5 Reasons It's Hard to Shake Unwanted Attention

A lack of interest can be difficult to convey.

Posted May 29, 2018

Photographee eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee eu/Shutterstock

Have you ever found yourself in the annoying position of having to reject a friend's advances, a co-worker's unwanted attention, or a stranger's persistent come-ons? Maybe you've been subtle, but they just don't get the message? Have you had to deal with repeated uncomfortable encounters, despite your efforts to deflect the attention? Has it ever been harder to get your point across than it should be?

New research from Cornell University helps reveal why it is so hard sometimes to make it clear that you're not interested, and to be understood in the way you intend. At a moment in history when we're shining a spotlight on sexual harassment and misconduct, this research offers critically important insight into the pressures at play for women trying to reject unwanted advances.

To examine the experiencing of rejecting someone's advances, Bohns and DeVincent (2018) focused on a sample of participants in STEM (the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — fields in which sexual harassment is a documented problem for the retention of women). Their full sample of 942 participants included a core sample of 277 participants who provided details about past misadventures in rejection — indicating that they had either been pursued by someone whose attentions they did not want, or that they themselves had pursued someone, but been rejected. The researchers thus were able to gather data about both being the target of an unwanted pursuit and being the pursuer.

A second study extended their first by using experimental methods and asking participants to read a vignette about a romantic scenario between two work colleagues. Participants were randomly assigned to imagine they were romantically interested in their work colleague (i.e., they were the suitor), or they were being romantically pursued by their colleague (i.e., they were the target). Thus, the researchers had access to both viewpoints once again, as in Study 1, but this time in a hypothetical scenario that they carefully controlled.

Why can it be so challenging to reject undesired romantic advances?

The data from both studies point to five main reasons (Bohns & DeVincent, 2018):

1. Suitors are oblivious to the discomfort they're creating.

In both studies, suitors thought that their targets had more freedom to say no and were more comfortable saying no than targets reported. Targets "found it difficult," "felt guilty," "felt bad," and "felt uncomfortable" saying no to a significantly greater extent than imagined by the suitors.

2. Suitors don't think targets are as worried as they are. 

The professional consequences of rebuffing a colleague are often on the minds of targets dealing with unwanted romantic pursuits, and trying to say no. Suitors don't see their targets as worried when, in fact, they really are.

3. Suitors don't realize targets are rearranging their daily lives to avoid them.

If you're dealing with unwanted romantic attention, the research suggests that you are probably changing your behavior much more than suitors imagine. Targets are expending energy avoiding their suitors, avoiding suitors' friends, and even considering other places to work, so they won't have to deal with these unwanted advances.

4. Suitors do not see their attention as distracting.

When targets are navigating the process of trying to say no while having no adverse consequences, they suffer in their work productivity. They have trouble focusing on work. In other words, the harmless flirtation that a suitor thinks he or she is engaging in is actually negatively impacting the target's everyday life far more than imagined by the suitors.

5. Suitors aren't aware of their target's reputation concerns.

Targets of unwanted advances in professional settings experience much more concern about what an unwanted suitor might say about them after a rejection than the suitors typically imagine. Such concern makes these situations highly uncomfortable and uncertain for targets, who may feel like they're walking a thin line.

In sum, a primary take-home from Bohns and DeVincent's new study is that undesired romantic suitors are profoundly unaware of the awkward, emotionally stressful situations they create for the person to whom they're attracted. Suitors are dramatically underestimating how uncomfortable it is to reject a romantic advance, and such bias has important implications for their behavior and the resulting emotions, stress, and behaviors of their targets.

This egocentric bias — which the authors suggest could be greater in contexts with power differentials — appears to be an under-discussed, but highly important, player in the problems that occur in romantic courtship. Women, who disproportionately represented the targets in this study, are set up to be on the receiving end of this bias. The findings suggest that clear, direct language is often appropriate to curtail unwanted attention, and that more direct approaches could be viewed as acceptable by suitors, who see targets as having the freedom to assert themselves in this way.


Bohns, V. K. & DeVincent, L. A. (2018). Unwanted romantic advances is more difficult than suitors realize. Social Psychological and Personality Sciences, Advanced Online Publication.