Bystander Psychology: Why Some Witnesses to Crime Do Nothing

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Former head coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions talks with Mike McQueary, currently the wide receivers coach, in January 2010. Paterno was fired on Wednesday and McQueary is on leave due to alleged death threats.

The grand jury investigation that resulted in 40 counts of child abuse against Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, has raised profoundly unsettling psychological and moral questions about the actions — or lack thereof — of others involved in the case.

Head football coach Joe Paterno was fired by the university on Wednesday for his failure to intervene upon learning about the alleged long-running abuse. But many more questions center on Mike McQueary, who is still employed by Penn State; he witnessed child rape firsthand in 2002, when he was a graduate assistant coach, but did not alert the police.

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How is it that a powerfully built ex-quarterback could watch the rape of a 10-year-old boy and do nothing to stop it? Why did he neglect to report what he saw to legal authorities for nearly a decade, even knowing that the perpetrator spent much of his time with at-risk youth? And why did the team and the university fail to act at every possible step?

McQueary, who is now a wide receivers coach at Penn State, did tell his superior, Paterno, about the attack he witnessed eight years ago, but he did not call the police or get help for the boy at the time. (Now reportedly the focus of death threats, McQueary won’t be coaching Saturday’s game against Nebraska.) McQueary isn’t the only alleged witness to do nothing: a Penn State janitor witnessed a separate assault on a child two years earlier, and similarly failed to contact police.

The rest of us would like to believe that no matter how small or scared we were, if we saw a child being raped, we’d step in and stop it, or at the very least call 911 immediately. But social psychology research on “bystander” behavior suggests that many of us might actually turn away.

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The most famous instance of witness apathy involves the 1964 murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese in New York City. News accounts — and later, social psychology texts — said the victim and her screams were ignored by 38 witnesses as she was stabbed to death on a Queens street. (Genovese’s killer was denied parole this week.)

But while research has shown that many such witnesses do fail to intervene, in part because they assume others around them will do so, it turns out that the popular account of the Genovese case is largely urban legend. There were not in fact 38 witnesses, but many fewer, and most onlookers said they did not see or hear the full assault; many of the witnesses did call police.

Still, says Mark Levine, a social psychologist at Lancaster University in the U.K., the Genovese story is a “very powerful parable. It taps into something people feel about human psychology, probably mistakenly: that somehow, when we’re with other people, we lose our rational capacity or personal identity, which controls our behavior.”

Levine, who first brought to the public’s attention the problems with the Genovese case accounts, says that group dynamics do influence our actions, but not exactly the way we think. His own research has shown that being with others doesn’t always — or even typically — reduce altruistic behavior. However, the type of group we’re in and the relationships we have with its members, and with outsiders, do tend to influence how likely or unlikely we may be to help.

When the actions of a group are public and visible, insiders who behave in an unacceptable way — doing things that “contravene the norms of the group,” Levine says — may actually be punished by the group more harshly than an outsider would be for the same behavior. “It’s seen as a threat to the reputation of the group,” says Levine.

(LIST: Seven Key Players in the Penn State Abuse Case)

In contrast, when the workings of a group are secretive and hidden — like those of a major college football team, for instance, or a political party or the Catholic priesthood — the tendency is toward protecting the group’s reputation by covering up. Levine suggests that greater transparency in organizations promotes better behavior in these situations.

“It’s the norms and the values of the group that are important,” Levine says, noting that this fact doesn’t reflect very well on Penn State. Indeed, the riot that broke out after the firing of revered coach Paterno — who appears to have covered up for his former colleague, Sandusky, or at least looked the other way, rather than reporting him to the police — suggests that group solidarity with the football team still takes priority over support for abused children at the school.

(MORE: Mind Reading: Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen on Empathy and the Science of Evil)

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