Penn State Cover-Up: Groupthink in Action

How do smart, principled men wind up defending a child abuser in their midst? Blame the phenomenon of groupthink

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Abby Drey / Centre Daily Times / MCT / ZUMA PRESS

A man points at the image of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, which is part of a mural in downtown State College, Pa., on July 14, 2012

The recent, scathing report by former FBI director Louis Freeh detailing the cover-up of child-sexual abuse at the highest levels of Penn State‘s leadership has been parsed a million ways, but the question still remains: How could these intelligent and dedicated men have failed so dramatically to defend young children, while going overboard to protect their public image, their football, their Jerry, their JoePa?

While Big Football certainly played a role, what happened at Penn State is best explained by a psychological phenomenon known as groupthink, whereby sound decision making is impaired by the bigger concern of group unity and preservation. Insider groups — private clubs and fraternities, religious groups and sometimes corporations — are particularly prone to groupthink, and it’s hard to imagine a more inside group than university president Graham Spanier, senior vice president Gary Schultz, athletic director Tim Curley and revered football coach Joe Paterno. The characteristics of groupthink, first described by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, are that the group sets itself above the law, avoids transparency and oversight, and protects itself at all costs. Instead of trying to find the best solution, it encourages the conformity of opinion, often around the wrong decision.

(MORE: ‘Every Day Was A Mistake’: How Should Penn State Deal with Joe Paterno’s Legacy?)

Groupthink also helps explain why the leadership protected Sandusky — one of their own — instead of vulnerable children. As Janis said his book Victims of Groupthink, the phenomenon “is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups.” The outsider status of Sandusky’s child victims was most likely exacerbated by the fact that many were poor. The e-mails detailed in the Freeh report show that this particular insider group managed to twist logic to the point where they thought that it was more “humane” to cover up the repeated allegations of Sandusky’s abuse than to report them to the police. The “only downside” they saw to this decision was that they would be vulnerable if the truth came out. The humanity — and vulnerability — of the abused children and potential future victims didn’t come into the discussion.

(MORE: Cohen and DeBenedet: When Teachers Bully Children)

Janis first described groupthink as the dynamic behind foreign policy fiascos like the Bay of Pigs, and the concept is still applied to political decisions. Some of Janis’ recommendations to prevent groupthink have been widely followed, such as appointing a devil’s advocate, introducing outside voices and allowing brainstorming to occur without judgment or criticism. Over the years, his original concept was also criticized, especially what he described as the conditions necessary for groupthink to emerge: internal cohesion, crisis, pressure, group insulation and members with similar ideologies and backgrounds. More recent research has actually found that groupthink can occur when group dynamics aren’t as optimal, which means that it’s more ubiquitous than Janis initially thought, and in this sense, perhaps more dangerous.

In the end, the Freeh report reminds us not only to guard against groupthink but also to emulate the courage of people who speak out against the abuses of power, like Vicky Triponey, the former Penn State vice president who ran up against “the Penn State way” when she tried to discipline football players for various infractions and eventually lost her job. As she said in a recent interview about her former employer, “The culture is making decisions based on how others will react, not based on what’s right or wrong … others at the bottom didn’t matter.”

MORE: Academic Democracy

28 comments
Tim
Tim

Hamlet re-enacted! Something is fishy in 'Happy Valley'??!  Salvadore Dali  says "NO! I no canna paint my Marmelduke!"  Terrible PR on the Paterno side.  If the former FBI Director agrees, the University agrees, then what is the confusion about?  The coverup is always the haunting vixen!

Tim
Tim

I don't know about the 'Freeh Report' because it is surely not free or accessible but this story is quite close to two children with silver spoons in their mouth fighting over a bloody lip that incurred while jousting over the poor and helpless!  I wonder if the NCAA will return their graft in gate receipts because it's "Just too dirty to earn 7.85%!!"  NCAA!  Paterno family!! Get off your tricycles and look at this: If ever there was cause to subject a family (or family spokesperson) to forced email advertising from reputable PR firms then this is that time. Initially I sided with the Paterno 'face' in this two-faced Hamlet re-enactment, but 'Holy Lord'---once the sons decided they were going to exact their pound of lasagna I shifted quickly to the 'I'm out of it and tell the Paterno Sons (or spokesperson) to please be quiet!"  Crazy turn of events and exceedingly devastating---Where's Andy Warhol when you need him??? Then Rick Neuheisel chimes in?  I thought Neuheisel was done at UCLA and now works with UNICEF or BW3's or something?  Forget Warhol--Where is Salvadore Dali???  GEEZ!  Can't anyone say "Ya' know, we may have been wrong since we weren't there listening and watching what was happening." No, noway, these leviathans of levity are on the one hand-right out of a Mary Shelly novel (NCAA-Frankenstein) and on the other hand- toe the party line and insinuate explicitly the honor of the former Head of the FBI!!!   In the middle we have college professors with their rosary clenched weeping over a Football Coach and students rolling PoPo cars in revolt! Unreal...but I'll watch the movie if Suzanne Somers plays Joe Paterno's wife! ...at least for a little while!  OH! That movie is already in production baby!!  Look at us?  What have we become?                   www.hotspurwriting.com

Tim
Tim

 First, they had to the statue down--It looked like Paterno was running and shouting 'I need to do number 1!!" like he did in Ohio State Stadium! (running across the endzone headed for the toilet with the game LIVE!   I don't know about the 'Freeh Report' because it is surely not free or accessible but this story is quite closely resembling a spat between two children with silver spoons in their mouths fighting over a bloody lip that incurred while jousting over the poor and helpless!  I wonder if the NCAA will return their graft in gate receipt monie(s) because it's "Just too dirty to earn 7.85%!!"  NCAA!  Paterno family!! Get off your tricycles and look at this: If ever there was cause to subject a family (or family spokesperson) to forced email advertising from reputable PR firms then this is that time. Initially I sided with the Paterno 'face' in this two-faced Hamlet re-enactment, but 'Holy Lord'---once the sons decided they were going to exact their pound of lasagna I shifted quickly to the 'I'm out of it and tell the Paterno Sons (or spokesperson) to please be quiet!"  Crazy turn of events and exceedingly devastating---Where's Andy Warhol when you need him???  And now Rick Neuheisel is chiming in---forget Warhol where the crap is Savadore Dali??!!    I thought Neuheisel  worked for UNICEF or BW3's or something?  Having him comment on football is like Susan Summers commenting on dramatic poise!  I tell ya', the longer I live the more I retreat to cold pizza!             www.hotspurwriting.com

Pipe Nozzle
Pipe Nozzle

Remember reading the Janis book in grad school at UConn.  One factor not mentioned in this good, though short, piece on groupthink is that some individuals are pre-disposed to abuse power for their own gain. Graham Spanier fits that profile; he had a history of power abuse before arriving at Penn State.  He had long been a careerist.  Google "Spanier at Oregon State University" or "Spanier corruption."

Guest
Guest

Penn State. Group think.  Oh yea, and Penn State is the only institution who practices group think? Whatever.  What do you call a nation of 310 million yet only two political parties (for all intents and purposes)...rugged individualists ?  The current Penn State affair is more than just an outrage over pedophilia and the cover-up, it is a punitive exploit of sports by the vengeful, it is McCarthyism against jocks.

Dan Birch
Dan Birch

Penn State show lose it athletic program, be dumped from the Big 10 and the NCAA, fire everyone connected to the athletic program, rip down all the Paterno crap, bring in a management team of Mormons to run the school, and have a Paterno records negated.

dave_young
dave_young

Pedophile State ain`t for me or anyone who cares about preservation of a moral American Society

Cmdr_Casey_Ryback
Cmdr_Casey_Ryback

SIMPLISTIC

1. Weak board, with too much deadwood.

2. One-party control, no oversight. (Think Chicago)

3. No strong news-media, willing to take on "the comfortable." NOTICE that the lady who broke the Sandusky story was young (24) and willing to take on the deadwood. She won the Pulitzer Prize.

Of course it is group-think. That is obvious.

West Side
West Side

Since they all knew what was going on, they should ALL be in jail. They were ALL accessories. There are probably many more incidents we may never hear about.

Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

In the end, the problem at Penn State was the fact that Joe Paterno had TOO MUCH control over the operations of the university, and as such he ended up--with impunity!--protecting a close friend in Jerry Sandusky despite the fact there were plentiful warning signs that Sandusky was engaged some criminally deviant behavior--a behavior that may go back 30 years or more.

It should be noted that the NCAA _is_ now having its own internal legal team look at the possibility of imposing the "death penalty" given the very fact much of Sandusky's criminal acts happened on the Penn State campus itself--a potentially very clear definition of "lack of institutional control."

Adam
Adam

As a Penn Stater - im sad to see all that has happened.  It'll be sadder still to punish this set of kids (by closing down the football program as an example)... it impacts the kids in football, scholarship offers for kids coming in.. and also impacts other sports at Penn State that are funded by the football program. Not forgetting the impact to hotels, bars and other businesses in State college..

I think action needs to be taken, but it should be to the school ... not to the football program.. they shuld make Penn State pay up, lose funding from the state etc.. punishing the football program is indirectly punishing other people who benefit from it.. my 2 cents 

TeamKoKo
TeamKoKo

How is "punishing this set of kids" sadder than children being raped?! Please think! The NCAA could make an exemption to the 1 year wait time for transfers.  Ultimately the issue here isn't and shouldn't be about the current players, the bars, hotels, etc.  The issue here is that children were being raped at PSU with the knowledge of the University Leadership for years and years. 

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

So you are saying that the physics, chemistry, political science, history, english lit, etc., students should be penalized, but that the football program should be sacrosanct? Don't you see, that attitude created the problem. 

Tim
Tim

 Interesting set of circumstances that you inject?!  Let's invest outrageous resources checking the moral compass of the Lit, History, Mathematics etc. etc. etc. and offer those students and their Profs to participate in a weekly drug-screen, and a competitive environment  (bottom 75 percentile has to sit in their seats and cannot participate in class)...now the field is level...What say ye'??

chillj
chillj

The same type of incident as the Sandusky incident occurs in many organizations , even when most of the factors involved in group think do not exist.  Most people think they are "stand-up" people and will do the right think in morally demanding circumstances: most people are assuredly not "stand-up" people and they flatter themselves.  People usually dissemble in situations because they  are a threat to survival within the organization- economic survival.  Survival dominated  the actions of all the players in this disaster, as it involved people at higher and higher levels, and the players kept referring the problem off to superiors as they had been trained to do.  As the incident was relayed, it lost the power to shock. 

What is surprising about this case is that it is so surprising.  We are not being honest;  we too rarely act on our best impulses in equivocal circumstances, then we rationalize our behavior.  We should not be castigating Penn State so much as looking inward.

HipsterDufus
HipsterDufus

group think is a suitable oxymoron for behaviors of the Penn State administration.

football helped to turn a cow college into a major university.

they had the lion by the tail and couldn't let go.

dave_young
dave_young

Sandusky had innocent young boys by the tail and wouldn`t let go

pafaye
pafaye

".......... recommendations to prevent groupthink have been widely followed, such as appointing a devil’s advocate, introducing outside voices and allowing brainstorming to occur without judgment or criticism."

If this is posed as a serious suggestion to the case in point, it has some obvious flaws. The gang of 4 hardly wanted to open this situation to added exposure. Outside voices may have had a different moral compass. "Mr. Attorney General, I've just come from a meeting with Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz, Tom Curley and Joe Paterno. This is what I've discovered..." The secrets lived on for decades successfully. Don't you think that these guys hoped desperately that such could somehow continue.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Professional $ports, along with its $ister in $in---the media, especially television and its big money---has long been a cancer on the public body. Group think may be the mechanism, but power and greed are the root cause. In America, $ports is the opiate of the masses, and much of America is doped up on it.

Tim
Tim

 Easy does it Dan, you used the same vehicle (Media combined with $oney) to get your book published.  Power and Greed inclined you to write your book...In America jealousy and conceit reign supreme!  I'll take two scoops of opium if I can look myself in the mirror in the morning. 

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Actually, Tim, both of my books are available for free on my website. As for power and greed, well, you have never published Bible commentaries, have you?

Cmdr_Casey_Ryback
Cmdr_Casey_Ryback

So .. you'll be paying for Title IX, when you eliminate football? Because football pays for women's sports?

Looking forward to your answer, sir.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

As far as I know, professional $ports does not contribute to the cost of college athletic programs. In fact, professional $ports gets a free farm system at the expense of the collegiate system.

Cmdr_Casey_Ryback
Cmdr_Casey_Ryback

Hey, pal -- this is about COLLEGE sports. COLLEGE men's football PAYS for college women's sports -- look at the PSU budget.

You want to kill women's sports? You go into that meeting first -- be sure you have life insurance.

Adam
Adam

 i agree! my concern is this - coming from a third world country, I LOVE the fact that kids here can get a free education because of a sport, or a special talent. They can choose to excel in sport or arts rather than education.. face it, not everyone is built to excel in studies..  I never had those opportunities growing up, and i think America needs to find the right balance between sports and education..