Amid all the furore about Jimmy Savile (one of two people to be internationally shamed in the past month), there’s one slant to the story that I’m still struggling to get to terms with.
It’s not the extent of the abuse, or the length of time it went on for. It’s not the fact that so many people knew, but didn’t say anything, or that it appears to have been covered up by numerous people. All of that is somewhat explainable by Britain’s libel laws, Jimmy’s charm offensive (with emphasis on the latter word), and a strong case of the Halo effect.
What I don’t understand is the attempt by some people to justify it. There’s the appeal to the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll culture of the sixties and seventies, where everybody in the music business had groupies galore, and sexual liberation was at its height. As though it’s ok to take advantage of young girls because they’re up for it. Which is only one small part of it – the happenings at the BBC are in that sort of category. But what he got up to at the hospitals he was involved in don’t fall into that explanation.
The mention of the Halo effect has reminded me of a discussion I was part of a few years back about this sort of thing. We dug up three different psychological theories which explain human behaviour when it comes to interacting with authority.
First was the Dunning-Kruger effect. This makes people portray themselves as better than they really are, as they tend to have more confidence and chutzpah when they have fewer skills.
Second was the Halo Effect. You should be able to see where this is going – the incompetent believe themselves to be competent, and are able to portray this with a high degree of confidence. With the Halo effect, the rest of us tend to believe what they way, and accept them based on how we perceive them, rather than on the facts.
Lastly, we have Milgram, whose experiment with following authority is reasonably famous (well, famous enough to be spoofed in Ghostbusters). Here he showed that most people will follow the instructions of authority, even when they believe that what they’re being asked to do is wrong.
Put those three together, and you have a vicious circle which, when applied to politicians and those in authority, is rather scary. The politician believes himself to be great at his job, he is able to convince us to believe this too, and we then do whatever he tells us to do. It’s obviously not quite so clear cut as that, but if you’ve ever wondered why people vote X party into power despite everything they’ve done, this might help explain it.