Tuesday, November 15, 2011

There Was No "Bystander Effect"

The Bystander Effect: Or Genovese syndrome is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases where individuals do not offer any means of help in an emergency situation to the victim when other people are present. The probability of help has in the past been thought to be inversely related to the number of bystanders; in other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. The mere presence of other bystanders greatly decreases intervention.
I've seen this thrown around the past few days in article after article I've read regarding the Penn State meltdown from last week. And in every single instance, the application of the phenomenon to the sexual assaults and eventual cover up at Penn State is as wrong as the day is long.

I was hoping it would go away, but incredibly, David Brooks (who I generally like in the NYT) wrote a smug piece today entitled "Let's All Feel Superior" where he tries to argue that all of the actors involved in the Penn State drama were victims of said Bystander Effect.
First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better.
Vanity? Since when is it "vain" to state (not assume) you would have done something different if you had stumbled upon these crimes in progress? The false premise/straw man he begins with is that the "indignation" most people feel is based on an "assumption" of better behavior.

For most people, there is no assumption. For most people (those "zillion commentators") it's a pretty straightforward reaction. As a friend of mine put it, "how did Sandusky leave the shower alive?" That's not based on an assumption.
So many people do nothing while witnessing ongoing crimes, psychologists have a name for it: the Bystander Effect. The more people are around to witness the crime, the less likely they are to intervene.
Except the details of the grand jury report refute the Bystander Effect at every turn. The grad student (and eventual assistant coach McQueary) who witnessed Sandusky raping a 10 year old in the shower didn't freeze, he reported it (although after calling his mommy first, which was weird). Granted, he didn't want to jeopardize his own future at Penn State so he reported it to Paterno rather than the police, but the point is he intervened.

Ditto the janitor who saw Sandusky performing oral sex on another kid in the showers. He didn't hesitate, he reported it to the police. Same with the mother of one of the victims, who upon learning from her kid what happened in 1998, didn't hesitate and immediately reported it to police. And so on.

The Bystander Effect refers to the reaction of onlookers as an event happens, not what happens afterward. The fact that no one at Penn State followed up on these crimes has nothing to do with the psychological impotence of witnessing a traumatic event.

Instead, what happened at PSU was a very calibrated, orchestrated, criminal conspiracy; a cover-up of massive proportion that involved all echelons of university administration and athletics; a true power-elite disappearance of the childhood victims of molestation and rape.

To suggest that somehow Paterno et al were "victims" insults the very real victims in this saga, and it mitigates university officials of their own criminal culpability in the events.

Virtually every word Brooks writes in that column (including "and" and "the") is wrong, with one exception.
People are really good at self-deception.
Take a look in the mirror, Dave.

If you're looking for a good example of Bystander Effect and the Penn State drama, check out the story of John Matko, who stood outside Penn State's stadium on Saturday holding a sign that read “Put abused kids first.” As the Nitwit Lions fans filed in past him, Matko was "punched, slapped, had epithets hurled at him, his signs ripped to the ground...all from young and old, students and alumni, men and women. No one intervened. No one spoke out against the abuse.”

There's your Bystander Effect, Dave.


MRMacrum said...

Well said and in your face. I like that. It amazes me that after all the reports, the rumors found true, the years that this went on enabled by a structure intent on keeping the boat afloat, the reaction now is to pillory anyone from the past who did try to make someone aware of the child molestation.

If nothing else this just reinforces how college sports have transcended the notion of fair play for fun. It is a big business that will be protected come Hell or high water.

crittertwitter said...

Thank you! I've been frustrated by the same thing - seeing the bystander effect referenced in article after article after article. It doesn't apply - McQueary was a lone witness. What these *articles* are an example of is folks misappropriating a statistic set to make their point. That's common enough, but it's pretty inflammatory when it is used to minimalize McQueary's lack of reaction to a child in distress.

The Bystander Effect applies when there are multiple firsthand witnesses and individuals feel that their responsibility is lessened because there are others present. So irritating... this misuse of the theory to rationalize poor behavior.