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.

Another factor that may have prevented action by McQueary and others is denial. Social psychologist Stanley Cohen identified several forms of denial that may cause people to ignore atrocities. There’s the denial that commonly occurs in response to difficult situations like receiving a cancer diagnosis or becoming addicted to drugs: the simple repressing of information and refusal to admit that the problem exists or has occurred.

In McQueary’s case, however, there seems to have been another type of denial at play, which Cohen labeled “interpretative.” “You don’t deny that something happened, but try to transform the meaning of it,” says Levine, explaining that a witness might minimize the significance of a crime or try to see it as something other than it was.

McQueary may well have been psychologically unable to accept that a man like Sandusky, someone he admired, had actually committed the abhorrent crime he witnessed. Research suggests that when people are faced with situations that threaten their view of the world as relatively fair and decent, rather than revising their own perspective, they often create accounts that deny reality, blame the victim or otherwise rationalize the situation.

In my own reporting, I’ve seen this many times in parents who send their children to “troubled teen” programs. These largely unregulated programs, which purport to rehabilitate teens with drug and behavioral problems, are associated with thousands of accounts of abuse and neglect, according to an investigation [PDF] by the Government Accountability Office.

But many parents refuse to believe their own children’s claims of such abuse or minimize their seriousness — even when the abuse is officially documented — because it would be psychologically too painful for them to believe that their choice to send their children to the program caused harm.

Indeed, a key reason that child sex abuse often stays hidden is that it is difficult for people to accept that a trusted authority figure or loved one could do something so awful.

(LIST: Six Ways Joe Paterno Infiltrated Penn State Culture)

A third factor that influences the likelihood that people will intervene in violence is whether they feel their actions will be supported by others in the community around them. Levine studied the case of James Bulger, a 2-year-old who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by two older boys in 1990 in Liverpool. Many witnesses saw the boys with the bleeding toddler, but since the boys claimed to be the victim’s brothers, no one confronted them.

The group norm in modern society in the U.K. — and in the U.S. — is that you don’t get involved in other families’ business. “They used to say in the ’50s that children were ‘everbody’s children,'” says Levine. “Adults took responsibility for all children, rather than, ‘I take responsibility for mine and you take responsibility for yours.'”

But these days, each family stands on its own. Such narrowly drawn lines of responsibility prevent intervention by outsiders, because people feel they will not be supported and may even be condemned for stepping in. Indeed, in our culture, it’s considered taboo for outsiders to involve themselves in most family matters.

In contrast, in Sweden, hitting children was made illegal in 1979 and the rights of the child are considered in that culture to supersede those of the family. If someone is seen hitting a child on the street, other parents can and often will try to stop the harm.

While it is not clear exactly how the norms or values of Penn State may have affected the lack of action by its leadership in response to such vile abuse, it is clear that something went very wrong. A pedophile should not have been allowed to operate with impunity, especially after having been caught in the act twice.

Understanding the psychology of these situations can help increase the chances that bystanders will step up when people need assistance, but it does not excuse the failures of those who do nothing.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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