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

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.”

I spoke to Tenbrunsel, who is a professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame, this morning. She absolutely sees a connection between the apparent cover-up that happened at Penn State and cover-ups within the Catholic Church, not to mention Enron and other financial scandals. It exposes what she calls “the dark side of loyalty,” how a quality usually regarded as a virtue can, in certain situations, dissuade people from behaving ethically.

But it’s more than that. Studies have shown that people tend to underrate the degree to which they’re acting in their own self-interest (the authors refer to this study on blood donation). They think other people act according to their own self-interest, but they don’t believe they’re affected by the same bias. The subtle influence of our peers and the situation itself is much more powerful than we realize. That is one of the blind spots the authors write about.

Another is indirect blindness. Bazerman and Tenbrunsel cite studies that show that when responsibility is shifted from one party to another, people tend to view the first party as less culpable. In the example they use, people are asked whether it’s ethical for a drug company to triple the price of a cancer drug. People generally say no. But if the same company sells the drug to another company at an inflated price, which then requires the second company to raise the price even more, the first company is ethically off the hook.

The notion, as Tenbrunsel puts it, is that “as long as I can pass it along and make it somebody else’s responsibility, I no longer own that.”

Being aware that we’re biased in this way is a good first step, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Other studies have shown that we “tend to believe that while others may fall prey to such inconsistencies, we ourselves are immune to them.” So what’s the solution, assuming there is one?

Tenbrunsel believes that there can’t be domains of an organization that are considered beyond reproach. She suggests letting employees know that the organization wants them to report wrongdoing. But of course none of that matters if those higher up the food chain don’t follow through and actually take the allegations seriously, rather than minimizing them. That, she says, is the central failure.

I thought this passage was particularly apt for the current situation, if you substitute “university officials” for “executives”:

When people stand by the unethical actions of their subordinates, they own that unethical action. Their silence suggests that their only problem with the unethical action is that it was detected. We should hold executives accountable for the actions of their employees when all evidence suggests that the organization tolerated unethical behavior.

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