Studies Show Mike McQueary Did What You Would Have Done

A lot of wrist-twisting and hand-wringing over Mike McQueary’s actions after he came across Penn State Coach Jerry Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in the showers. McQueary, who Mark Steyn reminds us was about 30 at the time he witnessed the rape, did not not take pity on the poor boy, he did not stop the buggering, he did not call the cops, but instead ran home to his daddy for advice. The sequel we know.

But McQueary’s cowardice is not what is interesting. What is are the discussions about the event from our cultural betters, which have settled on the opinion that, “You would have done the same thing.” Which is to say, run away.David Brooks

Typical is this New York Times piece by Alina Tugend whose headline ran, “Doing the Ethical Thing May Be Right, but It Isn’t Automatic.” As my grandmother, a woman of firm Austrian stock, would have said, “Like fun it isn’t.” And if it isn’t, it damn well ought to be.

David Brooks, also of that august journal, opted for sarcasm in his cogitations. “Let’s All Feel Superior.” Recalling a vague ethics, he at least pegged the shower-room rape an “atrocity” but then called the reaction of citizens to McQueary’s failure a “vanity” because of these citizens’ claims that they “would have done something.” Brooks recalled that many Nazis just followed orders.

Only Brooks could have found equivalent a nervous German civilian amidst the Holocaust—a person with nowhere to go, perhaps with wife and children, his neighbor vanished in the night and murdered—with a grown (and physically fit) man witnessing a child rape in a posh university public shower.

In both articles, we’re given to understand that because we are now a nation of cowards, or are at least seen or hoped to be so from vantage of our top newsrooms, that McQueary should be forgiven his sin, or at least that we should cut him a little slack. Why? Because studies—scientific, peer-reviewed studies—show that people sometimes act cowardly in tough situations.

Brooks highlighted a bit of top science to prove his thesis. Seems some “researchers” showed pictures with naughty bits to a sample of citizens. “Eye tracking software” noticed that those who said they were “uncomfortable” with dirty pictures did not look at them. Who would have guessed?

I’ll tell you who: Daniel Goldman, who interpreted the study thusly:

“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.”

This trivial logical point was supposed to the Aha! moment, the point at which we grasp that intellects far larger than ours are at work. Goldman’s research reveals why my grandmother never picked up a copy of Screw from the newsstand. Her brain first had to educate itself to learn what the magazine was before telling itself not to read the mag, you see.

Tugend boned up on the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology which had a paper on an accounting firm that, in order not to endanger its large fee, turned a blind eye to its clients finagling. The researcher who wrote the paper scientifically discovered that “unethical acts can become an integral part of the day-to-day activities to such an extent that individuals may be unable to see the inappropriateness of their behaviors.” Once again, who knew?

The infamous Stanford “prison experiment” is trotted out (though it must be out of wind by now, certainly), but only to tell us that the guy who designed that experiment discovered three categories of evil: “individual (a few bad apples), situational (a bad barrel of apples) or systemic (bad barrel makers).” Who never learn which is McQueary.

You’re probably lost by now, but let’s recall we’re talking about McQueary and the outcry that he should have acted like a man. Don’t “deceive” yourself, says Brooks, you’re just as weak as he—probably. “Studies show” that…well, it’s not exactly clear what not looking at pornography or how greed seduced some accountants has to do with not stopping the rape of a child.

But, by golly, this is science! We learned that science has showed us that because some people acted stupidly, we all might. And that is true. We might. But then again, we might not—and we should not.

What Brooks and Tugend forgot is that science cannot teach us morality. It can’t say that McQueary was wrong, nor can it say that McQueary’s critics, filled with honest or false bravado, were wrong.

And isn’t it better that the public reacted indignantly? Doesn’t it show there is a core of decency and manliness left? Isn’t a nation more likely to excuse vile acts if it is convinced that “nobody” condemns them? It should be celebrated that the uproar was so vocal, not denounced.

17 Comments

  1. “Brooks recalled that many Nazis just followed orders.”

    Yes, and at Nurenburg the Nazis who used that defense were exonerated weren’t they?

  2. The thing is I don’t really know what McQueary did and neither does anyone else. What we got from the “secret” testimony was not even as useful or complete as a synopsis of all the testimony. Most of what we think McQueary did come from this less then revealing document but some came from police who “claimed” they have no records of McQueary reporting a crime. It has been my experience that police lie. I’m not trying to indict the police but in general they feel that it is OK to say just about anything if it will allow them to discover evidence or gain advantage. Somewhere in all of this news/spin it was stated that McQueary did in fact report this to the head of the campus police. Now, while this act might not have generated a “record” it is by anyone’s measure considered reporting the crime to the police. I don’t know about you but if I reported a crime to the “chief of police” I would believe in my heart that I reported the crime to the police and the information was in good hands. I would also assume that shopping the information around after that report would amount to interfering in the investigation. Lastly; until we all find out the facts I think it is nothing short of a witch trial to be attacking these people who committed no crime. If it becomes obvious as the facts come out that people covered up then by all means charge them. If not lets not try them in the press. When the crime is particularly heinous good people feel empowered to spread rumors and make accusations as though it makes them morally superior. The justification seems to be well, since horrible things happened it is OK to be outraged and throw mud and assassinate character because the nature of the crime requires it.

  3. Re “cowardice” at ‘doing the right thing’ as opposed to letting ‘bad things’ persist relative to the Penn State participant’s in/action(s) or anything else for that matter. As Edmund Burke’s famous saying goes, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” That he (and others for centuries) have noted this cuts to the core that something in human nature—at least in the vast majority of humans—leads them/us to look the other way & do nothing, or, to take ineffectual actions whose true apparent purpose is to help us delude ourselves that we really aren’t “one of those people that does nothing [and lets the bad guy get away with it].”

    The appropriate psychological experiment for this is Stanley Milligram’s famous experiment on obedience to authority done in the ‘60s; and re-done by ABC News a few years ago; see: http://www.amazon.com/ABC-News-Primetime-Basic-Instincts/dp/B000VHY8DW . People will do very mean things if an authority figure endorses it, which seems to say that we as a species are very adept at scapegoating. Repeat of Milligram’s experiment did not show any significant difference in overall behavior from subject in the 60s to the present. As it relates to [Penn State] McQueary’s behavior, or lack of it depending on the focus, what is clear is he was a subordinate to the still-alleged child abuser…and thus much of the same psychological dynamics, whatever they precisely are, would be engaged.

    The author of the Stanford Prison Experiment (who, in the course of the experiment actually lost some objectivity & intervened in an unusual way) has gone on to try & study why some people are hero’s, and, how to get people to be more heroic. See: http://www.myhero.com/go/hero.asp?hero=Philip_Zimbardo Why such a small minority of people actually do perform heroically when given the opportunity remains a mystery (what is clear is that many more will assert they will but do not when they get such an opportunity).

    If anyone doubts the pervasiveness of people disregarding abuse, and other wrongs, consider the statistics associated with corporate “whistleblowers” & corporate fraud as a benchmark. A good summary book is : “Giantkillers: The Team and the Law that Help Whistle-blowers Recover America’s Stolen Billions,” by H. Scammell (http://www.amazon.com/Giantkillers-Whistle-blowers-Recover-Americas-Billions/dp/087113909X ). That, or any of numerous sites on-line reveal how pervasive & known (within a company) various types of fraud are…and how basically next to nobody does anything about it. The reason there is very clear: self-preservation. Any conviction is time-consuming, when pursued, and the person reporting it (and/or supporting the investigation) suffers tremendously via workplace harassment, character assassination, etc. Often (typically?) this equates to professional suicide with dire implication for subsequent employment prospects.

    “Whistleblower” actions are formally referred to as “Qui Tam” (‘for the king’) cases. Since 2001 or so the law in the USA was changed to allow persons reporting the fraud (known formally as “Relators”) to file anonymously, with anonymity protected for some period. If the government takes the case, and then if the government wins an award/penalty, the Relator gets a share. That’s typically enough to turn the person(s) into multi-millionaires (which sounds good until one realizes that these people can never work again in the area they enjoyed, lose a lot of associations they thought of as friendships, etc., etc.). The majority of such cases don’t ever see the light of day….those those employees that tried commonly get identified & risk becoming destitute. Some Dept of Justice (DoJ) stats are at: http://www.taf.org/FCA-stats-2010.pdf

    When seen from that perspective—reporting misconduct & thus ‘doing the right thing’—versus risk of personal character assassination & professional career suicide (or close to it) along the way & thus a decision to ignore the misconduct (or address it in an ineffectual way)….starts to make a lot more sense as a logical outcome of strict cost-benefit analysis where one concludes that the attempt to bring justice to prevail (dependent on others of unknown skill) is not worth the costs (i.e. even if I/we/’the system’/victims “win” I still lose).

    The Penn State situation appears (I have no deep knowledge & do not trust the press for reliable reporting) tainted by the benefit of hindsight. At the time, those in a position to report and initiate an investigation had a LOT to lose for a very high risk outcome of success. At that time it was a case of near evidence-free accusations and what undoubtedly would have been counter-accusations. The victims, very likely, would have been induced/coerced/etc. to side with the victimizer, putting the “white knights” trying to help in a potentially untenable position (as a parade of comparable cases have illustrated, and continue to illustrate, repeatedly for eons).

  4. GoneWTW and Ken–I think you are both missing the point of the post. This had naught to do with what constitutes an “official” report to the police, or a cost-benefit analysis of whistleblowing.

    There is indeed an urge to look away, and run away, for a moment when one stumbles upon a grown man buggering a boy in the showers. “Scientific studies” confirm this urge, which any reasonably self-aware human being could have confirmed without the expenditure of government funds. It is painful to look upon, and there is a deep revulsion to seeing it. You may recall that Gen. Eisenhower had extensive photographs and films of the death camps taken, and the Germans were forced to watch them. He knew that otherwise everyone would prefer to look away as much as possible.

    Other “Scientific studies” also supposedly confirm, for example, that my genes want to reproduce themselves as much as possible, so I should be having sex with as many fertile women as possible, as often as possible. Plus, it feels really good! So why shouldn’t I do so? Richard Dawkins, who is a very smart man, wouldn’t have a problem with it!

    Human civilization requires that everyone use reason and judgement to do the right thing rather than the instinctive thing. Yeah, McQueary had a lot to lose, but that doesn’t matter. He should have immediately called the police at minimum. They could have come while the boy was still there, anyway. A lot of us feel, I’m sure, that he should have pried the old pervert off the boy and administered at least a couple of shots to the jaw first, but that would be a bonus.

    People in a decent society are held to high standards, and they don’t meet them all the time. This is the human condition. Shame and other sanctions have always been used to help insure that the standards are followed as much as possible, and that those who fail will do better in the future and/or serve as an example to the rest. We have reached the point where at least some of our so-called “intellectual elite” are now willing to make excuses rather than enforce the standards. That is the point of the last line of this post. At least a majority still gets it.

    Following the “elites” of the NYT and elsewhere in making excuses for this incident leads straight to a place we are not going to like. At all.

  5. Last March a woman was beaten to death in a store in Bethesda. The personnel in the store next door heard her screams for help but didn’t even bother to call the cops. I’ve heard stories that similar events have transpired in NYC. Considering people tend not to lend help to prevent a murder is it a wonder they stand by for lesser evils?

    What is a Hero anyway? The movie Hero probably shows what drives a true hero more than anything else. On my dad’s ship in WWII, there was a marine who had stood up and walked to a Japanese pillbox to throw in a grenade. That he escaped unharmed was a miracle. He was given a medal and called a hero but likely for actions during a time he was temporarily insane. Are insane actions truly heroic? Did the hero really do what he did fully knowing he had little likelihood of survival but did it knowing it must-be-done? I don’t know but somehow feel he didn’t give it any consideration at all.

    Is your definition of hero is someone doing what’s necessary regardless of motivation? The firemen of NYC have been called heroes for actions in the event of 9/11 but consider this: most skyscrapers are designed to stand up for at least 3 hours in the event of a fire (or so my Dad the building designer tells me); they signed up in advance for the job; they likely get a kick out of the job; and the firemen in the second tower were evacuating the building when it collapsed. In my estimation, someone who runs into a burning building to save another knowing full well that it could collapse at any second is a hero. Someone who charges into a burning building for pay and thrills and believing there’s a 3-hour window to act isn’t particularly heroic. I do understand the need to call them heroes though.

    When push comes to shove none of us really knows how we will react. It’s one thing to sit in a comfy chair contemplating and quite another to be there.

    Try not to be smug.

  6. @Briggs

    I do not think that these scientists are endorsing these acts, they are trying to understand them. Are there any patterns? If we want to prevent future evil acts, we should try to understand what causes them.

    Is it a coincidence, for example, that the children of so many dictators are psychopaths? Sons of both Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gadhaffi are said to have performed horrific acts. Given the premise that evil is a bad thing, We should look at the common factors, build theories, test the theories as best we can, and then, if possible, reduce the frequency of the evil acts.

    “And isn’t it better that the public reacted indignantly? Doesn’t it show there is a core of decency and manliness left? Isn’t a nation more likely to excuse vile acts if it is convinced that “nobody” condemns them? It should be celebrated that the uproar was so vocal, not denounced.”

    Celebration might go a bit too far but I am sure these scientists are interested to know how widely held societal taboos affect behavior. I’m sure they would recognise the benefits of taboos for prevention of evil acts.

    @Robert

    “Richard Dawkins, who is a very smart man, wouldn’t have a problem with it!”

    The metaphor of selfish genes is not an endorsement of selfish behavior. To say otherwise is misinformation.

    Dawkins is a humanist and that basically boils down to wanting humans to act rationally and be nice to each other. It is not a permissive anything goes cult of selfishness.

  7. Genemachine–my dear fellow, the Richard Dawkins reference is more in admiration for his demonstrated ability to shag a succession of younger women then a specific reference to selfish genes.

    I read this on Wikipedia, so it MUST be true:

    [T]he school administrators hire outspoken evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as an assistant teacher to help Mrs. Garrison present the evolution lesson. After some initial friction between the creationist Garrison and atheist Dawkins, a romantic interest soon develops.

    During their date, Mrs. Garrison converts to atheism. Mrs. Garrison is convinced by Dawkins that religion is based on logical fallacies by claiming that one cannot disprove the existence of God in the same way that one cannot disprove a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Garrison comes to believe there is no great mystery to life, exclaiming that, “Evolution explains everything and God is a spaghetti monster”. Mrs. Garrison is very thankful for this. Later they go back to Mrs. Garrison’s house where they have sex. The next day in class, Garrison informs the students of his changed stance on evolution, prompting Stan to argue that one can have faith in both God and evolution. Because of this, he is forced to sit in a corner wearing a dunce cap that says “I Have Faith”. Later that night, as Dawkins and Garrison are cuddling in bed (surrounded by various erotic toys), Dawkins and Mrs. Garrison realize that they must get rid of religion and end religious wars forever.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_God_Go

  8. All that evil needs to succeed is to have good men do nothing is the lesson to be learned here. But it will not be learned. What people want to hear from this is that it is natural and OK to let evil happen and do nothing, that way their individual small evils can be overlooked.

  9. Of course, the premise of all these articles is that McQueary “did nothing.” McQueary now claims he did “stop it,” and did report to police. I guess we’ll see.

    The best point above was made by GWTW–we, at this point, know exactly nothing about this case with certainty. Of course, that never stops us or the media speculating about what should have been done (assuming we know what those involved knew at the time, which we don’t). And then ruining people’s lives and reputations based on our uninformed judgments.

    I guess we don’t have the patience to wait for real information; much more entertaining to shoot from the hip.

  10. Robert,

    RE: ‘Civilization requires that we use reason and judgement do the right thing rather than the instinctive thing’

    The reality is two-fold: humans are by nature emotional creatures, “reason” is highly malleable, and, “civilization” — pick any society, nature, etc. and you will NEVER find any in which reason & logical judgement dictate outcomes.

    The USA was founded on a system of checks & balances, for example, to offset this real tendency.

    Read Cialdini’s “Influence” for a wealth of examples.

  11. Briggs,

    I am among the many who are quite critical of the inaction of the assistant. As an American male I am mortified that this Sanduskey character could be loosely categorized, with me, as an American male.

    Many of the comments here over analyze the situational circumstances of the incident. I can tell you that if I had been in the assistant’s shoes I would have thought about the situation for about 10 seconds then there would have been another assault. My analysis would have been along the lines of, “Can this guy kill me?”. If so, then I would have called for back up, else, start the assault. I asked my brothers at Thanksgiving and their feelings were the same.

    Perhaps the defense of the assistant is more a result of class standing than anything else. Born into the middle class of the 1960s, members of my family were quite ready to defend themselves and were willing to take the pain of physical combat. Maybe the upper classes had an entirely different upbringing than mine. But I guarantee that my boyhood friends would act in the same manner as me.

  12. This has nothing to do with any pointy- headed psychological studies about human behavior measured in a prison and academic laboratory. This has to do with caring for someone more that yourself, whether the risk is small or life threatening.
    The evaluation of the response of Mike McQueary’s to the shower room situation by David Brooks and Alina Tugend are reflections of their progressive negative attitude towards the worth of the individual and their selflessness. Rationalizing weakness of character is a favorite pastime by many humanist journalists in the media these days. The media thrive and feed on media stories that show a person’s weaknesses from the highest elected officials to the homeless individuals. Everyone in mass media is a critic. They have created a culture within the news media watching public who thrive on witnessing human personal foibles and disasters rather than their outstanding accomplishments that benefit others more than themselves. Even in sports reporting where spectacular positive feats of athletic prowess are shown weekly the talking heads subject the athlete performance to diatribes that focus on their failings. Therefore it is not surprising that Mike McQueary is featured as[someone is their hero of the week for the weak and cowardly.
    But their picture of human worth is distorted by their own view that we are all like Mike McQueary. I dispute this comparison of McQueary to the many unreported heroes and heroines who have never been acknowledged for facing threatening situations even unto personal injury and death. The many lives damaged or expended through wars in just one example of ordinary people who not only answered the call to defend the nation but faced danger without wining. To lump the ordinary people in the same camp with McQuary, like citizens who serve in the military, in the law enforcement, as first responders, as teachers, as neighbors and as judges and who have made rapid decisions to “get involved” in risky situations, is a travesty and an affront to all good citizens who have answered the need to help someone. Thank God David and Alina are wrong about ordinary people

  13. Robert; You say I missed the point and this is all just about the result of a scientific study. Then you go one to accuse McQueary “He should have immediately called the police at minimum.” I think you missed my point. I don’t know what McQueary saw. What we are being told is speculation as the actual testimony is secret. I don’t know when he “called” the police or if he “called” the police. I do know that McQueary claimed he informed the head of campus police. The point is we don’t know what happened or what the timeline was. Perhaps McQueary is indeed guilty of not using “reason and judgement to do the right thing”. That may indeed be what we all learn when we all get the facts, if that ever happens. But it still is not reasonable or good judgement to burn McQueary at the stake just yet. Maybe we can wait until we know what happened.

  14. Before we speculate about what we would have done in McQueary’s situation, we need to know what that situation actually was. Everyone here is assuming it was a rape, which usually means that it was against the victims will. Perhaps that is to be P.C. and not victimize the victim further, but think about it. In most (?) cases of child abuse, the victim has been mentally threatened or otherwise convinced by promises of something to go along with it. He may be traumatized at the time but he may not report it after the fact either. This is not to say that he wanted it or liked it, but maybe he didn’t scream ‘no’ either. I have no idea. In McQueary’s situation, McQueary may not have seen it as a rape; abuse yes, but not a rape. That might change your reaction too.

    Now, these days, the bystander would be more likely to video an incident than intervene 😉

  15. Many, maybe most of these social psyc studies are garbage–asking a handful of volunteer students what they would do ina given situation… of no scientific value. But the articles such as you cite are tremendously revealing about the authors–THEY would do nothing and seek to show that in their coardice they are no worse than anyone else.

    What others might do is entirely not spoken to in any meaningful way, one way or the other.

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