A common thread among reactions to the Penn State abuse allegations has been to say “Why didn’t they do more? I would have stepped in and made a difference." But this point of view is tainted by hindsight. Scott Huler asked several leading psychologists about how typical the Penn State situation is in terms of “speaking up”, and they had some interesting things to say.
In short, the witnesses acted - by not acting immediately - exactly how humans are known to act in these situations. From the findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment to the Bystander Effect (which I have written about previously), this is well-traveled ground for psychology researchers. Perhaps sadly so.
If only we had the power to act differently before hindsight saved us. Here’s an excerpt from the SciAm piece:
That is, as horrific as the Penn State abuse allegations are, and as stark as the situations from which the witnesses appear to have withdrawn without immediate action, the witnesses have acted exactly the way psychologists expect human beings to act.
“The thing that makes it so horrific to us,” says Ditto, “is ironically exactly what makes us throw the brakes on.” Ditto studies bias and error in human decision-making; Strom-Gottfried spends her time interviewing, as she describes them, “whistleblowers who have had episodes of moral cowardice.” I spoke to them – and other psychologists – because as the orgy of finger-pointing and recrimination expanded, I couldn’t find information about what seemed obvious to me. That uncertainty, horror, self-doubt, and garden-variety confusion – to say nothing of denial, fear of repercussions, and hierarchy status – make the witnesses’ actions predictable, understandable, and, at bottom, fundamentally human.
That doesn’t make them acceptable or okay – let’s get that out of the way: if you see a rape, act to stop it. You should – as the sports jocks say, you must. The thing is, we so commonly don’t.
… Everybody wants to feel sure that they’d do the right thing in a similar situation, but the science – and the psychologists – say, don’t be so sure. People are uncertain; people are afraid to make waves; people are afraid they’ll make a bad situation worse; people aren’t sure they’ll do the right thing; people fear they’ll just make a stink and end up humiliated themselves: “Nobody likes to be the skunk at the garden party,” Strom-Gottfried said. As Geller said, “These situations are much more ambiguous than people imagine.”
Nobody likes ambiguity regarding situations when right and wrong are so clear. But we do well to remember that that clarity often emerges only in hindsight – and often only for those of us who weren’t there. “People can reflect and say I would have done that,” said Geller. But there’s so much information saying, ‘I doubt that.’”