The Psychology of Cover-Ups

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).



Filed under Children's Rights, Crime and Punishment, Disabilities, Experimental Psychology, Health Care, Regulation, The Law as Applied to Weird People & Situations

6 responses to “The Psychology of Cover-Ups

  1. (I’d like to add that Penn State did implement a whistle Blower policy in June of 2010…)

  2. Twitchy Woman

    That’s interesting! Do you know what the contents of the policy were? I think the challenge of such policies is not in having one, but making sure that it’s sensible and actually works.

    One person I know says that the university where he teaches recently sent out an email telling staff that if they witness a crime, they should tell the police *first* and then report it to the University if they feel that’s necessary. That sounds like it would potentially be a good policy since it helps people avoid the situation where they report a crime to a superior and then fear that, if they go further than that and also call the police, they’ll be seen as questioning their superior’s judgment. Also, in particularly delicate situations, this would enable the whistleblower to tell the police anonymously, without anyone else at the organization knowing they did so.

  3. Twitchy Woman

    Thanks! It looks on its face like a pretty typical whistleblower policy in that it generally prohibits retaliation but doesn’t say much about how the policy will be enforced or what constitutes retaliation. These policies are better than nothing, but there are probably ways to design them better so as to adequately account for common psychological barriers to reporting.

    In this case, and in the case of many institutions, it seems like there was a written policy requiring staff to report incidents of sexual assault to the police, and prohibiting retaliation to such reports. But people might correctly assume that that policy may not be enforced or that any enforcement won’t be enough to totally eliminate the potential fallout between them and the wrongdoer. Many companies have policies on paper that aren’t consistently followed, especially when one department is used to functioning autonomously without much interference from higher management. Also, a lot of the fallout will be somewhat intangible and hard to totally prevent simply by punishing retaliation: there’s no way to guarantee that you won’t lose friends at work, that people will still work well with you, etc. This means you have to go beyond creating a policy and actually foster a culture where whistleblowers are actively praised and encouraged.

  4. Pingback: Social Psychologist Admits Faking Results | WeirdLaw

  5. Hi I really appreciate this post. In my case I have dealt with workplace mobbing and community mobbing (the latter is a natural extension of the school or workplace variety which has come into being thanks to the rise of social media). I can assure you the psychology is the same.
    What has disturbed me greatly is a peculiar “moral loophole” that I have had the misfortune to have to observe up close during my experiences. That is, if a member of the group harasses me, abuses me, or violates my rights, a very lax set of rules and standards is used. But the group is hypersensitive to anything that I might do or say, so I’ve often ended up in absurd situations being persecuted for the rumor of saying or doing something offensive, while the protected members of the group are free to use their imaginations to come up with ever more satisfying ways of inflicting psychological and emotional trauma upon me.
    Sufficeth to say, group behavior, in mobbing or cover-ups or elsewhere, is something that needs to be understood better by the general population. Our focus on deviant psychology and crime shows does not prepare us for dealing with the realities of a world ever more influenced by social media.

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