Friday, March 8

Out of Our Minds- Part 1: Psychological obstacles to changing the narrative in the Sandusky scandal

by  Douglas Hoskins & Jessi Lillo

In this series of articles, we discuss cognitive and social factors that have shaped and perpetuated the general belief that a massive cover-up by Penn State University personnel intent on protecting a football-first culture enabled Jerry Sandusky to molest young boys for fourteen years.  Each of the topics presented are common cognitive errors made in order to deal with the demands of processing information in a complex world.  We approach each topic from the theoretical, explaining how they may have influenced the Sandusky scandal, but we do not offer them as definitive explanations, or excuses for the behavior of any individual or group.


Cognitive psychologists define anchoring as initially fixating on one specific aspect of a situation or event and basing all decision-making on that aspect regardless of any additional information.  This anchor- a number, phrase, idea, or image- derives its name from the fact that it carries so much weight that an individual is unable to change perspective or consider contradictory information or incentive.  Anchoring has most often been studied in economic decision-making, but is prevalent when forming value judgments of any sort.  An anchor, simply put, is a first impression that just won't go away..  

Visual anchors, have received less attention in the literature than numeric anchors, but they have been shown to have powerful effects on behavior and attitude.  Because visual stimuli activate a variety of brain structures involved in memory formation and retrieval, emotional response and physiological arousal, they can immediately and unconsciously influence human thinking. 

What is anchoring the Sandusky narrative?
The predominant anchor in the Sandusky case is that of the little boy "being subjected to anal intercourse" in the shower at Penn State, as reported in the November, 2011 Grand Jury Presentment.  This mental image is one that is impossible to erase, even for those who have followed the case enough to know a) this was not what McQueary said he witnessed, b)the victim has refuted this account, and c) the attorney general retracted this information when she issued a new GJP a year later.    Unfortunately for Penn State, reports of the boy in the shower that flooded the visual media in November of 2011 were invariably accompanied by photos and videos of Joe Paterno, so that the image of that boy became superimposed mentally with the image of Joe Paterno and Penn State football.  Many people in the general public might not be able to remember the name Sandusky, but they can easily conjure that boy in the shower being raped while Paterno turns his back.  As of November 5, 2011, the Sandusky story was firmly anchored in the Lasch building at Penn State.  Four days later, that anchor was more firmly affixed when the PSU Board of Trustees announced that it had fired Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier, though the Spanier news was a minor detail in every story.  

Did anchoring affect the Board's decision?
For most who have followed the story, the firing of Paterno is viewed as a colossal blunder that represents the point at which there was no chance of changing the narrative.  Some attribute this blunder to personal vendettas, internal power struggles, protecting self-interests, incompetence, or disengagement: and it is quite possible that one or more of these motives was present for any given individual board member and that they knew what effect their actions would have on the story, but that is an idea to be explored in a later issue.  The question here is whether the initial anchor of child rape in a PSU football locker room influenced their decision to fire Paterno.  Studies by German and American psychologists have shown that anchors significantly influence judicial decisions even when the judges and jurors were informed of their purpose and instructed to disregard the anchor.  Similar results have been shown in the fields of stock analysis, real estate, financial negotiations, probability estimates, social judgments, and general knowledge.  Multiple studies have also shown that the effects of an anchor on decision-making are more pronounced under stress, begging the question of whether the Board would have acted differently had they waited.

Could anchoring have affected the SIC investigation?
Richards J. Heuer spent 45 years in the CIA studying the psychology of evidence analysis and has written extensively about cognitive biases in the investigative process.  In his book Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, he states: 
The impact of information on the human mind is only imperfectly related to its true value as evidence. Specifically, information that is vivid, concrete, and personal has a greater impact on our thinking than pallid, abstract information that may actually have substantially greater value as evidence...  Impressions tend to persist even after the evidence that created those impressions has been fully discredited (Chapter 10).  

It has been widely publicized that Louis Freeh had a particular dislike of pedophiles and that he personally directed Kenneth Lanning, Jim Clemente's mentor, to establish the Crimes Against Children unit, and tasked Lanning with ensuring that at least two agents in every field office were properly trained in the area .  Freeh's personal predisposition, coupled with the fact that his client, the Board of Trustees, had abruptly fired Paterno could have led Freeh to develop tunnel vision during the investigation.  Even absent any personal, financial, or political motives, it is possible that Freeh was seeking evidence to fit a conclusion that he was not even aware he had already reached.  Heuer's suggestion for avoiding tunnel vision due to anchoring is to have investigators with varying areas of expertise analyze the same evidence and compare their conclusions. This practice is called Alternative Competing Hypotheses and it is a time-tested technique for eliminating bias from a conclusion.

How were Penn Stater's so resistant to the anchor?
As stated previously, anchor biases are a natural human tendency that are resistant even to conscious attempts to avoid them.  The only technique that has been clinically shown to significantly mitigate an anchor is to have equally strong contrasting anchors and to actively focus on the differences at the outset of the problem.  For Penn State alumni and fans, the image of Joe Paterno had for years signified The Penn State Way; it evoked the athletes, classmates, professors, administrators, activities and experiences that largely defined ourselves and shaped how we thought about the world.  This anchor was so well entrenched in Penn Staters that it served to counteract the merging of Penn State football's image with that of the boy in the shower.  We felt, and still feel, the same visceral reaction to that boy's image; we grieve for the victims as much as everyone else does.  We are neither blindly loyal to an icon (as critics have claimed) nor smarter and more open-minded than others (as some of us would prefer to believe).  We simply started our evaluation from a very different position and were therefore more readily receptive to new evidence as it became known.  

What can be done to remove this obstacle?
The toughest thing about anchors are that they are virtually impossible to remove once they are established.   As events of the last 15 months have shown, the Sandusky story is so well anchored in the sodomy/Penn State football juxtaposition  vast amounts of definitive, compelling contradictory information will be needed to change public opinion.  And even that may not be enough.  In most cases, the anchor can only be broken when incontrovertible evidence is found that proves the original narrative false, as happened in the Duke Lacrosse case, the case of Richard Jewell, and the Dan Rather National Guard document.

In summary, anchoring provides a very plausible explanation for how readily the current narrative of Penn State football culpability was accepted and of how difficult it would be to change that narrative from the outset.  However, anchoring cannot adequately account for the fact that this narrative has remained virtually unchanged for 15 months even as considerable contradictory facts have come to light.  Other cognitive and social factors sustaining the narrative will be discussed in later issues.

Next issue:  Fundamental Attribution Error



  1. This is brilliant - a great idea!

    Hope you cover Hindsight/Outcome Bias and Confirmation Bias/Semmelweis Reflex too!

    And you could write a textbook on how badly our memories serve us...especially a decade or so later.

    1. At this time we have plans for attribution error, hindsight bias, confirmation bias, and framing for sure, but we wanted to leave the series open so that readers could suggest other topics. feel free to make any such suggestions

  2. Nothing like an academic approach, right? I mean, WE ARE a university after all! Kudos to all.

  3. In that first week, it was all "Child Sexual Abuse Scandal" headlines coupled with Joe Paterno's photo. Talk about anchoring...

    1. Yes, it was absolutely ridiculous. The media using Joe's picture so often in that first week, and ever since really, has driven this entire narrative. It's going to be a tremendous task to change most people's minds, and there are some we will probably never reach. What's so unusual and frustrating about this case is that it seems somewhat unique. The catholic church has not suffered the same loss in status, and those abuses were over a long period and were proven to have been covered up. The Duke case is a distant memory, nobody thinks Richard Jewell planted that bomb... And those cases didn't have anywhere near the amount of exculpatory information as this one.

    2. What's "unique" about this case as opposed to the others is the involvement of a nationally recognized figure (Joe Paterno) who was for years regarded as a "man who did it right," so to speak. I highly doubt many of the Catholic Church abuse cases involved well-known figures. The name "Richard Jewell" was probably not known to many people outside of Atlanta. And since the Duke case involved the lacrosse team, well, lacrosse doesn't have anywhere near the national exposure that football does. But everyone knew the name "Joe Paterno," and the idea that he might have completely gone against the principles he claimed to stand for made for one of the most sensational stories of the decade.

    3. You are correct in that Jonathan. I think what I was trying to say was the media was perfectly willing to publicize the correct information once it was available in the Duke and Atlanta cases, yet they are not doing so in this one. The Sollers report has been largely ignored or dismissed

    4. Jessi, perhaps now would be a time to renew your effort to speak directly to the media in general and to the PSU Dept of Journalism in particular. At least some academics in journalism must be dismayed by the absurdities of the handling of the Sandusky scandal. Perhaps some progress toward the truths in all this could occur through a re-release of your open letter to the media (link below) combined with an invitation-they-can't-in-clear-conscience-refuse to PSU Journalism profs and alum (e.g., Mike Signora, Mike Missanelli, Lisa Salters, AND Sara Ganim) for a discussion of what we know to date of the Sandusky case.

      I believe what is unique about this case is you guys...think of the scope of the impact if the Catholic Church had had an enormous academic base determined and capable to investigate and reveal the root causes at work there.

    5. rdk,
      everything that is printed on this blog is tweeted to the media. Crickets. Someone on the BWI board sent Christine Brennan my open letter to the media and she sent back a response to them that was... shall we say, evasive. I sent her a respectful email asking for dialogue and am still waiting, all these months later, for a response from her. I have not tried to reach out to PSU journalism professors. Thank you for that suggestion.

  4. I think the biggest hurdle to overcome is Joe's testimony when he said it 'was of a sexual nature'. This is the anchor weighing heaviest. The tide has turned somewhat in the cover up theory but not in what Joe should have done based on his testimony.

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  6. Does what does sexual nature mean to you?

  7. Here is Joe's actual testimony:

    Q: Without getting into any graphic detail, what did Mr. McQueary tell you he had seen and where?

    Mr. Paterno: Well, he had seen a person, an older — not an older, but a mature person who was fondling, whatever you might call it — I’m not sure what the term would be — a young boy.

    Q: Did he identify who that older person was?

    Mr. Paterno: Yes, a man by the name of Jerry Sandusky who had been one of our coaches, was not at the time.

    Q: You’re saying that at the time this incident was reported to you, Sandusky was no longer a coach?

    Mr. Paterno: No, he had retired voluntarily. I’m not sure exactly the year, but I think it was either ‘98 or ‘99.

    Q: I think you used the term fondling. Is that the term that you used?

    Mr. Paterno: Well, I don’t know what you would call it. Obviously, he was doing something with the youngster.

    It was a sexual nature. I’m not sure exactly what it was.

    I didn’t push Mike to describe exactly what it was because he was very upset. Obviously, I was in a little bit of a dilemma since Mr. Sandusky was not working for me anymore.

    So I told — I didn’t go any further than that except I knew Mike was upset and I knew some kind of inappropriate action was being taken by Jerry Sandusky with a youngster.

  8. now that "sexual nature" pops out to everyone and is consistently cited out of context. In the interview with the investigators just a few hours prior to the GJ testimony, Paterno did not use the words "sexual nature". Since this is a transcript and not a recording or video, we also have no idea of any inflection in his voice.

    Was it a statement of certainty? Was it a question? Why does he bookend those 2 words with "I don't know what you would call it" and "I'm not exactly sure what it was"??

    The anchoring is that the media and the Paterno haters emphasized a false GJ presentment, and 2 words from his testimony, to create the false narrative that Joe knew with certainty it was molestation.

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