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A Word in Defense of the Witnesses and the Word Is "Ambiguity"

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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.’”

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

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