Experts discuss why witnesses in Sandusky's case failed to speak up sooner
The witness testimony in the trial of accused child sex offender and former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky has brought up an important question. Why didn't the witnesses report what they saw? Psychologist Mindy Mitnick and business ethicist Max Bazerman say misinformation and denial play an important role.
The trial of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach who faces 52 charges related to child sexual abuse, continues this week.
As was predicted, much of the witness testimony was difficult to hear, but not just for its content. As each witness repeated descriptions of witnessed encounters and overheard conversations, more shocking, perhaps, was the lingering question: Why didn’t witnesses report what they saw? Or if they reported it, why didn’t they follow up on their reports?
Licensed psychologist Mindy Mitnick said it’s often difficult for people to overcome their denial about what is happening and take action.
“It’s horrifying, it’s confusing. It’s just hard to take in. And then, we stop and we think — what’s going to happen if I report? Am I going to be investigated? Am I going to be believed? And so, I think, people really hesitate before doing something,” Mitnick said.
A recent study showed bystanders are present in almost 30 percent of sexual assaults.
Research has also revealed an inverse relationship between the offer to help and the number of people present during an incident. In other words, the larger the number of people who witness something, the less likely someone will offer help.
Mitnick said this often happens due to a sense of shared responsibility, where each witness believes others will take responsibility.
“It really can be horrific to take in the information about what’s happened to a child, and so, having the sense that really, somebody else will take care of this, is something that’s easier for all of us to do,” she said.
Harvard business ethicist Max Bazerman, co-author of “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It,” said the incident at Penn State is symptomatic of a broader problem where people are slow to notice and report unethical conduct around them.
“We see that in the very recent Jamie Dimon episode, in terms of traders trading beyond their authority. We see that in terms of the Madoff scandal, where lots of people had access to the data. And we see that in ongoing work settings, where people see harassment or bullying behavior, and don’t act on that information,” Bazerman said. “We also know that we all read this story and think, ‘But we would act differently,’ yet, research is pretty clear in showing us that people have a dramatic overestimate of their propensity to actually act on unethical behavior."
“Of course, we want to think of ourselves as doing something. But in the moment of seeing or hearing, when we actually have to take it in, denial is a very powerful force, and I think a lot of us freeze. Mike Mcqueary in the Sandusky case, said, ‘My brain couldn’t take it in.’ I think that’s exactly what happens to witnesses of abuse,” she said.
This kind of thinking has led to horrifying situations. In 2011, a 2-year-old girl was struck by a van in China in a hit-and-run. Eighteen people passed by without helping her.
Mitnick said the problem is exacerbated when the potential perpetrator is a family member, a respected community member or someone a witness knows and likes.
“It makes the hurdle for reporting even higher because we stop and think about what are going to be the consequences of reporting? It disrupts the family, it can disrupt the community ... there really is the risk that the person who comes forward is not going to be believed, is not going to be supported by other people in the community. So, the tendency is really to stop and stand back and wonder whether or not a person should do something,” she said.
According to Bazerman, organizations could improve by making it safer for employees to act when they see unethical action going on around them and by setting clear guidelines on what actions to take if unethical behavior is witnessed.
“We don’t make it clear that it’s a job to report unethical action. Too often, we fail to tell our employees that if they see inappropriate behavior around them, they’re supposed to act on that,” he said.
Mitnick also said it’s necessary to educate people in the community, schools and within the medical field, about the importance of stepping forward and protecting children. But he also offers another solution.
“We have to make sure that those who investigate don’t have a negative attitude toward reporters," she said. "That they’re trained to listen, to believe, to follow-up, to look for other corroborating evidence when somebody comes forward and support them in coming forward."
"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what's ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH Radio Boston.