A Call to Fight Against Bystander Psychology

Posted: 11/14/2011 in Justice, Obama, United States

Many, maybe most, of us are powerfully compelled to act differently when others are around. This is especially apparent to anyone who works with adolescents. The same kid who will have a heart-to-heart with you in a one-on-one situation will not hesitate to throw you under the bus when buddies are present. Adults do it too, though we’re more practiced and more subtle.

This is something to consider seriously in the wake of the Penn State cover-up, not just as an abstract mental exercise, but as an affirmative committment to take right action should you ever be required to. Bystander psychology says we willingly live in denial when something we witness is too horrific to fit into our mental paradigm or when we are able to rationalize the probability that someone else will do what is right, thus exonerating ourselves.

The rest of us would like to believe that no matter how small or scared we were, if we saw a child being raped, we’d step in and stop it, or at the very least call 911 immediately. But social psychology research on “bystander” behavior suggests that many of us might actually turn away.

My hero in disproving this is this Penn State student who stands in front of a jeering, booing mob to try to argue for accountability in the face of enormous opposition.

If you aren’t up on the Penn State story, it mirrors much of the Catholic Church child-abuse scandal in terms of institutional complicity and the covering-up of monstrous crimes. Chris Hayes had an excellent debrief and discussion of the scandal on his show, Up with Chris Hayes, on Saturday. I highly recommend watching it here.

Obama said that such an incident should lead to “soul-searching” and I like to think he meant that seriously, not just rhetorically. It is an opportunity to consider what we value most and how we ourselves might behave, even if it means standing against what is revered and protected, even if it means personal risk.

  1. Musu says:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Naturally, I am not a very good fan of blogs and read less on them. But when I read your post on FB, I was incline to subscribe to the blog. Tell you what! your writing enrich me from the discuss issues, choice of words and more interestingly the way your stories are narrated.

    Thanks for this opportunity and hope will soon seen articles on various perceptions regarding child participation in decision making at household level especially those from devloping world.

    Looking forward to reading more

    • Thanks for your nice comments, Musu! I am very gratified that you are reading. I hope I can deliver since you’ve given me my first topic request. I have lots of thoughts about child participation from my own experience, but probably need to do more research as well. Forward me anything you think I should read.

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