organisation, who wittingly or unwittingly signal the code of silence. Social Proof gets reinforced by Loss Aversion, with the prospect of losing a coveted ‘offer’ over the gain of one’s dignity and self-esteem causing women to acquiesce.

Imagine a new recruit or intern faced with the probability of losing her job, in a setting where others, especially women, turn a blind eye to predatory behaviour. 

The predator’s confirmatory bias makes him view such ‘acquiescence’ as confirmation of his own power and right over women.

Thus, it is not difficult to understand why women over the years have chosen to remain silent, even while spurning the offers of their predators.

The Ultimatum Game also reveals that respondents are willing to accept lower fractional offers (even 10 percent) the higher the stakes. Thus, the demand for fairness itself is not uniform. This can be witnessed in workplace settings as well, where at the beginning of careers, where stakes are higher, women are more tolerant of unfairness.

The naysayers and the critics of the #MeToo campaign have dismissed the ‘victims’ as those who made ‘conscious’ choices based on selfish cost-benefit analysis.

Such views manifest themselves in memes on social media, which, when loosely translated, appear as “First she says ‘sweetu’, then she says #MeToo”. However, understanding the attitude of women towards sexual harassment is complex.

In collectivist cultures like India, the social proof associated with concerted social media campaigns like #MeToo heralds a welcome change in both the attitude and behavior towards sexual harassment.

(The author is Professor, Economics and Chairperson, Family Managed Business’ course, at SPJIMR, Mumbai.)

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