The Situationist

Archive for August 19th, 2008

Seeing Michael Phelps’s Gold Medal Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 19, 2008

Sam Sommers has another excellent (situationist) post, titled “The Greatest Ever? Not So Fast . . .” over at Psychology Today Blog. Sommers’s post is worth reading in its entirety (here), but here are a few particularly situationist excerpts.

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U.S. Swimmer Michael Phelps just won his 8th gold medal of the Beijing Olympics tonight, the 14th gold of his career. These are feats that have never been accomplished before, and it’s hard to argue with the conclusion that his is the greatest Olympic performance of all time. Some in the sporting world (and beyond) are also calling Phelps the greatest athlete of all time. But not so fast—a number of psychological considerations suggest that the pundits (and public) are likely getting a bit carried away.

Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear for the record. What Phelps has done is extraordinary and unprecedented. . . .

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But why would I suggest that Phelps might not truly be the “greatest athlete” ever . . . ? . . . . I can think of at least three relevant psychological issues:

First, there’s good reason to believe that a variation of the availability heuristic is at play here. This just happened. . . .

So if I ask you to name great athletes, whose name is readily available to you at the moment? Phelps, of course. More generally, even beyond the domain of sports, I’d argue that people are typically lousy at judging “the greatest ever” in any area, due to the availability heuristic among other factors. . . .

Second, in addition to availability, there’s also a self-motivated reason for us to see Phelps deemed the greatest ever. Because we were able to watch Phelps’ triumph and because we’ll have stories to tell about what we saw in these Olympics, we’re able to perceive a personal connection to what he’s done that goes so far as to make us feel good about ourselves.

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Finally, I think there’s also a compelling argument to be made that those who would call Phelps the greatest ever are doing what we humans often do in perceiving the world, namely not giving sufficient weight to the situational factors at play. . . .

[T]his debate is being pitched in largely dispositional terms (i.e., is he the greatest *athlete* ever, as opposed to is this the greatest athletic *performance* ever). And what I really mean to suggest is along the lines of the argument I made in a previous post, namely that important aspects of situations in daily life often escape our attention. In the case of Phelps, he has certainly had a terrific Olympics (now, that might be the greatest understatement of the century). But he also competes in a sport that presents its elite competitors with the opportunity to rack up multiple medals. Swimmers can compete in races of varying distances. There are races in 4 different strokes, as well as individual medleys combining strokes. Then there are relays as well. Is Mark Spitz the second-greatest athlete of all time?

The greatest of basketball and water polo players have a chance at 1 medal in an Olympics. Same with boxers and wrestlers. Track and field stars have more, but still not as many as swimmers. Consider Carl Lewis’ 1984 performance, when he won gold in the 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay, and long jump. Was Phelps’ 2008 demonstrably better than that? It’s hard to say. I’m quite sure this last argument will annoy the swimming fans out there, but what if Lewis had been afforded the same opportunities as Phelps to cover different distances in different ways? Swimmers have races in backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle; how many medals could Lewis have won if he could’ve entered the 100m gallop, the 100m skip, and the 100m crabwalk?

OK, so you might resist that last analogy. But the crabwalk would be pretty fun to watch, wouldn’t it? And the bigger point is that Phelps’ historical milestone was attributable to a number of factors: his phenomenal training regimen, his unsurpassed drive to win, his genetic gifts, and more. But he also owes at least part of his title as greatest Olympian ever to the current set-up of the Games, which affords swimmers more opportunities to medal than most other athletes. To ignore this fact and crown Phelps greater than Lewis, Jesse Owens, Eric Heiden, Sonja Henie, Al Oerter, and others seems impulsive. Not to mention, of course, all the non-Olympic athletes who certainly merit consideration for the title of greatest ever.

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To read the entire post, which may well be the greatest post ever, click here.

For a sample related posts discussing the tendency to dispositionalize accomplishments that are largely situational, see “Promoting Dispostionism through Entertainment – Part III,” “Randomness, Luck, and other Situational Sources of Success and Failure,” ““Situation” Trumps “Disposition”- Part II,” “What’s Eating David Ortiz?,” and “David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, and Now John Edwards: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation.”

For archives of all situationist sports posts, click here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Blogroll, Choice Myth, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Should Psychologists Assist Military Interogations?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 19, 2008

Benedict Carey of the New York Times has an interesting piece on a debate within the psychology profession over whether psychologists should provide assistance on military interrogations. We excerpt the article below.

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They have closely studied suspects, looking for mental quirks. They have suggested lines of questioning. They have helped decide when a confrontation is too intense, or when to push harder. More than those in the other healing professions, psychologists have played a central role in the military and C.I.A. interrogation of people suspected of being enemy combatants.

But now the profession, long divided over this role, is considering whether to make any involvement in military interrogations a violation of its code of ethics.

At the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting this week in Boston, prominent members are denouncing such work as unethical by definition, while other key figures — civilian and military — insist that restricting psychologists’ roles would only make interrogations more likely to harm detainees.

Like other professional organizations, the association has little direct authority to restrict members’ ability to practice. But state licensing boards can suspend or revoke a psychologist’s license, and experts note that these boards often take violations of the association’s ethics code into consideration.

The election for the association’s president is widely seen as a referendum on the issue. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, plan a protest on Saturday afternoon.

And last week, for the first time, lawyers for a detainee at the United States Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, singled out a psychologist as a critical player in documents alleging abusive treatment.

“It’s really a fight for the soul of the profession,” said Brad Olson, a psychologist at Northwestern University, who has circulated a petition among members to place a moratorium on such consulting.

Others strongly disagree. “The vast majority of military psychologists know the ethics code and know exactly what they can and cannot do,” said William J. Strickland, who represents the Society for Military Psychology before the association’s council. “This is a fight about individual psychologists’ behavior, and we should keep it there.”

At the center of the debate are the military’s behavioral science consultation teams, informally known as biscuits, made up of psychologists and others who assist in interrogations. Little is known about these units, including the number of psychologists who take part. Neither the military nor the team members have disclosed many details.

Defenders of that role insist that the teams are crucial in keeping interrogations safe, effective and legal. Critics say their primary purpose is to help break detainees, using methods that might violate international law.

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For the rest of the article click here. For other Situationist posts relating to interrogations, click here.

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

 
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