Penn State, Motivated Blindness, and the Dark Side of Loyalty

Author: Tom Bartlett

Why didn’t somebody do something?

That’s the maddening question you ask yourself when you read the grand jury report that details the horrible crimes witnessed by Penn State employees and reported to superiors. No one intervened. No one held the perpetrator accountable. No one stopped the abuse, which then allegedly continued for years.

Presumably, the employees and their superiors all consider themselves ethical people. In many other situations, no doubt, they’ve conducted themselves honorably. And yet, judging by the evidence that’s been made public so far, they didn’t do the right thing when it counted most.

Why not?

A new book titled Blind Spots: Why We Fail To Do What’s Right and What to Do About It (Princeton University Press) offers some clues. In that book, the two authors, Max E. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, write about the child-abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, specifically about how Joseph Ratzinger, then a cardinal and now the pope, has been accused of helping to cover up the abuse. Part of the problem, they write, could be so-called motivated blindness. “Without excusing any behavior that led to the abuse of children, we believe that it is possible that the pope’s loyalty to his organization may have blinded him to the seriousness of his actions,” they write. “Rather than a defense of unethical behavior, motivated blindness offers a psychological explanation of how unethical behavior may come about.”

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