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. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.
Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don't see.
Some people simply can't process the horror in front of them. Some people suffer from what the psychologists call Normalcy Bias. When they find themselves in some unsettling circumstance, they shut down and pretend everything is normal.
Some people suffer from Motivated Blindness; they don't see what is not in their interest to see. Some people don't look at the things that make them uncomfortable. In one experiment, people were shown pictures, some of which contained sexual imagery. Machines tracked their eye movements. The people who were uncomfortable with sex never let their eyes dart over to the uncomfortable parts of the pictures.
As Daniel Goleman wrote in his book Vital Lies, Simple Truths, "In order to avoid looking, some element of the mind must have known first what the picture contained, so that it knew what to avoid. The mind somehow grasps what is going on and rushes a protective filter into place, thus steering awareness away from what threatens."
Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don't intervene. In research done at Penn State and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.
In another experiment at a different school, 68 percent of students insisted they would refuse to answer if they were asked offensive questions during a job interview. But none actually objected when asked questions like, "Do you think it is appropriate for women to wear bras to work?"
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.
Online you can find videos of savage beatings, with dozens of people watching blandly. The Kitty Genovese case from the '60s is mostly apocryphal, but hundreds of other cases are not. A woman was recently murdered at a yoga clothing store in Maryland while employees at the Apple Store next door heard the disturbing noises but did not investigate.
People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don't. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do. As Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel write in their book, Blind Spots, "When it comes time to make a decision, our thoughts are dominated by thoughts of how we want to behave; thoughts of how we should behave disappear."
In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.
But we're not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.
Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: "How could they have let this happen?"
The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive? That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Bernie Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it's a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.
© 2011 New York Times News Service