A Social Psychologist Stymied by Penn State Horror Show

Many adults ignoring the rape of a child.  No doubt many children over decades.  It's nearly incomprehensible. 

How is it that no one bothered to stand up for those kids and stop the heinous, heinous abuse?  How can people ignore dreadful acts against others? 

Some have suggested people were so concerned about their own personal well-being, their coaching careers, the football season, a university's reputation, athletic donations, legal liability, you name it, that they refused to take these claims seriously. There's that naked self-interest for sure and no doubt that accounts for most of it.  Psychology textbooks (school car lines, Hollywood memoirs) are full of examples of people acting from less than admirable personal motivations.  Remember Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene?

Some have spoken of cowardice, greed, stunted moral development, indifference, lack of empathy, fear of retribution, excessive loyalty, a reluctance to believe the worst and yet nothing yields a satisfying answer. 

If there's a field that can explain how this sh** show happened, then it's social psychology. It's all about people's bad behavior.  

Social Psych 101 is a virtual catalog of how people deceive themselves and others if not perpetrate acts of outright abuse and violence:

Out-group aggression
Social Loafing
Group Think
Cognitive Dissonance
Self-fulfilling Prophecies  

The roll call of iconic studies reads like the rap sheet from the first circles of hell.  My personal favorite, The Zimbardo Prison Experiment featured student "guards" harassing student "prisoners" in the basement of the Stanford psych building.

In fact the entire field arose to explain the Holocaust. 

The guys (yes, only men, ironic, no?) who started it soon after the end of WWII wanted to figure out how millions of people, many otherwise good and decent folks, allowed the slaughter of 6 million Jews.  Of course the current Penn State horror show is not on the scale of Nazi Germany but nonethless it involves a community that systematically turned a blind eye towards atrocious acts.     

Some of the lessons learned from the pioneering psychologists looking back at the Holocaust still hold up fifty years later and provide a few clues as to how adults could allow a child to be brutalized.

Like the work of Stanley Milgram, say his work on authority and his infamous Obedience Study.  Those of you who took Psych 101 surely remember this Milgram's classic that would never pass an institutional review board today.  Under the guise of a bogus learning experiment old Stanley asked research subjects to administer an electric shock to their unseen "partners" who answered questions.  With each incorrect answer the volt increased.  If you've seen the black and white movie, then you'll recall the screams and pleas from the partners to stop.  In reality it was a set up to see how far subjects would go to obey the experimenters commands.  More than half the subjects delivered the highest degree of shock.

The study is suppose to shock us about man's inhumanity to man.  Blah blah blah.  Not very shocking today in our Call of Duty violence-soaked media culture.   But it reminds me that people can and do ignore other's pleas for help and also harm others to keep their standing in the eyes of authorities.     

In some way the current horror show at Penn State can be viewed as individuals being afraid to cross their bosses, the higher ups.  Was the grad student motivated to "obey" his superiors? Maybe. Harder to think of Joe Paterno as being threatened by anyone but might he and others have exerted a powerful disincentive to act?

Some of the 1970s and early 80s work on The Bystander Effect shed some light too if only in the more ambiguous incidences.  It goes that in an emergency the chance of anyone receiving help decreases with the number of bystanders or observers.  Why? Two things.  The diffusion of responsibility and in some sense everyone standing around looking at everyone else who in turn are trying to figure out what to do and thus not acting so because no one is doing anything there doesn't seem to be an emergency so no one does anything. 

Watch, you'll see it all the time.

A couple weeks ago my 5-year old slammed his fingers in the heavy metal door at the pizzeria and though he was holding his hand and screaming in pain (and I was across the room paying) no one seemed to do anything though people were looking around like they expected someone to do something. 

Now it doesn't explain the terrible shower assault that clearly was an emergency but it does get at how lesser, more ambiguous incidents are dismissed.  Anyhow, it's why if you ever need help you should reach out to one person, tap them on the shoulder or call out to them and say you need help.  Otherwise you might be SOL as my dad would say. 

The most infamous demonstration of The Bystander Effect, and the one that prompted researchers to investigate it, surrounded the murder of a young woman, Kitty Genovese in Queens in the 60s.  According to plentiful media accounts and decades of psychology lecturers Kitty was brutally stabbed outside her apartment building for over an hour while 38 observers witnessed it and failed to intervene or call the police.  A few years ago a psych journal debunked some of the story - not that many people had actually witnessed it and some in fact had called police.  Nonetheless countless studies have demonstrated the effect, fine-tuning it for modern times.

Sociologist Hannah Arendt explained atrocities as the banality of evil.  Ordinary people coming to believe evil, immoral acts are simply normal, everyday acts.   Murder and rape become normalized.  But that's also hard to believe happened here.  I mean how do you normalize that? I bet if you asked Joe Paterno and friends a year ago about sodomizing a child they'd all say it was despicable (at least the hypothetical sodomy). 

And yet...

Nothing can quite explain it for me.  How about you?


Liz Ditz said...

Like you, I was horrified by the decades of denial. Why didn't that graduate student go to the police?

I have no explanation.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

I know, horrifying.

Just heard grad student has been placed on leave. Wish we would please, please make it absolutely clear to all people who have contact with children (i.e. like everybody!) that it is their duty to report this to not their superiors or parents but the police. Sign it into law. Not sure who is legally held responsible as both St. Joe and the university Prez haven't been arrested, charged or detained.