Paterno Surprise Reflects Ignoring the Power of the Situation

Why didn't Joe Paterno do what's right?

Posted Nov 10, 2011

The news from Happy Valley over the past several days has been anything but happy. Last night, legendary Penn State University Football Coach Joe Paterno was removed from his job in the wake of a child molestation scandal involving one of his former assistant coaches.

Although many details are still unclear, it appears that Paterno did not vigorously attempt to bring allegations regarding the sexual assaults to light when he was made aware of them many years ago. Paterno did tell his boss (Penn State's athletic director) of the allegations, but he did not follow-up on them or inform others (e.g., police) about them.

Obviously, the most important issue in these events is the well-being of the children who apparently were victimized by former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky a decade ago. Sexual assault is a despicable crime and a reprehensible act, and when it is perpetrated on children by people entrusted with their care, it is even more unforgivable and repugnant. Clearly, the welfare of these victims is the primary concern as a shattered community in central Pennsylvania attempts to move forward and determine exactly what events transpired and why.

Yet, as a social psychologist and a former professor at Penn State (my first academic position after receiving my Ph.D.), I have also been struck by another element to this story, which involves perceptions of ex-coach Paterno. Joe Paterno is a living legend in State College, at Penn State, and for countless millions of alums and college football fans. Just this year, he became the winningest coach in Division I college football history, and he has been the head coach of the football team for 45 consecutive seasons. Paterno was college football's most iconic coach, and viewed by most as a paragon of virtue and integrity. His low key humility was trademark.

How could Paterno not have done more?

So many people were stunned by contemplating how Paterno's storied career could end like this. Specifically, how could someone viewed by so many as one of the few shining examples of a man who "did things right" get it so wrong and not respond to the allegations of sexual assault by his own assistant coach more forcefully? How does one make sense of a coach who preached to his athletes to pursue "success with honor," yet in his own words this week, admitted that "with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." Time and time again, social psychology has illustrated the importance of appreciating the power of the situation. In short, good people can do bad things when placed in particular circumstances.

Social psychology: The power of the situation

For example, how could so many Nazi soldiers carry out the horrific orders of their superiors to exterminate six million Jews in World War II? This was the question that drove Milgram to conduct his famous studies at Yale University in the 1960s. What we know all too well from Milgram's work is that well-adjusted, well-intentioned, decent people were capable of delivering electric shocks to victims who seemingly were in great pain, complaining of heart problems, or even apparently unconscious. Indeed, over 60% of people delivered the maximum level of shock in Milgram's classic studies when told to do so by an authority figure. One of the important lessons from these experiments is that everyday people, none of whom with indicators of psychopathology or maladjusted personality characteristics, are capable of acting in ways that depart significantly from their own conscience.

In a similar fashion, the classic studies of Darley and Latane on the bystander effect demonstrate that decent human beings will ignore the emergency needs of others when they assume others will act to intervene. This line of research emerged from murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, who was attacked outside her Queens apartment for over 30 minutes while many nearby residents watched from their apartment windows and did absolutely nothing.

Ironically, as the number of people who know about an emergency grows, people are more and more likely to assume that someone else will do what's right, and this diffusion of responsibility makes any individual's need to act seem reduced. In one study conducted by Darley and Batson, even seminary students (presumably very "good" people) were perfectly happy to ignore a (staged) man who was slumped over in a doorway and apparently sick when they were in a hurry to get to their classes. Thus, even reverent "men of God" could turn their back on others in need. In this case, situation (i.e., being in a hurry to get to seminary classes) trumped personal values (i.e., being pious).


Let me be clear—this analysis is not forwarded to excuse Paterno's (or anyone else's) behavior or their responsibility for not conscientiously addressing the young sexual assault victims' plights. Moreover, this is certainly not intended to be "excuse making" for individuals who perpetrate sexual assaults—everyone must be held responsible and accountable for their actions even when facing considerable external pressures. Instead, this analysis is intended to address a different question: why are people so surprised that someone like Paterno, who seemingly is so morally upstanding and revered, might have failed to act in a fashion consistent with those lofty expectations.

One clear answer is that no one is immune to the situation. Everyone must be held into account for their actions, but when even "good people" violate our expectations, it should not come as a complete surprise, especially if we pay heed to the power of the situation and how anyone could be induced to deliver electric shocks to an apparently unconscious person or how even a priest-in-training could ignore a sick person in need.

Perhaps the most important upshot of these events is that each of us must guard against being "caught up in the situation" and work hard to remain true to our values. College football coaches who oversee large, multi-million dollar programs that attract considerable attention and significant financial contributions to their universities must face considerable pressures from alumni and administrators that can induce even the most noble of people to transgress against their own principles and standards.

In addition to helping the boys (now adult men) who were victimized in State College and in getting one of the nation's largest universities "house in order," I would contend that one important lesson to take from events this week at Penn State is that we should all realize that we are all capable of letting the situation dictate our actions, and we must fight against those pressures actively and conscientiously to reduce the likelihood that some day we will say, "with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

More Posts