As the trial begins in the case of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, I think back to my initial impressions of the case.
As the story unfolded in November of last year, the details began to remind me of one of my college courses. During my freshman year, I took a course that would eventually inspire me to change my major. The course was called Social Psychology. If sociology is the study of the group, and psychology is the study of the individual, then social psychology is the study of the interaction between the group and the individual.
One concept I studied during that course was dysfunctional group decision making. An example of this phenomoenon is a process call groupthink. Groupthink refers to a faulty mode of thinking by group members whereby their desire to evaluate realistically alternative courses of action is overwhelmed by pressures for unanimity within the group. That is, concerned that they not disrupt apparent group consensus, the members neglect to appraise alternatives critically and to weigh the pros and cons carefully. Once groupthink sets in, the typical result is an ill-considered decision (Michener and DeLatamer, 1999).
In this case, the group in question consisted of the leadership of the Penn State football program, the athletic department, and the university itself. This group would have experienced homogeneity of members, insulation from its environment, and high levels of group stress. All of these factors contribute to groupthink (Janis, 1982). There are also symptoms that indicate that groupthink is present in a group's decision making process. Several of these symptoms are especially relevant in this particular case:
- Illusions of morality: Members may display an unquestioned belief in the group's inherent superior morality, which may incline them to ignore (undesirable) ethical consequences of their decisions.
- Collective rationalization: Members may discount warnings that, if heeded, would cause them to reconsider their (incorrect) assumptions.
- Self-censorship: Members may engage in self-censorship of deviation from the apparent group consensus, with each member inclining to minimize the importance of his or her own doubts.
- Pressure on dissenters: The majority may exert direct pressure on any member who dissents or argues against any of the group's stereotypes, illusions, or commitments.
- Mindguarding: There may emerge in the group some self-appointed "mindguards" - members who protect against information that might shatter the complacency about the effectiveness and morality of the group's decisions.
- Appparent unanimity: Despite personal doubts, members may share an illusion that unanimity regarding the decision exists within the group.
These particular symptoms contributed to the one incident from this entire case that disturbed me more than any other.
Jerry Sandusky retired in 2009, seven years after the most publicized incident of the entire scandal. In that incident, Sandusky was caught in the act by one of his the team's graduate assistants, Mike McQueary, who later became the team's wide receivers. McQueary did not stop the incident, nor did he report it to the police. He did report the incident to head coach Joe Paterno, who also did not call the police. Paterno reported the incident to the Athletic Director, who did not call the police either. The AD then reported the incident to the school's president, who told no one. This twisted chain of command is an example of self-censorship
, pressure on dissenters,
The boy's mother did report this incident to the police. In fact, she was the most vocal and assertive parent of any of the victims. The police, however, denied that any report was ever filed. This is also an example of mindguarding, by persons not even belonging to the group primarily involved in the decision making process.
Many members of the group in question were aware of this 2002 incident. And some of them were even involved in the negotiations for Sandusky's retirement package. As part of this package, Sandusky requested and was granted
full access to the showers and locker rooms at the football team's facility. Even if the details of the retirement package were negotiated before
the 2002 incident, the retirement package would have gone into affect after
the incident. Any number of people who were aware of Sandusky's sexual misconduct could have spoken up at this time, but no one did. And by doing so, the group knowingly placed more children in danger. This is an example of illusions of morality, collective rationalization,
and apparent unanimity
Penn State - the football program, the athletic department, and the university itself - proved in the Jerry Sandusky scandal that dysfunctional decision making is the least dire consequence of the groupthink process.