Updated 31 October 2019

Would you cover up for a loved one if they committed a crime?

Punish or protect - what would you do if a loved one committed a crime? A study found that most people would do the latter. Health24's psychiatrist sheds some light on why this may be the case.

South Africa’s latest official crime figures paint a worrying picture, with a steady increase in sexual offences and murders over the past year. And while the incidence of less serious crimes such as robberies and thefts from property or vehicles may be falling, fear levels are certainly rising. 

But as much as knowing about these crimes stirs up feelings of disgust and concern, when the perpetrator is a loved one, chances are we’ll keep quiet and won't report it to the police. 

That’s according to a recent study by the University of Michigan, where researchers tested whether people are more likely to protect those close to them (versus strangers), after imagining them committing immoral acts of theft and sexual harassment.

The analysis was based on the responses from more than 2 800 people across 10 studies.

Protecting those close to you

The findings of the study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that people are more likely to protect those close to them when "moral infractions" are committed, particularly highly severe acts such as theft and blackmail.

However, quite surprisingly, it was found that people also tend to become more protective of a loved one as the severity of the crime increases.

But helping someone to cover up a crime is essentially an obstruction of justice, so why do we do it?

Willing to break the law

People tend not to want to sacrifice the relationship, even if this means sacrificing the rules that ensure a safe society, said the study’s researchers.

"We were really taken aback to see that most people predict that they would protect those close to them, even in the face of heinous moral infractions," said Aaron Weidman, a psychology research fellow and the study's co-lead author.

For example, when participants were asked to imagine a police officer asking them if they knew anything about an immoral act they had witnessed, their answers showed that they were more willing to lie (and consequently break the law) to protect someone close to them, such as a family member or close friend.

Interestingly, if the perpetrator were a stranger, participants wanted them to be formally punished. If they were merely acquainted with the perpetrator, they were also willing to subject them to law enforcement or social ostracism.

The psychological explanation

We chatted to Health24 resident psychiatrist expert Professor Simpson about the possible psychological reasons behind this behaviour:

I don't believe that these people are saying, "Murder and child abuse are terrible things and must be severely punished, except when they're done by my cousin or a pal, but rather, they seem to be saying they'd be reluctant themselves to implicate a friend or relative – even if they knew that person was guilty of a serious crime,” Simpson explains.

“Maybe they're thinking, ‘But I know these people well, and I'm certain they would never do anything awful.’"

Simpson also points to limitations in the study, noting that the questions participants were asked were perhaps too simplistic, or were not followed up appropriately, adding that the reasons for their responses could be manifold. 

“In clinical practice, we see a family dynamic in which family members may protect an abusive member, for various reasons.

"One can be that their lives are so insecure and chaotic that even the family relationship that looks awful to us may be the best they have, or at least the best they know, and they dread disturbing that precarious balance through fear of the unknown, of what might replace it.

“Or perhaps some overestimate their own ability to control the bad friend. We know how often part of the dynamic in abusive relationships is that the victim imagines they will be able to persuade the abuser to stop. However, that often fails,” says Simpson.

Simpson also adds that it would be important to factor in whether the responses were based on participants (hypothetically) covering up for a loved one that is also the bread-winner, as their imprisonment might cause hardship for the family.

“One has to consider whether loyalty is more important to these people than honesty, and whether they were really being asked about, or responding, based on actual morality or convenience.”

The study’s research teams also examined likely psychological explanations for this behaviour. They found that many people justify their decision to protect those they know and love by reporting that they'd discipline the perpetrator on their own. 

In doing so, people maintain their self-image as a morally upstanding individual, as well as preserving the close relationship with the perpetrator.

Image: Getty


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