[via Sociological Images]
Posted by Pam Mueller on July 28, 2008
The month or so before the bar exam makes the power of the situation crystal clear. The process of studying for the bar takes thousands of intelligent and accomplished law students and transforms them into anxious, self-doubting creatures whose exam-induced neuroses often extend beyond the confines of the test, poisoning their interactions throughout the summer.
How does this stressful situation impact the lives of these formerly confident and capable law students? How can these students get past the power of the situation to let their proven capabilities carry them through the bar exam, as they have carried them through other difficult situations? Does empirical research shed any light on the subject?
Empirical research on the bar exam spans a broad range of topics, albeit unsystematically. It often produces interesting, counterintuitive, and useful findings, which suggests more research would be welcome.
To start, one study that should increase the confidence of students who, while in school, focused on areas of law not tested on the bar (e.g. intellectual property, international law, the law of underwater basket weaving) was performed by Douglas Rush and Hisako Matsuo at Saint Louis University. (An abstract can be found here.) Rush and Matsuo tracked 5 years of Saint Louis University Law School graduates who sat for the Missouri Bar. They found that law school curriculum, in this case measured by the number of upper-division bar courses (i.e. wills and trusts, corporations) taken by a student, generally had no effect on whether the student passed or failed the bar.
The courses taken by a student had no effect on their outcome if they were in the top half of their class. The courses taken also had no effect on students if they were in the bottom quartile of the class, though these are the students who are most often recommended to take such courses, purportedly to increase their bar passage chances. There was a small effect on passage rate for students in the third quartile, but there was less than a one-course difference between the group that passed and the group that failed. It is difficult to say that taking one more course was the cause of this difference.
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But law school’s over. Other studies speak more to what bar takers are feeling right now. (Bolger et al. (200 0) collected data using couples in which one partner was studying for the New York bar. His central study found that while reported provision of emotional support by the non-bar-taking partner was related to decreased depression and anxiety in the examinee, reported receipt of emotional support was actually correlated with increased depression and anxiety in the bar examinee. This effect was increased in the final week of bar study – so beware! Thus, invisible support – deliberate support, but without the examinee perceiving it – was the key to helping the examinee control his/her negative emotions, as that type of support did not impose the added cost of feeling that one needs support.
Other studies involving the same data set have provided more challenges (a partner’s physical support, i.e. cooking meals, helping with errands, is not successful in reducing anxiety or depression, but does have some effect on fatigue: Shrout, et al. (2006)) as well as some hope (the partners’ support became increasingly effective in preventing a rise in examinee distress as the examination approached: Thompson and Bolger (1999)).
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The high levels of anxiety endemic to bar examinees have a detrimental effect on performance on cognitive tasks. Relatedly, discouragement considerably impairs both perception and learning. Confidence, on the other hand, has a positive effect on performance, accounting in one study for more than 58% of the variance between innate ability and actual performance on an examination. Bar examinees are subject to near-constant anxiety and discouragement throughout the summer. BarBri seems to use failing scores on practice essays as a scare tactic to encourage more studying. Exam confidence, and even global self-confidence, is generally low, and this subjective confidence will only decrease further as the test approaches (see Sanna (1999)).
These factors, if not recognized and kept in check, will likely hinder exam performance, especially with the added pressure of the test days themselves. In fact, the added pressure of test day may lower examinees’ performance in yet another way. Most individuals who successfully complete law school likely are at the high end of the spectrum for working memory capacity, as high working memory capacity is correlated to high reading comprehension and problem-solving capability. According to Beilock and DeCaro, however, individuals higher in working memory are more likely to “choke under pressure,” as the stress consumes the working memory resources needed for peak performance. Individuals who have lower working memory capacity suffer no decrease in performance in high-pressure situations.
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Since keeping stress and anxiety lower is so critical, how can bar examinees decrease their anxiety and increase their confidence, thereby increasing the likelihood of performing well on the exam? Empirical research would say not via positive imagery or muscle relaxation. A dissertation by Elizabeth A. Moseley (1989) suggests that muscle relaxation and imagery training did not decrease scores on a test measuring the debilitating effects anxiety as much as the placebos (no intervention and music) did. Additionally, these interventions actually increased scores on a general test-anxiety measure.
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So is there any good news? I wouldn’t have written this entry if there weren’t. Amie S. Green, in her dissertation at NYU (2006), investigated the efficacy of coping strategies on anxiety in individuals studying for the bar across the country. The study looked at active coping, planning, practical support seeking, emotional support seeking, positive reinterpretation, acceptance, religion, venting, mental disengagement, and alcohol/drug disengagement as potential strategies.
The three best strategies were 1) active coping, 2) positive reinterpretation, and 3) acceptance. Active coping (doing something to deal with the problem and persevering) was strongly associated with decreased anxiety the day after using the coping strategy. Positive reinterpretation of the problem and acceptance were also associated with decreased anxiety on the following day. However, while cause and effect is unclear, individuals who used acceptance more often as a strategy tended to have higher anxiety on average.
The three worst strategies were 1) using religion, 2) venting, and 3) mental disengagement. These three were all strongly associated with increased anxiety the following day. Practical support seeking also tended to increase anxiety the following day, but this result was not significant.
While these are the trends, individuals did differ. Some individuals found disengagement and practical support seeking to be adaptive. However, the other strategies mentioned above were generally universally adaptive or maladaptive.
In the final week (where we are now), there are a few things of which to take note: acceptance is no longer an adaptive strategy to reduce stress, and alcohol and drug disengagement is now a maladaptive strategy, rather than neutral (I hope you knew that already!).
And now it’s time to go actively cope with some Commercial Paper.
N.B. This advice, while based on empirical data, does not guarantee peak performance on the bar. If it did, I would stop studying now!
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For a related Situationist post, see “Situation of Lawyers and Practicing Law.”
Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 27, 2008
The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine included an article by Peter Bebergal, titled “On the Edge.” (The teaser reads as follows: “Can a test reveal if a person has a subconscious desire to kill himself? Peter Bebergal, who lost a brother to suicide, goes inside Mass. General, where Harvard researchers are trying to find out.”) Here are a few excerpts.
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Four years after my brother’s death, Harvard researchers at MGH are experimenting with a test they think could help clinicians determine just that. It focuses on a patient’s subconscious thoughts, and if it can be perfected, these researchers say it could give hospitals more of a legal basis for admitting suicidal patients.
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This missing piece in the suicidal puzzle is what prompted the innovative research study now in its final phase at MGH. The study, led by Dr. Matthew Nock, an associate professor in the psychology department at Harvard University, is called the Suicide Implicit Association Test. It’s a variation of the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, which was invented by Anthony Greenwald at the University of Washington and “co-developed” by [Situationist Contributor] Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, now a psychology professor at Harvard who works a few floors above Nock on campus. The premise is that test takers, by associating positive and negative words with certain images (or words) – for example, connecting the word “wonderful” with a grouping that contains the word “good” and a picture of a EuropeanAmerican – reveal their unconscious, or implicit, thoughts. The critical factor in the test is not the associations themselves, but the relative speed at which those connections are made. (If you’re curious, take a sample IAT test online at implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.)
The IAT itself is not new – it was created in 1998 – and has been used to evaluate unconscious bias against African-Americans, Arabs, fat people, and Judaism. But critics question whether the test is actually practical, and up until now no one has tried to apply it to suicide prevention. As part of his training, Nock worked extensively with adolescent self-injurers – self-injury, such as cutting and burning, is an important coping method for those who engage in it, though they are often unlikely to acknowledge it. Nock thought that the IAT could serve as a behavioral measure of who is a self-injurer and whether such a person was in danger of continuing the behavior, even after treatment. In their first major study, Nock and Banaji asserted that the IAT could be adapted to show who was inclined to be self-injurious and who was not. And more important, they said, the test could reveal who was in danger of future self-injury.
The next step, Nock realized, was to use the test to determine, from a person’s implicit thoughts, whether someone who had prior suicidal behavior was likely to continue to be suicidal. It would give doctors a third component, along with self-reporting and clinician reporting, and result in a more complete picture of a patient. Nock doesn’t assume that a test like the IAT would be 100 percent accurate, but he believes it would have predictive ability. “It is not a lie detector,” he says. “But in an ideal situation, a clinician who is struggling with a decision to admit a potentially suicidal patient to the hospital, or with an equally difficult decision to discharge a patient from the hospital following a potentially lethal suicide attempt, the IAT could provide additional information about whether the clinician should admit or keep that patient in the hospital.”
Over two years, researchers at MGH asked patients who had attempted suicide if they would be willing to participate in the test. About two-thirds of them agreed (some 200 patients) – even though some had tried killing themselves just hours before – and after answering a battery of questions about their thoughts, sat with a laptop and took the IAT.
During one test, a person was shown two sets of words on a screen, one in the upper left corner, one in the upper right. A single word then appeared in the center, and the test taker was asked to indicate with a keystroke the corner containing the word that connected to the center word. The corner sets were drawn from two groups of words (one group was “escape” and “stay,” and another was “me” and “not me”). In one version, the sets were “escape/not me” and “stay/me,” and the series of words that appeared in the center included, among others, “quit,” “persist,” “myself,” and “them.” The correct answers called for “quit” to be associated with the side that had “escape,” for “myself” to be matched with the side that had “me,” and so forth. In theory, a delay in answering on “quit,” even if the person got it right, could reveal that he was associating the idea of “quit” with the idea of himself. The word sets varied depending on the test, and bias could emerge in a positive or negative way. For example, if the sets were “escape/me” and “stay/not me” and a person hesitated in correctly matching “myself” to the side with “me,” it could reveal that he was associating himself with the idea of “stay.”
For about the next five months, Nock and his research team at Harvard will analyze all the data collected from MGH. If they think their findings show promise, they will follow up and run their experiment again to see if it yields similar results. If it does, they may seek to implement the test at an area hospital. For now, following up with patients will be pivotal in assessing the test’s effectiveness. Tragically, though, the only way researchers will know for sure whether the test can predict behavior is if a key number of patients attempt suicide again.
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Nock says it’s still too early to tell how well the test will predict someone’s likelihood of engaging in suicidal behavior. But he says the hope is that the IAT will be able to record subtle distinctions between those who are at risk and those who aren’t by measuring how “positively or negatively people value the option of suicide as a potential response to their intolerable distress.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 25, 2008
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All the evidence we have suggests that human beings are adept at self-deceit. Alone among animals, humans are tellers of stories — and we tell stories to ourselves as well as to others. We trick ourselves constantly, in countless tiny ways, into believing that the bad deeds of others are very bad indeed, while our own are necessary, minor, forgivable — or maybe not even bad at all.
In one recent study, for instance, Northeastern University psychologists Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno found that when subjects were asked to assign tasks to themselves and to strangers, nearly all gave themselves easy tasks while assigning unpleasant tasks to people they didn’t know. When asked if their actions were fair, subjects were quick to find appealing rationales to justify saddling strangers with all the lousy jobs. But these same subjects were quick to condemn the same selfish behavior when they saw others engage in it.
At least on a microscopic level, then, most of us aren’t all that different from Karadzic or any of the other killers who cloaked their atrocities in the soothing rhetoric of healing. We’re all moral hypocrites, willing to believe our own justifications for the rotten things we want to do.
There’s a depressing lesson here. Uplifting rhetoric — even the language of healing, generosity and compassion — can genuinely mask the true nature of bad deeds (even from those who carry them out). As a nation at war, it’s a lesson we should remember.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 25, 2008
Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and Michael McCann recently posted on SSRN a draft of their forthcoming law review article, Situationist Torts, 41 Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review _ (forthcoming, 2008). Earlier this month, SSRN announced its Law & Psychology Top Ten and Legal Education Top Ten lists and Situationist Torts placed in the top 10 on both lists (#1 and #3, respectively) for the last 60 days. More recently, SSRN announced that Situationist Torts has earned a spot on the top 10 lists of Legal History (#9) and Public Law and Legal Theory (#10).
To download Situationist Torts for free click here. That link will direct you to the abstract and various download options.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 23, 2008
The Dark Knight, which in generating $158 million in gate receipts last weekend set the all-time record for most receipts in an opening weekend, has clearly entered the American consciousness. The film has attracted very favorable reviews by critics and even more favorable by movie-goers, many of whom have been struck by the amazing, chilling, and believable performance of the late Heath Ledger as The Joker.
The Dark Knight has also attracted the notice of academics and those with expertise in the social sciences. Clinical psychologist Robin S. Rosenberg of Psychablog, for example, offers an interesting entry titled “Dark Knight: A Psychologist’s View.” We excerpt it below.
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This film is really about the Joker. We’re lured in to his world, where we learn what he’s capable of and what he cares about—what motivates him. Learning more about him is like watching a car accident unfold, but worse and more frightening, because it feels like you might be hit next. Nolan’s incarnation of the Joker, and Batman’s reactions to him, seem so real that The Dark Knight doesn’t feel like a superhero movie, but like a documentary on the emergence of a terrorist-cum-serial killer.
This Joker is neither impulsive nor capricious, although he may appear that way at first blush. Just as with Batman, the Joker’s actions are designed to create a particular impression, an impression that puts his adversaries at a disadvantage: that he’s weird and unpredictable. That you never know how far he’ll push something, so take him seriously. This, too, is part of the impression that Batman tries to create. But the Joker’s got Batman’s number because he knows that Batman isn’t entirely unpredictable—Batman lives within certain self-imposed and societally imposed rules. Because of those rules, Batman becomes predictable . . . at least to the Joker. Two men with similar talents, but in the Joker’s case, his talents are used to create anarchy for his own amusement. Is he a psychopath? Let’s investigate.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 20, 2008
Below is a ten-minute BloggingHeads clip from a one-hour interview of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
To watch the entire video, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Motivated Situation of Morality,” “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” and “Moral Psychology Primer.”
Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 18, 2008
From Business Wire and Knowledgebase (the free monthly information source for thoughts, ideas and research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business):
For many of us, the thought of asking someone for help or a favor–be it a colleague, friend, or stranger–is fraught with discomfort. We figure we’re imposing or tend to assume the person will say no, which could leave us embarrassed or humiliated.
But as reported in this month’s Stanford Knowledgebase, new research from Stanford Graduate School of Business verifies the old adage, “Ask and you shall receive.” A series of studies reveals that people tend to grossly underestimate how likely others are to agree to requests for assistance.
“Our research should encourage people to ask for help and not assume that others are disinclined to comply,” says Frank Flynn, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “People are more willing to help than you think, and that can be important to know when you’re trying to get the resources you need to get a job done, when you’re trying to solicit funds, or what have you.”
In fact, Flynn and Vanessa Lake, a Columbia University psychology doctoral student, have already had feedback to that effect on their paper, published in the July 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “A colleague had just finished reading a draft and was running late to a dinner appointment,” says Flynn. “He was in the subway and realized he should call ahead but didn’t have a cell phone. He told us that our paper gave him courage to ask a stranger to borrow his–and that he was delighted when the person quickly obliged!”
In the first two studies, participants were instructed to ask favors of people in campus settings after estimating how many people they thought would comply with their requests. Participants asked to borrow strangers’ cell phones in order to make calls back to the experimenter, solicited individuals to fill out questionnaires, and asked students to help them find the campus gym–a favor that required obliging students to walk with a participant for at least two blocks in the direction of the gym.
The researchers found that participants consistently overestimated by 50 percent the number of people they’d have to ask to get a certain number to agree with each request. “Participants were initially horrified at the prospect of going out and asking people for such things,” says Lake. “But they’d bound back in to the lab afterward with big smiles, saying, ‘I can’t believe how nice people were!'”
The results were replicated even more dramatically in a real-world scenario involving volunteers for Team in Training, a division of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. These volunteers, who receive training for endurance sports events in exchange for fundraising for the society, were asked to estimate the number of people they thought they would have to solicit to reach their fundraising goal, as well as the average donation they expected.
Once again, volunteers predicted they would have to approach 50 percent more people than were actually needed. Moreover, they underestimated the average donation they’d receive by $17. “People seem to miscalculate how willing others are to say yes to direct requests, even in a conservative case like this where they’re open to soliciting others and the request is significant–anywhere from $30 to more than $1,000,” observes Flynn.
Why do people consistently make such underestimations? The researchers found it’s because they fail to get inside the head of the potential helper. The critical factor, say Flynn and Lake, is that those who are approached for a favor are under social pressure to be benevolent. Just saying no can make them look very bad–to themselves or others.
Two further studies demonstrated this dynamic. When given various scenarios, participants responded differently depending on whether they were in the role of a potential helper or the one who needed the help. Those asking for help thought they were more likely to be turned down than those offering aid. Even more importantly, askers said they thought it would be much easier for others to refuse their request than did potential helpers.
“That’s really the mechanism explaining the effect,” says Flynn. “People’s underestimation of others’ willingness to comply is driven by their failure to diagnose these feelings of social obligation on the part of others.”
One study found that those asking for help incorrectly believed it was more likely they would receive help if they were indirect about it–communicating their request with a look, rather than a direct question. In contrast, people in the position of offering assistance said they were much more likely to help if asked point blank. “That really puts the obligation on them, and makes it very awkward for them to refuse,” says Lake.
Similarly, in a final study, participants incorrectly calculated that they would get more people to answer a questionnaire if they simply handed them a flyer with the request, instead of asking them outright. This was the case whether they were asking people to fill out short, one-page questionnaires, or more burdensome, 10-page questionnaires. “The lesson is that you should pay more attention to how your request is being made than to the size of your request,” says Flynn.
“Other studies we’ve conducted indicate that people overestimate how likely it is that others will come to them for help,” Flynn continues. “This means not only are people not asking for help when in fact they could get it, but they’re not encouraging others to come to them for help when in fact they’re willing to offer it. That tells us that the ‘open-door’ policy is basically ineffective unless people are actively encouraged to use it.”
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For a related Situationist post, see “The Situation of Helping.”
Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 16, 2008
From TED: Neuroscientist and inventor Christopher deCharms demonstrates a new way to use fMRI to show brain activity — thoughts, emotions, pain — while it is happening. In other words, you can actually see how you feel.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 13, 2008
Story by Anne-Marie Tobin, from Canadian Press.
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Can robots and computers take the place of a human being? Two new studies involving research on brain activity in humans provide some food for thought in the evolving debate about interactions between man and machine – and in both cases, people seem to prefer people.
German scientists used an MRI scanner to see how the brain reacted when subjects thought they were playing a game against four different opponents – a laptop computer, a functional robot with no human shape except for artificial hands, a robot with a humanlike shape and another person.
The 20 participants were also asked about their enjoyment levels after playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game, which is similar to the Rock Paper Scissors game.
“We were interested in what’s going on in the brain when you play an interaction game when you need to think what your opponent is thinking,” said Soren Krach, a psychologist in the department of psychiatry at RWTH Aachen University.
In social cognitive neuroscience, the ability to attribute intentions and desires to others is referred to as having a Theory of Mind, according to the study.
“We found out that the activity in the cortical network related to Theory of Mind … was increasingly engaged the more the opponents exhibited humanlike features,” Krach explained.
Before going into the MRI scanner, the subjects played against the laptop, the two robots and the human. Once inside the scanner, they played again, using special video glasses, and they were told which opponent they were playing against at any given time.
Later, they were asked about the interaction.
“They indicated that the more humanlike the opponent was, the more they had perceived fun during the game and they more attributed intelligence to their opponent,” Krach said.
The behaviour of the four opponents was randomized.
The study was published Tuesday in the online open-access journal PLoS ONE, along with another study in which neuroscientists looked at the brain’s response to piano sonatas played either by a computer or musician.
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To read the rest of the article and about that second experiment, click here.
The article, from which the image above is taken, is: Krach S, Hegel F, Wrede B, Sagerer G, Binkofski F, et al. (2008) Can Machines Think? Interaction and Perspective Taking with Robots Investigated via fMRI. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2597. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002597