A Psychology Lesson at Penn State

This week, Penn State received severe penalties from the NCAA, worse than the  “death  penalty,” once the most stringent discipline meted out to athletic programs that break NCAA rules. This punishment is well-deserved. For unlike previous perpetrators who showed callous disregard for the rules of collegiate sports, officials at Penn State displayed total disregard for the welfare of children.

The men at the helm of this otherwise distinguished educational institution, in the words of investigator and former FBI Director Louis Freeh, “failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized."  University officials, including legendary Head Coach Joe Paterno, “never demonstrated through actions or word any concern for the safety and wellbeing of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest.” In fact, this damning report went on to say, “Although concern to treat the child abuser humanely was expressly stated, no such sentiments were ever expressed by them to Sandusky’s victims.”

 How could it happen?

 The first allegation at Penn State in 1998 was investigated by the campus police.  A NY Times report on that query stated: “Sandusky admitted showering naked with Victim 6, admitted to hugging Victim 6 while in the shower and admitted that it was wrong,” said the report issued last weekend by the Pennsylvania attorney general. “Detective Schreffler advised Sandusky not to shower with any child again and Sandusky said that he would not.”

Somehow Paterno, Sandusky’s boss, figured that the matter had been put to rest.  Yet when his former quarterback, now grad assistant Mike McQueary reported seeing the Defensive Coordinator molesting a child in the shower, Freeh states that Paterno told him, “You did what you had to do.  It is now my job to figure out what we want to do.” He did nothing.  With children’s welfare at stake, how could a father and grandfather take no action?  It’s easy to note that they weren’t his grandsons, and Sandusky was a valued colleague. But there’s a psychological component as well.

Author George Orwell wrote, “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.  Intellectually it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time:  the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality.”  This takes place, according to eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson, because humans tend to “justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts.”

Protecting Penn State’s reputation and their own self-esteem

Unfortunately for Sandusky’s victims, their molester was a prominent coach in the most storied football program in America. Freeh states that despite official statements, “It is more reasonable to conclude that in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University repeatedly concealed facts relating to Mr. Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities…the Penn State community and the public at large.”

Fear of bad publicity motivated officials to ignore the facts. The need to protect their own self-image ensured that their ignorance would continue.  Once the 1998 investigation failed to prove that Sandusky had done anything criminal, university officials had a new reason to discount the danger. They had to be right. After all, good people like them would never let a child molester “continue with impunity” in their midst. These educated men came under the influence of confirmation bias.  As Dr. Aronson and coauthor Dr. Carol Tavris put it, “So powerful is the need for consonance that when people look at disconfirming evidence they will find a way to criticize, distort or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing belief.”

It is unlikely that Paterno and university officials consciously decided that their football legacy was worth more than the safety of a dozen children. But Sandusky was the colleague, an able coach; it was easy to believe his explanations and excuses. They had to believe them. If they were untrue, these officials were guilty of allowing their colleague to rape children. That conclusion was intolerable. Therefore, what Sandusky said must be true.  Wise King Solomon wrote, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes.” That is, until we ‘bump up against solid reality.’


Those of us who carefully study admissions marketing psychology realize that people often make decisions for emotional and seemingly illogical reasons. We who devise marketing communication strategies to increase search response, conversion and yield rates know there are important factors that go well beyond contacting the right students with the right message and helping them find the best fit. Using psychological factors when marketing to prospective college students is OK if it merely helps one appropriately choose between two excellent institutions.

But the same psychological factors can clearly affect college officials in harmful ways. In the wake of the Penn State scandal, institutions will surely put strict rules in place that leave little wiggle room when the safety and welfare of others, particularly children, are in jeopardy. These must not allow confirmation bias and self-justification to rear their ugly heads. If effective rules are put in place to truly protect the innocent, Penn State will have taught a lesson from which we can all benefit.

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