The returns are in and the movie Spotlight won the 2016 Academy Award for best motion picture. Spotlight is an account of Boston Globe journalists working in the 1990s and 2000s to uncover the clerical abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Boston. A recent interview of the director, Tom McCarthy discusses the themes of the film and its subject matter:
"So “Spotlight” explores many themes. It is a study in the way power gets abused in a tight-knit tribe; it's an exploration of the clerical abuse scandal in the Catholic Church; and it's also been called “a love letter to investigative journalism.” From your perspective what’s the film centrally about?
Possibly the greater theme of the film, which I think makes it a little more relevant today, is the idea of societal complicity and deference. Specifically, to any type of institutional or individual abuse. Which probably does circle back to journalism, because that's why we have investigative journalists, right? To hold powerful individuals, institutions accountable. When things like this happen in society—when this type of abuse happened in the Boston archdiocese—we all have to ask ourselves, "How did it happen?"
The church in this particular scenario was the bad actor, specifically the Archdiocese of Boston, assisting in the crime, abetting it by covering it up and not doing more to prevent it happening again. I think in all tight-knit communities [when something goes wrong,] we have to ask ourselves "What did I know, what could I have done differently?" Maybe it speaks a little bit to civic responsibility, to the responsibility of citizens. I think that's what makes the theme transcend even this particular story of institutional abuse and maybe speaks to the grander scheme of things."
Let's take a look at this scandal through the three Lenses, beginning with the Mimetic Lens. Spotlight presents a very typical Mimetic story line for a Western film -- the story of victims being scapegoated and their innocence being revealed. Looking through the Mimetic Lens we see a mature archaic sacred hierarchical structure in the Archdiocese of Boston. (I noted in the last post that these structures can and often do arise within hierarchical Christian churches -- it is the structures and attributes of behavior that are determinative, not the labels.) It is fitting that the interviewer described it as a tribe.
This particular tribe was highly visible in its community over a long period of time and highly valued its reputation in that community, which essentially was that "it could do no wrong". The public perception of its reputation was considered to be sacred. When members of the tribe committed wrongs against the community, it was unacceptable for the tribe to see its reputation tarnished. Thus, in addition to concealing the wrongdoing, the tribe employed the primitive scapegoating mechanism, going after the victims of the wrongdoing to silence them through settlements and otherwise publicly deny what was happening. Importantly, the Archdiocese actors were able to convince themselves that the victims were not really innocent and that it was proper to suppress them for the good of the institution and the community.
The innocence of the victims (the Christ figures) was eventually revealed by the journalists (alternatively, God figures and apostles), even though even they did not take the problem seriously at first. The idea that powerful archaic sacred institutions should be "brought down" by revealing the innocence of their victims is the classic Christian narrative and shows how scapegoating is no longer generally accepted in Western societies.
In "the greater scheme of things", this is the classic Girardian Mimetic narrative.
Looking through the Prospecting Lens, we can see that there were several different System 1 heuristics at work here that explain how the leadership of the Archdiocese could take the actions that it did and perpetuate the problem for so long. We can see in particular:
Simple Denial. The reality is too painful to bear, we just distort it until its bearable. It's a common psychological misjudgment that causes terrible problems. Out of both overconfidence and ignorance, the Archdiocese was guilty of this many times over.
Bias from Consistency and Commitment. Having committed to its "tribe" and the necessity of preserving reputation that it could do no wrong, the cognitive dissonance caused by the criminal acts of that tribe made it almost impossible for the Archdiocese to admit it had done wrong. This could only be revealed from the outside.
The Halo Effect (or Liking). This is the tendency to like or dislike everything about a person—including things you have not observed. The warm emotion we feel toward a person, place, or thing predisposes us to like everything about that person, place, or thing. The leadership of the Archdiocese behaved as if its criminal elements wore halos and simply needed more chances. This was a disastrous miscalculation.
Affect. People let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world. Potential for error? We can let our emotional preferences cloud our judgment and either under or over estimate risks and benefits. In a tight-knit "tribe" such as the Archdiocese, the members tend to prefer each other to those outside and let those preferences cloud their judgment.
The Illusion of Validity. We sometimes confidently believe our opinions, predictions, and points of view are valid when confidence is unwarranted. Some even cling with confidence to ideas in the face of counter evidence. Factors that contribute to overconfidence: being dazzled by one’s own brilliance, affiliating with like-minded peers, and over valuing our track record of wins and ignoring our losses. This was the mistake that the Archdiocese made repeatedly when it thought it could reform its own pedophile priests and that they were sufficiently reformed to resume their normal duties.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy. To avoid feeling bad about cutting our losses and being called a failure, we tend to throw good money after bad, stay too long in abusive marriages, and stay in unhappy careers. This is optimism gone hay-wire. By refusing to admit that they were failing their community, the Archdiocese compounded its errors and its failures.
Bias from Over-Influence by Authority. This actually affected the outsiders such as the journalists more than the insiders. The Archdiocese had represented authority in the community for a long time and it was difficult for anyone to believe that it could be committing serious wrongs and doing so repeatedly.
The Prospecting Lens shows that there were a tremendous number of common cognitive biases at work. In the view of the imperative of preserving the perception of reputation, It is little wonder than a powerful and insular institution like the Archdiocese would not have trouble internally policing the members of its tribe. It would have required much better leadership and rules that would have forced more System 2 thinking to break through these biases.
The view through the Fractal Lens yields something less obvious, but no less important. When we look through it we see two factors at work: a power law distribution of harm (a variation of the 80/20 rule) and positive feedback loops (here, causing negative consequences to multiply).
The negative agents that the Archdiocese permitted to operate in its "tribe" were pedophiles and sociopaths. Psychologists who study pedophiles and sociopaths estimate that between 2% and 5% of the male population exhibits these traits. Moreover, pedophiles are naturally attracted to professions and positions that give them access to children. Thus, it is a sad fact that almost all organizations that are designed for children -- from churches to schools to Boy Scouts to Jerry Sandusky's charities that operated with the approval of Penn State and Joe Paterno -- have had scandals involving pedophiles and have had to institute safeguards to deal with the problem. Without safeguards, eventually all of these types of institutions are vulnerable.
The first mistake that organizations make is actually a Prospecting Lens mistake described above -- the Halo Effect, or believing that members of one's tribe could or would not do any wrong simply because they are members of the tribe and went through the same education, training or initiation ceremonies.
The second mistake is underestimating the amount of damage that such individuals can cause both to their victims and to the organizations that knowingly or unknowingly harbor them. Most of the priests in the Archdiocese of Boston were certainly not pedophiles and were not engaged in any criminal behavior. But the old adage that a few bad apples can spoil the barrel is apt. By refusing to throw out the bad apples, the whole edifice began to rot from the inside. And these few bad apples caused vastly disproportionate damage to their victims and to their tribe. The most notorious, John Geoghan, was alleged to have abused up to 130 boys over a 30 year period in six different parishes. The Archdiocese has paid tens of millions of dollars to his victims, while Geoghan himself went to prison where he was murdered by another inmate.
A "positive feedback loop" is a repetition that causes something to multiply upon itself in an exponential manner, which either leads to an explosion or a collapse. Here, when pedophile priests were caught or accused in one parish, the Archdiocese frequently transferred them to another parish. By repeating this mistake over and over again, the Archdiocese compounded the number of victims and its own complicity. This led eventually to a complete collapse of the leadership, hundreds of millions of dollars of losses and permanent damage to the very thing the Archdiocese held most sacred -- its reputation. By misunderstanding the risks it was taking and the potential consequences, the Archdiocese compounded its mistakes to the point of ruin.
Nassim Taleb has observed that authoritarian structures like dictatorial governments and the Archdiocese are "fragile" in that they can be subject to quick collapse when caught positive feedback loops involving unusual events. The Prospecting Lens also shows us how the leadership is likely to deny the existence of the event or the potential damage it might cause. When imbued with cultural power, these structures, or "tribes" also exhibit all of the ancient archaic sacred attributes that Mimetic Theory describes in such a society when it is mature.
The other lesson to be learned here is that the combination of an archaic sacred organizational model, System 1 thinking and a failure to appreciate the potentially unlimited damage of unlikely yet possible events, can be catastrophic, not only for the organization but for those affected by it, especially those on the periphery who always represent potential scapegoats.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.