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People Are So Much More Complicated Than We Think

The Penn State story is a lesson in the complex nature of human behavior

After the Penn State report was released the other day many people wondered how Joe Paterno, known not only for his talents as a top college football coach but also as an ethical, decent, and good human being, could have not done more to protect children in the now famous Penn State sex abuse scandal. How could "JoePa" have erred on the side of protecting the good name of Penn State rather than helping the sexually abused victims?

The Joe Paterno and Penn State story well illustrate the notion that people are much more complicated than we usually think. There are so many examples of this truth that we read about in the press. Think Bill Clinton, John Edwards, OJ Simpson, Mel Gibson, and Michael Jackson to just name a few. Additionally, think of people in your life too. I'm sure that you could come up with countless examples yourself.

Too often we want to categorize people into all good or all bad, ethical or unethical, nice or a__holes. We all do this to some extent. Don't we interact with a new person and walk away from the interaction making some claim that the person is either nice or not, good or bad, kind or cruel, and so forth? But the reality is that people are pretty complicated….very complicated! We often see only a small slice of their nature at any one time....sometimes a pleasing slice and somtimes... not so much. There are layers upon layers upon layers of complexity to all of us. People who are typically kind, gracious, generous, and ethical can also act in terrible, unethical, cruel, and corrupted ways. A perfect storm can emerge to create behavior that is either very good or very bad, ethical or unethical, gracious or selfish.

One of the many important lessons from the Penn State story (and so many other stories involving both the dark and light side of human behavior) is that people are very complex and that we must be cautious in overgeneralizing human behavior and character. Joe Paterno can be a great and ethical person who also made decisions that in hindsight were egregious, unethical, and dangerous for children. It is too easy for us to judge others, but maybe we all have a part of Joe Paterno in us. We all can be capable of both extremely noble and ethical behavior as well as unethical and horrific behavior if the conditions are just right. Reflect on your own life and life story. Can you recall times when you behaved in ways that were very noble, gracious, kind, and selfless, yet also remember times when you behaved in terrible ways too?

In a nutshell, people are complicated...very complicated!

So, what do you think?

For more on this perspective please check out the USA Today article noted below:

More from Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP
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