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The cases of alleged abuse at Penn State University have many asking why someone didn’t act to put an end to the practice. In particular, if someone witnessed a rape of a young child, why wouldn’t they immediately call police?
Assistant coach Mike McQueary is being vilified for witnessing what he said was the rape of a child, and not stopping it, or calling the police. Penn State points out that McQueary did what he was required to do by state law: he told his boss coach, Joe Paterno. But why didn’t McQueary do more?
Psychologists say the “bystander effect” may be at play.
As Time Magazine reports, it’s a twist on the coping mechanism of denial:
In McQueary’s case… there seems to have been another type of denial at play, which [psychologist Stanley Cohen] labeled “interpretative.” “You don’t deny that something happened, but try to transform the meaning of it,” says [social psychologist Mark Levine] explaining that a witness might minimize the significance of a crime or try to see it as something other than it was.
McQueary may well have been psychologically unable to accept that a man like Sandusky, someone he admired, had actually committed the abhorrent crime he witnessed. Research suggests that when people are faced with situations that threaten their view of the world as relatively fair and decent, rather than revising their own perspective, they often create accounts that deny reality, blame the victim or otherwise rationalize the situation.