Criminal Justice

'Normalcy Bias' Helps Explain Why People Who See Atrocities Look the Other Way


The outrage was pervasive after news reports revealed that Jerry Sandusky continued in his job as an assistant coach at Penn State despite allegations he was caught engaging in inappropriate conduct with a youth in a shower.

But the outraged commentators may not have taken action if they saw or learned of a sexual assault, according to a New York Times op-ed by columnist David Brooks. There is often a disconnect between what people say they would do during terrible events and what they actually do. “Over the course of history—during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods—the same pattern has emerged,” he writes. “Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.”

Psychologists have studied the reasons, Brooks writes. Some people simply don’t process a horrible event because of Normalcy Bias—in which people simply shut down and pretend everything is normal. Another reason is Motivated Blindness—in which people don’t see things that are upsetting to them. He cites one experiment in which people who are uncomfortable with sex were shown pictures with sexual content. The uncomfortable folks didn’t focus on the sexual images.

In years past, Brooks says, moral systems emphasized the inner struggle against evil. Today, however, society is “oriented around our inner wonderfulness,” he writes. When bad things happen, people blame outside forces, such as the culture of college football, and seek to change the law to avoid a repeat of the problem.

“The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive?” Brooks asks. “That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.”

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