Group-Think and Gods: Why Penn State Students Rioted for Joe Paterno

By Veronique Greenwood | November 11, 2011 11:47 am

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.”

Read more at Scientific American.

  • Howard Cihak

    “Most of the Penn State students who rioted Wednesday night have social identities that are built around a lifelong allegiance to the school.”

    A lifelong allegiance? How, exactly, does Ms. Schrock know this? Did she conduct on scene surveys during the riots? Does she personally know the rioters? This is an unqualified declarative conclusion totally lacking any supporting evidence to justify it.

    I sincerely hope Ms. Schrock is merely a writer or editor expressing an opinion and not a credentialed social scientist who ought to know better than to put such a statement in print.

  • Chris

    The students care more about football than their education. I had never even heard of this guy till all this mess came about.

  • Dominic Caraccilo

    The quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored and we are a large part of why that has happened.

  • Angela Kraus

    I think that they were “acting out” just as sexually abused people do, because they, too, were betrayed. Confused and lost as to the contradictions in their heads –who the man was, juxtoposed against what he did. It would have behooved the University to have some grief sessions ready prior to the announcement to help the students process what was happening. Also, to have the news come out at night was not wise. When this happened at a Middle School where I taught, we all recevied immediate help in how to process the shock and how to help each other and the students. I still get very sad when I think about my teaching colleague and wonder what has happened to his life since that day he went from athltic hero of decades to arrested felon. This event brings all that sadness and disappointment back for me.

  • Sherry Austin

    SO well said. Yes. Yes.

  • PSUParent

    You people have no idea who Joe Paterno is: for more than 40 years he has dedicated his life to helping young people — he is far more than a football coach, and the PSU students know it very well. He is being scapegoated by the school higfher-ups to try and distract from their own shortcomings. Joe did what he knew he was supposed to (school rules dictate that he report incidents to his higher-ups, and he did). Don’t go off with only part of the story — a lot more will be unfolding, and JoePa will be proven to be an outstanding example for young people.

  • Byron Mitchell

    I think she is saying that Heroes die hard. As such, the worshipers mourn and act out.

  • Chris the Canadian

    #6, PSUParent:

    You are delusional. JoePa did what was LEGALLY necessary, but did he do what would be considered MORALLY necessary? JoePa, 40 years the head coach of Penn State Football, more powerful than the Athletic Director or even President of the University, who knows everything about everything that goes on in his school on his watch, didn’t contact the police when there was a reasonable suspicion that something terribly wrong was happening with someone under his watch. No one disputes his contributions to the school and the community, but one also cannot dispute Paterno’s responsibility with regards to this matter.

    HE WAS WRONG for NOT contacting the authorities to investigate the 2002 incident. HE WAS WRONG for not confronting Sandusky about what was witnessed in the shower by an assistant in 2002. He was WRONG for not Following up with Sandusky after the FIRST allegation came to light in 1998. That’s right, for those of you who don’t know, Sandusky was a part of Paterno’s coaching staff in 1998 when he was accused of molesting a minor. Paterno did nothing THEN either. HE was WRONG for not questioning Sandusky as to why Sandusky kept bringing different kids on trips to see football games and why Sandusky slept in the same bedroom with those kids, knowing the allegations against Sandusky. Paterno DID NOTHING, yet you and many morally bankrupt people are defending him, saying ‘it’s not his job to contact the police’. Well guess what, it’s everyone’s job if there are allegations of crimes against children.

    I’m Appalled that you, A PARENT, defend the inaction of JoePa. Ask yourself this one SIMPLE QUESTION: If that were your child in that shower with Jerry Sandusky, what would you have wanted JoePa to do after he found out ‘something sexual in nature’ was happening? Would you STILL be defending JoePa for telling the AD what was happening and not calling the cops? Would you STILL defend JoePa knowing that Sandusky was STILL allowed on campus by himself a week AFTER the Grand Jury allegations came to light? Would you still defend JoePa if, because of his inaction, the next child to be molested was your child?

    You say he will be found to be an outstanding example for young people. No, he will be found out to be an enabler and a feeble shadow of his former self who didn’t act on a reasonable suspicion knowing any action would have brought focus to the dirty underbelly of his Football program. He protected his dear friend and confidante knowing something was going on that was completely unacceptable, deciding to ‘pass the buck’ of responsibility instead of taking action himself. He tried to protect his legacy and the legacy of his Football program by not addressing the issue at hand.

    He is revered as a Demi-God at State College, with his statues and buildings and even TROPHIES named after him and he was (in his mind) untouchable. when the President tried to have Paterno removed from his position 3 years ago, JoePa told his boss ‘No, I’m not leaving’. How many people can tell their boss that they are not leaving their job if their boss has already decided the person must go? Paterno is even more culpable than the two people being charged by the Grand Jury for their inaction. Why? Because Paterno had REAL AUTHORITY to do something and didn’t. Joe Paterno is not a bad person. Joe Paterno did not commit the crime of child molestation. Joe Paterno has done an immense amount of good for the community and the school. Joe Paterno made a huge mistake and gigantic error in judgement with his inaction and unfortunately he will have to live with that mistake for the rest of his days.

  • vel

    so, essentially, the Penn State students were brats that wrapped up their self-worth in Paterno and the myth that sports are worth anything. We can surely see that they aren’t, that any claims of “sportsmanship”, community, responsiblity, etc. are not taught so that every player and coach is a irreprochable icon.

  • Geack


    One guy who has basically been a pretty impressive person for 84 years has been shown to have done something bad, therefore the concept of sportsmanship is invalid and no one has ever learned anything from athletic competition??

    The Penn State students briefly behaved deplorably, as have college students all over the country for all kinds of reasons. When you get rid of the silly unfounded assumptions about the majority of the students’ “social identities”, the whole article basically boils down to “it hurts to see your heroes fail” – which is true.

    If you ever find any person anywhere who qualifies as “an irreproachable icon”, please let the rest of us know about it.

  • Robert Jones

    Geack –

    “Something bad” was pretty well off the chart in terms of severity. I would give every one of the accomplishments that Joe Paterno has made in 84 years if just one of the children who were sexually abused could have been spared this trauma. Interestingly, the child abuse reporting laws passed more quickly than any other law in the history of our country. I think we are safe to say that the protection of our children is more important than football.

  • moby doug

    JoPa had a choice: stop Jerry Sandusky from serial raping boys or continue protecting the $70 million/annum Penn State football program and his own legend and career. He picked the second, repeatedly, over a period going at least back to 1998 and probably earlier. How many boys were raped/molested over those years we’ll never know, because many are scared or ashamed to come forward. Paterno will have to live with his disgraceful choice for the rest of his miserable life. At 84, he’s been able to enjoy being a big shot for many decades, and will only have a few years to reflect on his disgrace. Moreover, I’m sure he is rationalizing and justifying his moral failure and his enabling of Sandusky. …So he will never have the courage to face the full horror of what he was accomplice to. He’s probably worrying more about the collapse of his career and reputation……those were always his priorities in the Sandusky affair.


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