How many times in the past week have you told yourself or someone else what you would have done if you were that graduate assistant who says he witnessed a child rape in the shower room at Penn State University, or if you were Joe Paterno, their legendary football coach, or if you were the President of Penn State? The reality is, you don’t know what you would have done. We all have blind spots to the truth that prevent us from doing the right thing in certain situations.
David Brooks writes about this phenomenon in his op-ed column, Let's All Feel Superior, that he wrote for the New York Times. He says in that column:
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. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.
Some people simply can’t process the horror in front of them. Some people suffer from what the psychologists call Normalcy Bias. When they find themselves in some unsettling circumstance, they shut down and pretend everything is normal.
Some people suffer from Motivated Blindness; they don’t see what is not in their interest to see. Some people don’t look at the things that make them uncomfortable.
Some people look, but often don’t see the unexpected. Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris demonstrated this in their classic research on perception. Observers concentrating on completing a task did not see a gorilla walk across the screen in front of their eyes. We see what we expect to see and, literally, don’t see the things that are not usually there. Drivers in areas of high bicycle activity see the bicyclists on the road, while drivers in areas of few bicyclists don’t see the bicycle in front of their car until it is too late.
Although physical and moral blind spots are tragically apparent at Penn State, the potential is in all of us. A co-worker is running a Ponzi scheme, we don’t want to believe it, and we look the other way. The sales department inflates revenue for the year and we make excuses why it is okay to report the numbers in that way. A manager is verbally sexually abusive to members of his team and we ignore it. In all of these situations we would like to believe that we would do the right thing. However, individuals, teams, and whole organizations put up many barriers to the truth.