- Prior to the reports of sexual abuse, Governor Cuomo was a popular and trusted public figure.
- The Myth of the Evil Perpetrator suggests that we are psychologically biased to think of sexual abusers as only archetypes of evil.
- In reality, even trusted figures are capable of sexual abuse (and often abuse from these individuals is even more prolific).
- We must be cognizant of our bias against finding “good” people culpable for sexual abuse, and understand how this bias can affect victims.
“To cheapen or ridicule the pain a woman suffers from a sexual attack is disgusting—sexist and disgusting,” proclaimed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2018, as the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was upended by charges of sexual misconduct.
Believe it or not, there was a time when Cuomo was wildly popular. Just months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuomo was described by CNN as “one of, if not, the single most popular politician in the country.” Polling numbers from April of 2020 showed Cuomo’s favorability among New Yorkers at a whopping 77 percent. Shockingly, even the majority (53 percent) of Republicans viewed him favorably at the time. While Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic eventually came under significant scrutiny, his three terms as governor and former position as a Democratic presidential front runner suffice to show that he had earned our nation’s trust and approval.
But all that’s over. Last week, the release of the long-awaited report the New York Attorney General’s Office found that Cuomo had engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment and abuse towards female employees that consisted of physical groping and offensive, sexually suggestive comments. (See the full report here.) The accounts of harassment were prolific, with investigators finding the accusations of 11 different women to be credible. In response, Cuomo agreed Monday morning to resign (effective in 14 days).
Cuomo’s behavior reinforces what the academic literature around sexual abuse has dubbed “the Myth of the Evil Perpetrator” (see e.g., Baumeister, 2012). Essentially, individuals want to believe that perpetrators of sexual abuse are simply bad people who do bad things. At our deepest psychological level, human beings are pattern detectors (Proulx and Heine, 2009). We continuously piece together connections from myriad stimuli and perceive our world in ways that comport with these relationships. It is profoundly uncomfortable (see cognitive dissonance) for us to encounter incongruities; to accept that a “good” person has done bad things. To avoid this psychological discomfort, we are biased to think that perpetrators of sexual abuse are two-dimensional archetypes of evil—trench coats and all. But this just isn’t the reality.