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What would you do if you were witness to child abuse?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | November 15, 2011

About two or three years ago, as I walked out of the psychology department after work, a surreal scene unfolded in front of me. A pick-up truck with a man and a woman inside screeched to a stop in between lanes. The guy jumped out of the driver’s side, ran around the truck, threw open the passenger door, and started trying to yank the woman out. Violently. I- as well as about ten other pedestrians — stood there dumbfounded as the struggle unfolded. Other cars drove by, looking perplexed but not stopping. Nobody rushed to help, to call for help, to even speak. Eventually, the guy gave up in frustration, slammed the door shut, ran back to his side, and the pair screeched off again.

I have no idea what happened to them. Did they crash? Did the woman face further violence? I am certain that even after the incident was over, not one of us followed up with a call to the police.

This type of behavior is more common that we’d all like to think- so common, in fact, that there is a name for it. It’s called the bystander effect, and it can be shown reliably in real-world social situations (see, for example, this clip). You might think that with the truck incident, people didn’t act out of fear for their own safety (and this is certainly one reason in many cases), but it also occurs when there is no potential for harm to the bystander (see, e.g., this other clip).

How does this relate to the unfolding Penn State scandal and tragedy? I read Maureen Dowd’s column about it with a mix of disgust and sadness. Certainly, the person who walked into the locker room to find the coach allegedly in the middle of child molestation, then graduate assistant Mike McQueary, has received his share of vilification. “He sees abuse, and he ran to his DADDY?” chastised one incredulous reader, implying his response was, at best, infantile. Even Dowd couldn’t believe it. Meanwhile, immediately after football coach Joe Paterno was fired by the Penn State board of trustees, a student demonstration in support of Paterno broke out, with cars turned over and placards reading “JoePa forever!” and “JoePa IS Penn State!”

Now, of course, watching a case of potential domestic violence is not the same as watching child molestation in the locker room showers. One might also argue that with the truck incident, it wasn’t as clear what the situation was “about,” whereas the scene that graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary walked into was very clearly wrong and needed to be stopped. Dowd, in fact, wrote,

It would appear to be the rare case of a pedophile caught in the act, and you’d think a graduate student would know enough to stop the rape and call the police.”

This is exactly where Maureen Dowd’s intuition is wrong. You see, ambiguity in emergency situations can arise from multiple sources. Events can be unclear not only in their interpretation, but in terms of how one should react. Paradoxically, emergency situations are almost by definition unclear as to how one should respond precisely because they are uncommon, out of the ordinary events that don’t have a ready script to follow. A colleague of mine once walked into a rare-books collection room in the library stacks of Yale and found two undergraduates having sex; he stopped, stared, and after an awkward pause, said “excuse me” and shut the door softly. The point here is not that the incident itself was unclear– this clearly shouldn’t have been happening, but the way one should respond in these kinds of situations is, while it’s happening, unclear.

Imagine McQueary, walking into the showers to find the revered Sandusky doing something that seemed completely out of character with his golden reputation in the locker room. These incidents can be so shocking that people — literally — can’t believe their own eyes, and it takes time to incorporate totally discrepant information with prior knowledge. Such situations are also very anxiety provoking, making it all the more difficult to respond quickly.

According to news reports, McQueary told Paterno the night after the incident, and Paterno told the university President, who even after time passed did not act to bring justice. They merely took away Sandusky’s keys.

Was the Board of Trustees correct to fire Paterno and the University President. Absolutely. Why? Because in these kinds of out-of-the-ordinary situations, people look to leaders and authority figures for cues as to how one should act. And by not acting, Paterno and the President were essentially communicating to McQueary and others who might have known about Sandusky’s behavior how to react. True, McQueary might have taken it upon himself to be a whisteblower– but given that Paterno IS Penn State, how is a lowly graduate assistant coach going to go against that? The type of fortitude required for that type of behavior is a burden that people should not be vilified for not shouldering. Rather than vilifying McQueary– rather than holding rallies in support of JoePa– it is important to recognize that Paterno and the President did not fulfill their leadership roles.

The incident reminds us of the importance of those whistleblower and emergency preparedness posters and campaigns. They give us that missing script to follow, reminding people of what they need to do while they have their wits about them. Because once an emergency hits, as evidenced by this unfolding tragedy, our wits can easily go out the window.

Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “What would you do if you were witness to child abuse?

  1. @Bowie Just walk away? Without reporting it to the authorities? Hmm… It is a very difficult situation to find oneself in, I’m sure. But to just walk away without reporting it to the authorities that someone is getting beaten or getting abused is not at all helping another human being. At least be anonymous if you don’t want to attract unwanted attention, But please Report the incident and perhaps Save a Life!

  2. I do apologise; My first post was directed solely to the domestic truck incident, as to the Child Molestation case, my reaction would be the same, probably faster, as there is a child involved.
    Assist and Report.

  3. I can very well understand and appreciate the “By-stander-Effect”
    When it comes to witnessing something very much “Out-Of-The-Norm” Situation that might happen right in front of our eyes.

    When we are on our ‘Treadmill of thoughts’ going about our day as normal, when something suddenly happens right before our eyes that immediately grabs our attention, our eyes instantly zeros in to the incident trying to relate to the Brain what it is seeing.
    The Brain however, is still in the mode of our thoughts to what we were doing previously.
    Unlike our eyes, the brain is slower to change its course from its current involvement to the New object of concentration, this is why when we witness something totally new and unexpected, we are for a moment are left in a ‘Slow Motion Reaction’ This is the “Waiting for the Brain” Effect, to catch up to the Eyes to gather information and report in details what is going on (What the eyes see) to dial ‘911’ emergency for the required ‘Muscle Reaction’ to the situation that is unexpectedly unfolding before us.

    If your Visual and Mental co-ordination is sharp (Can be exercised with simple ball handling exercises, hand-to-hand-eyes following), your physical reaction shouldn’t be too far off in responding to the situation.
    In this situation however, where there is violence and anger displayed, when your Brain do finally catches up to your eyes, how your ‘muscle reaction’ reacts, it is entirely up to you.

    Some people are cautious, perhaps weary to not get involved fearing re-taliation from the aggressor involved.

    I for one have never tolerate any form of violence perpertrated onto another being, whether Human, or an animal by a violent perpertrator.
    It is just sickening and I would not put up with it.

    In response to the above article, “What would I have done in witnessing the incident?” My visual and mental reactions is very sharp with my physical reaction fast to follow, and given how I feel about violence, Firstly, YES, I would have approached (Cautiously) the situation and immediately offered assistance.
    Secondly, I would have also called the Police to report the incident.
    Thats ME.

  4. This is what people are afraid of happening if they try to stop other people’s bad behavior…

    nobody wants to get the crap beaten out of them. the lesson is: just walk away

  5. This is one more tragic proof that too many academics are just as greedy and immoral as far too many politicians and clerics that have committed crimes against humanity with impunity in order to protect their personal and institutional wealth and power as their highest priority regardless of how hideous the consequences are for the future of humanity that they are supposed to protect and preserve.

  6. For myself I know I’m more prone to the Batman Effect. One night outside the Castro I saw a large youth run down the street and punch two different guys in the face, boom boom. He was drunk, it was New Year’s, and he didn’t know his victims (I was able to confirm this). I confronted the kid, and tried to get him to swing at me. He eventually backed out of the confrontation, but I ran into him (oddly enough) two more times in the neighborhood in the next half hour. I confronted him again each time, trying to get him to do something to me so that I could defend myself and hopefully get the cops involved. (Of course in SF on NYE the cops were nowhere to be seen…).

    I’ve done similarly, if not to this scale, on other occasions. Rapping my umbrella on the sidewalk when I’ve seen a guy shouting down the street at a woman. Drawing the attention of a belligerent person on BART. I’m not too smart when it comes to playing Batman. I’ve also call 911 when I’ve found someone on the street too drunk to stand or move (which I have on more than a couple occasions, because…)

    … I lived in the Mission District for five years and walked along Capp St. to and from 16th St. BART on my commute to Berkeley. One morning I witnessed someone performing oral sex on a male on the side of the street. Like your friend at Yale probably did, I flushed, felt confused and a little angry, and think I experienced a little cognitive shock. In retrospect I am fairly certain it wasn’t an abusive act, but was almost definitely transactional. I only caught a glimpse of it for a second, but I was in a weird funk all day.

    I’m telling these two stories to say that witnessing unexpected sex acts seems to me to be something different than simply the Bystander Effect, which apparently I am immunized against. For someone from a semi-religious, rural, “middle America” background and the typical level of sexual repression that goes with that, witnessing an unexpected public sex act can be much more shocking than witnessing a crime.

    I’m not telling these stories to try to excuse McQueary. He had ample opportunity to get objective about what he saw, and how his superiors handled it, and do the right thing. I can’t imagine he wasn’t persuaded to keep his mouth shut, since it seems entirely likely that 2002 was not the first time Joe Pa and the Penn State president covered up Sandusky’s monstrous crimes.

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