The Situationist

Archive for August, 2008

The Situation of Criminality – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 13, 2008

Craig Haney posted a terrific situationist article, “Evolving Standards of Decency: Advancing the Nature and Logic of Capital Mitigation” (forthcoming in Hofstra Law Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, 2008) on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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The article builds on converging lines of research in the social sciences that have constructed a framework which conceptualizes the roots of violent behavior as extending beyond the personality or character structure of those people who perform it, connecting it historically to the brutalizing experiences they have commonly shared as well as the immediately precipitating situations in which their violence transpires.

The piece explains how to translate these insights into the collection and presentation of mitigation evidence in capital cases. It describes in detail the various factors in a person’s social and physical environment that are demonstrably likely to lead to criminal behavior, and how, in the context of an adversary system, these general findings can be persuasively woven into the mitigation case to be made on behalf of a particular client to an audience whose pre-disposition is to be unreceptive if not outright hostile.

A capital defense team that is performing effectively in accordance with the ABA’s Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases reprinted in 31 Hofstra L. Rev. 913 (2003) and the Supplementary Guidelines that are the subject of this issue will engage in a continuous iterative process between the assembly of a psychologically-oriented social history in which key developmental stages and relevant family and social experiences are analyzed together and the construction of a mitigating counter-narrative that incorporates a capital defendant’s social history and immediate life circumstances. If properly conceived and supported this narrative will provide a more satisfying account than the one the prosecution is certain to offer – an account confined to the defendant’s crime, which is presented as entirely the product of his free autonomous choice-making and constitutes both the full measure of the defendant’s life and the primary justification for ending it.

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Haney’s article appears in the Hofstra Law Review symposium issue on the Supplementary Guidelines for the Mitigation Function of Defense Teams in Death Penalty cases. The complete text of the issue, which also contains the Guidelines themselves, is available online here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Law, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Blame Frame – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 13, 2008

Situationist Contributors Jon Hanson and Kathleen Hanson recently posted their article, “The Blame Frame: Justifying (Racial) Injustice in America” (Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Vol. 41, 2006) on SSRN. Here is the abstract.

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This Article attempts to elucidate how our forebears, who were presumably as devoted to justice and liberty in their times as we are in ours, failed to condemn behaviors that are today widely viewed as patently oppressive, unfair, and even evil.

Our argument unfolds in several Parts. Part II summarizes evidence from social psychology and related fields that helps explain how people who imagine themselves fair and just routinely blame the victims of inequities and excuse the perpetrators or passive observers through blame frames.

Because humans crave justice, salient suffering or inequalities activate an injustice dissonance within us. Too often, we alleviate that dissonance, not by addressing the injustice, but by creating an illusion of justice through assumptions, arguments, or stereotypes about the blameworthiness of the victim. Part II then describes three powerful blame frames that have coexisted, while alternating in dominance, throughout American history: the God frame, the nature frame, and the choice frame.

Part III elucidates through a few prominent examples how blame frames have operated throughout history to relieve our forebears’ injustice dissonances and to perpetuate systems of oppression. The motivated attributions underlying those blame frames acted to legitimate laws, customs, and practices that today – with the benefit of hindsight and the lens of a new frame – are recognized as clearly unjust.

Part IV argues that we suffer an equally great confusion today, but the injustices that haunt our generation are soothed less by the God and nature frames and more by conceptions of choice. Choicism attributes disparities to the preferences and character of individuals and their groups. Although choicism purports to be colorblind and non-discriminatory, it is, unfortunately, just the latest cloak veiling racism and other groupisms while allowing us to blame victims and excuse non-victims. Part IV, by examining public reactions to Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, then shows how Americans experienced an unusually powerful and intractable injustice dissonance when the winds, water, and desperation exposed inequalities that choicism could not readily justify. For at least a moment, Americans faced what seemed to be strong evidence of racial injustice. Part IV reveals some of the ways that a set of overlapping and largely camouflaged blame frames obscured and confused the public discourse regarding Katrina and the injustice dissonance she wrought.

Finally, this Article argues that only by understanding the sources and effects of blame frames can we ever hope to end oppression and thereby live according to the fundamental values we espouse.

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To download the article for free, click here. For related Situationist posts, see “‘Situation’ Trumps ‘Disposition’- Part II” and “Black History is Now.”

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, History, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Denial

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 12, 2008

Last November, Benedict Carey of the New York Times penned an intriguing piece on the psychology of denial. As discussed by Carey, recent research suggests that denial helps form and cultivate close relationships, including those between spouses and siblings. We excerpt his piece below.

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Everyone is in denial about something; just try denying it and watch friends make a list. For Freud, denial was a defense against external realities that threaten the ego, and many psychologists today would argue that it can be a protective defense in the face of unbearable news, like a cancer diagnosis.

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[R]ecent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal, their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for that most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness.

In this emerging view, social scientists see denial on a broader spectrum — from benign inattention to passive acknowledgment to full-blown, willful blindness — on the part of couples, social groups and organizations, as well as individuals. Seeing denial in this way, some scientists argue, helps clarify when it is wise to manage a difficult person or personal situation, and when it threatens to become a kind of infectious silent trance that can make hypocrites of otherwise forthright people.

“The closer you look, the more clearly you see that denial is part of the uneasy bargain we strike to be social creatures,” said Michael McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami and the author of the coming book “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.” “We really do want to be moral people, but the fact is that we cut corners to get individual advantage, and we rely on the room that denial gives us to get by, to wiggle out of speeding tickets, and to forgive others for doing the same.”

The capacity for denial appears to have evolved in part to offset early humans’ hypersensitivity to violations of trust. In small kin groups, identifying liars and two-faced cheats was a matter of survival. A few bad rumors could mean a loss of status or even expulsion from the group, a death sentence.

In a series of recent studies, a team of researchers led by Peter H. Kim of the University of Southern California and Donald L. Ferrin of the University of Buffalo, now at Singapore Management University, had groups of business students rate the trustworthiness of a job applicant after learning that the person had committed an infraction at a previous job. Participants watched a film of a job interview in which the applicant was confronted with the problem and either denied or apologized for it.

If the infraction was described as a mistake and the applicant apologized, viewers gave him the benefit of the doubt and said they would trust him with job responsibilities. But if the infraction was described as fraud and the person apologized, viewers’ trust evaporated — and even having evidence that he had been cleared of misconduct did not entirely restore that trust.

“We concluded there is this skewed incentive system,” Dr. Kim said. “If you are guilty of an integrity-based violation and you apologize, that hurts you more than if you are dishonest and deny it.”

The system is skewed precisely because the people we rely on and value are imperfect, like everyone else, and not nearly as moral or trustworthy as they expect others to be. If evidence of this weren’t abundant enough in everyday life, it came through sharply in a recent study led by Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Ariely and two colleagues, Nina Mazar and On Amir, had 326 students take a multiple-choice general knowledge test, promising them payment for every correct answer. The students were instructed to transfer their answers, for the official tally, onto a form with color-in bubbles for each numbered question. But some of the students had the opportunity to cheat: they received bubble sheets with the correct answers seemingly inadvertently shaded in gray. Compared with the others, they changed about 20 percent of their answers, and a follow-up study demonstrated that they were unaware of the magnitude of their dishonesty.

“What we concluded is that good people can be dishonest up to the level where conscience kicks in,” said Dr. Ariely, author of the book “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Force that Shape Our Decisions,” due out next year. “That essentially you can fool the conscience a little bit and make small transgressions without waking it up. It all goes under the radar because you are not paying that much attention.”

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For the rest of the piece, click here.

For a few related Situationist posts, see ” The Situation of Lying,” “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me),” “Um, I don’t make misteaks . . . ,” and “Predictably Irrational.”

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

The Cultural Situation of the HPV Vaccine – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 11, 2008

Situationist Contributors Dan Kahan, Geoffrey Cohen, and Paul Slovic and their coauthors Donald Braman, and John Gastil, recently posted a fascinating paper, “Who Fears the HPV Vaccine, Who Doesn’t, and Why? An Experimental Study of the Mechanisms of Cultural Cognition” on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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The cultural cognition hypothesis holds that individuals are disposed to form risk perceptions that reflect and reinforce their commitments to contested views of the good society. This paper reports the results of a study that used the controversy over mandatory HPV vaccination to test the cultural cognition hypothesis. Although public health officials have recommended that all girls aged 11 or 12 be vaccinated for HPV – a virus that causes cervical cancer and that is transmitted by sexual contact – political controversy has blocked adoption of mandatory school-enrollment vaccination programs in all but one state. A multi-stage experimental study of a large and diverse sample of American adults (N = 1,500) found evidence that cultural cognition generates disagreement about the risks and benefits of the HPV vaccine. It does so, the experiment determined, through two mechanisms: biased assimilation, and the credibility heuristic. In addition to describing the study, the paper discusses the theoretical and practical implications of these findings.

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For a related set of Situationist posts on cultural cognition, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Cultural Cognition, Ideology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Political Situation of Judicial Activism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 10, 2008

Thomas Miles and Cass Sunstein recently published their important new paper, “Depoliticizing Administrative Law ,” on SSRN. Here is the abstract.

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A large body of empirical evidence demonstrates that judicial review of agency action is highly politicized, in the sense that Republican appointees are significantly more likely to invalidate liberal agency decisions than conservative ones, while Democratic appointees are significantly more likely to invalidate conservative agency decisions than liberal ones. These results hold for both (a) judicial review of agency interpretations of law and (b) judicial review of agency decisions for “arbitrariness” on questions of policy and fact. On the federal courts of appeals, the most highly politicized voting patterns are found on unified panels, that is, on panels consisting solely of either Democratic or Republican appointees. On the Supreme Court, politicized administrative law is also unmistakable, as the more conservative justices show a distinctive willingness to vote to invalidate liberal agency decisions, and the more liberal justices show a distinctive willingness to vote to invalidate conservative agency decisions. Indeed, it is possible to “rank” justices in terms of the extent to which their voting patterns are politicized. The empirical results raise an obvious question: What might be done to depoliticize administrative law? Three sets of imaginable solutions have promise: (1) self-correction without formal doctrinal change, produced by a form of “debiasing” that might follow from a clearer judicial understanding of the current situation; (2) doctrinal innovations, as, for example, through rethinking existing deference principles and giving agencies more room to maneuver; and (3) institutional change, through novel voting rules and requirements of mixed panels. An investigation of these solutions has implications for other domains in which judges are divided along political lines, and indeed in which nonjudicial officials show some kind of politicized division or bias.

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Cass Sunstein published a great post, “The Partisanship Awards,” summarizing parts of that research last week on The Washington Independent. Here are some excerpts from that post.

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Who are the real activists on the U.S. Supreme Court? Do Republican appointees differ from Democratic appointees? How much? Are federal judges political?

I have been studying these issues with several colleagues, including Thomas Miles, an economist and lawyer at the University of Chicago Law School, for a number of years now. One big question: Do judges show a political bias? We also wanted to see what any bias might tell us about how judges might rule in the future –- under, for example, an Obama or McCain administration. We catalogued thousands of judicial decisions — well over 20,000 — to analyze this. We looked for partisan bias by studying whether and when judges vote to uphold decisions of federal agencies, in areas including environmental protection, labor, telecommunications, discrimination and occupational safety.

We investigated which members of the Supreme Court are the most partisan — in that they are more likely to vote in favor of conservative agency decisions than liberal ones. (Because Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito have been on the court only a short time, we did not include them because we had too little data.) We wanted to see if some justices are more political in their voting patterns than others – and also learn something about how future administrations are likely to fare in the Supreme Court.

We used a simple test to decide whether an agency’s decision should be counted as liberal or conservative. If a decision was challenged by a public-interest group, like the Sierra Club or Environmental Defense, we counted it as conservative. If it was challenged by a corporation, like Exxon or General Motors, we counted it as liberal.

We used this method because the relevant question is not whether an agency’s decision is liberal or conservative in the abstract — it is how and why that decision is challenged in its context. . . .

We wanted to know: Is it true that liberal justices are more partisan than conservatives? Who is the most partisan member of the Supreme Court? Who the most neutral?

Our answers: Justice Clarence Thomas wins the Partisanship Award. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wins the Neutrality Award.

Here are the results:

Table 1: Partisan Voting on the Supreme Court

Justice Gap between liberal and conservative agency decisions
(in percentage points)
Type of Agency Decision Favored
Clarence Thomas 46 Conservative
John Paul Stevens 40 Liberal
Antonin Scalia 27 Conservative
Stephen Breyer 26 Liberal
Ruth Bader Ginsburg 23 Liberal
William Rehnquist 21 Conservative
Sandra Day O’Connor 14 Conservative
David Souter 14 Liberal
Anthony Kennedy 1

This information does not tell us everything we need to know. Thomas shows the strongest partisan bias, but is he also an activist? Does he vote to strike down agency decisions at a high rate? To test for judicial activism and judicial restraint, we examined all the data to find which justices are most likely to strike down agency decisions.

It turns out that Breyer wins the award for Judicial Restraint. Surprisingly, the award for Judicial Activism goes to . . . Justice Scalia. Here are the results:

Table 2: Activism and on the Supreme Court

Justice Rate of upholding agency decisions (percentage points)
Breyer 82
Souter 77
Ginsburg 74
Stevens 71
O’Connor 68
Kennedy 67
Rehnquist 64
Thomas 54
Scalia 52

While the Supreme Court gets the most attention, the lower courts are also important in determining the meaning of national law and shaping national policy.

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To read the rest of Sunstein’s post, which examines how Republican and Democratic appointees on the lower courts approach decisions of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Labor Relations Board and which summarizes three important lessons of the research, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, and Now John Edwards: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on August 9, 2008

Last summer we published the post below in response to the sex scandal du jour involving David Vitter. In March we republished it in the wake of Eliot Spitzer’s remarkable “indiscretions.” The latest John Edwards confession had us dusting off this post yet again. (We have little doubt that we’ll be posting it again, which is part of our point.)

The Vitter story has much in common with the most recent scandal to titillate, enrage, and otherwise occupy the press and the public. We’ve republished the Vitter post below, and leave it to our readers to assess its relevance for the John Edwards scandal.

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David and Wendy VitterSenator David Vitter achieved much of his success by professing steadfast allegiance to “traditional family values” and punitive intolerance for those who violate them. Consider, for instance, his campaign statement on protecting the “sanctity of marriage”:

This is a real outrage. The Hollywood left is redefining the most basic institution in human history, and our two U.S. Senators won’t do anything about it. We need a U.S. Senator who will stand up for Louisiana values, not Massachusetts’s values. I am the only Senate Candidate to coauthor the Federal Marriage Amendment; the only one fighting for its passage. I am the only candidate proposing changes to the senate rules to stop liberal obstructionists from preventing an up or down vote on issues like this, judges, energy, and on and on.

Similarly, Vitter once told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that “infidelity, divorce, and deadbeat dads contribute to the breakdown of traditional families.” That’s extraordinarily serious, says Vitter, because “marriage is truly the most fundamental social institution in human history.”

In part because of his squeaky-clean, straight-arrow, red-state-values image, Rudolph Giuliani selected Vitter as his Southern campaign chairperson. Vitter was to be the personifying proof that social conservatives could trust Giuliani. Vitter was even seen by some Republicans as a future presidential candidate himself.

As recent revelations make clear, Vitter was more committed to family values in his preaching than in his practicing. According to CBS News:Deborah Palfrey

On Monday, Vitter acknowledged being involved with the so-called D.C. Madam [Deborah Palfrey], hours after Hustler magazine told him his telephone number was among those she disclosed. A day later, new revelations linked him to a former madam in New Orleans [Jeanette Maier] and old allegations that he frequented a former prostitute resurfaced, further clouding his political future.

Vitter’s apology read as follows: “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling.”

With his public admission coming only after tJeanette Maier by Alex Brandon for APhe his dirty laundry was about to be aired publicly, Vitter comes off looking like quite the scoundrel. Many commentators see him, not simply as unfaithful to his family but, worse, hypocritical regarding his purported family values.

We Americans like to see people in terms of their dispositions, and we despise those who pretend to have one disposition when in fact they have another. We can’t stand hypocrites! And Vitter is nothing if not a hypocrite.

Although we share the indignation, there are two related problems with this reaction. First off, it misses the fact that, in important ways, most of us are hypocrites.

Surely many of our leaders are. Prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to preach fidelity while practicing “philandery.” Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich are good examples of the political balance. Moreover, “sinning against God” seems all too common even among the anointed — from Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker to untold numbers of Catholic Priests.

clinton-cartoon.jpg

In all cases, the critics relish the opportunity to point to the flaws of their opponents. And, true to form, it seems that no one in this case is eager to attribute blame or responsibility to anyone other than Vitter — and everyone sees his use of “escorts” as a reflection of nothing other than his true disposition. As we’ve suggested, most commentators, and particularly those who are not close to him politically, portray him as a hypocrite. But even politicians closer to him are noticeably dispositionist in their reactions.

Rudolph Giuliani, for instance, responded to questions about his Southern campaign chairperson by emphasizing that the revelations reflected something about Vitter, butRudy Giuliani Judith Nathan David Vitter nothing about Giuliani: “Some people are flawed.” “I think you look at all the people I appointed — a thousand or so – sure, some of them had issues, some of them had problems, the vast majority of them were outstanding people.” The implication is that Vitter is among the minority of Giuliani appointees who are flawed and are not “outstanding people.”

It’s a strange distinction coming from Giuliani, who, if the measure is adultery, seems similarly “flawed” and less than “outstanding.” There is, in other words, hypocrisy among those who seek to distance themselves from this hypocrite.

Many of us, upon close examination might discover a similar tension. American attitudes toward adultery are sort of like American attitudes toward unhealthy, highly-caloric food. We claim to not want that “junk,” and sometimes manage to avoid it; still, most of us find ourselves eating something we wish we hadn’t from time to time — perhaps most of the time. In America, we curse our cake and eat it too. And also in America, we blame the obesity epidemic on the bad choices and dispositions of the obese.

Poll Americans and you’re likely to find that roughly 90 percent believe adultery is morally wrong. Meanwhile, ask Americas about whether they have engaged in an extramarital affair, and you’ll discover that many more than 10 percent have. In fact, according to one study, 25 percent of wives and 44 percent of husbands have extramarital intercourse. In other words, there seems to be a gap between what many people say is Marital Problemsmorally wrong and what many people do.

There’s another way of illustrating how we overestimate our own sexual righteousness. Numerous studies have shown that people are far less able to act according to their own explicit attitudes, goals, and standards when confronted with fairly intense drive states such as hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, moods, emotions, physical pain and sexual desire. According to George Loewenstein, such “visceral factors” tend to “crowd out” all goals other than that of mitigating the visceral factors themselves. As summarized elsewhere:

If you find that difficult to understand, try holding your breath for two minutes or dropping an anvil on your toe, and see what significance your other goals and attitudes have in your behavior before the pain subsides.

Of course, responding to such intense bodily reactions makes perfect sense and is not, in itself, problematic. People should prioritize the acquisition of oxygen when it is scarce. And people should attend to their acute injuries before checking to make sure the anvil is ok. The problem stems from the fact that people often behave, in response to visceral cues, in ways that contradict their view of how they should behave, and sometimes even their own volition. And that problem occurs, according to Loewenstein, because of the second key feature of visceral factors, which is that “people underestimate the impact on their own behavior of visceral factors they will experience in the future”: “Unlike currently experienced visceral factors which have a disproportionate impact on behavior, delayed visceral factors tend to be ignored or to be severely underweighted in decision making. Today’s pain, hunger, anger, and so on are palpable, but the same sensations anticipated in the future receive little weight.”

In one experiment, for example, two groups of male subjects were shown photographs and then asked to imagine how they would behave in the context of a date-rape scenario. The group that had been shown sexually arousing photographs reported a much greater likelihood of behaving aggressively than the group that had been shown non-arousing photos. Without being aroused by the photographs, the second group seemed less able to imagine what they would do when aroused on a date.

There is plenty more evidence we could offer to make this point, but more details are unnecessary. Our goal is not to excuse Vitter’s behavior or justify Vitter’s policy positions (at least some of which, frankly, make us proud to be from Massachusetts). Instead, we hope simply to suggest that few of us are without similar “flaws” — or put differently, none of us are moved solely by disposition, much less our professed values.

And that brings us to a larger point. The human tendency to see hypocrisy will often reflect the fundamental attribution error — the tendency to overestimate the influence of a person’s disposition and to underestimate the influence of his situation — as well as our own motivations to see hypocrisy in the “others” that we would not be motivated to see in ourselves or in our in-groups.

Situations commonly lead us to behave in ways that are inconsistent with our expectations, ambitions, attitudes, principles, and self-image. A basic lesson of social psychology and related fields is that, just as the spirit is often weaker than the flesh, the disposition is often weaker than the situation.

By attacking Vitter’s disposition, many of his critics may be missing an opportunity to make a bigger point to the sorts of conservative politicians who Vitter typifies. It is the hard-core conservatives who too much of the time are attributing solely to people’s disposition what should be attributed significantly to the their situation. “Tough on crime,” for instance, means “tough on criminals,” not tough on the situations that tend to produce criminal behavior. “Personal responsibility” means attributing personal bankruptcies to the flawed choices of those declaring bankruptcy and disregarding, say, the unexpected medical costs or layoffs experienced by families trying to make ends meet. “Common sense” means blaming the obesity epidemic on the laziness and bad food choices on the part of the obese and dismissing any role that situational forces might have played. And so on.

Bill O’Reilly and Homelessness

We want to see sinister motives and evil intent in our enemies, just as we are subconsciously eager to see deficient character or lack of merit in those who are worse of than ourselves. Too often, though, the distinctions between “us” and “them” are more or less group- and system-affirming fabrications.

Instead of leaping at the opportunity to paint politician after politician after politician with the brush of hypocrisy, perhaps these instances might be used as teaching tools — examples to the Vitters of the world that although the disposition may be strong, the situation is often stronger. If we could stop pretending that people’s behavior and their condition in life is a product solely of their character or preferences, then perhaps we could begin to have more meaningful debates about topics that really matter.

Put differently, the dispositionist search for bad apples and hypocrites harmfully eclipses a deeper discussion that we could be having if we were to acknowledge the extent to which we are all situational characters rather than dispositional actors. With a different mindset, perhaps citizens and politicians would begin to take seriously ways of examining and altering the situation that is otherwise altering us.

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For some Situationist posts on the power, causes, and consequences of sexual attraction and love, go to “The Situation of Love,” Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “The Situation of Cupid’s Arrow,” “How System Threat Affects Cupid,” and “The Situation of Flirting.”

Posted in Life, Morality, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Psychology of Barack Obama as the Antichrist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 8, 2008

We recently highlighted the possible role of implicit associations in the John McCain ad connecting Barack Obama to Britany Spears and Paris Hilton. To continue the discussion of possible subconscious manipulations in political ads, we bring you an interesting new article on McCain’s “The One” ad by Amy Sullivan of Time Magazine. Sullivan examines whether The One (available above) implicitly suggests that Obama is the Antichrist. We excerpt her article below.

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The Republican nominee’s advisers brush off the charges, arguing that the spot was meant to be a “creative” and “humorous” way of poking fun at Obama’s popularity by painting him as a self-appointed messiah. But even this innocuous interpretation of the ad — which includes images of Charlton Heston as Moses and culled clips that make Obama sound truly egomaniacal — taps into a conversation that has been gaining urgency on Christian radio and political blogs and in widely circulated e-mail messages that accuse Obama of being the Antichrist.

The ad was the creation of Fred Davis, one of McCain’s top media gurus as well as a close friend of former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and the nephew of conservative Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. It first caught the attention of Democrats familiar with the Left Behind series, a fictionalized account of the end-time that debuted in the 1990s and has sold nearly 70 million books worldwide. “The language in there is so similar to the language in the Left Behind books,” says Tony Campolo, a leading progressive Evangelical speaker and author.

As the ad begins, the words “It should be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed. They will call him The One” flash across the screen. The Antichrist of the Left Behind books is a charismatic young political leader named Nicolae Carpathia who founds the One World religion (slogan: “We Are God”) and promises to heal the world after a time of deep division. One of several Obama clips in the ad features the Senator saying, “A nation healed, a world repaired. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”

Image from Left Behind Series

Image from Left Behind Series

The visual images in the ad, which Davis says has been viewed even more than McCain’s “Celeb” ad linking Obama to the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, also seem to evoke the cover art of several Left Behind books. But they’re not the cartoonish images of clouds parting and shining light upon Obama that might be expected in an ad spoofing him as a messiah. Instead, the screen displays a sinister orange light surrounded by darkness and later the faint image of a staircase leading up to heaven.

Perhaps the most puzzling scene in the ad is an altered segment from The 10 Commandments that appears near the end. A Moses-playing Charlton Heston parts the animated waters of the Red Sea, out of which rises the quasi-presidential seal the Obama campaign used for a brief time earlier this summer before being mocked into retiring it. The seal, which features an eagle with wings spread, is not recognizable like the campaign’s red-white-and-blue “O” logo. That confused Democratic consultant Eric Sapp until he went to his Bible and remembered that in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, the Antichrist is described as rising from the sea as a creature with wings like an eagle.

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Mara Vanderslice, another Democratic consultant, who handled religious outreach for the 2004 Kerry campaign, agrees. “If they wanted to be funny, if they really wanted to play up the idea that Obama thinks he’s the Second Coming, there were better ways to do it,” she says. “Why use these awkward lines like, ‘And the world will receive his blessings’?”

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It’s not hard to see how some Obama haters might be tempted to make the comparison. In the Left Behind books, Carpathia is a junior Senator who speaks several languages, is beloved by people around the world and fawned over by a press corps that cannot see his evil nature, and rises to absurd prominence after delivering just one major speech. Hmmh. But serious Antichrist theorists don’t stop there. Everything from Obama’s left-handedness to his positive rhetoric to his appearance on the cover of this magazine has been cited as evidence of his true identity. One chain e-mail claims that the Antichrist was prophesied to be “A man in his 40s of MUSLIM descent,” which would indeed sound ominous if not for the fact that the Book of Revelation was written at least 400 years before the birth of Islam.

The speculation reached a fever pitch after Obama’s European trip and the Berlin speech in which he called for global unity. Conservative Christian author Hal Lindsey declared in an essay on WorldNetDaily, “Obama is correct in saying that the world is ready for someone like him — a messiah-like figure, charismatic and glib … The Bible calls that leader the Antichrist. And it seems apparent that the world is now ready to make his acquaintance.” The conservative website RedState.com now sells mugs and T shirts that sport a large “O” with horns and the words “The Anti-Christ” underneath.

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A new TIME poll finds that the most conservative Evangelicals are the least enthusiastic about McCain’s candidacy. Convincing them that Obama does have two horns and a tail might be the best way of getting them to vote. That’s what worries Campolo, who also sits on the Democratic Party’s platform committee. “Those books have created a subliminal language, and I think judgments will be made unconsciously about Barack Obama,” he says. “It scares the daylights out of me.”

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To read the rest of the article, which is well worth the read, click here. To read a blog devoted to the belief that Obama is the Antichrist, click here.  As a point of comparison to McCain’s “The One” ad, check out the Swift Boat ad that was waged against John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential election.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Do We Miss Racial Stereotypes Today that Will Be Evident Tomorrow?,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” “New Yorker Cover of the Obamas and Source Amnesia,” “Voting for a Face,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.” For other posts on the Situation of politics, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Implicit Associations, Life, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , | 20 Comments »

Self-Handicapping and Managers’ Duty of Care – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 8, 2008

David Hoffman‘s intriguing new article, “Self-Handicapping and Managers’ Duty of Care,” just came out in Wake Forest Law Review. It is also available on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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This symposium essay focuses on the relationship between managers’ duty of care and self-handicapping, or constructing obstacles to performance with the goal of influencing subsequent explanations about outcomes. Conventional explanations for failures of caretaking by managers have focused on motives (greed) and incentives (agency costs). This account of manager behavior has led some modern jurists, concerned about recent corporate scandals, to advocate for stronger deterrent measures to realign manager and shareholder incentives.

Self-handicapping theory, by contrast, teaches that bad manager behavior may occur even when incentives are well-aligned. Highly successful individuals in particular come to fear the pressure of replicating past success. To avoid the regret associated with the future failure that they anticipate, such individuals then create hurdles (through active or passive self-sabotage) or excuses. When failure comes, individuals hope to shift attention from their merits to the handicap. Research shows that self-handicapping works. Indeed, managers in failing firms who self-handicap may escape with their reputations and compensation burnished.

In this essay, I summarize an extensive body of research on self-handicapping that surprisingly has not been well explored by corporate law theorists. I then suggest that modern corporate scandals traditionally understood as products of failures of monitoring – like Enron – might be better explained in part as a function of self-handicapping by managers. This explanation supports recent efforts to move beyond a purely carrot-and-stick model of corporate governance. Finally, I briefly discuss mechanisms to reduce self-handicapping by corporate officers, in particular, making them self-aware and selecting executives less prone to engage in this type of wasteful activity. The law has a potential role to play in this process, but its proper focus is directors’ negligence in hiring, not managers’ failures in taking business risks.

Posted in Abstracts, Law, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Fractured Bonds – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 7, 2008

Bela August Walker recently posted her fascinating article, “Fractured Bonds: Policing Whiteness and Womanhood Through Race-Based Marriage Annulments” (forthcoming DePaul Law Review) on SSRN. In it she explores the role of law in shaping stereotypes. Here’s the abstract.

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In the hundred years before the United States Supreme Court declared miscegenation statutes unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia, state courts decided thirteen recorded race-based annulment cases. This article presents a unified analysis of all race based annulment cases for the first time. Simultaneously public and private affairs, these dramas impacted far more than the individual couples or courtrooms, sending out shockwaves that reverberated beyond their points of origin. The results of the cases are startling and contrary to previous work on the subject.

Using this unique set of cases, this article argues that while declaring these women white appears like a deviation from white supremacy, the courts’ decisions were used to preserve white racial dominance. Through the annulment case decisions, the court stepped in to protect women with a taint of blackness, declaring them pure and worthy of the mantle of whiteness. By legally erasing the women’s potential racial taint, the court seemingly chooses to protect obedient women against their husbands, affirming marriage and domesticity over racial prejudices. In contrast, the court acted to protect the ideology of whiteness. To preserve notions of white womanhood, this status had to be defended, even as it violated standards of racial purity.

Posted in Abstracts, Deep Capture, History, Ideology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Revenge

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 6, 2008

McCullough’s Beyond Revenge CoverMichael McCullough has a fascinating and important new book: “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.” Here’s a summary.

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For centuries, people have held several misconceptions about the nature of humanity’s desire for revenge and the human potential for forgiveness. First, from the earliest Greek tragedies to the modern mental health professions, revenge has been depicted as a disease or a poison that takes control of human minds and then plunges people into personal ruin and social chaos. Second, the capacity to forgive has been depicted as an “invention” that was deliberately created as a solution to the “problem” of revenge. Third, people have been led to believe that the key to making the world a more forgiving place is to help individual people to think, feel, and act differently than they currently do about the person, or people, who have harmed them—a view that fits very well with the modern emphasis on professional therapy and self-help as the solutions to people’s problems. Beyond Revenge takes these three assumptions to task because they are scientifically incorrect and because they prevent us from doing all we can to make the world a better place.

Using research from the social and biological sciences, interpreted through the lens of evolutionary theory, Beyond Revenge explains how modern humans’ propensity for revenge resulted from millions of years of evolution in which the capacity for revenge actually functioned as a solution to many of the social dilemmas that faced humans’ evolutionary ancestors, such as the problem of self-protection in the face of violence and the problem of encouraging cooperation among groups of unrelated individuals. As an evolutionary adaptation, the desire for revenge is a cross-cultural universal and it is responsive to a small set of social conditions. From the point of view of natural selection, revenge is only a problem for humans today because it was such an effective solution for our ancestors. Indeed, biologists have shown that humans are far from the only animals that use revenge to solve their social problems.

Second, Beyond Revenge demonstrates that humans’ capacity to forgive was not an invention or a discovery that people deliberately developed to control a runaway propensity for revenge, but rather, that it is an evolved feature of human nature that arose through the force of natural selection because it helped ancestral humans to solve certain adaptive social problems they encountered: conflicts of interest with their genetic relatives and with unrelated cooperation partners. Forgiveness, like revenge, is ubiquitous among the world’s human societies, and it appears to be a psychological process that we share in common with many other members of the animal kingdom. Recent scientific breakthroughs illustrate the factors that activate the “forgiveness instinct” in the minds of human beings, as well as in our closest living primate relatives.

Third, Beyond Revenge shows how these insights into the evolution and modern workings of the desire for revenge and the forgiveness instinct can be used to control human violence and destructiveness and to promote a more peaceful world. Rather than arguing that individual people must be changed in order to make the world a more forgiving place, Beyond Revenge argues that when people encounter the right sorts of social conditions, their tendencies to forgive are automatically activated. When people encounter offenders who are apologetic and contrite, and who attempt to make reparations for the damage they have caused, people are naturally inclined to forgive them. Likewise, when people live in societies in which their rights are protected, in which they are relatively safe from crime and victimization, and in which offenders are given incentives to apologize and compensate their victims, the desire for revenge is slaked and the forgiveness instinct is automatically activated. Beyond Revenge explains why. In an important chapter on religion, Beyond Revenge also explains exactly why religions have the capacity to encourage inspiring acts of forgiveness as well as shockingly destructive acts of vengeance.

Integrating insights from psychology, evolutionary biology, primatology, economics, and neuroscience, amply illustrated with examples from history, current events, popular culture, and everyday life, Beyond Revenge provides a balanced and realistic portrait of human nature, and it shows what people can do to make the world a less vengeful, more forgiving place.

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For some related Situationist posts, see “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “March Madness,” “Our Soldiers, Their Children: The Lasting Impact of the War in Iraq,” and “With God on Our Side . . ..”

The Situationist has a series of posts devoted to highlighting some of situational sources of war. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. Part IV and Part V in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Part VI contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts,” which gives special emphasis to the role of system justification. Part VII includes a video entitled “Resisting the Drums of War.” The film was created and narrated by psychologist Roy J. Eidelson, Executive Director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Posted in Book, Emotions, History | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Political Psychology in 2008

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 5, 2008

Sharon Begley has a very interesting article, “How Our Unconscious Votes,” in HealthNewsDigest.com. Here’s an excerpt.

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Give the democrats of West Virginia points for honesty. As Hillary Clinton romped to a landslide of 67 to 26 percent over Barack Obama in the primary, 20 percent of voters in exit polls said that race was an important factor in their choice—triple the percentage of earlier primaries. Of those, 80 percent voted for Clinton, making clear what they meant by “important.”

Obama’s “black supremacist” minister concerns her, one woman told my colleague Suzanne Smalley. Another found Obama’s “background, his heritage” suspicious. Both said they’d vote for John McCain over Obama.

The 2008 campaign has been subjected to more psychological analysis than Woody Allen. The top Democratic candidates asked psychology researchers for input, as did the national party, several state parties and the House and Senate Democratic caucuses. The 2007 book “The Political Brain,” by psychologist Drew Westen of Emory University, became a must-read for strategists, and so far it looks as though they got their money’s worth: key predictions of political psychology have held up pretty well on the campaign trail. Voters are driven more by emotions than by a cold-eyed, logical analysis of a candidate’s record and positions; witness the legions of anti-immigration Republicans who pulled the lever for McCain. Ten-point plans (Clinton) don’t move voters as powerfully as inspirational oratory (Obama). And unconscious motivations are stronger than conscious ones. This last finding might explain the growing role of racism in the campaign as well as the persistent “happiness gap” between liberals and conservatives—both of which will matter in November.

In March, when I wrote about research showing that people ignore race if another salient trait is emphasized, scientists agreed that Obama had to convey that “he is one of us.” That “us” could be Democrats, family men, opponents of the Iraq invasion, enemies of politics as usual. Instead, opponents (and the media) began playing up his “otherness”—not wearing a flag pin, belonging to a black church, having an exotic name. And Obama began slipping, losing support among blue-collar white voters in particular.

It may seem paradoxical, but to stop the bleeding Obama needs to talk about race more often and more explicitly. “Only 3 or 4 percent of people today consciously endorse racist sentiments,” says Westen. “But there are residues of prejudice at the unconscious level, and they aren’t difficult to activate if you know how to do it. Our better angels on race tend to be our conscious rather than our unconscious values and emotions.” It is those conscious brain circuits that Obama needs to keep activating, says Westen, “by talking about racism openly and attacking those who say white America will never vote for a black for president. Appeal to people’s conscious values.” That has a good chance of keeping unconscious racism at bay, brain studies show. Even more effective, combine direct talk about racism with an “I am like you” message, which leads the brain to focus on categories other than race. “Make it about ‘us’,” says Westen. “Talk about how we feel angry if a black fireman gets promoted ahead of us for no reason but affirmative action. Talk about how it’s natural to look at someone different from us and ask, does he share my values, can he understand me?”

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To read the entire article, including a discussion of Situationist contributor John Jost’s recent work, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Do We Miss Racial Stereotypes Today that Will Be Evident Tomorrow?,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” “New Yorker Cover of the Obamas and Source Amnesia,” “Voting for a Face,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.” For other posts on the Situation of politics, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Situationism’s Improving Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 4, 2008

In July Dan Finkelstein had a nice article in The Times titled “The social psychology revolution is reaching its tipping point.” In it, Finkelstein describes how relatively situationist ideas are beginning to influence policy theory and policy itself. Here are some excerpts.

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[A]n intellectual revolution is under way that will change the way we think about public policy just as the free market economists did in the 1980s. . . .

Those who doubt that there is something going on in the world of ideas should get themselves a publisher’s catalogue. One month there is a book called Nudge, the next a book called Sway. A volume called Predictably Irrational follows another called Irrationality. Since the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, books on tipping points have reached a tipping point.

Behind this publishing explosion, with its PR hoopla, is real and solid intellectual progress. It comes from two streams of thought, developing alongside each other. The first is the idea of evolutionary psychology.

The breakthrough came with E.O. Wilson‘s controversial work Sociobiology, first published in 1975. Since then a number of academics, including familiar names such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, have illuminated aspects of human behaviour by explaining how they arise from our Darwinian struggle. For example, we reciprocate favours because we are the genetic descendants of those who survived to breed because they reciprocated favours.

Why was this work controversial? Because it argued that behaviour is partly inherited, offending against those who believe that we are born completely free of such influence. . . .

The second stream of thought is behavioural economics. For twenty years now, some economists have been looking at the psychology of economic decision-making. Instead of seeing humans as rational calculating machines, behavioural economists have been conducting experiments to assess how real choices are made. On paper, two alternatives may look economically identical. But the way that they are framed and the context will, in the real world, determine the choice. Human beings are, for instance, highly loss-averse. They will take risks to avoid a loss, while behaving conservatively when a possible gain is in the offing.

This work has revolutionised economic thinking and helped to win Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. This was the prize that Milton Friedman won in 1976, just before monetarism swept all before it.

All this . . . suggests that there is such a thing as society and you can’t understand the impact of policy on individuals unless you realise that. We are not just individuals. We abide by social norms, reciprocate favours, stick by our commitments, are desperate to remain consistent and are tribal.

And you can see already this work seeping into the political mainstream. . . . George Osborne has written this week of social psychology, and his Tory frontbench colleague Greg Clark takes a close interest. On the Labour side James Purnell shows some familiarity and the former Blair aide Matthew Taylor is turning the Royal Society of Arts into one of the leading think-tanks in this area.

The most important step forward has come with David Cameron‘s correct insistence that social change is as likely, or more likely, to come through influencing behaviour as it is through regulation.

Yet the integration of the academic work on human behaviour into politics is still very much in its infancy. It is roughly now where economic understanding was in about 1978, before the Thatcher revolution. It is possible, indeed usual, to have entire policy debates in which the science of human behaviour doesn’t figure at all.

For instance, in the past two weeks we have had discussion of obesity and of knife crime. Social norms have hardly figured. If everybody thinks that everybody else is getting fat, then more people will put on weight. The campaigns designed to reduce obesity may be spreading it. Similarly the very idea that every young person is carrying a knife increases knife crime. The obvious route of making such behaviour seem odd and isolated appears not to have occurred to any major politician.

Similarly, the work of social psychologists on the power of public commitments is entirely absent from the debate on marriage and on reducing delinquency; and our struggle to overcome our tribal instincts doesn’t figure in the discussion of immigration.

It now seems hard to imagine political debate without rudimentary economic understanding. But we haven’t always had it. It’s quite a recent thing. The time will come when we feel the same about social psychology.

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To read the entire article, click here. For related Situationist posts, see “Changing Choices by Changing Situations,” “Free To Not Choose,” and “Predictably Irrational.” For some posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book, Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Gatekeepers Inside Out – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 3, 2008

Situationist contributor Sung Hui Kim’s article, “Gatekeepers Inside Out,” was published in the latest issue of Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, Vol. 21, p. 411, 2008. The article is available to download for free on SSRN. Here is the abstract.

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Gatekeepers Inside Out challenges the conventional wisdom that in-house counsel are simply “too captured” by their senior managers in their corporations to serve as effective gatekeepers of our securities markets. The author revises classical gatekeeping theory introduced by Prof. Reinier Kraakman in his seminal article (Gatekeepers: Anatomy of a Third Party Enforcement Strategy, 2 J.L. Econ. & Org. 53 (1986)). In that article, Kraakman clarified that a gatekeeping strategy requires gatekeepers “who can and will prevent misconduct reliably, regardless of the preferences and market alternatives of wrongdoers.” Although Kraakman did not make much of the distinction, he recognized that successful gatekeepers must not only be “willing” but also “able” to prevent misconduct. Now, consider also that gatekeepers must not only be prepared to “interdict” misconduct but also to “monitor” to detect such happenings in the first place. By combining these two simple observations, we see that potential gatekeepers can be evaluated by their: (1) willingness to interdict, (2) willingness to monitor, (3) capacity to monitor, and (4) capacity to interdict. Using this new framework of analysis, the author compares inside and outside counsel for the gatekeeping role. Along the way, the author departs from traditional gatekeeping theory’s exclusive reliance on rational choice theory and imports empirical findings from social psychology and sociology that illuminate the four conditions of effective gatekeeping. By running inside and outside counsel through this rigorous mill of analysis, the author comes to unexpected conclusions. The analytical framework set forth by the author can also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of other traditional gatekeepers, including investment bankers, securities analysts, accountants, and, yes, even credit agencies.

* * *

Here is a quotation from the article:

[T]o understand the willingness of gatekeepers to interdict misbehavior, it may not be most illuminating to consider costs and benefits consciously calculated based on the model of the rational actor. Indeed, the efficacy of sanctions in constraining behavior may be seriously eroded by various psychological factors. Instead, as social psychology teaches us, we may be inclined toward certain behaviors through cognitive processes guided by the the situation and the roles we inhabit in those situations.

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To link to the entire article, click here. To access a related article by Professor Kim, see “The Banality of Fraud: Re-Situating the Inside Counsel as Gatekeeper.” For related Situationist posts by Professor Kim, see “Why Do Lawyers Acquiesce In Their Clients’ Misconduct?” — Part I, Part II, and Part III.

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

The Situationist Named Best Social Psychology Blog

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 2, 2008

For the second straight year, we are honored that PsyBlog has named The Situationist the best social psychology blog in its updated Guide to Psychology blogs:

Best social psychology blog

The Situationist explores the importance of the situation in human behaviour and thought. It covers social psychology, social cognition, and related fields, but it is associated with Harvard Law School and therefore has a broad subject-area. It has both original writing and interesting excerpts from relevant pieces in the media.

PsyBlog is authored by Jeremy Dean, a barrister and a graduate student in psychology at University College London. We appreciate his kind words, and recommend reading about the other on-line publications honored.

We also appreciate you, our readers. When we launched The Situationist in January 2007 we had no expectation of so quickly attracting such a loyal and often interactive readership. We hope you continue to visit the blog and comment with thoughts and reactions.

Posted in Blogroll, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Do We Miss Racial Stereotypes Today that Will Be Evident Tomorrow?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 1, 2008

Posted in Entertainment, History, Implicit Associations, Politics, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »

 
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