Amid the uproar over leaked audio of Donald Trump’s boasting about his sexual predation, there was a secondary story—the complicity of interviewer Billy Bush, who appears to snicker approvingly at Trump’s reprehensible comments. “Obviously I’m embarrassed and ashamed,” Bush tweeted after his enabling behavior was revealed.
Surely, we can each reassure ourselves: Had we been in a small group situation in which someone injected blatant sexist or racist remarks, we would not play along. But do we underestimate the power of the situation, especially if we have motives to impress a famous or powerful person?
Social psychologists Janet Swim and Lauri Hyers put this question to an experimental test. They asked Pennsylvania State University women students to imagine themselves in a small group deciding whom to select for survival on a desert island. If one of the others injected three sexist comments, such as “I think we need more women on the island to keep the men satisfied” or to do the cooking, how would they react?
Only 5 percent predicted they would ignore the comments. But when the women actually experienced this very situation, 55 percent said nothing.
Other researchers have found people similarly docile—despite predictions of being courageous—when hearing someone utter a racial slur.
As Billy Bush now understands, it’s so easy to become complicit—to “get along by going along.” As Marian Wright Edelman observed in The Measure of Our Success (1992), “Have you ever noticed how one example—good or bad—can prompt others to follow? How one illegally parked car can give permission for others to do likewise? How one racial joke can fuel another?”
If we attribute Billy Bush’s behavior only to a Trump-like sexist disposition then we can distance ourselves from it. Not us. Never. But in doing so we forget one of the big lessons of social psychology—the corrupting power of evil situations. In horror movies and suspense novels, evil is the product of the depraved bad apple. In real life (as in Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments), evil more often results from toxic situations that make the whole barrel go bad. The drift towards evil can therefore occur without any conscious intent to do evil. As Mister Rogers used to say, “Good people sometimes do bad things.” Or as James Waller, a social psychologist who has studied evil, has written, “When we understand the ordinariness of extraordinary evil, we will be less surprised by evil, less likely to be unwitting contributors to evil, and perhaps better equipped to forestall evil.”
Mindful of the power of the situation, my occasional advice to my teen children when heading out on a Friday night—and to myself when wishing for others’ approval—has been: “Remember who you are.” Perhaps Billy Bush can help us remember how easy it is to forget who we are and what we stand for.