The Situationist

Archive for July 22nd, 2008

Some Reflections on Reflections

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 22, 2008

Natalie Angier has a terrific piece in today’s New York Times titled “Mirrors Don’t Lie. Mislead? Oh, Yes.” The article is worth reading in its entirety. Here is a taste of what you’ll find.

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[R]esearchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. Reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V. Bodenhausen and Alan B. Milne found that people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion.

“When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,” Dr. Bodenhausen said. “A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.” Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you know yourself.

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In a report titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,” which appears online in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier, homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.

How can we be so self-delusional when the truth stares back at us? “Although we do indeed see ourselves in the mirror every day, we don’t look exactly the same every time,” explained Dr. Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. There is the scruffy-morning you, the assembled-for-work you, the dressed-for-an-elegant-dinner you. “Which image is you?” he said. “Our research shows that people, on average, resolve that ambiguity in their favor, forming a representation of their image that is more attractive than they actually are.”

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To link to the entire article, click here. For a related Situationist post, see “New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy” and “Self-Serving Biases.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Illusions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Kevin Jon Heller on The Cognitive Psychology of Mens Rea

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 22, 2008

Kevin Jon Heller, a law professor at the University of Auckland and contributor to the Opinio Juris blog, has recently posted on SSRN his essay “The Cognitive Psychology Mens Rea.” Below is an abstract of the essay, which can be downloaded for free at this link.

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Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea – the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty. Few today would disagree with the maxim; the criminal law has long since rejected the idea that causing harm should be criminal regardless of the defendant’s subjective culpability. Still, the maxim begs a critical question: can jurors accurately determine whether the defendant acted with the requisite guilty mind?

Given the centrality of mens rea to criminal responsibility, we would expect legal scholars to have provided a persuasive answer to this question. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Most scholars simply presume that jurors can mindread accurately. And those scholars that take mindreading seriously have uniformly adopted common sense functionalism, a theory of mental-state attribution that is inconsistent with a vast amount of research into the cognitive psychology of mindreading. Common-sense functionalism assumes that a juror can accurately determine a defendant’s mental state by applying commonsense generalizations about how external circumstances, mental states, and physical behavior are causally related. Research indicates, however, that mindreading is actually a simulation-based, not theory-based, process. When a juror perceives the defendant to be similar to himself, he will mindread through projection, attributing to the defendant the mental state that he would have had in the defendant’s situation. And when the juror perceives the defendant to be dissimilar to himself, he will mindread through prototyping, inferring the defendant’s mental state from the degree of correspondence between the defendant’s act and his pre-existing conception of what the typical crime or defense of that type looks like.

This goal of this essay is to provide a comprehensive – though admittedly speculative – explanation of how jurors use projection and prototyping to make mental-state attributions in criminal cases. The first two sections explain why jurors are unlikely to use a functionalist method in a case that focuses on the defendant’s mens rea. The next three sections introduce projection and prototyping, describe the evidence that jurors actually use them to make mental-state determinations, and discuss the cognitive mechanism – perceived similarity between juror and defendant – that determines which one a juror will use in a particular case. The final two sections explain why projection and prototyping are likely to result in inaccurate mental-state determinations and discuss debiasing techniques that may make them more accurate.

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For more on the subject of mens rea, check out John Darley and Pam Mueller’s Situationist post from January titled “Why We Punish.”

Posted in Social Psychology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
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