Monday, November 21, 2011

McQueary Milgram and Nazis

"The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act." –Stanley Milgram, 1974

The Penn State controversy has taken off and media coverage is rampant.  Everyone has an opinion, passionate response, and reason why things would be different if it were them involved.  I’m dissatisfied and somewhat troubled at what I read and hear, as I have yet to see a certain perspective discussed.  I’ll go ahead and call this the McQueary Angle. 

Who is Mike McQueary?  Mike McQueary is at the center of this whole Penn State Scandal involving a very sick man, Jerry Sandusky.  By all counts Sandusky is and always will be a pedophile.  Some psychologists hold to the opinion that there is no help or cure for pedophilia because they will continue with the abuse.  Everyone and their mom is covering the story from the pedophilia point of view so if you’re interested in that or more information on it, there are tons of resources out there and plenty of news coverage.  McQueary was identified as the key witness in the ongoing Penn State sex scandal.  Grand jury testimony alleged McQueary reported to head coach Joe Paterno of witnessing Sandusky raping a 10 year old boy in a campus locker room; McQueary first told his father about the incident, then the next day informed Paterno, and then ten days later informed other university officials.  According to investigators, McQueary did what he was legally required to do, and was not implicated in any wrongdoing.  He was criticized for not intervening to protect the boy from Sandusky, as well as for not reporting the incident to police himself. McQueary later said he made sure the observed assault stopped before leaving, and that he discussed the incident with police; Penn State and State College police say they have no record of it.   Days prior, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, who as state attorney general opened the grand jury investigation, said that McQueary "met the minimum obligation in reporting it up, but did not in my opinion meet a moral obligation that all of us would have (Wikipedia).”  

The largest majority of the general populace has critiqued McQueary for not doing enough, understandably so.  My angle here is considering why McQueary did or did not do certain things and my challenge, which will be met with some volatile self-righteous disagreement, is, aren’t we all Mike McQueary?  Stanley Milgram would undoubtedly agree, yes, or at least say we all have the innate capacity to do so.  After much research I would agree with the words of Dr. Greg Sipes, “Any or at least the vast majority of us would have done the same thing as he did if we we're in the culture he was in. There is a lot of self-righteousness in the air right now; especially as it relates to this young man. Maybe the older guys with the power should have spoken up but the younger guys had a lot to lose and were in a culture of authority and power to which they conformed.”  Now, before you go crossing your arms and locking yourself in a self-assured chamber of self-righteousness declaring you would have not cared and done the right thing, listen to the data and dare I say try to empathize a bit.  Empathy does not justify, it simply dilutes self-righteousness.  I do not condone nor support any of Mike McQueary’s actions or inactions, much like I still hold a passionate disdain for the actions of the Nazis.  This experiment done by Milgram simply exposes that people who do awful things sometimes do them under authority even if those actions fly in the face of their own morality.  The experiments began in July 1961. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the question: "Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?" In other words, "Was there a mutual sense of morality among those involved?" Milgram's testing suggested that it could have been that the millions of accomplices were merely following orders, despite violating their deepest moral beliefs. The experiments have been repeated many times, with consistent results within societies, but different percentages across the globe. The experiments were also controversial, and considered by some scientists to be unethical or psychologically abusive, motivating more thorough review boards for the use of human subjects (Wikipedia).  I watched a TV program several years ago about the Holocaust that focused its attention to the Nazi soldiers and their personal life.  It read through journals, looked at old photographs, and learned that many were family men who valued similar things that their victims did.  It is easy to see these people as monsters; their actions were monstrous, when in actuality they were the majority revealed by Milgram’s experiment.  For more information on Milgram’s Experiment please go to any of the below referenced sites.  Also, here is a video referencing theexperiment.

Allegedly McQueary witnessed Sandusky raping a 10 year-old boy in the locker room, but failed morally and ethically to act appropriatley.  This caused great controversy and judgment by the general public. Why though, why did he not act appropriatley?  I asked local behavioral psychologist of Indiana Health Group Dr. GregSipes a couple questions in regards to this idea.

Q: As this Penn State drama unfolds there is a perspective I believe that is being overlooked and not addressed as it should be.  Those who witness the offenses and either do not report it, turn a blind eye, or help in the cover up, how and why do they end up in the positions they are in?
A: It's the culture of power, big money and absolute, unquestioned authority. See Milgram experiments

Q: Why do people not report offenses like the Sandusky deal?
A: In a few words, too much to lose. The culture is to, at all costs, protect the program/culture.

Q: We all tell ourselves we would have done differently, what would be your response to those who say this?
A: It's easy to sit in judgment when you're an outsider. But think about this. This kid,  Mike McQueary, is a big kid, a former starting quarterback at Penn State. Certainly not a wimp. But for some very powerful reason he was unable to confront this obvious atrocity. Of course many German's participated in the killing of 6 million Jews. I think rather than be critical we ought to remember what Milgram taught us in the wake of WWII when the world was up in arms about the compliance of so many Germans. He showed that, with the right social conditions, People will do what they don't believe is right (in their heart) because they apparently believe they have too much to lose. 

This issue is large, too large to fit your arms around in one sitting and something that should be reflected upon regularly.  As we watch these unfortunate circumstances unfold I believe it is most important to be sympathetic to the victims, but also, not to be so quick to judge and sit in self-righteousness of those who did not report what they saw because evidence strongly points to the reality that if put in the same position we’d do the same thing.  Have you ever succumb to the pressure of authority or fear of losing something and done something or not done something that you’d normally do or not do?  If you were McQueary and walked in on Sandusky and were faced with the challenge what would you do?  Lose all you’ve worked for and tarnish a national treasure of college football (at the time at least)?  What makes us any better than empirical data and ugly history?  Given the right set of circumstances aren't we all the McQueary kid?

  2. Berkeley University-
  3. Wikipedia1-
  4. Wikipedia2-
  5. Wikipedia3-
  6. Dr. GregSipes


  1. The reason the McQueary angle is not being considered much is because it is something we all live with on a daily basis. Of course we do not experience such vile behavior daily but if you think about it, there are small moral/ethical quandaries that pop up all the time.

    An example: one day I was walking home from work and I saw a little girl tearing recklessly around a corner on her bicycle. I knew that she was going to lose control and sure enough she ended up on the ground crying with her bike on top of her. Now at this point I have a decision to make: do I stop and see if this child, who I have no obligation to, is ok or do I simply frown and keep on my way? Additionally, there was a couple coming towards me and I could already see the woman's face frowning up. I decided to keep going and let the couple handle it. Why? Well my mental calculation went something like this: no obligation + secondary intervening part + absolving of any indirect blame = inaction. In prosaic terms, I could stop to help the little girl or even just see if she was ok but the reality is that a lot could happen in that time. The parent could come out irate and think I had done something, the child could claim I did something, in helping the child I could actually do something to cause more pain, etc. Additionally, society would generally be more accepting of a couple inserting themselves into that situation as opposed to a male by himself. Kids and strange men just look wrong to people. So in the end, I kept walking.

    I use this example to point out that most people with normal brain function and faculty have a similar equations running at all times. There are societal pressures that can help weight certain portions of the equation but it basically boils down to survival and taking the path that is most beneficial. That may lead to a person doing something half right, completely wrong or operating in some other gray area because they have a trigger that tells them how much of themselves they should commit to the decision. In this case McQueary did what he believed to be necessary to address things from his standpoint and I cannot argue against that. He told his boss, who probably held more sway at the university than the president, and claims to have stopped the assault in some way. Going to the police, kicking Sandusky in the nuts, complaining to everyone who would listen or any other number of moral or ethical things he could have done probably crossed his mind at one time or another but that calculation for him told him that it would be beneficial to do what he had done so that was as far as he went.

    This whole situation is convoluted to the point of ridiculousness. There have been cover ups, permissions for a former employee that shouldn't have been granted, and any number of people operating in morally/ethically questionable areas. The focus is where it should be, on a man who has serious problems and is committing an despicable act. What McQueary did is something we all do every day and he should neither be vilified or lauded for what was a human reaction to a confusing situation.

  2. Nice thorough comment there David, almost a follow up blog. Your last sentence is basically a summary of my thoughts, so i think this confirms great minds do think alike.