On Tuesday night in the UK, the BBC broadcast on their Panorama programme, an undercover investigation into how patients are treated at a privately run institution. The patients mostly had some sort of learning disability that meant they could not be cared for by their parents or carers at their own home. The centre they were placed in was meant to be better for them. Sadly, this home that was being investigated was far from being a secure, safe, developmentally rich environment. Sadly, patients were subject to regular and violent abuse, physically and mentally. I do not know one person who watched the programme and did not feel absolute sadness of the way these people were treated, and absolute hatred and anger to the abusers.
Thankfully, since the broadcast, the police were informed, and arrests have been made. I pray that justice prevails in this awful display of human caring.
My post today, though, is about why did the others not intervene? Why did those who were not part of the abuse, let it happen. The senior charge nurses, the other professional carers, the ones whose responsibility it is to first and foremost look after these vulnerable members of society? How can you just idly stand by and do nothing? HOW?
Psychological research has shown some fascinating insights into conformity. It’s a much debated topic, and has been studied for decades. I won’t go into the studies themselves, but the results themselves can bring some insight into human behaviour. I’ll raise questions which I think pertinent to the programme and the answers will hopefully be useful. Those of you who have read ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell will be familiar with some of the below.
Why did no-one step in and say – This is wrong?
Sounds easy, right? You see something wrong happening, and you believe you have the courage to stand against a group opinion and say it’s wrong, or you don’t agree, or you don’t want it to happen. Far from it. Research has shown that if you are with a group of people, and they consistently give one message, you will conform. Even if you think differently, even if you may initially resist and voice something, you will conform. Remember that time your friends wanted to do something you didn’t, but you went along so as not to rock the boat? That was you conforming.
Why did it take so long for someone to do something about it?
Group mentality is hard to break. What’s harder is knowing who to talk to about that group mentality. We all have friends/acquaintances/people we know who stretch beyond your immediate circles. (*fictional situation*) I sit in a team of people who actively take drugs during work hours. They trust that I won’t say anything because they don’t want to lose their jobs as they have families and financial commitments they need to support and honour. But it’s wrong. For their health, for the organisation they work for, for their families. So who do I tell? Their loved ones? A senior manager? A whistleblowing company?
We are all racked with these responsibilities of honouring the relationships of those around us. We don’t want to rock the boat, it makes this uncomfortable, and even downright difficult. That’s why it takes so long. Because we’re all human, and we don’t want to see another human fail.
Surely the people doing it knew they were acting terribly?
Interesting. One case study I will make mention of is the Stanford prison experiment. Zimbardo – a psychologist (bloody psychologists always fucking with our minds) – wanted to understand what happens when you put a group of people into a particular social context. He took a fake prison environment and gave one group the role of prisoners and the other group the role of guards. Within hours of the experiment starting, both groups had fully taken on what they thought their roles should be. Within days the experiment had to stop because it was too much to bear.
It takes no time at all for someone to see an opportunity to act in a certain way and decide this will be their modus operandi. The difficulty is getting them to realise it soon enough that it stops. You know that saying “treat others as you would like to be treated”? Load of bollocks. If people choose to treat others badly in this way, does that mean they want to be treated like this too? No. People lack self-awareness, and because of this they don’t know how they want to be treated, they just think they know.
So, who should have stepped in?
Excellent question. The senior nurse who chose to act, went to his next line of attack. No response, so he went to the next senior level. No response, so he went to the regulator. No response, so he went to the media. It should have been dealt with at stage one. But why wasn’t it?
Even outside of immediate circles, we are faced with people having to conform to other pressures. In this case organisational. Who wants to deal with a report of wrong doing in their department or under their control? The investigations, the paperwork, the cost to the business, the pressure to get it over with quickly, the need for answers, the time it takes to do all this. It’s too much. That’s why.
Also, there’s an element of being complicit. Do you know these things are happening but haven’t raised it yourself? You’re therefore just as culpable as those actually giving the abuse. And you have a good name to protect, you don’t need it being sullied.
I think I’ll stop there. There’s more that can be said about conformity. For a very informative overview of the topic of conformity, watch this excellent video made by TheraminTrees on the topic.
Also, you should read the following posts from Gareth Jones on ‘internal super-injunctions’ and from Rob Jones on ‘the one where it’s about courage’. Both raise very important topics that correlate very highly with today’s post.