November 2011 Archives
If you are one of the many in our Penn State family struggling to make sense of recent events, consider the advice from an unlikely source -- an Ohio State University Buckeye!
In "An Open Letter from a Buckeye to a Nittany Lion," Jonathan Franz reminds us that first and foremost we need to remember that the true victims here are the children. We must not waiver in the attention to their needs, including thoughts and prayers. Next we need to do all possible to prevent such atrocities, whether through our action or inaction (i.e., see my previous blog post "What WILL You Do?").
Finally, we need to be--and this is hard right now--"Penn State Proud." We need to be proud for all that Penn State has done and can continue to do. Make us proud now in front of the world that watches. If you are a football fan, go to the game this weekend and cheer passionately for the players that work so hard to make us proud. As Franz say:
Not because you support the coaches, because you support the men on the field. Not because you endorse the administration, because you believe in the University as a collective whole. Penn State University has always been (and will always be) about one thing and one thing only: making life better.
I am a cognitive scientist, which in lay terms means I am an "applied psychologist." Typically I research work environments that include humans, computers and some task (e.g., police work). However, I am interested in all things "thinking," including the role of ethics in decision making, such as the "Trolley Problem" below.
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?
Similarly, "Naturalistic Decision Making" (NDM) is the cognitive study of people making complex decisions in situations typically marked by high stakes (e.g., death) and time constraints. Successful NDM cases can be described as quite breathtaking. Remember, for example, Captain Sully's dramatic actions in 2009 to land US Airways Flight 1549 in Manhattan's Hudson River. Even more spectacular, in my opinion, was crew action in 1989 to minimize fatalities in the crash-landing of United Airlines Flight 232. Lessons from these decisions are used to benefit others.
But what about naturalistic decisions that do not require pilot training? For example, what if you observes someone being victimized--would you get involved? In 2011, bystanders lifted a burning car to rescue an injured motorcyclist. I would like to think all of us would put ourselves in harm's way to do the same, but I am not so sure. For example, at least twelve people observed the1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in a New York courtyard while she screamed for help, yet did nothing. Here I would like to think all of us would react differently, but again, I am not sure.
Lack of witness action is called the "Bystander Effect," or "Genovese Syndrome." Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples including claims that a graduate assistant witnessed the rape of a child and then took no immediate action, nor notified authorities. I would hope that others in a similar situation would intervene, as they have claimed, but again am not so sure. The encountered scene was indeed horrific, given its nature and the status of the alleged assailant, and thus most likely absent a scripted response.
Let's reflect, then, on this case as presented to create an improved reaction:
- Step 1: Take a Stand. A child cannot consent to a sexual act. Thus, any sexual act involving children has to be considered an assault. Plain and simple, assume action is required.
- Step 2: Study How Predators Ply Their Trade. Gregory M. Weber, Assistant Attorney General for the State of Wisconsin, authored "Grooming Children for Sexual Molestation." Unfortunately, predators often do not lurk in rain coats. More often they choose a target area, become friends of the parents, select victims and begin recruitment. Predators are sophisticated enough to "hide" in plain sight and be "exactly" the person to entrust children. The opportunity to train children to recognize and report early signs of grooming is great.
- Step 3: Anticipate Your Action. Plan ahead so your action is quick and without anguish, and set as the very minimum an anonymous 911 call.