Anyone who’s been following the Michael Jackson sex abuse allegations in the news knows that public opinion has split into two camps: those who believe Jackson’s accusers, and those who – vehemently – don’t.
On March 3, HBO aired a documentary entitled Leaving Neverland, which focuses on pop star Michael Jackson and the allegations of sexual abuse that have plagued his career. For decades, Jackson has been accused of child molestation – first from 13-year-old Jordy Chandler and his father, Evan, in 1993, and then again in 2003 by a boy named Gavin Arvizo. Both boys alleged that Jackson had groomed and sexually abused them for years, and Leaving Neverland brings two more accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, to the forefront.
As Jackson’s alleged victims are speaking out, so too are his supporters. Leaving Neverland has faced enormous backlash on Twitter, and many fans accuse Robson and Safechuck as trying to milk Jackson’s estate for cash. Despite testimony from multiple accusers, despite Jackson’s prior tendency to share his bed with children, and despite corroborations of the abuse from Jackson’s former employees, fans seem as convinced as ever that Jackson is innocent.
How can we explain this? On the one hand, it’s true that Jackson was once acquitted of child molestation in a court of law, and the presumption of innocence is a strongly-held cultural value. But devotion to the singer could also be explained by something called the “halo effect,” a type of cognitive bias where a positive impression created in one area influences opinion in another area, even if the impressions are unrelated or unearned. A person with a lot of wealth might also be assumed to be charming, intelligent, or attractive, for example. Likewise, a singer with extraordinary musical talent might also be innocent of multiple, credible allegations of abuse.
Another possible explanation is what social researchers have deemed the Just World Hypothesis. Essentially, the theory goes like this: Human beings are hard-wired with the idea that people get what they deserve and that the world is a fair place with predictable, moral outcomes. In other words, good people are rewarded, bad people are punished, and this idea is reinforced with cultural fables and fairytales that carry the same message. So when innocent people are hurt or abused, this creates a dissonance between what we’ve witnessed and what we “know” to be true about the world being a fair place. To heal this dissonance, people can either help restore justice to the victim or convince themselves that the victim somehow deserved the abuse he got or was complicit with it in some way.
Social psychologist Melvin Lerner studied the Just World Hypothesis extensively. In 1966, Lerner conducted an experiment wherein undergraduate students watched their peers being purposefully shocked with electricity as they participated in a paired-associate learning task. But instead of feeling compassion for their peers, the observers actually tended to devalue and reject the people being shocked, particularly when the peers noticeably suffered. Although it seems counterintuitive, the Just World Hypothesis could explain why Jackson supporters have an almost reflexive reaction against abuse allegations, particularly when they’re credible.
Finally, something called the Mere-Exposure effect could explain why die-hard Michael Jackson fans are so vocally opposed to Leaving Neverland and other allegations of sexual abuse.
The Mere-Exposure effect is a hypothesis that states the more we’re exposed to something and the more familiar we are with that thing, the more we grow to like it. Researchers who have studied the mere-exposure effect have found that this is true even when the exposure is subliminal. For whatever reason, familiarity breeds liking, and this speaks to why celebrity endorsements are so effective: We see celebrities constantly, and therefore, we tend to like and trust them more than we would a normal spokesperson. It’s reasonable to assume, then, that Jackson’s supporters could feel a misplaced sense of familiarity, love, and trust toward Jackson, despite not knowing him, having been surrounded by his influence in pop culture for decades. In Leaving Neverland, both Safechuck and Robson describe how they felt like they “knew” Jackson long before they actually met him, since his presence was everywhere from television to radio to fashion. It was that constant exposure, they say, that made it so easy for their families to feel like they could trust him.
Technically, Jackson is innocent of these crimes in the eyes of the law: Before his death in 2009, Jackson settled a civil lawsuit with the Chandler family and was acquitted of other molestation charges in a court of law in 2005. Even so, it’s worth examining how our own cognitive biases might lead us to presume he’s innocent a