Two days ago, Penn State students rioted in support of the university’s longtime football coach, Joe Paterno, who had just been fired. The reason? When he learned in 2002 that his then-assistant Jerry Sandusky had been seen sexually assaulting a child in the football team’s showers, according to the grand jury indictment of Sandusky [pdf], he directed the witness to go to the athletic director, and the police were never contacted. Sandusky has now been charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span, and Paterno, who has won more games than any other coach in college football, has lost his job.
And yet, to the shock of many around the country who found the grand jury’s report extremely disturbing, students still stood up for him. Karen Schrock at Scientific American delves into the social science of group-think and explains why, when you’re part of a group, especially one defined by a charismatic individual, it changes the way you think:
According to psychological theory, every person has a social identity, which depends on being a member of various groups. “The social groups you belong to become a part of the very essence of who you feel you are,” explains psychologist Adam Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. These groups can include our families and circles of friends; the clubs, churches and schools we attend; our race, ethnicity and nationality; and the list goes on. The more strongly we identify with a particular group, the more vehemently we defend its members and ideals—a trait that experts think evolved along with early human society. Banding together and protecting one another allowed our ancestors to survive, and so to this day we are quick to cheer on our comrades and feel animosity toward rival groups. Many scientists think this in-group psychology explains prejudice, racism and even sports fandom.
Most of the Penn State students who rioted Wednesday night have social identities that are built around a lifelong allegiance to the school. If you attend Penn State, Galinsky explains, “Penn State is you, it’s part of you, it’s such an important thing.” And nothing symbolizes Penn State more than Joe Paterno, head football coach for 46 years. Many of these distraught young adults chose to attend the university because of their love for the Paterno’s team—not the other way around. And they rioted because “the person that symbolized the school they go to, that’s given the school stature, that’s made their own selves have meaning and purpose, has now been taken away from them in an aggressive and sullied way,” Galinsky explains…
Leaders in general are hard to indict, especially those like JoPa who have near-mythical stature. The idea that a living person can be deified is not surprising from an evolutionary point of view. A crucial component of the social cohesion that allowed our human ancestors to survive was religion, explains Freek Vermeulen, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School. Religion “centers on myths and deities,” he wrote. “This inclination for worship very likely became embedded into our genetic system, and it is yearning to come out and be satisfied, and great people such as Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and Lady Di serve to fulfill this need.”