Churches (sexual abuse), political parties (anti-semitism, sexism), armed forces (human right trespasses), companies (sexual abuse, fraud), universities (sexual abuse), etc. So often we find organisations that, according to "the rest of society" (outsiders, the press, the general public), do not take appropriate measures against misconduct by insiders (i.e. they "fail to do enough").

It's only recently, with social pressure from the media and public oversight, that we find a greater alignment between outsiders and insiders in terms of punishment for misbehaviour (just imagine XVIII century... which organisation punished insiders?). Churches expel priests, political parties expel members, armed forces do "internal inquiries", etc. You might argue that some of this actions are considered by organisations as necessary PR against public backlash.

In any case, why this evident disparity of judgment between insiders and outsiders?

I can think of two key reasons:

  • common biases among insiders (so they can't fully see the severity of the issue)

  • more information of insiders vis-a-vis outsiders. This is relevant because outsiders are more powerful to disseminate limited analysis with immediate consequences. A headline saying "new abuse allegation" already damages the organisation's reputation, even before an inquiry is even made. So, public is "more visceral", or "more prone to conclude without evidence".

What is the evidence on this?

PS: this question is imo about sociology, which has a lot of questions here, and so I think it's on-topic. Please comment otherwise.

1 Answer 1


The social sciences generally explain this phenomenon as the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). The FAE is a well-documented observation about the way people make causal attributions about other people's actions. If we identify with the person we are evaluating, we tend to explain their behavior in terms of circumstances, contexts, and situational factors; if we do not identify with the person we are evaluating, we tend to explain their behavior in terms of character, personality, and psychological dispositions. The FAE is not entirely consistent across the population — there's evidence the the effect is stronger in some people than in others, and that it may itself be dependent on context — but still, the evidence that it exists in some form is strong.

The kinds of groups you are talking about are all strongly identified, and would all be prone to the FAE. For instance, a popular pastor who was caught visiting prostitutes would tend to be forgiven by the more devout members of his congregation. They know him well, they respect and admire the work he's done in the church, they identify with him as an icon of the church, and so they will tend to interpret his sexual activities as situational weakness to be overcome by removing unwholesome influences. They would think the pastor merely needs to change his context: pray more, avoid stimulating situations, take cold showers, etc. Someone outside the congregation, however, will tend to interpret the pastor's sexual activities as an immutable character flaw: the actions of a depraved person who hypocritically preys on victimized women will preaching morality from the pulpit. They will see any effort to blame the behavior on situation or context as an attempt to excuse away a reprehensible disposition.

The FAE is difficult to get a handle on, because it operates on a level where the distinction between personal identity and group identity is fuzzy at best. A devotee attributing a pastor's transgressions to context and situation is arguably as much about excusing his own transgressive thoughts and actions as excusing the pastor's; an outsider's condemnation of that pastor is arguably as much about condemning the faith as a whole as about condemning the person. People are generally not self-reflective enough in these contexts to distinguish whether they are protecting another, protecting themselves, or protecting their identity-group. If they are self-reflective enough to make those distinctions, they will be less subject to making the FAE.

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    I never thought of this in the context of FAE; thank you for this explanation! Dec 24, 2019 at 20:58

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