Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Vanity of Human Wishes: Joe Paterno and the "Bystander Effect"

David Brooks is not averse to committing psychology. In fact, he does it frequently, a practice we normally turn our noses up at around here. But Brooks makes a good point on the Penn State controversy in a New York Times article titled, "Let's All Feel Superior," a point I have made without the pscyhological dressing, which is that we are reading back into the situation all that we know now and from a viewpoint Paterno could not have had:
First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.
Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.
This seems to me self-evident, but many of these commentators can't wrest themselves from their knowledgable future perspective to see their vanity for what it is. They see, but they don't see. They are incapable of putting themselves in someone else's shoes.

Our culture has become coarse and nothing about the depravity of men is now hidden from us.We now know what people are capable of and we are accustomed to having it paraded before us in all its squalor on a daily basis. But we're talking about a man here who is of another generation. Paterno is 84 years old. He's not only old, he's old school. When someone tells him they witnessed something going on "of a sexual nature," the rest of us have a pretty vivid image of what that might be since we have seen it dramatized for us over and over and over again.

But people of Paterno's generation have not. He probably goes home and watches "Gunsmoke" reruns, not "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit." That's what I do.

I'm loathe to quote "studies" on anything, and so it makes me feel better about the studies that Brooks quotes that it is he who is quoting them. But the next time you hear someone tell you all the heroics he would have performed had he been in Paterno's shoes, remind them of the "Bystander Effect":
Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.

In another experiment at a different school, 68 percent of students insisted they would refuse to answer if they were asked offensive questions during a job interview. But none actually objected when asked questions like, “Do you think it is appropriate for women to wear bras to work?”

So many people do nothing while witnessing ongoing crimes, psychologists have a name for it: the Bystander Effect. 
I have had my differences with Brooks, but the piece is really good. Read the rest here.


KyCobb said...


Once again, pretty weak defense of Paterno. Yes, many people fail to do the right thing. But in your words, Paterno is a "great" man. Shouldn't we expect more? Moses was, I think you would agree, a greater man than Paterno, but God denied him the promised land due to one lapse in judgment. I don't see how anyone can justify being this indignant about Paterno's firing.

Martin Cothran said...

Bystand..., er, I mean KyCobb:

Go ahead, tell us of all the heroics you would have achieved in Paterno's circumstances. I'm sure it would be edifying for the rest of us.

My whole argument is that the mistake Paterno made is being blown far out of proportion to what we currently know about his involvement because what we know is not what he knew.

You don't seem to have even taken account of my point that we are judging Paterno, who did not have hindsight, in hindsight.

KyCobb said...


I hope I would've done more, but not having been in that situation I won't pretend I know I would've. That's not my point. Paterno knew that McQueary claimed he saw Sandusky at least fondling a boy in the Penn State locker room. Paterno trusts McQueary enough that he made McQueary a member of his coaching staff. Considering that coaches get fired just for not winning enough football games, I don't have a problem with the Board of Trustees firing Paterno because he knew of a highly credible accusation of child molestation and did little to stop it.

Singring said...

Martin, remember when Jared Loughner shot Giffords? You were lambasting anyone who was bringing up social or psychological factors to explain at least part of what he did and piut moral culpability squarely on Loughner's shoulders.

Then, a few weeks later, you said that college co-ed dorm policies are at least partly to blame for rape of female students and now here you are writing post after post making all kinds of social and psychological excuses for Paterno's immoral behaviour.

It is quite remarkable how you seem to freely and drastically change your stance on moral culpability and social/psychological factors in whichever way suits your predetermined position in a given case.

Lee said...

> I don't have a problem with the Board of Trustees firing Paterno because he knew of a highly credible accusation of child molestation and did little to stop it.

Well, what he did do was what was required under PA law, namely, to inform his supervisor, the athletic director.

Remember, at the time McQueary witnessed what he did, Sandusky was no longer on Paterno's staff.

So the issue hinges on whether Sandusky's continued presence at Penn State was something that Paterno should have made it his business to question. (Remember, Paterno is only the football coach. He's not the one who made the rules about a professor emeritus who gets to keep his office space and run activities at the school.)

And that is predicated on whether Paterno had faith that his chain of command was doing its duty.

Clearly, they didn't. But the evidence suggests it was someone else, not Paterno, who engineered any real or alleged quid pro quo -- i.e., Sandusky's early retirement in return for dropping further escalation of the incident.

What everyone is saying, in effect, is that it was Paterno's job to do the AD's job.

KyCobb said...


"What everyone is saying, in effect, is that it was Paterno's job to do the AD's job."

Martin said Paterno is a "great" man; that Paterno is Penn State. That, to me, would indicate he had a duty to act when the AD fails; you don't achieve the status of "great" by doing the absolute minimum. However, I doubt any football coach in the country could survive being viewed as someone who looked the other way while children were being molested.

Lee said...

> However, I doubt any football coach in the country could survive being viewed as someone who looked the other way while children were being molested.

By saying he looked the other way, you are implying that it was there in plain sight for him to see. We don't know that, at this time.

KyCobb said...


What we do know is that McQueary told Paterno that he saw Sandusky fondling or doing something sexual with a child in the Penn State locker room. Martin's defense of Paterno is that that might have been all Paterno knew. If Paterno choose not to demand that McQueary tell him exactly what he witnessed (which was Sandusky actively raping a child), but simply accepted that vague description, in my book that's looking the other way.