Tag Archive for: Joe Paterno

Reputation and the Recency Effect

Last November I wrote a post called “Say it ain’t so, Joe” as the Jerry Sandusky case of sexually abusing young boys at Penn State University came to the attention of the American public. That horrible tragedy has made front page news again in the wake of the Freeh Report which stated there was a failure of leadership at Penn State University. The report also alleges legendary coach Joe Paterno (Joe Pa) knew about Jerry Sandusky’s behavior as far back as 1998.

This has led questions about what Joe Paterno’s legacy will be. Aside from having more wins than any other major college football coach in history, until the scandal broke, Joe Pa, as he was affectionately called by the faithful, was held up as example of a football coach who ran a clean program, helped boys become men, had real “student athletes,” and gave back to the community in countless ways during his 61 years at Penn State.
This post isn’t about convincing you one way or another how you should feel about Joe Paterno. Rather, it’s about understanding what impacts your thoughts about him as well as other people and situations you might find yourself reflecting on.
In psychology there’s something known as the “recency effect” which is also called “recency bias.” In a nutshell, we give more weight to information we recall most easily and quite often what we remember most is what we experienced last.
We see this all the time. In boxing it’s known as “stealing the round” when a boxer is getting beaten for the better part of the three-minute round but puts on a flurry of activity toward the end to win the round.
In the news we see it with different stories, like suddenly believing air travel is unsafe because of a few recent stories on airline disasters. Mad cow disease and the bird flu are another example. Both are extremely isolated events yet we tend to believe they happen far more than they actually do because of the coverage they get and how easily we recall the stories. In actuality, you have much more likelihood of death or injury from driving to work or other daily activities than you do from airplane accidents or the latest flu outbreak.
How about this – have you ever gone somewhere, had a really good time but the whole experience was marred by a bad ending? Maybe it was a great vacation that ended with flight delays or a round of golf that ended with a bad hole or two. If the flight delays were at the beginning of the trip most people would rate the trip higher than if they come at the end. And most golfers would prefer a round that starts poor and ends well rather than starts well and ends poor … even if the score for both rounds is identical.
The recency effect works both ways, good and bad. Take Tiger Woods, for example. While he lost millions in advertising revenue he appears to be accepted by the public every bit as much as he was before. At least that seems to be the case when you see golf fans responding to him when he’s in contention and winning tournaments.
On the flip side, whole careers are washed away when a great player makes a mistake. Just ask Bill Buckner or Jackie Smith. Buckner mishandled an easy ground ball in game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets which allowed the Mets to win the game and eventually the series.  Smith dropped a pass in the end zone in Super Bowl XIII that could have possibly been the difference between winning and losing the game for the Dallas Cowboys.
Should potential Hall of Fame careers be weighed most heavily on how they end? Should someone’s misdeeds be relegated to the background just because they’re doing well in the moment? Should the good works of individuals be discarded because of scandal at the end?
The answers to those questions are for each of us to decide personally.  Collectively, our answers will determine how society remembers someone’s career or legacy. My goal is to help you see more clearly, and to recognize how your thinking is impacted by what you’ve recently experienced.  If you understand that you can review situations differently than you might currently. You might come up with the same conclusion but just like having more data to make decisions is usually good, so it is when it comes to understanding how your brain works with the recency effect.

Brian, CMCT
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.

Say it ain’t so, Joe!

According to baseball folklore, in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal in the 1919 World Series, a young fan supposedly said to Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the most famous players of that era, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Unfortunately the boy’s hero had to admit it was true that he and several other teammates conspired to throw the World Series that year.

That scandal is among the biggest in American sports history but ironically it will be eclipsed by an even bigger scandal in recent days, one that has people thinking, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” This time they’re referring to legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and his staff’s failure to do more in the wake of a former assistant, Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of young boys at the Penn State athletic facilities. The story is horrible in so many respects and is far too detailed for me to go into in this post. To find out details in the Grand Jury investigation visit ESPN.com.
Sports radio and major news organizations are all asking how anyone could have known about the abuse and not done more. Many commentators are telling listeners and viewers what those people should have done and what they (the commentators) would have done if they had been at Penn State. Indeed, I think almost anyone who hears the sordid details thinks they would have tried to stop what they witnessed or would have immediately gone to the police. What I’m about to say would ruffle those commentator’s feathers and might upset you too.
I doubt most of those commentators, news anchors or the average person would have acted much differently than Joe Paterno or Scott McQueary.
I know that statement sounds harsh and doesn’t sit well with many people but I’ll remind you as a society we have short memories. People asked the same things about the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews by Germans during World War II – how could any human being have seen what was going on and not done something to stop it? How could anyone have actually participated in those atrocities? In more recent years the world was aware of genocide in Rwanda and did little to stop it and there was not a huge outcry from people who saw it on the news either. Five decades ago Stanley Milgram wondered the same thing about people and set out find an answer.
If the name Stanley Milgram is familiar it’s because he was the social psychologist from Yale who conducted a series of experiments in the early 1960s to see how people responded to authority. As you can imagine, most people predicted the average American would not do much harm to another person but, during a “learning experiment” Milgram found that 65% of his subjects administered a series of 30 progressively stronger shocks to a partner with the final shock being 450 volts. That’s enough voltage to kill a person! There was no coercion involved, no personal history to consider, nor was anyone’s career on the line in the experiment. All it took was a man in a white lab coat – a perceived authority – insisting that participants continue on with the experiment despite their protests and near emotional breakdowns at times. For details on the Milgram experiment, click here.
In a much milder form, the Milgram experiment and many other interesting scenarios such as bullying have been replicated in recent years on the NBC television show What Would You Do? I encourage you to take a look because it’s fascinating to see how normal people respond in ways few of us would predict.
Most people believe themselves to be better looking than the average person, and smarter, kinder and, I bet, more heroic. You probably believe you are and I’ll be honest, I believe I’m all those things too. Because of our high self-esteem we like to believe we would have immediately done the right thing if we’d been at Penn State. Indeed, many of the people at Penn State thought they were doing the right thing because they followed school protocol. In reality I bet most people would not have acted any differently than the Penn State folks and would have reported the incident to their boss and relieve themselves of the burden of getting involved.
If you think differently here’s one more case to consider, Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese. This is the woman who was stabbed to death in New York City in 1964 in full view or within earshot of many people who did nothing to help her. The accounts vary as to how many people and the actual circumstances but it’s become commonly documented that all too often people don’t help one another when they see someone in need and the more people there are around, the less any one person feels the need to help. This is sometimes called the “bystander effect” or “diffusion of responsibility.”
I will also point out that sometimes the people who protest the loudest are the people who might be least likely to do the right thing. Have we forgotten about the Catholic Church sex scandals and the numerous preachers who’ve railed against homosexuality, infidelity and so many other sins only to be caught in the very things they preached fire and brimstone about? Do the names Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Baker and Ted Haggard ring a bell?
Sometimes, it’s the people we least expect who take the
heroic actions, and all too often, those we do expect to step up don’t. This post in no way exonerates Joe Paterno, Mike McQueary or anyone else at Penn State nor does it condemn them. This post is simply to help us understand why they might have made the choices they did. The same psychology at work in them works in everyone one of us too so I would caution anyone to emphatically state what they would have done had they been there because truth is, we never know until we find ourselves in similar situations. Sometimes we surprise ourselves in good ways and other times we’re ashamed. We would all do well to remember the famous church saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
Brian, CMCT
Helping You
Learn to Hear “Yes”.