The Situationist

Archive for April, 2009

The Justice Department, Milgram, & Torture

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 30, 2009

From Situationist friend Michael Cross, we received the following message regarding Tuesday night’s John Stewart interview of Cliff May on The Daily Show (below).

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In the beginning of the interview, May says that he doesn’t believe anyone in the current or previous administration was “pro-torture.”  He then explains that what have traditionally been called the “Torture Memos” are really “Anti-Torture Memos” because they draw lines regarding what are acceptable and unacceptable interrogation techniques.

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What is interesting from a Situational perspective is that he then describes the intent of these memos as to lay out a complex set of rules and requirements that are intended to prevent torture from occurring. What he fails to recognize is that the rules and requirements he has laid out are so complex that most people, given the pressures of, say, war, would find that they were met. What May seems to be saying, without knowing it, is that the Justice Department set up a Milgram experiment in which the stresses of war served as the man in the white lab-coat.

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Anyway, the interview is [posted above]. The relevant stuff is in the first few minutes; the remaining interview is just good, quality stuff.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “ The Situation of Solitary Confinement,” Why Torture? Because It Feels Good (at least to “Us”),” “Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet: ‘Guilty’,” “Law, Chicken Sexing, Torture Memo, and Situation Sense,”  and “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors.”  To review a sizeable collection of Situationist posts about Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Smiling

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 29, 2009

smilesIn response to our recent post, “Smile If You Love Your Future Relationships,” Situationist reader, Rafael Narvaez, wrote the following thoughtful comment, which we thought worthy of sharing on the main page.

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Though everyone smiles, people from different cultures, different social locations, different historical periods ascribe different meanings to smiling (and the actual smile, the muscular event that we call smiling, varies with time and place as well). Middle Americans smile more often, and sustain their (characteristically American, and even middle class) smiles for a longer period of time than, say, Icelanders. And Icelanders often consider excessive smiling as inappropriate, perhaps ridiculous, and, in general, undesirable. Hence, McDonald’s trouble to train their Icelandic cashiers to flash those winning and protracted American smiles right and left throughout their eight-hour shift. Look at the official portraits of the US presidents in chronological order and you will see that the smiling curb starts peaking only from the middle of the 20 century on. There is a history to the meaning of smiling. And smiling is hence a sort of intermediate variable that often points not toward universal affects, but toward an array of cultural meanings that tend to change from place to place and from time to time. Thus, just as lighter ownership is not the true predictor of cancer (though having a lighter in your pocket points toward possible cancer outcomes), smiling is not at all a true predictor of marriage stability. This predictor stands behind the smile, and it includes psychological, cultural, and historical conditions that seem to be completely outside the scope of this study.

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “Interpreting Facial Expressions,” “Seeing Faces,” “The Situation of Flirting,” “Can You Turn the World on With Your Smile?,” and ” A Look Into the Way Culture Affects Facial Expression.”

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Emotions, Life | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Climate Change

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 29, 2009

From Pop!Tech and YouTube, here is Situationist friend, Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert speaking  about the psychology of global warming.

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For related Sitautionist posts, see “Jeffrey Sachs on the Situation of Global Poverty,” “The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Geography, History, Illusions, Law, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Virtual Worlds, Learning, and Virtual Milgram

Posted by Will Li on April 28, 2009

In a post in February, BoingBoing writer Cory Doctorow told a story about a parent who incentivizes their son’s video gaming by having the teenager adhere to the Geneva Conventions while playing the game Call of Duty.

I asked Evan to google the Geneva Convention. Then he had to read it and then we had to discuss it. This we did. So the deal is that Evan has to fight according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. If his team-mates violate the Convention then play stops and Call of Duty goes away for a while.

It might seem outlandish, or merely a tool to educate your child about the Geneva Convention (as opposed to teaching an actor in real life to adhere to the same Conventions), but is there any real-life applicability to virtual worlds and teaching behavior through virtual environments?

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A study by Mel Slater at University College London might indicate that there is. In a 2006 experiment, Slater and other researchers replicated the famous Milgram experiments, only in a completely virtual setting. Their study concluded that

in spite of the fact that all participants knew for sure that neither the stranger nor the shocks were real, the participants who saw and heard her tended to respond to the situation at the subjective, behavioural and physiological levels as if it were real. This result reopens the door to direct empirical studies of obedience and related extreme social situations, an area of research that is otherwise not open to experimental study for ethical reasons, through the employment of virtual environments.

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Other examples of the intersection of virtual worlds and behavior in the real world have popped up in the news more recently.

Lei Feng was a young man who joined a transportation unit of the People’s Liberation Army in Communist China, and at the age of 21 in 1962 was killed in a work-related accident. His life and story was subsequently promoted heavily by Communist leaders during the Cultural Revolution in China as a paragon of Communist virtues. Today, he is alive and well in an online video game that employs him as the protagonist of the game, in which participants gain levels by performing selfless deeds. Additionally, March 5 of each year is designated Lei Feng Day, and while the promotion of his character by Communist authorities has declined, his name has made its way into everyday vocabulary.

The existing and increasing popularity of online gaming in China is well-documented, from participation of youth in MMOs like World of Warcraft, to internet cafes, to the establishment of “gold-farming” as an industry in the same game. The popularity is apparently being co-opted as a learning tool to re-teach and re-deploy the lessons of a cultural icon. And while the effectiveness has not been studied, the ostensible aim of the game is for its players to take the lessons of the game and then employ them in everyday life.

While the use of video games to teach behavior in Communist China raises a rather extreme case, it raises the same questions as our Geneva Convention / Call of Duty example and Virtual Milgram example, and it might only seem extreme due to the unique situation of the participants in the game.

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In fact, blogs (hat tip to BoingBoing and Terra Nova) report that the Council of Europe has developed two sets of guidelines, one regarding human rights guidelines for online games providers, and the other regarding human rights guidelines for internet service providers. While the guidelines target those that distribute the games and provide access to them, Ren Reynolds writing for the blog Terra Nova points out the wide range of actors involved in what we consider gaming, and that these actors play potentially different and importantly unique roles in the process of developing, publishing, distributing and enjoying online games.

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For other posts on the subject of virtual worlds and situationism, see “Virtual Bias,” “Are Video Games Addictive?,” “Resident Evil 5 and Racism in Video Games,” Encourage Your Daughters To Play Violent Video Games?,” “The Situation of First-Person Shooters,” “Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson,” and Michael McCann’s “The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Video Games.”

Posted in Education, Entertainment, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Search & Seizure – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 27, 2009

Police OfficerHarvard Law School student David Kessler has just published a fascinating article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology about the Fourth Amendment seizure doctrine.  The article is titled “Free To Leave?: An Empirical Look at the Fourth Amendment’s Seizure Standard” (pdf here).  Here are some excerpts.

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Whether a person has been “seized” often determines if he or she receives Fourth Amendment protection. The U.S. Supreme Court has established a standard for identifying seizures: a person is seized when a reasonable person in his situation would not have felt “free to leave” or otherwise to terminate the encounter with law enforcement. In applying that standard, today’s courts conduct crucial seizure inquiries relying only upon their own beliefs about when a reasonable person would feel free to leave. But both the Court and scholars have noted that although empirical evidence about whether people actually feel free to leave would help guide the seizure inquiry, no such evidence presently exists. This Article presents the first empirical study of whether people would actually feel free to leave in two situations in which the Court has held that people would: on public sidewalks and on buses. Drawing on a survey of 406 randomly selected Boston residents, this Article concludes that people would not feel free to end their encounters with the police. Under the Court’s current standard, respondents would be seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment in both scenarios. The data also show that knowledge of one’s legal right to end the encounter with the police would not make people feel free to leave, and that women and people under twenty-five would feel less free to leave than would men and people over twenty-five. This initial empirical evidence suggests the need to rethink the current seizure standard.

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You can download a copy of the article for free here.  To review a collection of related Situationist posts, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Law | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Smile If You Love Your Future Relationships

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 25, 2009

smileFrom Live Science, here’s an interesting summary by Clara Moskowitz of recent research suggesting that “Smiles Predict Marriage Success.”  Here are some excerpts.

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If you want to know whether your marriage will survive, look at your spouse’s yearbook photos.

Psychologists have found that how much people smile in old photographs can predict their later success in marriage.

In one test, the researchers looked at people’s college yearbook photos, and rated their smile intensity from 1 to 10. None of the people who fell within the top 10 percent of smile strength had divorced, while within the bottom 10 percent of smilers, almost one in four had had a marriage that ended, the researchers say. (Scoring was based on the stretch in two muscles: one that pulls up on the mouth, and one that creates wrinkles around the eyes.)

In a second trial, the research team asked people over age 65 to provide photos from their childhood (the average age in the pictures was 10 years old). The researchers scored each person’s smile, and found that only 11 percent of the biggest smilers had been divorced, while 31 percent of the frowners had experienced a broken marriage.

Overall, the results indicate that people who frown in photos are five times more likely to get a divorce than people who smile.

While the connection is striking, the researchers stress that they can’t conclude anything about the cause of the correlation.

“Maybe smiling represents a positive disposition towards life,” said study leader Matthew Hertenstein, a psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana. “Or maybe smiling people attract other happier people, and the combination may lead to a greater likelihood of a long-lasting marriage. We don’t really know for sure what’s causing it.”

Hertenstein said he has considered other explanations, such as the possibility that people who smile more often tend to attract more friends, and a larger support network makes it easier to keep a marriage healthy. Or it could be that people who smile when a photographer tells them to are more likely to have obedient personalities, which could make marriage easier.

The results of the study fit into a larger pattern of research that has found many personality characteristics can be determined from very thin slices of behavior. Basically, we often reveal ourselves in the most subtle, simple ways.

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The study is detailed in the April 5 issue of the journal Motivation and Emotion.

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To read the entire summary, click here.  To read some related Situationist posts, see “Interpreting Facial Expressions,” “Seeing Faces,” “The Situation of Flirting,” “Can You Turn the World on With Your Smile?,” and ” A Look Into the Way Culture Affects Facial Expression.”

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

The Situation of Punishment in Schools

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 24, 2009

honor-codeMarc Fisher of the Washington Post has an intersting piece on recent research by Colgate University social psychologist Kevin Carlsmith.   We excerpt the piece piece below.

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Colgate University psychologist Kevin Carlsmith looked at the consistent support for the University of Virginia’s legendary honor code–an example, he posits, of a policy that “assigns extreme punishments for minor offenses.” Under the code, any case of lying, cheating or stealing leads to expulsion. No lesser punishments are possible in the system. Carlsmith wondered why that system remains so popular and he theorized that people love the clarity and simplicity of the approach in the abstract, even if they are often offended by how it plays out in reality.

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Carlsmith decided to look more closely at our attitudes toward tough punishment schemes.

Carlsmith found that most people choose punishments designed more for retribution than to create any deterrence against future wrongdoing. People often endorse punishment systems that they later decide–after they see them in action against real people–are unfair. “A person focused on deterring future crime ought to be sensitive to the frequency of the crime, the likelihood of its detection, the publicity of the punishment, and so forth,” the professor writes.

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For the rest of the piece, click here.  Last November, we blogged about Professor Carlsmith’s research on the satisfaction some feel from torture.

Posted in Education, Law | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Deterring Divorce through Major League Baseball?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 23, 2009

fenway-parkBusinessWeek has an engaging piece on a new study from the University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies which finds that cities with major league baseball teams have a 28% lower divorce rate than other cities.  We excerpt the piece below.

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The family unit is society’s fundamental unit—95 percentage of US citizens marry by age 55. A marriage breakdown is one of the most stressful life events possible, yet more than one in three will experience the trauma of divorce. Not surprisingly, the dynamics of relationships are increasingly the focus of ever more research. The University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies in particular is constantly shedding new light on the institution of marriage with recent research findings establishing that the quality of the relationship with parents-in-law is directly connected to marital satisfaction, and more recently, that 90 percent of couples experience a decrease in marital satisfaction once their first child is born.

A new study from the centre looking at divorce rates before and after cities got Major League Baseball teams is fascinating in its implications. The study showed that cities with major league baseball teams had a 28 percent lower divorce rate than cities that wanted major league baseball teams. Can marital harmony really be this simple?

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University of Denver (DU) director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies, psychology professor Howard Markman also studied divorce rates in other cities that welcomed a major league team and found a 30 percent decline in divorces in Phoenix, a 30 percent drop in Miami and a 17 percent drop in Tampa Bay area. While there could be many explanations for this significant difference, Markman stresses the importance of fun and friendship in a healthy marriage. Going to baseball games is one way couples can have fun together and talk as friends.

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For the rest of the piece, click here.  For related Situationist posts on the apparent power of Major League Baseball, see Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s Attributing Blame: From the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror and The Competitive Situation of Youth Baseball and Softball.

Posted in Life, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Mood and Moral Judgment – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 22, 2009

emotion3We recently encountered an interesting paper by Jeremy A. Blumenthal, “Does Mood Influence Moral Judgment?: An Empirical Test with Legal and Policy Implications” (29 Law and Psychology Review (2005)) on SSRN.   Here’s the abstract.

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Despite recurring interest in the potential for affect to influence “rational” reasoning, in particular the effect of emotion on moral judgments, legal scholars and social scientists have conducted far less empirical research directly testing such questions than might be expected. Nevertheless, the extent to which affect can influence moral decisions is an important question for the law. Watching a certain sort of movie, for instance, can significantly influence responses to opinion polls conducted shortly after that movie. Legislative action based on public opinion as so expressed, or media reports of public opinion based on such polls, could thus inaccurately reflect that public sentiment. This is especially so for social and policy issues that are heavily emotional, such as capital punishment or affirmative action.

Most discussion on law and emotions has been theoretical, addressing philosophical approaches to law and emotion. What psychological data exist are mixed, and virtually none appears in the legal literature. Thus, to bring the legal academic discussion into the realm of the empirical, and to provide further data on the question of affective influences on moral and legal decision-making, I conducted two experimental studies examining mood’s influence on moral judgments.

After clarifying what I mean by “moral judgment” and how I measured it, I report the methodologies and results of those studies. Briefly, the data support other empirical research showing that individuals in a positive mood (here, happiness) tend to process information more superficially than those in a negative mood (here, anxiety). I then discuss the results’ implications for the legal system, including implications for trials (e.g., victim impact statements or graphic testimony), and implications for public policy-making (e.g., the context of public opinion polls and surveys).

Most broadly, the data contribute to the developing legal literature on the role of emotions in the law. They highlight the importance of conducting empirical research, and of the translation of such empirics to specific legal and policy applications.

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To download the paper for free, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Law, Psychology & Morality – Abstract,” “Situating Emotion,” “The Motivated Situation of Morality,” and “Moral Psychology Primer.”

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Experimental Philosophy, Law, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Susan Boyle and the Situation of Sound

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 21, 2009

Susan BoyleFrom Situationist friend and situationist legal scholar Andrew Perlman, we received the following message:

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“In case you haven’t seen it, this video of a talent show contestant in Britain has become a world-wide phenomenon.  The reason is simple — situational cues prepare us for a stunningly bad performance, and we end up getting quite the opposite.  You can find the video here.

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It’s really quite moving.  Among other reasons, I think we intuitively realize how much appearance matters to us when we assess other people.”

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For an examination of the connection between situationism and music, see Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s “Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation.” In their post, Hanson and McCann explore how the situation in which persons listen to acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell–either while he is disguised as a subway peddler or while performing normally at a symphony–enormously influences how they regard his music.  For another post exploring how our taste in music is situationally contingent, see “The Situation of Music.”

For a few related Situationist posts examining the situational causes and consequences of beauty, Hillary Clinton, the Halo Effect, and Women’s Catch-22,” The Color of Sex Appeal,” The Situation of Body Image,” “The Situation of Hair Color,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” Survival of the Cutest,” “Fitting in and Sizing Up,” and “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.”

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Life | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of the Achievement Gap

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 20, 2009

ClassroomSituationist Contributor Geoffrey Cohen has received a lot of attention in the media over the last week because of fascinating research he and his collaborators are doing and reently desribed in Science regarding one way to help reduce the achievement gap in education.

Here are excerpts from one such story, this one, titled “Study: Writing About Values Boosts Grades, Shrinks Achievement Gap,”  by Lea Winerman for Online NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

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A short self-affirming writing exercise that took only about an hour of class time boosted struggling black junior high school students’ grade point average by nearly half a point over two years, according to a new study.  The surprising result, published this week in the journal Science, suggests a new way to combat the persistent achievement gap in grades, test scores and graduation rates between black and white students, according to the researchers. “The intervention is relatively brief, but it’s powerful in a lot of ways,” says [Situationist Contributor] Geoffrey Cohen, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado. Cohen and his colleagues followed more than 400 seventh-grade students at a suburban public school in Connecticut.

The school’s population was about half black and half white. In a series of 15-minute writing assignments, the researchers asked half of the students to complete a self-affirming exercise: to choose from a list of values — such as relationships with friends and family, athletic ability and smarts — and write about the value most important to them. A control group was asked to write about why the values they ranked as unimportant might matter to someone else. In early results published in 2006, the researchers found that the exercise reduced the achievement gap between black and white students by 40 percent over one term. Researchers said the exercises benefitted low-achieving black students the most, while they appeared to have little impact on white students or already high-achieving black students.

In the new study, Cohen and his colleagues tracked the students until the end of eighth grade. They found that the benefits for low-achieving black students continued for the entire two years — students who completed the self-affirmation exercise raised their GPA by four-tenths of a point compared to the control group. They were also less likely to need remedial work or to repeat a grade — 5 percent as compared to 18 percent of the control group. The intervention continued to have no effect on white students and high-achieving black students.

That such a small intervention could have such big effects “surprises most people to the point that some people I know didn’t believe the initial finding,” says psychologist Richard Nisbett, an expert on achievement and intelligence at the University of Michigan. “But what makes it believable to me is that, as a social psychologist, I’ve learned that ‘dinky’ things sometimes have big effects.”

The exercise is based on a tenet of psychological research called stereotype threat. Previous studies have found that when people are reminded of negative stereotypes about their racial, gender or other group, the stress of worrying about confirming those stereotypes can negatively affect their performance. The self-affirmation exercise, by reminding students about what is really important to them, could help reduce that stress, the researchers suggest. And by timing the intervention to occur at a crucial period such as the beginning of middle school, Cohen says, the benefits could compound.

“Performance is recursive,” he says. “If you start off at something and you’re stressed and do badly, then that makes you do worse the next time. And that seems to happen a lot in middle school, where you see this downward spiral […] By just tweaking [the students] a bit you could set them on a totally different trajectory.”

But Cohen added the intervention is not a panacea to solve all students’ educational woes. “We have no illusions that this is a silver bullet,” he says, “our philosophy is that the more positive forces in a child’s life, the better. That includes good teachers, good homes […] and then also psychological interventions.”

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To read the entire article, click here.  For related Situationsist posts, see “Stereotype Lift – The Obama Effect,” “Sexism: The Worst Part Is Not Knowing,” “Stereotype Threat and Performance,” Race Attributions and Georgetown University Baseketball” “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers,’ “The Gendered Situation of Science and Math,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

Posted in Education, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

The Situation of Situation in Employment Discrimination Law – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 18, 2009

Red Stapler - Codefin (flickr)Melissa Hart and Paul Secunda have posted their excellent paper, “A Matter of Context: Social Framework Evidence in Employment Discrimination Class Actions” (forthcoming 78 Fordham Law Review (2009)) on SSRN.  Here is the abstract.

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In litigation disputes over the certification of employment discrimination class actions, social scientists have come to play a central, yet controversial, role. Organizational behavioralists and social psychologists regularly testify for the plaintiffs, offering what is commonly referred to as social framework testimony. These experts explain the general social science research on the operation of stereotyping and bias in decisionmaking and examine the policies and practices operating in a challenged workplace to identify those that research has shown will tend to increase and those that will tend to limit the likely impact of these factors. Defendants fight hard against the admission of social framework experts, and some courts have agreed that the testimony should not be allowed. Because of the importance of this testimony to ferreting out large-scale discrimination in the workplace, the stakes in the debate over its admissibility are considerable.

The debate has moved recently from the courtroom to the pages of law reviews. In an essay published last fall, three academics argued that social framework testimony as it is commonly accepted by district courts should be categorically disallowed. The arguments for the exclusion of social framework testimony as it is currently presented in employment discrimination class action litigation are fundamentally flawed. A blanket exclusion of this evidence is inconsistent with the Federal Rules of Evidence and Supreme Court precedent on the district courts’ responsibility for assessing the admissibility of expert testimony more generally.

This article puts the debate over social framework expert testimony in context, explaining what the testimony is and the role it has played in employment discrimination litigation, with a particular focus on the way the testimony has been offered in class action suits like Dukes v. Wal-Mart. It explains how the normal rules of evidence law should apply to social framework expert testimony, and under the flexible and permissive standards of the Federal Rules of Evidence, framework testimony offered by a qualified expert should be admissible in many employment class actions. The argument that this kind of evidence should always be excluded is driven as much by a particular view of employment discrimination law as by the governing evidentiary rules. Ultimately, the arguments for blanket exclusion of social framework testimony in these cases can best be understood as part of a political debate and a litigation strategy.

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You can download the paper for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Litigating Unconscious Discrimination – Abstract” and “Implicit Bias and Strawmen.”

Posted in Abstracts, Implicit Associations, Law, Legal Theory, Naive Cynicism | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situational Effect of Groups

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2009

Silent Crowd (tochis)In his Guardian article, “Hands up if you’re an individual,” Stuart Jeffries offers a brief summary of some social psychology classics.  Below, we have included excerpts.  After reviewing Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience, Jeffries writes:

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This was one of the classic experiments of group psychology, though not all have involved duping volunteers into believing they had electrocuted victims. Group psychology has often involved experiments to explain how individuals’ behaviours, thoughts and feelings are changed by group pressures.

It is generally thought to have originated in 1898 when Indiana University psychologist Norman Triplett asked children to spin a fishing reel as fast as they could. He found that when the children were doing the task together they did so much faster than when alone. Triplett found a similar result when studying cyclists – they tended to record faster times when riding in groups rather than alone, a fact that he explained because the “bodily presence of another contestant participating simultaneously in the race serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available”.

More than a century later, social psychology explores how other people make us what we are; how unconscious, sometimes ugly, impulses make us compliant and irrational. Why, for example, do I smoke even though I know it could be fatal? How can there be such a gap between my self-image and my behaviour (this is known as cognitive dissonance)?

Why do high-level committees of supposed experts make disastrous decisions (for example, when a Nasa committee dismissed technical staff warnings that the space shuttle Challenger should not be launched, arguing that technical staff were just the kind of people to make such warnings – this is seen as a classic case of so-called “groupthink”)?

Why do we unconsciously obey others even when this undermines our self-images (this is known as social influence)? What makes us into apathetic bystanders when we see someone attacked in the street – and what makes us have-a-go-heroes? What makes peaceful crowds turn into rioting mobs?

Group psychological studies can have disturbing ramifications. Recently, Harvard psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Mahzarin Banaji used the so-called implicit association test to demonstrate how unconscious beliefs inform our behaviour. [Sh]e concluded from [her] research that the vast majority of white, and many black respondents recognised negative words such as “angry”, “criminal” or “poor” more quickly after briefly seeing a black face than a white one. . . .

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The nature of conformism has obsessed social psychologists for decades. In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch did an experiment in which volunteers were asked to judge the correct length of a line by comparing it with three sample lines. The experiment was set up so that there was an obviously correct answer. But Asch had riddled a group with a majority of stooges who deliberately chose the wrong answer. The pressure of the majority told on Asch’s volunteers. He found that 74% conformed with the wrong answer at least once, and 32% did so all the time.

What impulses were behind such conformism? Social psychologists have long considered that we construct our identities on the basis of others’ attitudes towards us. Erving Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), analysed social encounters as if each person was engaged in a dramatic performance, and suggested that each such actor was a creation of its audience.

Through such performances of self we internalise role expectations and gain positive self-esteem. We cast other individuals and groups in certain roles. Such behaviour may make some of us unconscious racists, but it also lubricates the wheels of social life.

French psychologist Serge Moscovici developed what is called social representation theory, arguing that shared beliefs and explanations held by a group of society help people to communicate effectively with one another. He explored the notion of anchoring, whereby new ideas or events in social life are given comforting redescriptions (or social representations). For example, a group of protesters against a motorway might be described demeaningly by the road lobby as a “rent-a-mob,” while the protesters themselves might anchor themselves more falteringly as “eco-warriors”.

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Social psychologists have also been long-obsessed by the psychology of crowds. In 1895, French social psychologist Gustave le Bon described crowds as mobs in which individuals lost their personal consciences. His book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, influenced Hitler and led many later psychologists to take a dim view of crowds.

After the war, German critical theorist Theodor Adorno wrote of the destructive nature of “group psychology.” Even as late as 1969, Stanford psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Philip Zimbardo argued that a process of deindividuation makes participants in crowds less rational.

Most recent crowd psychology has not been content to brand crowds necessarily irrational. Instead, it has divided into contagion theory (whereby crowds cause people to act in a certain way), convergence theory (where crowds amount to a convergence of already like-minded individuals) and emergent norm theory (where crowd behaviour reflects the desires of participants, but it is also guided by norms that emerge as the situation unfolds). . . .

In the age of MySpace, Facebook and online dating, group psychologists are now trying to find out what goes on when we present ourselves to the world online, how we are judged for doing so and how groups are formed online. Other social psychology touches on such voguish areas of research as social physics (which contends that physical laws might explain group behaviour) and neuroeconomics (which looks at the role of the brain when we evaluate decisions and interact with each other), but the age-old concerns remain part of our zeitgeist.

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You can read the entire article here.   For a sample of Situationist posts examining the interaction of individuals and groups, see “The Situational Benefits of Outsiders,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” “‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “The Maverickiness Paradox,” “Four Failures of Deliberating Groups – Abstract,” “Team-Interested Decision Making,” “History of Groupthink,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and “March Madness,” To read some of the previous Situationist posts describing or discussing classic experiments from soical psychology and related fields, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Conflict, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 16, 2009

Milgram's StudentSituationist Contributer Philip Zimbardo has authored the preface to a new edition of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s seminal book Obedience to Authority. This is the second of a two-part series derived from that preface. In Part I of the post, Zimbardo describes the inculcation of obedience and Milgram’s role as a research pioneer. In this part, Zimbardo answers challenges to Milgram’s work and locates its legacy.

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Unfortunately, many psychologists, students, and lay people who believe that they know the “Milgram Shock” study, know only one version of it, most likely from seeing his influential movie Obedience or reading a textbook summary.

He has been challenged for using only male participants, which was true initially, but later he replicated his findings with females. He has been challenged for relying only on Yale students, because the first studies were conducted at Yale University. However, the Milgram obedience research covers nineteen separate experimental versions, involving about a thousand participants, ages twenty to fifty, of whom none are college or high school students! His research has been heavily criticized for being unethical by creating a situation that generated much distress for the person playing the role of the teacher believing his shocks were causing suffering to the person in the role of the learner. I believe that it was seeing his movie, in which he includes scenes of distress and indecision among his participants, that fostered the initial impetus for concern about the ethics of his research. Reading his research articles or his book does not convey as vividly the stress of participants who continued to obey authority despite the apparent suffering they were causing their innocent victims. I raise this issue not to argue for or against the ethicality of this research, but rather to raise the issue that it is still critical to read the original presentations of his ideas, methods, results, and discussions to understand fully what he did. That is another virtue of this collection of Milgram’s obedience research.

A few words about how I view this body of research. First, it is the most representative and generalizable research in social psychology or social sciences due to his large sample size, systematic variations, use of a diverse body of ordinary people from two small towns—New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut—and detailed presentation of methodological features. Further, its replications across many cultures and time periods reveal its robust effectiveness.

As the most significant demonstration of the power of social situations to influence human behavior, Milgram’s experiments are at the core of the situationist view of behavioral determinants. It is a study of the failure of most people to resist unjust authority when commands no longer make sense given the seemingly reasonable stated intentions of the just authority who began the study. It makes sense that psychological researchers would care about the judicious use of punishment as a means to improve learning and memory. However, it makes no sense to continue to administer increasingly painful shocks to one’s learner after he insists on quitting, complains of a heart condition, and then, after 330 volts, stops responding at all. How could you be helping improve his memory when he was unconscious or worse? The most minimal exercise of critical thinking at that stage in the series should have resulted in virtually everyone refusing to go on, disobeying this now heartlessly unjust authority. To the contrary, most who had gone that far were trapped in what Milgram calls the “agentic state.”

These ordinary adults were reduced to mindless obedient school children who do not know how to exit from a most unpleasant situation until teacher gives them permission to do so. At that critical juncture when their shocks might have caused a serious medical problem, did any of them simply get out of their chairs and go into the next room to check on the victim? Before answering, consider the next question, which I posed directly to Stanley Milgram: “After the final 450 volt switch was thrown, how many of the participant-teachers spontaneously got out of their seats and went to inquire about the condition of their learner?” Milgram’s answer: “Not one, not ever!” So there is a continuity into adulthood of that grade-school mentality of obedience to those primitive rules of doing nothing until the teacher-authority allows it, permits it, and orders it.

My research on situational power (the Stanford Prison Experiment) complements that of Milgram in several ways. They are the bookends of situationism: his representing direct power of authority on individuals, mine representing institutional indirect power over all those within its power domain. Mine has come to represent the power of systems to create and maintain situations of dominance and control over individual behavior. In addition, both are dramatic demonstrations of powerful external influences on human action, with lessons that are readily apparent to the reader, and to the viewer. (I too have a movie, Quiet Rage, that has proven to be quite impactful on audiences around the world.) Both raise basic issues about the ethics of any research that engenders some degree of suffering and guilt from participants. I discuss at considerable length my views on the ethics of such research in my recent book The Lucifer James Monroe High School BronxEffect: Understanding Why Good People Turn Evil (2008). When I first presented a brief overview of the Stanford Prison Experiment at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in 1971, Milgram greeted me joyfully, saying that now I would take some of the ethics heat off his shoulders by doing an even more unethical study!

Finally, it may be of some passing interest to readers of this book, that Stanley Milgram and I were classmates at James Monroe High School in the Bronx (class of 1950), where we enjoyed a good time together. He was the smartest kid in the class, getting all the academic awards at graduation, while I was the most popular kid, being elected by senior class vote to be “Jimmie Monroe.” Little Stanley later told me, when we met ten years later at Yale University, that he wished he had been the most popular, and I confided that I wished I had been the smartest. We each did what we could with the cards dealt us. I had many interesting discussions with Stanley over the decades that followed, and we
almost wrote a social psychology text together. Sadly, in 1984 he died prematurely from a heart attack at the age of fifty-one.

[Milgram] left us with a vital legacy of brilliant ideas that began with those centered on obedience to authority and extended into many new realms—urban psychology, the small-world problem, six degrees of separation, and the Cyrano effect, among others—always using a creative mix of methods. Stanley Milgram was a keen observer of the human landscape, with an eye ever open for a new paradigm that might expose old truths or raise new awareness of hidden operating principles. I often wonder what new phenomena Stanley would be studying now were he still alive.

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To read Part I of this post, click here.  To read three related Situationist posts by Phil Zimbardo, see “The Situation of Evil,” Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Posted in Book, Classic Experiments, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Reason

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 15, 2009

pantyhose-displayIn the mid-1970s, Situationist contributor Timothy Wilson with Richard Nisbett conducted one of the best known social psychology experiments of all time. It was strikingly simple and involved asking subjects to assess the quality of hosiery. Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon have described the experiment this way:

Subjects were asked in a bargain store to judge which one of four nylon stocking pantyhose was the best quality. The subjects were not told that the stockings were in fact identical. Wilson and Nisbett presented the stockings to the subjects hanging on racks spaced equal distances apart. As situation would have it, the position of the stockings had a significant effect on the subjects’ quality judgments. In particular, moving from left to right, 12% of the subjects judged the first stockings as being the best quality, 17% of the subjects chose the second pair of stockings, 31% of the subjects chose the third pair of stockings, and 40% of the subjects chose the fourth—the most recently viewed pair of stockings. When asked about their respective judgments, most of the subjects attributed their decision to the knit, weave, sheerness, elasticity, or workmanship of the stockings that they chose to be of the best quality. Dispositional qualities of the stocking, if you will. Subjects provided a total of eighty different reasons for their choices. Not one, however, mentioned the position of the stockings, or the relative recency with which the pairs were viewed. None, that is, saw the situation. In fact, when asked whether the position of the stockings could have influenced their judgments, only one subject admitted that position could have been influential. Thus, Wilson and Nisbett conclude that “[w]hat matters . . . is not why the [position] effect occurs but that it occurs and that subjects do not report it or recognize it when it is pointed out to them.”

One of the core messages of more recent brain research is that most mental activity happens in the automatic or unconscious region of the brain. The unconscious mind is the platform for a set of mental activities that the brain has relegated beyond awareness for efficiency’s sake, so the conscious mind can focus on other things. In his book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” Timothy Wilson notes that the brain can absorb about 11 million pieces of information a second, of which it can process about 40 consciously. The unconscious brain handles the rest.

The automatic mind generally takes care of things like muscle control. But it also does more ethereal things. It recognizes patterns and construes situations, searching for danger, opportunities or the unexpected. It also shoves certain memories, thoughts, anxieties and emotions up into consciousness.

A lot has been learned about how what we think we know about what moves us is wrong. And much has also been learned about how what we don’t know we know can influence us. Psychologist Susan Courtney has an absolutely terrific article in Scientific American titled “Not So Deliberate: The decisive power of what you don’t know you know.” We excerpt portions of her article below.

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When we choose between two courses of action, are we aware of all the things that influence that decision? Particularly when deliberation leads us to take a less familiar or more difficult course, scientists often refer to a decision as an act of “cognitive control.” Such calculated decisions were once assumed to be influenced only by consciously perceived information, especially when the decision involved preparation for some action. But a //www.timrylands.com/blog/2007/02/recent paper by Hakwan Lau and Richard Passingham, “Unconscious Activation of the Cognitive Control System in the Human Prefrontal Cortex,” demonstrates that the influences we are not aware of can hold greater sway than those we can consciously reject.

Biased competition

We make countless “decisions” each day without conscious deliberation. For example, when we gaze at an unfamiliar scene, we cannot take in all the information at once. Objects in the scene compete for our attention. If we’re looking around with no particular goal in mind, we tend to focus on the objects most visually different from their surrounding background (for example, a bright bird against a dark backdrop) or those that experience or evolution have taught us are the most important, such as sudden movement or facial features — particularly threatening or fearful expressions. If we do have a goal, then our attention will be drawn to objects related to it, such as when we attend to anything red or striped in a “Where’s Waldo” picture. Stimulus-driven and goal-driven influences alike, then, bias the outcome of the competition for our attention among a scene’s many aspects.

The idea of such biased competition (a term coined in 1995 by Robert Desimone and John Duncan, also applies to situations in which we decide among many possible actions, thoughts or plans. What might create an unconscious bias affecting these types of competition?

For starters, previous experience in a situation can make some neural connections stronger than others, tipping the scales in favor of a previously performed action. The best-known examples of this kind of bias are habitual actions (as examined in a seminal 1995 article by Salmon and Butters and what is known as priming.

Habitual actions are what they sound like — driving your kids to school, you turn right on Elm because that’s how you get there every day. No conscious decision is involved. In fact, it takes considerable effort to remember to instead turn left if your goal is to go somewhere else.

Priming works a bit differently; it’s less a well-worn route than a prior suggestion that steers you a certain way. If I ask you today to tell me the first word that comes to mind that starts with the letters mot and you answer mother, you’ll probably answer the same way if I ask you the same thing again four months from now, even if you have no explicit recollection of my asking the question. The prior experience primes you to repeat your performance. Other potentially unconscious influences are generally emotional or motivational.

Of course, consciously processed information can override these emotional and experience-driven biases if we devote enough time and attention to the decision. Preparing to perform a cognitive action (“task set”) has traditionally been considered a deliberate act of control and part of this reflective, evaluative neural system. (See, for example, the 2002 review by Rees, Kreiman and Koch — pdf download.) As such, it was thought that task-set preparation was largely immune to subconscious influences.

We generally accept it as okay that some of our actions and emotional or motivational states are influenced by neural processes that happen without our awareness. For example, it aids my survival if subliminally processed stimuli increase my state of vigilance — if, for example, I jump out of the way before I am consciously aware that the thing at my feet is a snake. But we tend to think of more conscious decisions differently. If I have time to recognize an instruction, remember what that means I’m supposed to do and prepare to make a particular kind of judgment on the next thing I see, then the assumption is that this preparation must be based entirely on what I think I saw — not what I wasn’t even aware of.

Yet Lau and Passingham have found precisely the opposite in their study — that information we’re not aware of can more strongly influence even the most deliberative, non-emotional sort of decision even more than does information we are aware of.

Confusing cues

Lau and Passingham had their subjects perform one of two tasks: when shown a word on a screen, the subjects had to decide either a) whether or not the word referred to a concrete object or b) whether or not the word had two syllables. A cue given just before each word — the appearance of either a square of a diamond –lau06-fig1.jpg indicated whether to perform the concrete judgment task or the syllables task. These instruction cues were in turn preceded by smaller squares or diamonds that the subjects were told were irrelevant. A variation in timing between the first and second cues determined whether the participants were aware of seeing both cues or only the second.

As you would expect, the task was more difficult when the cues were the not same — that is, when a diamond preceded a square or a square a diamond. The surprising finding was that this confusion effect was greater when the timing between the cues was so close that the participants didn’t consciously notice the first cue. When the cues were mixed but the subjects were consciously aware of only the second instruction, their responses — and their brain activity as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — indicated that the “invisible” conflicting cue had made them more likely to prepare to do the “wrong” task. Although similar effects have been shown on tasks that involved making a decision about the appearance of the image immediately following the “invisible” image, this is the first time this effect has been demonstrated for complex task preparation.

It may not be surprising that we juggle multiple influences when we make decisions, including many of which we are not aware — particularly when the decisions involve emotional issues. Lau and Passingham, however, show us that even seemingly rational, straightforward, conscious decisions about arbitrary matters can easily be biased by inputs coming in below our radar of awareness. Although it wasn’t directly tested in this study, the results suggest that being aware of a misleading cue may allow us to inhibit its influence. And the study makes clear that influences we are not aware of (including, but not limited to, those brought in by experience and emotion) can sneak into our decisions unchecked.

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Susan Courtney is an associate professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University, where she runs the Courtney Lab of Cognitive Neuroscience and Working Memory.  To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Confabulation,” “The Situation of Constitutional Beliefs – Abstract,” “Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,”and “Unconscious Situation of Choice.”

This post was originally published in November of 2007.

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Illusions, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 14, 2009

Milgram Obedience ExperimentSituationist contributer Philip Zimbardo has authored the preface to a new edition of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s pathbreaking and now-classic book Obedience to Authority.  This is the first of a two-part series derived from that preface.  In this post, Zimbardo describes the inculcation of obedience and Milgram’s role as a research pioneer.  In Part II, Zimbardo answers challenges to Milgram’s work and locates its legacy.

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What is common about two of the most profound narratives in Western culture—Lucifer’s descent into Hell and Adam and Eve’s loss of Paradise—is the lesson of the dreadful consequences of one’s failure to obey authority. . . [T]hey are designed, as all parables are, to send a powerful message to all those who hear and read them: Obey authority at all costs! The consequences of disobedience to authority are formidable and damnable. Once created, these myths and parables get passed along by subsequent authorities, now parents, teachers, bosses, politicians, and dictators, among others, who want their word to be followed without dissent or challenge.

Thus, as school children, in virtually all traditional educational settings, the rules of law that we learned and lived were: Stay in your seat until permission is granted by the teacher to stand and leave it; do not talk unless given permission by the teacher to do so after having raised your hand to seek that recognition, and do not challenge the word of the teacher or complain. So deeply ingrained are these rules of conduct that even as we age and mature they generalize across many settings as permanent placards of our respect for authority. However, not all authority is just, fair, moral, and legal, and we are never given any explicit training in recognizing that critical difference between just and unjust authority.  The just one deserves respect and some obedience, maybe even without much questioning, while the unjust variety should arouse suspicion and distress, ultimately triggering acts of challenge, defiance, and revolution.

Stanley Milgram’s series of experiments on obedience to authority, so clearly and fully presented in this new edition of his work, represents some of the most significant investigations in all the social sciences of the central dynamics of this aspect of human nature. His work was the first to bring into the controlled setting of an experimental laboratory an investigation into the nature of obedience to authority. In a sense, he is following in the tradition of Kurt Lewin, although he is not generally considered to be in the Lewinian tradition, as Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, Lee Ross, and Richard Nisbett are, for example. Yet to study phenomena that have significance in their real world existence within the constraints and controls of a laboratory setting is at the essence of one of Lewin’s dictums of the way social psychology should proceed.

This exploration of obedience was initially motivated by Milgram’s reflections on the ease with which the German people obeyed Nazi authority in discriminating against Jews and, eventually, in allowing Hitler’s Final Solution to be enacted during the Holocaust. As a young Jewish man, he wondered if the Holocaust could be recreated in his own country, despite the many differences in those cultures and historical epochs. Though many said it could never happen in the United States, Milgram doubted whether we should be so sure. Believing in the goodness of people does not diminish the fact that ordinary, even once good people, just following orders, have committed much evil in the world.

British author C. P. Snow reminds us that more crimes against humanity have been committed in the name of obedience than disobedience. Milgram’s mentor, Solomon Asch, had earlier demonstrated the power of groups to sway the judgments of intelligent college students regarding false conceptions of visual reality. But that influence was indirect, creating a discrepancy between the group norm and the individual’s perception of the same stimulus event.

Conformity to the group’s false norm was the resolution to that discrepancy, with participants behaving in ways that would lead to group acceptance rather than rejection. Milgram wanted to discover the direct and immediate impact of one powerful individual’s commands to another person to behave in ways that challenged his or her conscience and morality. He designed his research paradigm to pit our general beliefs about what people would do in such a situation against what they actually did when immersed in that crucible of human nature.

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We’ll post Part II of this series later this week.  You can review a sizeable collection of Situationist posts discussing the work of Stanley Milgram here.

Posted in Book, Classic Experiments, Conflict, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Confabulation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 13, 2009

El Alma del EbroHelen Philips had a nice article  titled “Mind fiction: Why your brain tells tall tales,” in the October 2006 issue of New Scientist.  Here are some excerpts.

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The kind of storytelling my grandmother did after a series of strokes . . . [n]eurologists call . . . confabulation. It isn’t fibbing, as there is no intent to deceive and people seem to believe what they are saying. Until fairly recently it was seen simply as a neurological deficiency – a sign of something gone wrong. Now, however, it has become apparent that healthy people confabulate too.

Confabulation is clearly far more than a result of a deficit in our memory, says William Hirstein, a neurologist and philosopher at Elmhurst College in Chicago and author of a book on the subject entitled Brain Fiction . . . . Children and many adults confabulate when pressed to talk about something they have no knowledge of, and people do it during and after hypnosis. . . . In fact, we may all confabulate routinely as we try to rationalise decisions or justify opinions. Why do you love me? Why did you buy that outfit? Why did you choose that career? At the extreme, some experts argue that we can never be sure about what is actually real and so must confabulate all the time to try to make sense of the world around us.

Confabulation was first mentioned in the medical literature in the late 1880s, applied to patients of the Russian psychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff. He described a distinctive type of memory deficit in people who had abused alcohol for many years. These people had no recollection of recent events, yet filled in the blanks spontaneously with sometimes fantastical and impossible stories.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York wrote about a man with Korsakoff’s syndrome in his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Mr Thompson had no memory from moment to moment about where he was or why, or to whom he was speaking, but would invent elaborate explanations for the situations he found himself in. If someone entered the room, he might greet them as a customer of the shop he used to own. A doctor wearing a white coat might become the local butcher. To Mr Thompson, these fictions seemed plausible and he never seemed to notice that they kept changing. He behaved as though his improvised world was a perfectly normal and stable place.

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So confabulation can result from an inability to recognise whether or not memories are relevant, real and current. But that’s not the only time people make up stories, says Hirstein. He has found that those with delusions or false beliefs about their illnesses are among the most common confabulators. He thinks these cases reveal how we build up and interpret knowledge about ourselves and other people.

It is surprisingly common for stroke patients with paralysed limbs or even blindness to deny they have anything wrong with them, even if only for a couple of days after the event. They often make up elaborate tales to explain away their problems. One of Hirstein’s patients, for example, had a paralysed arm, but believed it was normal, telling him that the dead arm lying in the bed beside her was not in fact her own. When he pointed out her wedding ring, she said with horror that someone had taken it. When asked to prove her arm was fine, by moving it, she made up an excuse about her arthritis being painful. It seems amazing that she could believe such an impossible story. Yet when Vilayanur Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, offered cash to patients with this kind of delusion, promising higher rewards for tasks they couldn’t possibly do – such as clapping or changing a light bulb – and lower rewards for tasks they could, they would always attempt the high pay-off task, as if they genuinely had no idea they would fail.

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What all these conditions have in common is an apparent discrepancy between the patient’s internal knowledge or feelings and the external information they are getting from what they see. In all these cases “confabulation is a knowledge problem”, says Hirstein. Whether it is a lost memory, emotional response or body image, if the knowledge isn’t there, something fills the gap.

Helping to plug that gap may well be a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, which lies in the frontal lobes behind the eye sockets. The OFC is best known as part of the brain’s reward system, which guides us to do pleasurable things or seek what we need, but Hirstein . . . suggest that the system has an even more basic role. It and other frontal brain regions are busy monitoring all the information generated by our senses, memory and imagination, suppressing what is not needed and sorting out what is real and relevant. According to Morten Kringelbach, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford who studies pleasure, reward and the role of the OFC, this tracking of ongoing reality allows us to rate everything subjectively to help us work out our priorities and preferences.

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Kringelbach goes even further. He suspects that confabulation is not just something people do when the system goes wrong. We may all do it routinely. Children need little encouragement to make up stories when asked to talk about something they know little about. Adults, too, can be persuaded to confabulate, as [Situationist contributor] Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and his colleague Richard Nisbett have shown. They laid out a display of four identical items of clothing and asked people to pick which they thought was the best quality. It is known that people tend to subconsciously prefer the rightmost object in a sequence if given no other choice criteria, and sure enough about four out of five participants did favour the garment on the right. Yet when asked why they made the choice they did, nobody gave position as a reason. It was always about the fineness of the weave, richer colour or superior texture. This suggests that while we may make our decisions subconsciously, we rationalise them in our consciousness, and the way we do so may be pure fiction, or confabulation.

More recent experiments by philosopher Lars Hall of Lund University in Sweden develop this idea further. People were shown pairs of cards with pictures of faces on them and asked to choose the most attractive. Unbeknown to the subject, the person showing the cards was a magician and routinely swapped the chosen card for the rejected one. The subject was then asked why they picked this face. Often the swap went completely unnoticed, and the subjects came up with elaborate explanations about hair colour, the look of the eyes or the assumed personality of the substituted face. Clearly people routinely confabulate under conditions where they cannot know why they made a particular choice. Might confabulation be as routine in justifying our everyday choices?

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Even when we think we are making rational choices and decisions, this may be illusory too. The intriguing possibility is that we simply do not have access to all of the unconscious information on which we base our decisions, so we create fictions upon which to rationalise them, says Kringelbach. That may well be a good thing, he adds. If we were aware of how we made every choice we would never get anything done – we cannot hold that much information in our consciousness. Wilson backs up this idea with some numbers: he says our senses may take in more than 11 million pieces of information each second, whereas even the most liberal estimates suggest that we are conscious of just 40 of these.

Nevertheless it is an unsettling thought that perhaps all our conscious mind ever does is dream up stories in an attempt to make sense of our world. “The possibility is left open that in the most extreme case all of the people may confabulate all of the time,” says Hall.

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To read the entire article, including a discussion of the problem of relying on eyewitnesses, click here. To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “Magic is in the Mind,” “John Darley on “Justice as Intuitions” – Video,” “The Split Brain and the Interior Situation of Theories of the Self,” “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” and “Vilayanur Ramachandran On Your Mind.”

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Illusions, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Are Debtors Rational Actors or Situational Characters? – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 11, 2009

credit-cardsPromising young scholar, Chrystin Ondersma, published her excellent new article, titled “Are Debtors Rational Actors? An Experiment” in 13 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 279 (2009). Here’s the abstract.

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This Article examines patterns in bankruptcy filing data to determine whether this data supports the simplistic Rational Actor model that is the basis for Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA). The Article closely reviews the Rational Actor and Situationist models–the current debate about human behavior in bankruptcy context. Analysis of empirical data of pre-BAPCPA, post- BAPCPA, and current filings demonstrate that while BAPCPA reduced the number of filings nationally, unexplained variation in filing patterns exist. These findings suggest that the Rational Actor model provides a limited understanding of human behavior in the bankruptcy arena. As salient economic factors–poverty, unemployment, and foreclosure rates–fail to adequately explain the local variation patterns, this Article explores non-economic factors to develop a better understanding of debtor decision making. Wide local variation patterns in filing data demonstrate that a more nuanced model that takes into account both nationwide and local situational pressures is required for understanding debtor decision-making and developing effective policies.

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You can download the article for free here. To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Financial Squeeze: Bad Choices or Bad Situations?” and “The Situation of College Debt – Part IV.”

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Legal Theory | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Group Effort

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 10, 2009

cleaning-upFrom The Globe and Mail, here are excerpts from an article, by Wallace Immen, describing a fascinating research regarding the potential impact of an individuals effort on team effort.

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Feel like a fool for pulling your weight when everyone else you’re working with is slacking off?

Maybe you should feel like an inspiration instead: If you consistently act for the good of the team, others will be moved to follow your lead, a new study finds. That’s a bit of a surprise, says Mark Weber, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business.

“The prevailing wisdom in many scholarly circles has been that consistent co-operators are suckers, and that others will take advantage of them by getting a free ride on their efforts,” he says.

“But our study found that people who start out acting in their own self-interests, but then see others consistently acting for the good of the group, tend to follow suit and become more co-operative themselves. And, as a result, everyone in the group can come out ahead,” he says.

Even if just one person in a group is consistently co-operative, he or she can shift the behaviour of the whole group to become the same way, found the study Prof. Weber did in conjunction with J. Keith Murnighan, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. It appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Their conclusions are drawn from a series of experiments with students who were given an equal amount of money, and then had to decide whether to keep it for themselves or put it into a group pot.

An experimenter matched whatever was put into the pot, with the total to be divided among all participants. Those who acted selfishly by keeping their original stake rather than putting it into the pot would wind up with more than those who shared. The twist: Each time, one participant was told in advance to always be co-operative and put his or her money into the pool.

In the first round of the experiments, nearly all other participants selfishly kept their money. But as rounds progressed, more started to follow the lead of the person who consistently shared.

Soon, everyone was putting their money into the pool. And they all came out with slightly more money than they’d started with, so the whole group wound up ahead through co-operative behaviour.

Just as important, the result shows that those who consistently co-operate clearly influence others to do the same, Prof. Weber says.

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The entire article is here.  To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Maverickiness Paradox” and “Team-Interested Decision Making.”

Posted in Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Are Video Games Addictive?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 9, 2009

Laura Parker of GameSpot Australia has an interesting piece on whether video games can become addictions.  We excerpt her piece below.

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An addict is defined by his or her psychological compulsion to carry out certain behaviours or consume certain substances that are often detrimental to his or her health or well-being. Although this repeated consumption often leads to other problems in areas of social and mental health, an addict cannot stop him- or herself from recurrent use. The hallmarks of addiction are often an increase in time spent in the consumption of these behaviours or substances at the expense of other activities; recurrent failed attempts to stop; and recurrent preoccupation and intense psychological urges or desires that are difficult to control.

Video game addiction is still a newcomer to the field of psychology and is not yet medically recognised as a proper addiction due to the lack of research conducted into its causes and effects. So, while it’s common for clinics to specialise in the treatment of drug, alcohol, gambling, sex, and other addictions, it is not common for clinics to specialise in the treatment of video game addiction. However, during the last five years, countries like China, South Korea, the Netherlands, Canada, and the USA have begun to recognise the health threat posed by video game addiction and have opened clinics that deal specifically with the problem.

The argument for excessive video game play as a real psychological addiction is that a person gains psychological reinforcement from playing, and excelling at, a game. By becoming an expert at a game, a person releases a neurochemical known as dopamine in his or her brain, whose function is to make us feel good. This is a natural response humans have to good experiences, such as eating favourite foods, listening to music, or watching a good movie. For it to be a psychological addiction to video games, it rests on how much dopamine is released in those who are believed to be video game addicts, in comparison to the levels released during other positive lifestyle activities.

Symptoms of video game addicts are varied–they can range from social isolation, poor social skills, and erratic mood swings to neglect of responsibilities such as health, regular sleeping, hygiene, financial commitments, and work and study responsibilities.

A new addiction

Now that we know what addiction is, we need to see if video game addiction fits the pattern of a medically recognised addiction. In July 2006, the world’s first video game addiction clinic opened in Amsterdam. The event sparked the curiosity of the global press–it was the first time video game addiction was acknowledged, and the subsequent coverage pointed to the increasing popularity of video games and the people who just couldn’t stop playing them. Almost all media reports at the time and subsequent reports dealing with video game addiction pointed to the few instances of video-game-related deaths as examples of addiction, wishing to demonstrate the debilitating effect of video games. But few reports actually defined addiction or indicated that not all video game addicts eventually kill themselves, or others, through excessive playing.

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Studies into video game addiction are scarce. However, the increased recognition of the issue amongst the scientific community means more and more researchers are beginning to look seriously at video game addiction. Daniel Loton, an ethics officer and former psychology honours student from Victoria University, used his thesis to explore the relationship between social capacity and problematic video gameplay to try to determine the cause of video game addiction. Loton used the Social Skills Inventory (SSI), a broad scale that measures basic social skills, to survey 560 male and 61 female gamers with an average age of 23.4 years. His survey found a very small connection between social capacity (that is, social skills and self-esteem) and video game playing. Given the past research on the topic, Loton said his study yielded surprising results.

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For the rest of the piece, click here. For related Situationist posts, see “Resident Evil 5 and Racism in Video Games,” “Encourage Your Daughters To Play Violent Video Games?,” “The Situation of First-Person Shooters,” “Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson,” and Michael McCann’s “The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Video Games.”

Posted in Entertainment, Social Psychology | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

 
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