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A Word in Defense of the Witnesses—and the Word Is “Ambiguity”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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You and I – and every single other decent person on the planet who has heard about the Penn State abuse allegations – are having the same revenge fantasy. Or, I don’t know, call it a Guardian Angel fantasy. We would have run into the shower and wrapped the kid in a towel; we would have grabbed a bat and whacked the coach; we would have blown our trusty whistle and dialed 911 while simultaneously pulling the fire alarm and screaming “Stop!”

Every radio sports jock on the dial has said the same thing: “You just can’t see something like that happening and walk away. You just can’t!”

Except the grand jury testimony shows – well, yes you can. People do. People did. People saw unspeakable things happening, and instead of putting on their superhero costumes and running to the rescue they … hesitated. They hoped it would stop. They walked away, and then thought better of that and called their bosses. And you know you would have done better, right?

Peter Ditto, professor of psychology in the department of psychology and Social Behavior at UC-Irvine, says of course you would – just like he does, every time he promises never to fail to object to another racist comment uttered in front of his kids. Then someone makes one, and he says, “You know you need to say something, and you say, oh, I ought to …” and then while he’s formulating a response, “the moment passes.” And another racist remark goes unchallenged.

Kim Strom-Gottfried, professor in the school of social work at UNC-Chapel Hill, puts the response of the Penn State witnesses in equally everyday terms: “Have you ever seen anybody slug their kid in a grocery store?” she asks. And what did you do?

Thought so. “So, what’s going through your head? ‘I didn’t want to make it worse.’ Or, ‘I was so shocked I couldn’t process what I saw.’ Then you try to talk yourself out of seeing what you saw,” like the parent in seemingly every family abuse story, turning up the television to drown out the horrors the spouse is committing upstairs. Anyhow, maybe a day later you figure out what you should have done, though by then it’s far too late to do anything. Or, like the witness, a day later you do report it — to your supervisor, since it seems way too late to call the police.

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. I went looking for the science of why.

I can’t say I ever found it, which makes this a perfect blog post: if you do know of specific experiments about this, post them below. I’m aching to follow up.

But the psychologists with whom I spoke showed unanimity: this is who we are, and acting surprised by it doesn’t make it less so. The science they did cite was all of it familiar to you. Jeffery Braden, professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and dean of its College of Humanities and Social Sciences, cited the famous Stanley Milgram experiments, during which 65 percent of subjects proved willing to deliver shocks causing unspeakable punishment to “learners,” research confederates who in reality experienced no shock or pain. The point, he said, is that, “you ask people on the street, would you do this? Everyone will say, ‘No, I would never do that.’ But the research shows that a majority would.”

The experiments measured response to authority, and as many have pointed out, the indicted coach had a high degree of power in the Penn State football program, making the witnesses feel coerced to accept any behavior by those in authority.  “Those kind of influences,” Braden says, “also operate in shaping people’s behavior in ways that people often are literally unaware of.”

Braden noted that the Milgram experiments were replicated by the Zimbardo prison experiments, in which subjects – mostly Stanford students – acted so horrifically that the experiment was stopped. Again:  ask an average Stanford student if he’d be likely to actually torture a classmate if asked to during a role-playing experiment as a prison guard, and he’d likely tell you he’s certain he wouldn’t. “That work,” Braden said, “really underscores the difference between how people think they’re going to act and how people really act.”

Virginia Tech psychology professor Scott Geller studies behavior motivation, and he identified five different factors that affect everyone’s behavior, all the time: perceived competence, sense of belonging, degree of optimism, perception of personal control, and self-esteem. In considering competence he brought up whether anybody would really feel competent to rush into a shower where a full-grown man was engaging in sex – for comparison, consider your feelings the last time someone nearby appeared to be choking. You may know the Heimlich maneuver, but an awful lot of people will hope someone else knows it better before acting.

Many people brought up the “bystander effect” described in the famous witnessed stabing of Kitty Genovese. In that case researches largely blamed the fact that most witnesses claimed to think someone else would call the police, which seems to not apply to the witnesses at Penn State, who were alone when they saw what they saw.

But Geller thinks that case does still apply. The witnesses saw someone highly placed doing something that they probably believed was widely known: that is, someone would take some kind of action, and by not acting immediately the witnesses avoided certain discomfort, possible humiliation (if they were somehow mistaken), and all kinds of uncertain consequences to their lives and careers. Anyone whose fear for their safety or career if threatening Joe Paterno made them hesitate certainly had their fears corroborated when students rioted after Paterno’s release.

All that said, I’m still waiting for strong science showing how – or maybe, better, why – people hesitate like this to help in crisis. The psychologists I spoke with all said just what I would have expected, just what I hoped they’d say when I started making phone calls to find out whether I was the only person who found the recrimination towards the witnesses, if easily understandable, at least disingenuous.

Yep, they all said. 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.’”

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 23 Comments

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  1. 1. billsmith 1:37 pm 11/13/2011

    Sociological explanations of immoral behavior, particularly when expressed to a general audience, need to tread very carefully. All too often, the discussions devolve into “How can you justify their behavior!”

    It’s very important to set a line between “is” and “ought”, between “explaining” and “excusing”. Saying that the accused is not guilty is quite a different thing from begging the judge for a merciful sentence after guilt has been determined.

    Thus, this paragraph is essential to the essay: “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. I went looking for the science of why.”

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  2. 2. billsmith 1:39 pm 11/13/2011

    The other possible objection to this essay is its relevance. “Why should we bother picking apart the reasons? It’s immoral, and that’s that.” It is not enough to simply resolve to act more morally. Like the psychology professor’s racism example shows, you can’t keep making the same promise to yourself and expect different results. You need to take concrete action, and for that, you need information on your strengths and vulnerabilities.

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  3. 3. Cogitari 2:27 pm 11/13/2011

    Thank you for the link to the grand jury testimony. It was good to have some facts on which to base an opinion rather than the emotional stuff which constitutes most of the articles on this.

    First of all, from what I read in the testimony, the three witnesses did take appropriate action: they reported what they saw to someone in authority. In the one case where the victim was clearly distraught, the report was made to the police.

    The failing I see here is in the actions of those in authority, especially the case where the police got a confession and were satisfied with a promise not to do it again. This is the part which sparks my outrage.

    Though it was not clearly spelled out, my guess is that the reason those in authority did nothing was that the victims were all welfare children: people who all too many in our society find it acceptable to be contemptuous of, look down upon as less-then-human and even be actively hostile towards. I think it is making these attitudes towards those of low status in our society unacceptable which is really needed to keep this sort of thing from happening again.

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  4. 4. promytius 3:33 pm 11/13/2011

    I would not have hesitated, and I was saddened to read about so much cowardice in the face of clear action; people need to realize life is not televised, it is experienced. I know I would not have hesitated because I did intervene in an unrelated experience. You must. How could you not?

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  5. 5. 7:59 pm 11/13/2011

    This sort of intellectual and moral garbage goes a long way toward explaining why such behavior can occur. The situation was of textbook clarity: a young, strong, vigorous man comes on a 50-something naked man anally raping a small child–and we are supposed to liken his moral responsibilities to those of someone hearing an ugly remark being passed? Whether or not he could or should have physically intervened is arguable, but “Stop that right now!” followed by taking the child to a safe location and then an immediate call to police (real police, not “security”) are simply not negotiable. The magic word we are looking for here is “cowardice”.

    That has nothing to do with whether this or that person would truly have stepped up. But it is not a “Guardian Angel fantasy”; that sort of characterization is shockingly dismissive. It is the basics of being able to say one is human.

    (Writer John Scalzi’s recent blog post on the subject, and the huge comments thread following it, are an excellent fact-based view of the matter: (

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  6. 6. LarryW 10:57 pm 11/13/2011

    It’s nice to believe that under these circumstances, we would do the right thing. And like billsmith, I do not buy the arguments because they are not reasons but excuses.

    Perhaps our mistake is believing we can do the right things without practice. These situations and experiments are not something we encounter in our daily lives. Maybe for many of these situations, it’s a simple matter.

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  7. 7. MarinaFromCampbellCA 4:12 am 11/14/2011

    For some reason, likely not this episode, I was thinking about The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas, recently. I see John Scalzi has referenced it WRT this episode.

    However, it seems that the “unacting onlookers” bit for the Kitty Genovese rape & murder is inaccurate. Wikipedia states:
    The lead paragraph is dramatic but factually inaccurate. None of the witnesses observed the attacks in their entirety. Because of the layout of the complex and the fact that the attacks took place in different locations, no witness saw the entire sequence of events. Most only heard portions of the incident without realizing its seriousness, a few saw only small portions of the initial assault, and no witnesses directly saw the final attack and rape, in an exterior hallway, which resulted in Genovese’s death.[1] Additionally, after the initial attack punctured her lungs, leading to her eventual death from asphyxiation, it is unlikely that she was able to scream at any volume.[20]
    Nevertheless, media attention to the Genovese murder led to reform of the NYPD’s telephone reporting system; the system in place at the time of the assault was often hostile to callers, inefficient and directed individuals to the incorrect department. The intense press coverage also led to serious investigation of the bystander effect by psychologists and sociologists. In addition, some communities organized Neighborhood Watch programs and the equivalent for apartment buildings to aid people in distress.

    Please consult the Wikipedia entry for the backup references.

    The Kitty Genovese murder did indeed spark change–among other things mentioned above, people weren’t as likely to dismiss sounds of male/female conflict as domestic violence they shouldn’t report, although it took law enforcement agencies rather longer to change their policies regarding domestic violence reports.

    Let us hope that this particular scandal prompts similar changes, without denial of such occurences, even in the face of those who “internalize organizational loyalty above personal ethics”*, an example of which is the Catholic Church regarding child abuse/rape by its priests, and some nuns, throughout the last century, and into this one.


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  8. 8. jayjacobus 11:35 am 11/14/2011

    Here are some of the thoughts a witness might have:

    The authorities must already know of the behavior.
    This is a test of my loyalty/morals. (and which is more improtant?)
    Witnesses are often punished (McQueary was fired.)
    I do not want to be the sole accuser. (I am only a witness.)
    No one will take my word for what I saw. (I will be viewed as a troublemaker.)
    I do not have any evidence. (I can’t accuse the pedophile without evidence.)
    I must be misinterpretting what I saw. (No one could do something so vile.)

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  9. 9. huler 11:39 am 11/14/2011

    One point brought up in these comments is exactly right, and i probably should have used this quote in the article. Kim Strom-Gottfried brought up the work of Rush Kidder on Moral Courage, and paraphrased him thus: “You can’t see someone drowning and go off and take a Red Cross course. In these situations, many of us haven’t done the preparation.” So she agrees — and I agree — that the strongest thing we can learn from a story like this is that we should prepare better for such incidents. We should practice, that is, for heroism. Who would not be for that? People perform amazing acts of heroism and selflessness. Just the same, as Strom-Gottfried also said, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

    I have to say, though, that the Scarzi post that people linked to struck me as just another version of the radio sports jocks screaming in outrage. Of course they’re outraged; we’re all outraged. And of course they — and we — are furious about the failures of those who witnessed and in other ways failed to take action. This post was meant to ask about why that happened, not — as the original post makes clear — excuse it.

    A similar piece, on, well researched, asked similar questions:

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  10. 10. larkalt 12:38 pm 11/14/2011

    You have to practice in daily life relating to people you don’t know. Little opportunities to help come up all the time. Then when something major happens, you will already have some assurance in dealing with people and be more able to be effective in a real crisis.
    A few months ago in the grocery store, I noticed that a guy’s head was shaking. I’d chatted with him a bit earlier and he’d told me he was a strict vegetarian, so I immediately thought “B12 deficiency”. I looked it up later and found that it could indeed be from B12 deficiency. So I happened to see that guy at the library, and (with some trepidation) told him he might be B12 deficient, gave him a website address – – with info about B12 for vegans. It turned out he was being very casual about B12 supplements. I felt good about being able to help someone, being a moral agent with a near-stranger.
    Other times, I’d not felt able to intervene, like when the security guard at the library was yelling at a kid, about 5 years old, and the feeling of powerlessness and shame afterwards got me thinking about getting in the habit of engaging with people, saying things that matter.
    Another example is anti-vaccination attitudes. Often people I chat with casually in public bring this up. So preparing something to say that might mean something to anti-vaxxers, is a way of trying to be a moral agent.
    There are chances to help all over the place. It can be obnoxious and self-righteous, like the time I was asking a pharmacy clerk about self-test kits for bladder infections, and a woman nearby butted in, telling me I shouldn’t use a test kit, I should just go to the doctor. She didn’t know that self-testing for a bladder infection is always a bad idea, she just *thought* she knew, so she interfered with my conversation with the clerk.
    If you intervene with a parent abusing their child, it’s VERY important not to come down too hard on the parent. Otherwise the parent will get angry and take it out on their child later. They’re probably stressed out, being a mother can be nervewracking.
    So, intervening effectively is a social skill. You can learn it by practicing in everyday life, and learning how to do it without being obnoxious.

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  11. 11. ghostrider 2:05 pm 11/14/2011

    It all boils down to courage. I was faced with a situation similar to the “racist” example only it was a family member, my mother, and it was Christmas. She was expressing her views on our President, she’s Republican and I’m Independent, and she used the n-word in reference to him. I was shocked, I never considered that she had any racist view points nor that she would ever use that word. While it took a second to register, I stopped her and told her simply don’t ever use that word in front of me. I knew I was taking a risk and our relationship is not the same but you just can’t let stuff like that go.

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  12. 12. sstrat 2:48 pm 11/14/2011

    I can’t help but wonder if the outcome would have been different if one of the witnesses were a mother. It would be interesting to see any of these studies where the cohort were women with children.

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  13. 13. LarryW 3:10 pm 11/14/2011

    A summary of my post and those who elaborated on it might simply be the Scouts’ Oath: “Be Prepared”.

    Being prepared and acting on it when the situation offers itself may look like courage from those not prepared, but that won’t be the reality for those who are.

    And maybe we can stop applying the word “hero” to people whose deeds should be common, and reserve the word for those deeds which are truly extraordinary.

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  14. 14. larkalt 6:37 pm 11/14/2011

    Those situations ARE something that we encounter in our daily lives, just on a smaller scale. That’s what I was saying, and learning how to help in the less dramatic situations may help a person cope better if something drastic happens.
    And if you do try to help in the less dramatic situations, it will likely matter more, because they happen a lot more often.
    A lot of people probably don’t take much notice of people outside their family and friends. Someone who’s in the habit of ignoring outsiders is probably more likely to ignore a rape or murder happening in front of them, too.

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  15. 15. huler 12:14 am 11/15/2011

    The direction of these comments is inspiring. It seems like what we’re all yearning for — demanding? — is something that would fall under the heading of a kind of ethical first-aid course. Does that make sense? The psychologists have identified — and our own histories leave little doubt that they’re correct — failings that seem to be common and human, though we all want to overcome them. How do we do that, seems to be the next question. Do we add into our schools, maybe in middle school, where bullying becomes most profound, a course on responsibility, on stepping forward, on, as I said, ethical first-aid? I’m asking. I’m wondering.

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  16. 16. billsmith 2:12 am 11/15/2011

    @LarryW #6
    The whole reason I brought up those two objections to the article was that I agree with what the author is trying to do and hoped to preemptively correct two possible shallow misreadings and misunderstandings of his intent.

    Let me try again. If you say “The child stole the cookies because they were easy to reach” this is an /explanation/. It does /not/ in any way diminish the fact that the child is guilty of theft. Stealing is stealing. The explanation does, however, suggest a short-term method to avoid the problem and also a way to teach the child not to steal.

    Likewise, determining the internal and external conditions that promote moral cowardice is in no way denying the existence of such cowardice or diminishing the culpability of the person who engages in it. Cowardice is cowardice. Rather, scientific studies will complement traditional understandings and help us encourage moral courage and basic human decency.

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  17. 17. JDahiya 3:31 am 11/15/2011

    Huler, #15, good idea!

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  18. 18. jaia 5:33 pm 11/15/2011

    This is why I like the TV show “What Would You Do?”. It gives you a chance to see what other people do in difficult situations and mentally rehearse.

    There are some websites and organizations that teach what to do if you see an escalating parent-child situation. Sympathy, humor and distraction are great tools.

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  19. 19. lkw787a 5:20 pm 11/17/2011

    Here’s my example of the way my brain turned a situation that should have read as abnormal into something normal so that I did not have to deal with it: I came home late one night from a class and found myself locked out of our apartment since my b.f. had thrown the top lock and I did not have a key. I knocked and knocked but he had fallen asleep and did not hear. A man stood by the curb, waiting (I assumed) for the bus. As I turned to walk away to try to find a pay phone from which to call my boyfriend and wake him up (this was in the days prior to cel phones) the man said, “It’s ok, he heard you” and I turned and went inside.

    The next morning we awoke to find that all the glass windows had been stolen out of our cars…windshields, side windows, etc. There had been a rash of such thefts, the police told us when we called, (who knew that there was a black market for auto glass, but apparently there is/was). That man “waiting for the bus?” had been a lookout for the thieves and there was NO bus stop out front of our apartment, a fact I should have known, but it was dark out, I felt uncomfortable, he looked Latino and I didn’t want to be guilty of profiling him (even privately) so my brain made up an acceptable story to explain his presence.

    Embarrassing but true.

    I’m sure that I could come up with more examples if I thought hard enough…

    This may not directly pertain but for some reason it comes to my mind now:

    I suffered a major stroke at my daughter’s birth last March (from HELLP Syndrome, a rare and extreme form of eclampsia) and was put in a rehab house in which my daughter and husband were not allowed to live with me. One night I awoke to see a woman creeping thru my room. I chased her out, asking, “Who are you? Who are you?” In the kitchen she and I sat down at a table and she explained that she was someone assigned the task of checking in on me at night to make sure that I was ok. However, due to the brain injury that inflicted severe short term memory deficits I could not remember he exact words, only the gist of what she said and my overriding memory was of unwelcome intrusion and of fear.

    The next night I blocked the door with an armchair but I was told by the staff that I could not do that since they needed access to my room at night in case of emergency.

    So the next night instead I put shoes on the floor, in order that she would have to pick her way around them (anything to make it more difficult for her.) The house monitor chuckled that I feared this person who (she said) was “such a nice, sweet girl.” Yes, but she is a stranger creeping around my bed at night,” I wanted to retort, “And I am a light sleeper.”

    After that I became convinced that the house had cameras behind the mirrors which they used to monitor me (and all of us.) I felt so sure of this that I told the people who worked there that I was on to them. So they sent me to a shrink and of course they misrepresented why I was going, “A routine review of your meds,” they explained. (I was on antidepressants.) The shrink was very rude to the caseworker assigned to bring me since she didn’t have the required paperwork with her and he grilled me with a list of questions about my mental health in a very rude and condescending manner, “Do you hear voices when no one is around?”

    “No, I’m not schizophrenic,” I replied.

    “Let me finish the question!” he barked.

    “Do you have bursts of energy and trouble sleeping?” he asked,

    “No, I’m not manic,” I responded.

    “Let me finish the question!” he practically shrieked.

    “Do people talk about you when you’re not around?”

    “No, I’m not paranoid,” I explained.

    Another angry shriek from him as he clutched his clipboard of questions to his chest. (Were my questions taking up too much of his time?)

    Well, although I may not have been paranoid prior to this session I sure as heck felt paranoid after that. I called my sister, an attorney, in NY and asked her to ask our father (also an attorney) what it takes to get someone declared mentally ill and put away in the state of CA (since I was convinced that my husband must be trying to do this since he had consented to the doctor’s visit and been present at the meeting.) My sister replied, “Dad says it take two psychiatrists to sign off on your mental state, to say that you are mentally ill.”

    I vowed that even if it meant clinging to the doorframe with my hands I would not allow CNS to take me to ANOTHER doctor.

    The social worker on staff at CNS told me that I was wrong, that no one had been trying to have me committed and that this had merely been a “routine review of my meds”and she even wrote it down on post its for me to put in my daily planner so I would not forget this but when I shared this story with a friend who used to be a psychiatrist she replied, “Your story makes no sense to me. Any internist can review your meds. It does not have to be a psychiatrist.”

    Puzzled, I shared her statement with my husband and he confessed that indeed CNS had been worried about my paranoia and thus taken me to the psychiatrist and that they had told him the visit was to see if anything needed to be done (medically) to help me. He agreed to it because he thought it would be like a therapy session rather than this cruel interrogation. When he confessed this to me I burst into tears at his deception. “IF I can’t trust YOU who can I trust?” I sobbed.

    After this we insisted on a sit-down with the staff in which we told them, “There must be no more lies” and they agreed to transparency from then on.

    However, my heart breaks to think of other TBI patients who are not able to advocate on behalf of themselves and who do not have loyal family members (like I did in my husband) willing to tell them the truth (when pressed.) CNS is considered one of the country’s premiere facilities for treatment of brain injury and yet, from my experiences there, I would say that there is a lot of room for improvement.

    Just because someone has a TBI that inflicts memory deficits they are NOT helpless nor are they mentally ill and they should be treated with the respect that non brain injured patients receive.

    I hope to make advocacy for the brain injured part of my life’s work after this awful experience.

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  20. 20. lkw787a 5:31 pm 11/17/2011

    I think that my story (above) shows how we take the fragments of information we have and weave them into a narrative to help ourselves make sense of them. It is how we are programmed.

    Checking the narrative with outside, independent sources (in journalism, as well as in life) is very important. See: the US/Iraq conflict, for instance, a response to 9/11 rooted in understandable paranoia but not based on solid evidence…In that situation the need to create a coherent story (that served our economic purposes as well as fell into an ideological line) overrode common sense/real evidence/advice of reliable people in the Intelligence communities that there were NO WMD in Saddam’s Iraq. Of course, the consequences were tragic.

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  21. 21. rmorecook 2:58 pm 11/18/2011

    You asked for more research findings by experimental psychologists — consider the Good Samaritan Study done by Darley and Batson in 1973. They found that people ‘in a hurry’ are less likely to help folks who are not. Here’s a link to a summary. The original full write up is available in the journals. Bob M Sugar Land TX

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  22. 22. janand712 3:06 pm 11/18/2011

    Many years ago, I witnessed many instances of abuse of authority by a person in my profession. Although the complaint could be made anonymously, at some point in time, in might become necessary to testify in person (and it did). The initial anonymity made me more comfortable, and I also had the comfort of knowing that I could remain anonymous at several stages in the inquiry. In the end, if I wanted to achieve some justice for the victims, I had to relinquish that shield.

    Although I am not sorry I testified, at least one of this man’s colleagues punished me, sometimes very subtly. Others of my profession thanked me for my ‘courage;’ but I couldn’t help thinking that I wouldn’t have needed to be so courageous if more of them had come forward.

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  23. 23. kanya 7:38 am 01/16/2013

    Such a nice thought,it makes me think. Thank you so much.
    It change my mind.

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