The Bystander Effect

I got into all manner of trouble this weekend after I made observations about the reactions to the Penn State sexual assault case. Many people called for harsh punishments to the entire Penn State football program in response the child molestation and subsequent cover-up that took place with line coach Jerry Sandusky back in the early 2000’s.

Let’s be clear: sodomizing ten year old boys is an horrific occurrence. Fortunately it’s not something that most of us wake up thinking that it’s a normal thing to participate in. But people are demanding for heads on a platter and this is where I depart from the conventional reaction. Joe Paterno; the legendary coach of Penn State; the Bear Bryant of Pennsylvania has been dismissed. The President of the University has been dismissed. The coach who initially reported the the act is on administrative leave.

My concern is that the outrage is so great that it’s taking down people as if they were guilty of the sodomy itself. I understand the complicity argument but this strikes me as a torch and pitchfork reaction. There is a call is to eliminate the football program for the rest of the year. That would punish a lot of people who had nothing to do with the original act of rape. Kids who spent their entire lives trying to get on Penn State’s football team. Coaches, players, staff, that had nothing to do with what Sandusky did years ago. A seventy million dollar program that bouys Penn State as an academic institution. How far do we want the punishment to go?

Neurologist António Damásio wrote in his book Descartes’ Error about how Native Americans in Honduras upon seeing the ships of Columbus in 1492 didn’t actually register the sight of them because they had no frame of reference to compare it to. They had never seen such boats before (for the record, I’m not entirely certain I buy Damasio’s argument over such scientists as Sachs, Sagan, and Ramachadran but it is an interesting argument). I think that there are good people being punished in the Penn State scenario for similar reasons. They have no frame of reference for it. But the sodomy was only perpetrated by one person. Yes, it’s easy to armchair quarterback and claim that you would have pursued some kind of different outcome. It’s easy to say that in hindsight you would have intervened or gone the distance and had Sandusky; a long time trusted colleague, arrested. But let’s face it, all these people were trying to do was build a good football team. Sexual deviancy was not on the menu.

Should Coach Paterno and others have done something more? Certainly. Should they be punished so harshly for not doing more? I’m not so certain. I think you’re throwing people under the bus for the sins of one man and that; in and of itself, is wrong. At some point justice becomes vigilantism.

Studies were done where psychologists set up experiments with hypothetical emergency situations were staged. The surprising results were called the bystander effect. It turns out that people were predisposed to not intervene in situations where moral turpitude was required.

According to a basic principle of social influence, bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing (nothing), they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. This is an example of pluralistic ignorance or social proof. The other major obstacle to intervention is known as diffusion of responsibility. This occurs when observers all assume that someone else is going to intervene and so each individual feels less responsible and refrains from doing anything.

Edmund Burke once said: “All that is necessary for evil to thrive is for good men to do nothing”. Should good men be punished for acting with uncertainty? Maybe. Should they be pilloried as equally as the molester? I don’t believe so. And just how far down that rabbit hole should you go? Should you end the football program at Penn State? How many coaches or University employees should be fired?

Sandusky’s actions will have consequences. I’m just not sure if the fallout that’s happening is necessary.

About Mr. Universe

Mr. Universe is a musician/songwriter and an ex-patriot of the south. He currently lives and teaches at a University in the Pacific Northwest. He is a long distance hiker who has hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. He is also an author and woodworker. An outspoken political voice, he takes a decidedly liberal stance in politics.
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