We have witnessed in the past few years some remarkably upsetting behavior from very public figures—Donald Trump, Larry Nassar, and a number of celebrity figures. Before their behavior became headlines, their behavior was observed by many. Trump and Nassar were known by a number of individuals to have engaged in salubrious and inappropriate sexual behavior with a number of women. Yet, amazingly, those who were not victims did not speak up, or if they did (as has been suggested in the cases of Nassar and in the case of Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky), no one in a position of authority took action to stop such actions from occurring. Only when the problem became so vast, or when social movements such as #MeToo began, did these actions start to be exposed for what they were and action started to stop these individuals from doing what they did. In hindsight, the public stands amazed at what these individuals did, though the select few who were privy to what occurred felt powerless at times to express their concern, or when they did, even more powerless when their objections were not answered.
Why does this happen?
Some have referenced the common social phenomenon known as the bystander effect. This occurs in an emergency situation when the presence of others deters people from intervening to help the person or persons in need. In modern times, we might speculate that a corollary of this phenomenon is that even non-homicidal situations, also evoke a bystander effect. We might also think of this phenomenon as suspension of disbelief, in which critical reasoning and judgment are not enacted when something extraordinary or unflattering is mentioned about others. In a clinical context, we might consider this as repression (a blocking out of awareness something that is recognized as unpleasant or upsetting) or denial (the overt dismissal of something as real when all evidence points to its existence).
But does a bystander effect, or repression or denial, actually explain why people can observe such bad behavior and do nothing, even when the evidence is right in front of them, and continues, as in the case for Trump and Nassar? I think it is likely other psychological explanations can enrich our understanding of these problems.
To begin, I would draw attention to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). This manual guides clinical judgment and diagnostic decision-making, and in Section III, an alternative model for assessing personality and its pathology is presented. Built upon a large evidence base, the alternative model encourages clinicians to assess individuals on 25 pathological personality trait facets and on their level of personality functioning (or LPF). LPF assess individuals across four dimensions – self-directedness, identity, empathy, and intimacy. These dimensions represent the person’s sense of him or herself (vis-à-vis self-direction and identity) and ways of experiencing and relating to others (empathy and intimacy). Each of these dimensions is assessed on a dimensional scale for how adaptive or maladaptive self and other representations are. For instance, a person may have a strong sense or self-directedness (or personal agency) and a good sense of what makes him or her distinctive and unique (leading toward a well-developed identity). However, the same person may have difficulty being open and honest with another person (indicative of troubles with intimacy) and may also struggle to see the value of understanding another person’s point of view (empathy). I have been considering that, for some persons, complicity toward others’ inappropriate behavior is enabled because of difficulties in LPF.
But what exactly does this mean? For some, it may be quite difficult to empathize with those who are victimized. Clearly, if one has never been hurt deeply, it could be very hard to appreciate what it is like to be victimized, so seeing the act as causing harm is not cognitively or emotionally felt like it is for those who have been hurt. For others, they may actually believe those who were victimized somehow put themselves in that situation and reaped the consequences of their action. I suspect this explanation accounts for only some percentage of the population, but clearly not most. Rather, I think that for many others, there may be a stronger identification with the one who is causing others to be hurt.
Why would this happen?
Those in positions of power are often envied or admired. They promise good things to happen and frequently have an impressive track record of being effective in their fields. Humans like those who are successful. We tend to admire such people to the point of not seeing their flaws, because in doing so it disrupts our idea of what they are and what it is we want in them. Many people aspire to have a high degree of self-direction and strong identity, but this often becomes misplaced in the idea or image of the other, rather than in a careful look at what or who one is and how she or he might achieve those qualities that are desired. The identity and self-directedness of the other become the reality (and not one’s own identity or self-directedness), and when reality challenges the idea, the idea remains because it is too disruptive for the hero to not be seen as a hero. If this is coupled with the inability to recognize the victim’s inner experience (empathy), the result can be neglect of those harmed and the preservation of the fantasy of the hero.
I also think for those who have not really known what an intimate relationship is like—where they can share their deepest feelings and desires without having them dismissed or accepted conditionally—it can become easy to remain more focused on the idealized other (the hero) instead of seeing how victimized people struggle to become intimate with others. This happens because they have not really been vulnerable or intimate themselves. But just as important, we may have a hard time relating to the victimized because they have been hurt or damaged and are hard to know. This is a recipe social self-defeat. We isolate ourselves and others more because we do not look carefully at our own intimacy needs or the needs of others.
Does this mean I believe that the country is full of people with personality pathology? Probably not. But, when we start to consider personality functioning as occurring at various levels of adaptation across self and other representations, we can see how the mind’s limits can readily enable human suffering and victimization. The DSM-5 has made good strides in drawing our attention to these matters.
It takes courage to stand up to those that hurt others. Fear of retribution is real. But so is the fear of looking into the mind and heart, where desires are known and secrets are hidden. The 12 steps suggest taking a searching and fearless moral inventory of one’s life. This is a needed admonition for becoming a better person. We need not be addicted in order to know that a courageous perspective on our lives will make us and those around us better. Complicity, however, is the opposite of courage.
What kind of person do we aspire to be?