The Situationist

The Situation of Penn State Bystanders

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 14, 2011

Many blame-laden fingers have been pointed at those who didn’t act immediately and decisively to stop the sexual atrocities that took place at Penn State.  We all know what the right thing to do was, and we are all confident that we would have done it.

But should we be?

To state the obvious, what transpired within the Penn State football system was wrong on many levels.  We know that rape is wrong, that rape should never happen, that if a rape does occur, it should be stopped from happening again.   We know that pedophilia is wrong, that using power to exploit the vulnerable is wrong, that turning a blind eye to misdeeds is wrong. Still, wrong happens.

Perhaps going forward many of us may be more likely to “do the right thing” after this media frenzy than we would have been had we never been confronted with this story.  But I’m interested in a slightly different question:  would we ourselves, in the precise situation of those we are judging, really have acted so differently?  Would we have immediately, vocally, and publicly intervened, protested, and contacted the police?

As this blog routinely highlights, for more than a half century, social psychology has been dismantling the notion that we can accurately predict our own behavior in strange situations.   The names of Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, and Phil Zimbardo are all familiar because of what their research reveals: We often fail where we expect we would succeed.

And yet that lesson doesn’t stick; the illusion of our own imagined heroism remains robust.  Even many of us familiar with the countless experiments illustrating the power of situation and the illusion of disposition manage to exempt ourselves from those lessons and assign blame to those who did not measure up to our standards.

We easily assign blame when they found ways to diffuse responsibility.  We see with clarity where they saw ambiguity.   We wonder how could they be so blind and so immoral and conclude that they are not like us.

To reach such a conclusion, we  place more faith in our rage than we do in the lessons of social science.  A mountain of research shows that we  have much more in common with those we judge harshly than we want to believe.  Among those similarities is the motive to see ourselves, our groups, our systems, and our world in affirming ways.  The tendency to see “them” as different and ourselves as superior is a symptom of the same nonconscious motivational force that allowed “them” to see themselves as doing enough.

We should resolve to do the right thing both when we encounter wrongdoing and when we judge others who encounter wrongdoing.  That is not only the honest and empathetic approach, it is our best hope to gird ourselves against the strong currents of our own situation.

* * *

The following 37-minute video was assembled hastily to introduce a small group of my students to the events unfolding at Penn State.  It contains video clips that depict, among other things, the integral role that football has long played at Penn State, the legendary and iconic status of Joe Paterno at that university, the different perspectives taken of those events and of Joe Paterno, and the various ways in which public and private law and the media have shaped the coverage and the reaction to the unfolding events.  The video also includes several clips from ABC’s “What Would You Do?” series hosted by John Quiñones.  Those clips might help remind viewers of some of the ways in which we tend to overestimate our own propensity to speak up, to resist, to get involved, or to fight back and underestimate our readiness to sit on our hands, to turn away, to opt for rose-tinted spectacles, or to go with the flow.

The video, be warned, has many problems (e.g., quality, editing, organization, redundancies); it did, however, provide useful fodder for what I thought was an illuminating discussion.  Because of that, I decided to include it here in case others might find it useful.  Though credits are not included, the vast majority of the videos can be found on Youtube.

A Sample of related Situationist posts:

 

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