In November of 2011 the news broke. A former coach at Penn State University, Jerry Sandusky, was to be indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys, following a three-year investigation. In the following months a number of administrators at the University resigned, including head football coach Joe Paterno. Paterno was suffering from advanced stage lung cancer and died of complication of that disease in January of 2012.
Two notable events have occurred since Paterno passed away: First, Sandusky was found guilty, and is now a convicted sex offender. Second, on July 12, 2012, new information surfaced about Paterno’s involvement in the cover-up of Sandusky’s child molestation activities. An investigation headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh revealed that Paterno directly participated in the cover-up. Freeh’s report minces no words. To avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University – including Joe Paterno – “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the Board of Trustees, Penn State community, and the public at large.” This additional information requires that I add a post-script to my analysis of the challenges (at that time) of reaching a conclusion about Joe Paterno’s legacy — which I posted earlier this year (The Sense-Making of Joe Paterno’s Legacy).
Most condemning of all was the report’s contention that Paterno was aware of an earlier investigation of Sandusky in 1998. Email records tell the tale. Despite knowledge of this history, Paterno failed to take any action before or after his assistant coach came to him with his eyewitness account in 2002. This failure occurred “even though Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years, and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno’s.” Regarding the failed leadership at Penn State, the report revealed that “although concern to treat the child abuser humanely was expressly stated, no such sentiments were ever expressed by university officials,” including Paterno and the university president, for Sandusky’s victims.
Those of us who were reserving judgment until the dust had settled and the facts were known are now in a position to reach a final evaluation of the Joe Paterno era. No doubt those close to Paterno and to the Penn State community will still defend the man and his reputation. Emotion and self-interest can cloud judgment. But for the majority of us who sifted through the complexities of the case and wanted to reach a fair conclusion, the Louis Freeh report is unequivocal. Penn State itself commissioned the report, and the bottom line could not have been more devastating to the keystone state’s flagship school. Joe Paterno was indisputably a legendary football coach, but in the end, he showed a colossal lapse in judgment. His irresponsibility may have permitted Sandusky to spend another decade ruining the lives of untold numbers of children.
The legacy of Paterno is now forever tarnished. In our research on heroes, we’ve uncovered instances of many great individuals who self-destruct seemingly overnight. People whose status quickly changes from hero to villain, or from villain to hero, are called transposed heroes (Allison & Goethals, 2013). Former U.S. Senator John Edwards is a recent example, as is basketball great LeBron James, who may have transposed twice. As long as human beings achieve great things and then succumb to prideful arrogance, there will never be a shortage of transposed heroes. For Penn State, the daunting task of settling lawsuits and rebuilding a shattered reputation is in progress. For the victims of Sandusky, the lifelong process of healing the unspeakable wounds is now hopefully underway.
Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic leadership: An influence taxonomy of 100 exceptional individuals. London, England: Routledge.
Leary, M. (2012). John Edwards’ modular mind. Personality and Social Psychology Connections. http://spsptalks.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/john-edwards-modular-mind/
The list grows ever longer: Names like Harry Lew, Chucky Stenzel, Chad Saucier, Gabe Higgins, Donna Bedinger, J. B. Joynt…and now Robert Champion. Its the list of people killed by hazing. Champion died of “blunt force trauma” that occurred during the FAMU marching band’s “Crossing Bus C” ritual, when his classmates punched and slapped him as he walked down the aisle of the band bus. He suffered so many injuries, inflicted by so many hands, that prosecutors charged 11 members of the band with felony hazing.
Hazing should never happen, but it does. Hank Nuwer’s Wrongs of Passage documents in excruciating detail the way fraternity pledges at some universities are ritually beaten, ridiculed, harassed, and coerced into abusing alcohol and drugs. New members of sports teams are subjected to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. The recent suicide of Marine Lance Corporal Harry Lew has been linked to hazing. Marching bands, clubs, schools, businesses, even churches: they psychologically and physically harm their newest members.
Hazing is an entrenched group practice, and has been documented in ancient and modern societies and in all parts of the world. It’s a remnant of the modern-day group’s origins in the primal horde, designed to humble newcomers, remind them of their lowly status, and teach them to respect the group’s chain of command and traditions. Hazing legitimizes the abuse of power by group leaders, who claim the practice will unify the group, weed out the weak and uncommitted, and give newcomers a chance to prove their worth (Cimino, 2011).
But hazing is the wrong way to achieve any of these outcomes. Research in social psychology, including the classic study conducted by Eliott Aronson and Jud Mills in the 1950s, suggests that individuals rate positively groups which cause them to suffer, but other research indicates people like groups that support and reward them even more (Lodewijkx, van Zomeren, & Syroit, 2005). When Raalte, Cornelius, Linder, and Brewer (2007) examined the effects of two type of initiations—ones that involved group outings, swearing an oath, performing in skits, and doing community service and ones that involved kidnapping and abandonment, verbal abuse, physical punishment (spankings, whippings, and beatings), degradation and humiliation, sleep deprivation, alcohol abuse, running errands, and exclusion—they discovered the positive forms increased group unity. The negative forms backfired, creating tension and disunity in the group.
Yet hazing marches on, in part because it so psychologically compelling. Most who haze know that intentionally harming others is wrong. But hazing is sanctioned by the traditions of the group, so it is transformed into a sacred duty. If hazing was called by its correct names—torture and bullying—people might be more reluctant to carry on the grand tradition. Those who are hazed are part of the paradox as well, for they seem to be willing victims who embrace their own abuse. But even the participants in Stanley Milgram’s (1963) famous study of obedience misunderstood the cause of their own actions—they did not realize the power of a situation that so few of them could resist. Like Milgram’s subjects, victims of hazing are enmeshed in a group that severely limits their capacity to act of their own free will. A New York Times article discussing the tragic hazing of Robert Champion quoted a former band member as saying “much of the hazing is voluntary.” It is voluntary in the sense that Milgram’s subjects freely agreed to shock another person to death.
Lone individuals are capable of doing great harm to others. People like Timothy McVeigh, Seung Huo Cho, Ted Bundy, James Earl Ray, Ted Kaczynski, David Berkowitz (the “son of Sam”) are the source of much of the world’s evil. But if you discover harm that is truly senseless, inhumane, and massive in scale, you will likely find a group is to blame. Hazing is a violent, aggressive action; a morally repugnant form of torture and extreme bullying. Hazing is unlawful in many jurisdictions; people who have been hazed are victims of a crime. Hazing is dangerous and often lethal; each year young people are killed or seriously injured in hazing incidents. And hazing does not even yield the effects that it was introduced to generate. When groups identify shared goals, find ways to improve their performance, and identify sources of conflict, they become more cohesive. When they victimize their newest members, they irreparably undermine the group’s unity. Hazing is one form of group behavior that we no longer need.
Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effects of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177-181.
Cimino, A. (2011). The evolution of hazing: Motivational mechanisms and the abuse of newcomers. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 11, 241-267.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
Nuwer, H. (1999). Wrongs of passage: Fraternities, sororities, hazing, and binge drinking. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Lodewijkx, H. F. M., & Syroit, J. E. M. M. (1997). Severity of initiation revisited: Does severity of initiation increase attractiveness in real groups? European Journal of Social Psychology, 27, 275-300.
Van Raalte, J. L., Cornelius, A. E., Linder, D. E., & Brewer, B. W. (2007). The relationship between hazing and team cohesion. Journal of Sport Behavior, 30, 491-507.
The trial of former U. S. Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards began last week in federal court in North Carolina. Edwards is accused of using campaign contributions to cover up an affair with Rielle Hunter during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. The prosecution contends that because the money was used to protect Edwards’ campaign against the damage that public knowledge of the affair would inflict, it was subject to federal campaign laws. Who would have guessed that financial support for one’s mistress is now regarded as a campaign expense?
Even in an era in which we are rarely shocked by scandal, Edwards’ tale is particularly sordid. Not only did he have an affair while running for President of the United States, but he fathered a child with Hunter that Edwards repeatedly denied was his. On top of that, Edwards asked his aide, Andrew Young, to claim paternity of the child and convinced Young and his wife to take Hunter in to keep her out of the public eye. And, all of this drama played out while his wife, Elizabeth, was battling breast cancer that would take her life less than two years later.
In his book, Why Everyone (else) is a Hypocrite, Robert Kurzban offers a new perspective on instances in which people behave in such unethical, hypocritical, and self-defeating ways. As an evolutionary social psychologist, Kurzban begins with evolutionary psychology’s assumption that the mind consists of many individual mental processes that can be compared to cell phone applications or software subroutines. Each of these modules handles a specific processing task and operates according to its own goals and logic. So, for example, we may have modules that calculate risks, react to toxic substances, manage our sexual urges, make ethical judgments, respond to instances in which we are treated unfairly, and so on.
People are not consciously aware of most of the processes that occur in these cognitive modules. Although we are attuned to some of what goes on in our brains, most of the brain’s activities influence our motives, emotions, thoughts, and behavior without us being conscious of them at all. As a result, we do many things without really knowing why (although we can usually generate a plausible story) and even while adamantly claiming that we are not being driven by motives that are obvious to everyone else. We simply do not have conscious access to the workings of most of our processing modules.
Although some of these processing modules are interconnected in ways that allow them to communicate with and influence one another, many of them operate independently. According to Kurzban, the fact that the human mind is composed of many separate modules makes people naturally inconsistent. To give just one example, the module that maintains our ethical principles may assert moral judgments that other people have rewarded in the past, while the module that manages our reactions to sexual temptations may operate according to quite different principles with little or no input from the ethics module. Each module has a job to do, which it carries out without much regard for what other modules are doing.
And, although modules sometimes coordinate their activities, there is no master process that oversees all of them. Most of us feel that there is a central manager inside us somewhere – a little “me” who controls our behavior – but there’s not one “person” inside of us who is in charge of coordinating all of our actions. Instead, Kurzban argues that our thoughts, motives, emotions, and behaviors reflect the outputs of a loose confederacy of modules, and there’s no final arbiter when modules operate at cross purposes. Instead, which module dominates on a particular occasion is determined by a broad array of factors both inside and outside the individual. Today, our behavior may be controlled easily by our ethical beliefs, whereas tomorrow our sexual modules may hold sway. To an outsider, our behavior would appear inconsistent and perhaps hypocritical, but these responses simply reflect the influence of different modules.
So, let’s look inside John Edwards’ modular mind. To oversimplify greatly, the modules that manage his ethical beliefs are functionally distinct from those that control his sexual urges, and those are distinct from those that control his ambition, which are distinct from those that manage his feelings toward Elizabeth, his relationships with Rielle Hunter and Andrew Young, and his public impression management strategies. Each module operates according to principles that have been influenced by evolutionary processes, his unique genetic make-up, his personal experiences, and the situations in which he finds himself. And, clearly, the various modules are not working in concert, leading to a series of inconsistent, hypocritical, and self-defeating actions.
Popular explanations of unethical misbehaviors sometimes suggest that the person was fooling him- or herself about the morality of the behavior, the likelihood of getting caught, or his or her ability to escape punishment. The assumption is that no one would engage in such self-defeating actions without a good deal of self-deception. Yet, self-deception has been very difficult to explain because it implies that one part of a person actively hides the truth from some other part. But no one has been able to explain what these separate parts could possibly be, or how one part of someone’s mind can deceive another part. Kurzban hypothesizes that what appears to be self-deception occurs because some modules conceal their activities from other modules. If we assume that a module of which a person is consciously aware is itself not in communication with another module of which the person is not aware, two parts of a single brain could both know and not-know something at the same time without any deception at play. Clearly, various parts of Edwards’ modular mind were not talking to each other.
John Edwards’ actions were particularly staggering in their level of irresponsibility, indulgence, callousness, duplicity, and downright stupidity. But, at their psychological core, they are not fundamentally different from what all of us do. We each occasionally behave in ways that violate our moral beliefs, say things that we know are not true, present images of ourselves that differ from how we really are, and behave in ways that we know are unwise. From an evolutionary standpoint, there’s no reason that the operation of a particular module should necessarily be consistent with other modules. We may try to impose consistency on ourselves or on other people, but consistency is not inherent in the mind’s design. Human beings are, in Kurzban’s words, “consistently inconsistent.”
Taking a modular view of the human mind does not explain why Edwards behaved precisely as he did, and offering a scientific explanation certainly doesn’t excuse his actions (Miller, Gordon, & Buddie, 1999). But, it does help us understand that inconsistency – between ethical beliefs and behavior, between what one says and what one does, and between different actions at different times – is to be expected.
Smooth, effective, and satisfying social relationships may require people to insist that others act in accordance with their stated beliefs and intentions and to display a reasonable degree of consistency across situations and time. And, because we realize that being viewed as principled and consistent is important in social relations, each of us tries to avoid appearances of inconsistency. But these are social mandates, not biological ones. Because the modular mind is inherently inconsistent, managing the brain’s natural hypocrisy is an ongoing challenge for all of us.
Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Miller, A. G., Gordon, A. K., & Buddie, A. M. (1999). Accounting for evil and cruelty: Is to explain to condone? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 254-268.