What would YOU do?


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Everyone is tired of hearing our University's name dragged through the mud following the awful events that have recently come out, but here is the topic that people seem to be glossing over - which is, in reality, hugely relevant. Andrew touched on it briefly in class. I can't help but notice that suddenly there are all kinds of noble, righteous people in the world, speaking out against the inaction of senior members at the University who only reported to their direct superiors instead of calling the police immediately.

Usually, people witness something terrible and don't do anything about it at all, or wait a relatively long period of time before acting. In psychology fields, it's called the Bystander Effect, and was made popular after the case of Kitty Genovese. The bystander effect is the phenomenon that says the greater number of people present to witness something bad, the less likely people are to help a person in distress. When an emergency situation occurs, observers are more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses. These are examples of other times the bystander effect has done major harm.

One study I found entitled Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility shows the effects a group has on the speed that people react to an emergency. The study was extremely straightforward and produced straightforward results:

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This table shows that fewer people respond slower when in a larger group situation.

Another study I found (the abstract is available here) says that while gender isn't a major contributor, men considered to be "highly masculine" were far less likely to help due to potential embarrassment.

Here's one more bit of information from Latane and Darley that details the steps of events after someone witnesses something bad (in this case, a man having a heart attack):

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I could post more - these studies are EVERYWHERE - but they all say the same thing. So what does this mean for Penn State? For Mr. Paterno and Mr. McQueary?

Well, first off, it suggests that they did more than most would. They reported it to a superior within a day, which other studies say is more than what most people would do.

What I also am making of it goes cleanly with what the bystander effect says: people expect diffusion of responsibility when more people are involved. When the two men found out about the 2002 incident, each reported it quickly to a superior. And then, as more people allegedly started know, diffusion of responsibility began to set in and people assumed it was less their responsibility to act on it.

Does this make it okay to sit on crucial, harmful information for (possibly) decades? To allow this alleged monster to roam around campus, endangering children? Certainly not. But it is a legitimate psychological effect. And it's interesting because no one, including all the critics of the actions of these two men, truly knows what they would have done if put in a situation like this. But studies say people would have done either the same thing, or more likely, even less.

3 Comments

Very cool post, Judith and one that is relevant to every Penn Stater right now. I learned about the bystander effect in my high school AP psychology class, and remember the case of Kitty well.

I also liked how you looked at recent events and actions from a different perspective than most are now. Everyone is saying these two should have done more. And yes, they probably should have. But they did do something. They did take some action. And that is more than most would do according to this proven psychological effect.

Today in my SOC 119 class we talked all about this situation from a sociologist perspective. Our society is silence for fear of what will happen, and how it will threaten the social order. Victims are silence because when they speak out something in their life is going to change, and something will break. (Most sexual offenders are in one's family or someone the child knows). Perpetrators or individuals with thoughts of child-adult contact are silenced for fear of what will happen to them by society. Sam Richards, the soc 119 professor, said that we need to recognize this silence and break through it in order to move forward (as a society in its entirety). So in order for this to happen, the Bystander effect would need to be broken through and diminished.


Very good post. One that all students should currently read. Also, good job posing questions at the end and including your personal opinion.

I really like the post Judith it is a good way to look at such a horrible situation in a scientific way. However in my opinion I do not believe that any psychological affects excuse Mr. Mcqueary's negligence. I doubt in any of the research you found that the problem the "bystanders" had to deal with was child rape. I just know that if I witnessed a child being sodomized by an old man I would not only immediately stop that rape and call 911, but I would have to seriously restrain myself from severely beating the man who was committing the act of indecency. I'm not saying that you were trying to justify Mcqueary or anything I just had to say that because ever since the beginning of this situation I have thought Mcqueary was the worst perpetrator (besides Sandusky of course). I just know that a good person wouldn't let a "bystander effect" get in the way of helping an innocent child.

I see how the bystander effect could play a role in something like this.

The neighbors of Kitty Genovese were under the impression that nothing was really wrong. None of them saw or were aware of the entire incident. One did call the police but only said a woman was beat up but had gotten up and was "staggering about" so even he wasn't fully aware that she had been stabbed.

McQueary, on the other hand, did recognize what was happening in the showers and knew that something terrible was happening (At least according to the Grand Jury presentment). So that's different.

Despite that, I do think it's plausible though that such a huge shock could cause people to act in irrational ways. The sort of "out of sight, out of mind" mentality sounds terrible when it involves child rape but it must have been an unimaginable shock to see it happening. I guess we will have to wait until the trial to get more of the story and maybe find out exactly what each person really did.

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