Time Magazine has a great article on the psychology of cover-ups in the context of the recent events at Penn State (trigger warning for discussions of sexual abuse). Here is a choice snippet:
When the actions of a group are public and visible, insiders who behave in an unacceptable way — doing things that “contravene the norms of the group,” Levine says — may actually be punished by the group more harshly than an outsider would be for the same behavior. “It’s seen as a threat to the reputation of the group,” says Levine.
In contrast, when the workings of a group are secretive and hidden — like those of a major college football team, for instance, or a political party or the Catholic priesthood — the tendency is toward protecting the group’s reputation by covering up. Levine suggests that greater transparency in organizations promotes better behavior in these situations.
The article also makes some other important observations: that people are more intervene if they think that their intervention will be supported by the community around them and not met with hostility for “butting in” to issues that aren’t their business, and that people are less likely to intervene when the bad actor is a respected authority figure and the victim is a member of a marginalized group (for example, a “troubled teen”).
All of these observations are incredibly important not only to the recent Penn State case but also to the law of institutions in general. There’s an institutional bias in our society that is particularly evident in our disability services systems (see, e.g., Bruce Darling’s testimony for ADAPT (accessible PDF)), criminal justice systems, and child services systems. Although abuse and other human rights violations in these institutions are rampant (see any of the links above), many defenders of institutional services delivery will explain abuse as the work of a few “bad apples” and not a problem with the institutions themselves. These explanations have a lot of intuitive appeal to those who have never actually experienced institutionalization or tried to be a whistleblower themselves. People would like to think that they’d report abuse all the way up the institutional hierarchy and also to the police and the media, and that anyone who fails to do so must simply be a bad person who is not like them in any way.
However, as this post by Amanda Forest Vivian illustrates, it’s incredibly difficult even for highly moral individuals to report abuse in many institutional and “community” programs. Like football staff at Penn State, staff at institutional program (and at many “community” programs) tend to form cohesive groups and are invested in protecting their reputation. Because these programs operate more or less out of sight from the rest of the community, they tend to respond to misbehavior by covering it up rather than publicly punishing their own members, as Levine noted in the Time article. Moreover, lower-level staff members often justifiably fear that whistleblowing will not actually end the abuse but instead may lead to retaliation by other staff members and supervisors (especially when the perpetrator is higher-ranking). Like McQueary at Penn State, even when a low-ranking staff member is disturbed enough to report abuse to a supervisor, they frequently do not feel empowered to follow up and report to outside authorities if the supervisor fails to take action; to do so would likely be perceived as insubordination.
This is why social sciences research on the environmental influences on social policing is so important. Unless community members and policy members understand that certain environmental factors are perpetuating and enabling institutional abuse, they won’t be able to commit to eliminating those factors from our service delivery systems.
(h/t to the Situationist for linking to the Time article).