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.
What’s the News: Fitting in is a perennial problem for almost everybody, especially immigrants and their children (for more, see The Joy Luck Club). And anxiety about food is definitely part of it: when your friends think your mom’s home cooking is weird, well, maybe you’ll just pretend you don’t like it either. In fact, maybe you’ll eat more French fries and pizza than is entirely healthy to fit in, something that might explain why newly arrived immigrants balloon to the rest of the U.S. population’s levels of obesity in just 15 years. In a study designed to see how being perceived as un-American changed peoples’ food choices, scientists behaved badly and then brought out the menus.