THE BLOG

Penn State: The Psychology of the Failure to Report

11/16/2011 02:12 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2012

I won't even begin to take on the topic of evil other than to quote one of my late mentors, Walter Dunn, former senior executive at Coca Cola who told me that the most important lesson of his life was: "Confront evil at the earliest opportunity."

I would agree with that and add, "Confront and stop evil at the earliest opportunity." However I would also add to that, "For everyone else who is flawed, find a way to deal fairly and justly with it."

Like you, I have heard the outrage directed at the people who witnessed or heard about the child sexual molestation at Penn State and didn't intervene, didn't go to the police, didn't do more. We have heard a lot about their fear of losing their job or maybe just their flat-out fear of being hurt or even killed by the person they witnessed. If a person like Sandusky was capable of molesting children as he allegedly did, it wouldn't be unreasonable to worry about what that person would be capable of doing to you if you reported him.

You may say, I can understand how a lower level person like a janitor could be afraid of losing his job or maybe being hurt or killed by the abuser, but how could a person such as Joe Paterno be so frozen in taking more action than he did.

I think the key word there -- not to excuse or condone or not respond legally to it -- is "frozen."

We've all heard the expression, "like deers in the headlights of a car." To better understand how not just deers, but supposedly decent and non-evil human beings could do nothing after witnessing heinous incidents, two other operational words are "horror" and "terror."

When you see something that horrifies you, be it a deer with a car heading towards you or a nationally revered coach hearlng about a coach allegedly molesting a child and worse yet a child with disabilities, that horror will trigger a massive amygdala hijack in your brain. The amygdala is like a point guard in the emotional part of your middle brain. When it is overwhelmed it hijacks you away from being able to access your upper rational brain and think and assess what to do. It essentially disables your ability to think. Think of horror as the equivalent of an emotional tsunami that not only threatens to hijack you away from thinking, but that it then immediately crosses over into terror. Using this model of the brain, if horror threatens to hijack you away from being able to think, terror threatens you to feel that the next step will be for you to shatter.

The inner experience is not entirely different from going through an earthquake in which the first quake horrifies you, but the terror of a next one can cause you to freeze in your tracks.

Add to that in the Penn State incident, that you -- even you, Joe Paterno -- hear of something that horrifies and terrifies you at which point you freeze. And then imagine that being frozen you let time pass and fail to do anything. During that time of delaying to take action, you not only head towards further terror of repercussions, but you feel increasing shame and guilt for not reporting it sooner and what people will say about your delaying. Add to that the worry that people and your own conscience will say to you, "How could a tough coach like you be afraid to report something wrong?" If what you are great at and what you know about is coaching, that focus can be at the expense of being great at many others things, including confronting evil when you see it.

Again, I must stress that I am not being an apologist for negligence, nor do I think there shouldn't be consequences for it, but I will say: "Let he who has experienced horror and terror and frozen in their tracks throw the first stone."

I have heard it said that the measure of a civilization is how it treats those who have hurt it, I think a further measure is how it treats those who deeply disappoint it.