The Situationist

Archive for August, 2009

The Situation of College Education: Why Going for the Money Makes Sense for Some Prep Players

Posted by Jason Chung on August 31, 2009

Would you turn down a multi-million dollar contract in order to play for free? How about an education? This athlete did.

Meet 17-year-old Enes Kanter. For any basketball fan, the scouting report on this Swiss-born Turkish basketball player is enticing: a physical specimen at 6’9″-6’10″ who possesses superior positioning and is a “clever defender.” A few months ago, at an age when most of his peers are working part-time jobs in the service industry or on a factory floor, Kanter played in the Euroleague (widely touted to be the world’s second-best professional league) against grown men and recorded 5 points, 3 rebounds and a steal in a mere 10 minutes of game time. Expectations are that the precocious Kanter will grow a few inches, improve on his already advanced offensive game, and bulk up nicely over the next few years.

Needless to say, professional scouts on both sides of the Atlantic have been tracking Kanter for some time as sweet-shooting, defensively oriented 7-footers are rare. Indeed, this is a sport where players such as Pavel Podkolzin and Nikoloz Tskitishvili were considered worthy of first-round NBA draft status based on little more than their height and alleged coordination (which, sadly, did not translate into professional production).

Hailing from Europe, Kanter enjoys various professional options to exploit his physical attributes. Since players in the European leagues do not have to enter an entry draft with an age floor and can technically sign with any team, Kanter could opt to play professionally straight away for an impressive salary. Indeed, according to Evan Daniels of Foxsports.com and Scout.com, Kanter has two solid offers right now – Greek superclub Olympiakos is offering $2 million per year for two seasons and an unspecified Turkish club is offering a five-year, $6 million offer.

Enes Kanter has listened to the offers and is doing the almost inconceivable. He is turning them down, and is opting to play for free.  Instead of honing his craft as a highly paid professional in the European leagues, Kanter has chosen to enroll at Findlay Prep and play against American high school players with an eye to entering college in 2010. Why? According to Kanter, he wants a quality education.

Predictably, Kanter’s decision has been hailed by some as a triumph against materialism and as an example of maturity. In Daniels’ story, he quotes Findlay assistant coach Todd Simon who had this to say:

“He’s a pioneer in his decision-making to turn down a lot of money to make a mature decision for a just-turned-17-year old. He put his education ahead of the instant gratification of wealth and even more, fame in his own country.”

In stark contrast lies the case of Brandon Jennings. In 2008, Jennings opted to be the first highly ranked prep school player to spurn an elite-level college scholarship in order to play as a professional abroad. As noted by Adrian Wojnarowski many questioned Jennings and rooted for him to fail.  Most were concerned that Jennings’ decision would shatter the altogether too-cozy relationship between the NCAA and NBA (which Situationist contributor Michael McCann argues is evidenced by the establishment of the NBA age floor) by creating an exodus of talent to Europe. Others, however, adopted a more paternalistic approach by chiding Jennings for setting a bad example by forsaking “a good education.” According to critics such as former NBA star Jalen Rose, it would have been preferable for Jennings to get an education while working on his game.

Though it is true that education is an admirable goal, those who laud Kanter and choose to question Jennings for their educational choices may be making a fundamental error – they neglect to consider the external circumstances driving the decisions of these two young men. That is, they neglect the situation in which these two very different athletes found themselves.

Consider Kanter’s situation. As noted by reporters such as Daniels and Ismael Senol, Kanter comes from what can only be described as a privileged upbringing. Kanter’s father is a well-known professor and doctor and through interaction with his father Kanter appears to have “inherited an analytical mind.” Kanter is apparently a model student, has a stable home life, and can count on his parents for both financial and emotional support when making his move abroad. Given those advantages, Kanter’s decision to go to college seems the right choice for his future.

Kanter’s case is not unique – there are other recent cases which seemingly suggest that affluence plays a large role in pursuing or continuing educational opportunities.  Let us first look at the situation of Joakim Noah.  As noted by Michael McCann in 2006, Noah gave up the virtual certainty of being a top-two pick in a weak 2006 NBA Draft in favour of returning to the University of Florida as a junior.  Noah claimed that he loved university life and wanted a chance to repeat as NCAA champion.

Noah’s decision was a risky one for three key reasons.  First, there was the risk of injury.  As shown multiple times throughout sports history, a sudden injury can either weaken or eliminate a prospect’s draft chances.  For instance, in the most recent NBA Draft, the University of Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair dropped from a possible lottery pick to a second-round selection due to health concerns which resurfaced when he re-aggravated a pre-existing knee injury during his draft year.  The drop cost Blair a guaranteed roster spot and millions of dollars.  Second, the 2007 NBA Draft contained a much deeper pool of prospects – several of which were more highly-touted than the workmanlike Noah.  Any drop in draft status entails severe economic implications for draftees in the NBA.  As highlighted by McCann, a drop of several spots at the top of the draft translates into a loss of millions of dollars over the course of a guaranteed three-year contract.  Finally, a compelling reason for Noah to leave for the NBA rested in the fact that older college stars tend to be less desirable in the NBA Draft.  A phenomenon noted by several draft experts and sports columnists, many NBA teams draft on potential rather than actual production which skews the top of the draft in favour of underclassmen.

Noah, then, had a multitude of excellent reasons to declare for the NBA Draft in 2006 but didn’t.  Why?  Well, simply put Noah was in a situation where he could afford the risks — his father is former French tennis star and multi-millionaire Yannick Noah.  Clearly, the safety net provided by having a rich, celebrity father gave Noah an obvious advantage over his peers — the luxury of being able to snub guaranteed millions and not have it affect the lifestyle to which he was accustomed.

The socioeconomic advantages enjoyed by Noah over the average prep or college player are, to be fair, extreme.  However, another case shows that affluence need not be measured in absolute terms.  Relative familial financial security allows young players to pursue education as well.

Consider Myron Rolle.  A starting safety at the famed Florida State University football program, Rolle was considered a strong first-round possibility in the 2009 NFL Draft by several scouting agencies.  However, Rolle took the 2009-2010 year off in order to something unexpected (and laudable) – become a Rhodes Scholar.

Rolle’s choice for education over an immediate payday is remarkable by any measure but more so when considering that his family is not rich but instead are Bahamian immigrants to the U.S. who hold solidly middle-income employment.  The immediate financial security, then, afforded by almost certainly becoming a multi-million dollar first-round pick in the NFL Draft surely means comparatively more to Rolle than to Noah.  In addition, Rolle certainly faces similar considerations to Noah while delaying his entry into his professional draft – one accident during his stay in England could conceivably end his time as a highly-touted pro football propect.  However, similarly to the case of the upper middle-class Kanter, Rolle’s relatively secure family and financial situation affords him the choice of possibly jeopardizing one dream, that of an NFL payday, in order to fulfill his educational ambition.

Now, one may (rightfully) argue that the prestige conferred by a Rhodes scholarship may also lead to financial stability for Rolle should he choose continue along his desired academic path.  This observation is true enough – a Rhodes scholarship has traditionally been a gateway to further socioeconomic and academic success.  However, this consideration should not overshadow one central and incontrovertible fact – Myron Rolle had the liberty of taking time and risking guaranteed money to pursue an academic endeavour.

Given the above examples, it would seem that the absolute stability afforded by Noah’s privileged upbringing as well as the relative stability afforded by Kanter and Rolle’s socioeconomic situation allowed these young men to make the decision to continue their status as students and student-athletes.  But what if one’s situation isn’t so fortunate?

Take the case of Brandon Jennings – a young man from a different reality. Born and raised in Compton, California (a locale so notorious that it was the titular place name in the song “Straight Outta Compton” – one of anthems of the anti-police gangsta rap era), Jennings’ father committed suicide when he was 8 years old. From that point on, “It was hard for the Jennings family to stay in one place and they ended up going from home to home throughout Los Angeles, sometimes even all 3 of them staying in a one-bedroom apartment.” Consequently when Jennings reached college age, he was faced with a choice between being a one-and-done freshman student-athlete (provided that he was even academically eligible) or playing for money in Europe – Jennings’ circumstances simply made any risk of injury while playing for a prolonged period as a student-athlete too great.

Advised by basketball legend Sonny Vaccaro, Jennings chose the road less traveled and for his troubles he earned a seven-figure salary ($1.2 million), sponsorship money from Under Armour, learned how to conduct himself as a professional athlete and gained an appreciation for those living abroad amongst different cultures (“It’s tough man… It can break you.”). Best of all for Jennings, his gambit seemed to pay off and he was drafted No. 10 overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2009 NBA Draft. In short, Jennings helped his family secure their finances by forsaking his college eligibility. It is hard to argue, given Jennings’ circumstances, that he didn’t make the more difficult and arguably more mature decision for himself and his family.

Given that all these young athletes made seemingly informed, mature personal decisions, why is that Jennings has been ostracized by some quarters while the others have largely escaped such scrutiny? The answer may lie in the fact that our moral reasoning does not rest in an evidentiary basis. As Jonathan Haidt notes, “Most people gave no real evidence for their positions, and most made no effort to look for evidence opposing their initial positions.” As long as their point of view “makes sense” there is little reason to question their knee-jerk reaction.

Jennings’ position – that of rejecting a college athletic scholarship – unquestionably evokes a stronger negative reaction in the American psyche. In America, those with higher education are often better employed, possess higher earning power, and are considered a better fit for the modern economy than those without such an advantage. It is drilled into the minds of most Americans that higher education is the way to go in order to attain professional and personal success. In addition, for student-athletes, playing in the NCAA is viewed as the traditional way in which to interest NBA teams and to raise your draft profile. Jennings bucked conventional wisdom and the resulting immediate reaction on the part of some of the public and NBA analysts like Rose was to question the motivations, financial and otherwise, behind this decision.

This initial reaction is simply not supported by facts. As compellingly argued by Michael McCann, players who entered the league with no college experience between 1995 and 2003 enjoyed, on average, more professional success and greater financial security than those who attended college (prior to the institution of the age floor, these would primarily be prep-to-pro players). In addition, McCann found that modern student-athletes spend a disproportionate amount of time on team-related matters rather than concentrating on their studies and most NBA draftees leave college before they graduate. In short, the current NCAA system is primarily designed not to produce scholar student-athletes but to produce athletes – unpaid athletes at that. In light of these findings, a reasoned look at the particular details surrounding Jennings’ decision presents a more sympathetic picture.  As McCann discusses in a new essay, these facts may give rise to a legal challenge against the NBA’s age limit.  He and famed sports attorney Alan Milstein, who was lead counsel for Maurice Clarett in Clarett v. NFL, hinted at a prospective litigation while speaking at a law symposium earlier this year.

The reaction against Jennings’ decision may also be the result of implicit bias. As Situationist contributor John Jost et al. argue in their recent paper, “The Existence of Implicit Bias is Beyond Reasonable Doubt:  A Refutation of Ideological and Methodological Objections and Executive Summary of Ten Studies that No Manager Should Ignore,” unstated and subconscious biases held by people along racial lines can influence the immediate reactions, stereotypes and attitudes that one has towards out-groups.

Sports Business Management Professor Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida seemingly agrees with this assertion.  In 2006, Lapchick noted that there is often an assumption on the part of some fans and coaches that elite black student-athletes will invariably leave school as early as possible in order to go for the money.  A sizeable segment of the population believes, then, that black student-athletes value education less than their white counterparts.  Hence, when a young black basketball player chooses to ‘go for the money’ a commonly held stereotype is reinforced and perpetuated.

This type of assumption would most likely not stand up to scrutiny if people simply took the time to examine the situations of young black student-athletes like Jennings who choose to forgo college or leave college early.  As argued by Lapchick, there are numerous situational reasons why black student-athletes leave school at a higher clip than their white counterparts.

Like Jennings, many of these athletes come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds – certainly more in proportional terms than their white counterparts.  Given their socioeconomic handicapped situations, some leave early because they find the support and social structure at predominantly white educational institutions to be alien to them.  Others flunk out due to the fact that their educational background made them ill-prepared to study at the university level and many universities show little interest in helping their student-athletes catch up.  Yet others, like Jennings, are faced with the real consideration of immediate and extended families to support and feed.  These situations, then, serve to limit the educational choices of many black student-athletes.

Kanter Jennings

Extricate black student-athletes from these situations, as in the cases of black athletes like Noah and Rolle, and the educational outcomes may very well be different.  Unfortunately, many passively accept an unfair generalization regarding blacks and education because, as noted by Haidt, the stereotype satisfies the “makes sense” postulate and acceptance, simply put, is the path of least resistance.

The considerations raised by the above article is not to suggest that Kanter won’t be a stellar college student. Indeed, given the reports about Kanter’s maturity and dedication to his studies, there is little reason to doubt that his transition from European athlete to American college student-athlete will go anything short of swimmingly. Instead, the purpose of this article is to draw attention to the circumstances and situation which Kanter enjoys when making a seemingly high-minded decision to forsake dollars for school.

As I’ve argued here, those quick to contrast Kanter and Jennings either favorably or unfavorably should be careful to examine the diverse challenges encountered by these dissimilar athletes.  To suggest that the decision taken by one of these two young men is intrinsically morally superior would be needlessly broad and unfair.

Maybe the best perspective on the Kanter-Jennings debate has been voiced by Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com, “[European play] was the perfect set-up for Jennings. But not for Kanter. He’s a different dude with different goals.”

And a different situation as well.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

Suhler and Churchland on Control: Conscious and Otherwise

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on August 30, 2009

BrainCogsChristopher Suhler and Patricia Churchland have recently published an interesting article, entitled Control: Conscious and Otherwise,” that is directly relevant to the situationist challenge to more robust models of moral and legal responsibility.  Here is the abstract.

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Social psychologists have shown human decisions to be sensitive to numerous ordinary, possibly nonconscious, situational contingencies, motivating the view that control is largely illusory, and that our choices are largely governed by such external contingencies. Against this view is evidence that self-control and goal-maintenance are regularly displayed by humans and other animals, and evidence concerning neurobiological processes that support such control. Evolutionarily speaking, animals with a robust capacity to exercise control – both conscious and nonconscious – probably enjoyed a selective advantage. Counterbalancing data thus point to an account of control that sees an important role for nonconscious control in action and goal maintenance. We propose a conceptual model of control that encompasses such nonconscious control and links in-control behavior to neurobiological parameters.

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I am curious to see what the readers of this blog make of their provocative suggestion that the kind of control needed for responsibility can actually be attributed to the very automatic processes that situationists often point to in an effort to put pressure on traditional models of moral and legal responsibility.  There is also a post about this paper over at The Garden of Forking Paths.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Abstracts, Legal Theory, Philosophy | 3 Comments »

Our Genetic Situation and the Situation of Our Genes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 29, 2009

Visual DNAFor Observer, publisehd by the Association for Psychological Science, Eric Wargo wrote an excellent recap of the Presidential Symposium at this years APS Annual Convention in San Francisco.  Here are some excerpts of Wargo’s article, titled “The New Genetics.”

Three Canadians . . . , Frances Champagne, (Columbia University), Michael Meaney (McGill University), and Marla Sokolowski (University of Toronto), spoke about their respective discoveries concerning (as Walter Mischel put it) “the gene by environment interactions that underlie what we become and how we differ.”

What Makes Us Unique?

A vast and growing amount of data shows that life experience can shape an individual’s development in amazingly subtle ways. Those influences can include nutrition and other environmental factors, as well as the amount of nurturance or stress experienced, especially early in life. The research of Champagne and her colleagues at Columbia shows that these influences involve actually facilitating or suppressing the expression of genetic information.

The metaphor Champagne uses is a library. A library contains many books, but they don’t do anything by themselves; in order to have an impact, to instruct and inspire, they have to be actually taken down from the shelves and read. The genome is the same way: Whatever information it contains, it has no effect on anything unless and until it gets transcribed (by messenger RNA) and translated into protein. “DNA, in order to be read, must be accessible; it must be unwrapped from the very condensed form in which it is stored in cells,” she explained.

Modifications such as the binding of methyl groups to the DNA (methylation) can affect how readily particular DNA sequences are read and, thereby, expressed. Changes in the cell environment influence methylation and, even more strikingly, these cellular changes are passed on to daughter cells. In other words, through epigenetic mechanisms — that is, functional changes in the genome that don’t actually involve altering the DNA sequence — nurture plays an active role in shaping nature’s expression, even from generation to generation.

In the case of Champagne’s research, it’s nurture literally: Specifically, how actively mouse mothers lick and groom their pups. Analogous maternal behaviors are common across mammals from mice to humans and are readily quantifiable in the lab. Champagne’s research shows that, via methylation, high versus low levels of licking and grooming influence the expression of a gene that governs estrogen receptors in a key brain area responsible for maternal behavior. In this way, the amount of nurturance received by a mouse pup influences that pup’s own maternal behavior later on — not merely as a matter of “learning,” but as a real change in the expression of key genes in specific cells.

“Changes to the epigenome,” she said, “are a cellular memory of an environmental event.” Such cellular memories are then passed on to offspring via behavioral and epigenetic modes of transmission. . . .

A Constant Dialogue

It is well known that the social environment in early life predicts the later health of organisms. The question is how. Champagne’s mentor Michael Meaney discussed the hormonal mechanisms by which life experiences like early stress become, as he put it, “embedded.”

“Development emerges as a constant dialogue between gene and environment,” Meaney said, “and in part that environment is social and economic.  It is so for all species — it is social in that there is at least a maternal organism passing on signals to her offspring, and it is economic in that it involves at least nutrition, as well as potentially other signals.” Such signals have a long-term impact on gene expression, through cellular mechanisms of methylation and other processes.

Meaney’s work, like that of Champagne, looks at rodent maternal behavior — in this case, at its impact on later stress responsivity. The less licking and grooming infant rats receive, the more stress-reactive they are later. Offspring of more nurturant mothers are less easily stressed when they are adults than are offspring of less nurturant mothers. The same is true of offspring of less nurturant mothers raised by more nurturant foster mothers.

The hormonal mechanisms at work involve the body’s stress homeostat, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The stress response system begins in the hippocampus, which initiates a domino effect of chemical signals that ultimately trigger the release of glucocorticoid stress hormones by the adrenal glands. It’s a self-regulating system, in that these glucocorticoids ordinarily act back on the hippocampus, telling it to release fewer of its signals. In other words, stress hormones normally limit themselves.

But the stress of low maternal nurturance — less licking and grooming — early in life can directly influence the cell environment in hippocampal cells, producing increased methylation of the gene controlling for expression of glucocorticoid receptors and thereby inhibiting those receptors’ expression. The result is that the hippocampus is less responsive to signals to tone down the stress response — and consequently, there is heightened stress sensitivity and all the health and behavior consequences that entails. These influences (as in the alterations of maternal behavior studied by Champagne) can be passed on across generations but can also be reversed either pharmacologically or through alterations in the environment.

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To read the entire article, including a summary of the eye-opening work of Marla Sokolowski, click here.

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of ‘Genius’” and “The Genetic Situation of Ideology.”

Posted in Life | 4 Comments »

Milgram Remake

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 28, 2009

From ABC via Veoh:

“The video below describes a remake of Milgram’s famous study originally done in the ’60′s. Until recently, no one was authorized to replicate it due to ethical considerations. However, in 2007, ABC News was granted such permission and did so with many of the original researchers and some of the actual partipants. New data was also added.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Milgram Experiment Today?.” Gender Conformity,”The Case for Obedience,” A Shocking Situation,” “Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience – Part I,”  “The Case for Obedience,” Virtual Worlds, Learning, and Virtual Milgram,” Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment . . . Today,” and “Solomon Asch’s Classic Group-Influence Experiment.” For a list of previous Situationist posts discussing Milgram’s research click here.

Posted in Classic Experiments, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Toward a Situationist Perspective on Regulation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 27, 2009

New PerspectivesTobin Project Program Officer and Situationist friend, John Cisternino, has an important new co-edited book, titled “New Perspectives on Regulation.”  Here’s the abstract.

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New regulation shouldn’t rely on old ideas. Since the 1960s, influential research on government failure helped to drive the movement for deregulation and privatization. Yet even as this branch of research was flourishing, very different ideas were sprouting in the social sciences with profound implications for our understanding of human behavior and the role of government. Some of these ideas, particularly from the field of behavioral economics, have begun to enter into discussions of regulatory purpose, design, and implementation. The process is far from complete, and many other exciting new lines of research – on everything from social cooperation to co-regulation – have hardly been incorporated at all. It is imperative that lawmakers and their constituents be able to draw on the very latest academic work in thinking anew about the role of government. This is the purpose of this book: to make the newest and most important research accessible to a broad audience.

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The book contains several relatively situationist chapters, including the following (which you can download below):

  1. The Case for Behaviorally Informed Regulation PDF
    Michael S. Barr, Professor of Law, University of Michigan; Sendhil Mullainathan, Professor of Economics, Harvard University; Eldar Shafir, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University
  2. From Greenspan’s Despair to Obama’s Hope: The Scientific Basis of Cooperation as Principles of Regulation PDF
    Yochai Benkler, Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, Harvard University

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To read more about the book and to download individual chapters or the entire book, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Conference on the Free Market Mindset,” “Hanson’s Chair Lecture on Situationism,” Behavioral Economics and Policy,” “Do You Implicitly Prefer Markets or Regulation?,” “The Illusion of Wall Street Reform,” “Situationism’s Improving Situation,” “The Situation of the Mortgage Crisis,” and “Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health.”

Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Book, Law, Legal Theory | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Construing “Acquaintance Rape”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 26, 2009

date rape time coverSituationist Contributor Dan Kahan recently posted his fascinating paper, “Culture, Cognition, and Consent: Who Perceives What, and Why, in ‘Acquaintance Rape’ Cases.”  Here’s the abstract.

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This paper uses the theory of cultural cognition to examine the debate over rape-law reform. Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their perceptions of legally consequential facts to their defining group commitments. Results of an original experimental study (N = 1,500) confirmed the impact of cultural cognition on perceptions of fact in a controversial acquaintance-rape case. The major finding was that a hierarchical worldview, as opposed to an egalitarian one, inclined individuals to perceive that the defendant reasonably understood the complainant as consenting to sex despite her repeated verbal objections. The effect of hierarchy in inclining subjects to favor acquittal was greatest among women; this finding was consistent with the hypothesis that hierarchical women have a distinctive interest in stigmatizing rape complainants whose behavior deviates from hierarchical gender norms. The study also found that cultural predispositions have a much larger impact on outcome judgments than do legal definitions, variations in which had either no or a small impact on the likelihood subjects would support or oppose conviction. The paper links date-rape reform to a class of controversies in law that reflect symbolic status competition between opposing cultural groups, and addresses the normative implications of this conclusion.

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You can download the paper for free here.  To read a sample of related Situationist post see “The Situation of Blaming Rihanna,” “What Counts as Rape?,” “Unrecognized Injustice — The Situation of Rape,” The Cultural Situation of the HPV Vaccine – Abstract,” “Law, Chicken Sexing, Torture Memo, and Situation Sense,” “Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition – Abstract,” “The Second National Risk and Culture Study – Abstract,” and “Whose Eyes are You Going to Believe?.”

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

Nancy Kanwisher on the Situation of our Brain

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 25, 2009

BrainFor Observer, publisehd by the Association for Psychological Science, Ann Conkle wrote a nice summary of Nancy Kanwisher‘s fascinating keynote address at this years APS Annual Convention in San Francisco.  Here are some excerpts of Conkle’s article, titled “Sharpening the Focus on Brain Function.”

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Is your brain like a Swiss Army knife? . . . Is it jam-packed with specialized tools that are unfolded only when a specific situation arises? Or is it more all-purpose, with a few parts that tackle many different situations? Convention Keynoter and APS Fellow Nancy Kanwisher (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) is attempting to find out.

Following centuries of debate about specialized brain regions — from the phrenologists to Broca — the development of fMRI technology has ushered in a new era of studying brain regions. By monitoring the blood flow necessary to support neural activity, fMRI has allowed researchers to track which regions of the brain are involved in processing specific stimuli. With this new weapon in her arsenal, Kanwisher performed a now-classic study published in 1997. In it, participants sat in an fMRI scanner while looking a series of faces and objects. She and her colleagues identified an area in the fusiform gyrus on the bottom surface of the temporal lobe that responded more strongly when the participants viewed faces than when they viewed objects. Dubbed the fusiform face area, this region seemed like it could be specialized for processing faces.

But the researchers could not yet be sure. What if the area responded to everything animate, or everything round? A decade of more detailed research confirmed their original hypothesis — the fusiform face area lived up to its name. At the same time, Kanwisher’s lab discovered two other specialized areas: the parahippocampal place area, which specializes in processing places, and the extrastriate body area, which specializes in processing images of the body.

These answers only lead to more questions. These areas are involved in processing certain categories, but do they merely process perceptual input or actually reflect conscious experience? What are the roles of genes and experience in wiring up these areas? And finally, how much of the brain is like this? Is our entire cortex broken up into small pieces, each with their own special domain? Kanwisher and her colleagues are tackling these questions head on.

Do these areas only engage in their respective categorical processing or do they perform other functions as well? For example, take the fusiform face area. It is most active when viewing faces, but it also shows lesser activity when the participant is looking at other visual stimuli, like objects. Something in the pattern of this lower activity could be crucial in processing input other than faces. Evidence against this idea comes from research on patients with neurological trauma, who sometimes lose face perception abilities without losing object perception. But, the low chance of finding subjects with a lesion in just the right spot make this research limited. Other researchers have turned to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a method that uses magnetic fields to transiently disrupt neural activity. The fusiform face area is too deep in the brain to be affected by TMS, but the extrastriate body area is closer to the scalp and susceptible to the TMS disruption. When the neural activity in this region is disturbed, participants are impaired in the ability to recognize bodies but have no difficulty recognizing faces or other objects. Although these specialized areas may collect information about other types of stimuli, it seems that they are only necessary for processing information of their specific type.

Are the functionally specific regions merely perceptual processers or do they reflect our conscious experience? To illustrate the difference between perception and experience, Kanwisher instructed the audience to pick up the 3-D glasses left on the seats. But, before we could put them on, she showed us two images, a red-tinted image of a face and a green-tinted image of a house. Then she superimposed the house on the face creating a red/green face/house jumble. But, when looking at this jumble through glasses with one red-tinted and one green-tinted lens, so that the house image goes to one eye and the face image to the other, you don’t experience a jumble — you experience a red face that fades to a green house and back and forth as your brain attempts to make sense of this new situation. Even though your experience of what you are seeing is changing, the image beamed to your retina is constant the whole time. Work from Kanwisher’s lab showed that in this situation, activity in the fusiform face area corresponds with one’s experience, not with the actual perceptual input.

Further, not only does the activity in specialized areas correspond with what we consciously see, it also corresponds with what we imagine. Kanwisher has put people in the fMRI machine and asked them to imagine familiar faces and places. The same areas are active when participants are imagining faces and places as when they are actually looking at faces and places. It’s not just what you are physically seeing, but what you are consciously aware of that is processed by this area.

So, where do these specialized areas come from? What role do genes and experience play in their construction?

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For answers to those questions and the rest of Conkle’s summary of Kanwisher’s talk, click here.

To watch a video of Kanwisher’s Keynote presentation, click on the video below.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, “Smart People Thinking about People Thinking about People Thinking” and ““The Grand Illusion” — Believing We See the Situation.”  To review a collection of Situationist posts on neuroscience, click here.

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

Dan Ariely on the Situation of Expectation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 24, 2009

The good folks at Big Think interviewed behavioral economist Dan Ariely and asked him about the the nature of objective reality. Among other things, Ariely had this to say:

It turns out that if a physician comes to you and injects you with whatever – saline water – your body expects pain relief.  And your body secretes substances that are very much like morphine.  So it doesn’t matter what you get from the injection.  You actually get pain relief from your own body as a reaction to that.  Now you can’t just close your eyes and say, “Please can I have some pain killers.”  That doesn’t work.  But when a physician injects you with anything – even saline water – you get the pain relief that is actually a substance you can’t buy over the counter.  It’s like morphine.  But what is the reality there?

The video of his complete response is below.

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To review previous Situationist posts about Dan Ariely’s work click here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, Illusions, Life, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Time and Mind

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 23, 2009

ClockSituationist friend, Ellen Langer takes a mindful view of our mental powers in her fascinating book, “Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.”  Here are some excerpts from Melora North’s review in Wicked Local.

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[Ellen Langer]  has taken on an awesome challenge to introduce readers of all ages to new concepts that may indeed change their lives and turn back time.

“Way back when we did research on elderly people,” she says. “We wanted to find out how a change in mind can change people. If you put the mind in a different place the results are dramatic, the mind and body come back together. Where you put the mind, you put the body.”

One of the studies Langer conducted with five of her grad students was to assemble a group of elderly, reasonably healthy men who would live for one week in a world where the clock was turned back 20 years to 1959. They lived in an environment where the television only played programs from that time, the radio shouting out tunes and news broadcasts from the same era. Photographs, newspapers and magazines, political discussions, everything was a replica of 1959 in their controlled world. The men were directed to let themselves “be just who you were in 1959. We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this, you will also feel as well as you did in 1959,” says Langer in her book.

Langer and her team were right; the mind does indeed have wondrous control over the body. During the week the men became more independent, motivated and engaging. At the conclusion of the week each man had gained an average of three pounds, their memories and hearing had improved and the strength of their grips increased — the participants actually got “younger.”

“This book is very important,” says Langer. “Especially with all the baby boomers. The mindsets we form when we’re younger lock us into our health when we get older. If you believe you can’t control your life and health then you can’t.”

Sharing her insights, research and experience, Langer introduces the reader to ideas that can trip up the mind, thus enabling it to actually heal the body. For instance, she conducted eye tests in which she reversed the eye chart. The results were astounding, patients could actually see better because they had more optimistic expectations.

Another example is the power of words. A simple concept, she found that those with cancer who consider themselves cured enjoy healthier lives while those who say they are in remission have higher depression scores.

For those of you out there struggling with your weight, there is good news, and again, it is all about words. One of Langer’s studies took on a group of hotel chambermaids who have highly physical jobs. Vacuuming, lugging garbage, all these exercises burn calories and test stamina. The maids had a mindset that they were just doing their jobs, not getting exercise. Ha! Once they were informed their work was exercise, the brain set in to shape a different mental image and the women actually began to lose weight, an added benefit being the lowering of their blood pressure.

In this book Langer shares her research on the power of placebos and whether patients actually need traditional medications. She tells how best to work with your doctor explaining that we are in charge of our own vessel and cannot assume that our annual check-ups and yearly blood work will tell the whole story of our physical being.

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To read the entire review, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Health and Aging,” “Time and the Situation of Marshmallows,” and “January Fools’ Day.”

Posted in Book, Life, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Stereotyping Stories

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 22, 2009

Getting Pegged

Our favorite radio program, This American Life, broadcast an especially situationist episode in July, which you can listen to here.   The program’s description is as follows.

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Prologue.

Amy Roberts thought it was obvious that she was an adult, not a kid, and she assumed the friendly man working at the children’s museum knew it too. Unfortunately, the man had Amy pegged all wrong. And by the time she figured it out, it was too late for either of them to save face. Host Ira Glass talks to Amy about the embarrassing ordeal that taught her never to assume she knows what someone else is thinking. (8 1/2 minutes)

Act One. The Fat Blue Line.

While riding in a patrol car to research a novel, crime writer Richard Price witnessed a misunderstanding that for many people is pretty much accepted as an upsetting fact of life. Richard Price told this story—which he describes as a tale taken from real life and dramatized—onstage at the Moth in New York. Price’s most recent novel is Lush Life, which he’s adapting for film. (12 minutes)

Act Two. Stereotypes Uber Alles.

When writer Chuck Klosterman got back from a trip to Germany, friends asked him what Germans were like. Did nine days as an American tourist make him qualified to answer? In this excerpt of an essay he wrote for Esquire magazine, Chuck explains why not. (6 minutes)

Act Three. Yes, No or Baby.

There are some situations where making judgments about people based on limited amounts of information is not only accepted, but required. One of those situations is open adoption, where birth mothers actually choose the adoptive parents for their child. TAL producer Nancy Updike talks to a pregnant woman named Kim going through the first stage of open adoption: reading dozens of letters from prospect parents, all of whom seem utterly capable and appealing. With so many likeable candidates to choose from, Kim ends up focusing on tiny details of people’s lives. (6 minutes)

Act Four. Paradise Lost.

Shalom Auslander tells the story of the time he went on vacation, pegged the guest in the room next door as an imposter and devoted his holiday to trying to prove it. Shalom Auslander is the author, most recently, of the memoir Foreskin’s Lament.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Alcohol, Hotdogs, Sexism, and Racism,” “TAL Animation on the Situation of Memory,” “A Rose by any other Name Might Become a Judge,” You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” and “The Situation of Gender-Science Stereotypes.”

Posted in Illusions, Life, Podcasts, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Dirty Situation of U.S. Currency

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 21, 2009

CurrencyMadison Park of CNN.com has an interesting piece on potentially harmful substances commonly found on currency.  We excerpt it below.

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In the course of its average 20 months in circulation, U.S. currency gets whisked into ATMs, clutched, touched and traded perhaps thousands of times at coffee shops, convenience stores and newsstands. And every touch to every bill brings specks of dirt, food, germs or even drug residue.

Research presented this weekend reinforced previous findings that 90 percent of paper money circulating in U.S. cities contains traces of cocaine.

“When I was a young kid, my mom told me the dirtiest thing in the world is money,” said the researcher, Yuegang Zuo, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “Mom is always right.”

Scientists say the amount of cocaine found on bills is not enough to cause health risks.

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For years, health agencies have advised people to wash their hands after touching cash for sanitary reasons. Disease-causing organisms such as staphylococcus aureus and pneumonia-causing bacteria have been detected in paper bills. According to a 2002 study published in the Southern Medical Journal, 94 percent of the tested bills had potentially disease-causing organisms.

Adam Negrusz, an associate professor of forensic sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he isn’t worried about the cleanliness of money in terms of public health.

“I never think about this as a source of danger. We have more things which can be potentially harmful,” said Negrusz, who was not involved in Zuo’s study.

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To read the rest, click here.  For other Situationist posts related to public health, click here.

Posted in Life | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 20, 2009

The good folks at Big Think interviewed Situationist friend Dan Gilbert and asked him about the future of psychology.  Among other things, Gilbert had this to say.

Surely the other big problem facing psychology is the problem facing any behavioral science in the United States of America, which is we have leaders who don’t much appreciate behavioral science. It’s an odd thing, given that virtually every problem you’re trying to solve is a problem of human behavior. These aren’t sciences that gather much respect. And as a result, they’re not sciences that are doing very well in terms of funding. It’s quite possible that psychology as we know it won’t exist as a science in 10 or 15 years if we follow the present course of funding in the U.S.A.

The video of his complete response is below.

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To review previous Situationist posts by or about Dan Gilbert’s work click here.

Posted in Neuroscience, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Parochialism – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 19, 2009

ParochialJonathan Baron recently posted his interesting paper, titled “Parochialism as a Result of Cognitive Biases” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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I discuss several forms of bias, or fallacious thinking, that lead to parochialism, that is, a willingness to sacrifice self-interest for in-group members while neglecting or underweighing negative effects on outsiders, so that an out-group could lose more than the in-group gains from the sacrifice. In the self-interest illusion, people fallaciously think that their contribution to their group comes back to benefit them and make their sacrifice worthwhile. This illusion is larger when an outgroup is affected, and it is specific to group benefits; it is unrelated to the desire to hurt another group out of sheer competition. A second bias is the tendency to de-personalize the individuals involved and think about the groups. This is reduced when people make analogous decisions about individuals. I suggest that approval voting — at least when both groups vote — can lead people to take the out-group into account. Omission bias, the preference for harming others through omissions rather than actions, is greater for out-group members. Parochialism can be moralized: people think of it as absolute and objectively moral, they are willing to impose it moralistically on others, and they consider the support of the in-group to be their duty as citizens. I conclude with suggestions for reducing the harmful effects of parochialism.

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To download the paper for free, click here.  To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part II,” “The Situation of Biased Perceptions,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “Situationist Theories of Hate – Part IV,” and “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I.”

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Ideology, Life | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Rose by any other Name Might Become a Judge

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 18, 2009

PortiaBentley Coffey and Patrick McLaughlin have recently published their intriguing article, titled “Do Masculine Names Help Female Lawyers Become Judges? Evidence from South Carolina,” in American Law and Economics Review (Spring 2009). Here are some excerpts from the paper’s introduction (citations omitted).

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In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, a woman named Portia masquerades as a man in order to argue before the court as an attorney. Indeed, for centuries the only way a woman could have practiced law was incognito because the courtroom was a domain reserved exclusively for men. A notable exception on record is Miss Margaret Brent, circa 1640, who was permitted by Lord Baltimore to practice law as a woman; nonetheless, she was still addressed as “Gentleman Margaret Brent” during her several dozen appearances in the Maryland colonial court.

Most jurisdictions in the western world refused to admit women to the bar before World War I. By the end of the nineteenth century, any woman attempting to practice law was labeled Portia, as was the first school established exclusively for the legal education of women. The first Portia to be admitted to the South Carolina bar was Miss James (Jim) Margrave Perry in 1918. Although women no longer needed a male disguise to practice law, a male persona or male moniker still might have helped.

Despite the fact that women made up half of the students graduating from law school in the past 15 years, the legal profession remains a male-dominated world. Consequentially, one would suspect that having a male persona or male moniker might still be advantageous to a career in law. We dub this the Portia hypothesis: females with masculine names are more successful in legal careers than females with feminine names. The purpose of this paper is to conduct the first empirical test of the Portia hypothesis, using data from South Carolina.

We have good reason to expect to find the Portia hypothesis holding in our data. The first female lawyer in South Carolina had a masculine name and today many female lawyers privately express their belief that their nominal masculinity matters. Anecdotally, the legal profession remains one of the last bastions of the “good old boy network”, particularly in South Carolina. Even in Massachusetts – a state that is often viewed as less traditional than South Carolina – females comprise a small minority of all partners in law firms. Just as precedent-bound law changes slowly, the legal profession is notoriously slow to embrace change. On the other hand, females are a protected class under the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, and no one should understand (and, arguably, respect) that better than lawyers and judges. Yet judicial positions turn over rarely, some even being held for life, so that the equal status for women may not yet have propagated into the upper echelons of the legal profession.

Several different mechanisms could be at work to make the Portia hypothesis hold in the data. A lawyer’s gender could explicitly matter for advancement to some decision makers; for example, some judicial positions are determined by popular election, and the electorate (or sufficiently large subset of it) could categorically prefer men to women. If nothing else were known about an individual besides that individual’s name, the name itself could contain information on the gender of the individual, just as a name contains information on the race of an individual. Just as with the racial discrimination on call-backs for resumes submitted in job applications, individuals may be more likely to get into the pool of candidates receiving serious consideration for the sorts of positions that lead to potential judgeships, i.e. getting their “foot in the door”, when they have a male moniker.

Alternatively, nominal masculinity might matter when opinions are formed about a lawyer’s work, not face-to-face, but through the written word, such as through briefs or publications in law journals. If there is some gender bias in the citation process – that is, if authors are generally more likely to cite a writer with a masculine name than with a feminine name – then we might observe female lawyers with masculine names receiving more citations than female lawyers with feminine names, ceteris paribus, and having relatively fewer citations could affect career outcomes. The mechanism could be even subtler yet. There could be a subconscious preference for male names, even when the gender is known; jurists, clients, superiors, professors, legislators, etc., might just feel more comfortable with a woman called “George” than one called “Barbara”; in the context of the good old boy network, a woman with a male moniker might just feel more like “one of the boys”. Finally, it could just be that the parents who successfully nurture a girl’s ability are the same people who believe that bestowing a child with a masculine name would be advantageous in her future career path.

In this paper, we use the frequency of names and genders of all registered voters in South Carolina to construct a measure of nominal masculinity and assign this measure to each member of the South Carolina bar. Examining the correlation between a lawyer’s advancement to a judgeship and his/her name’s masculinity, we find that nominally masculine names appear to be favored over nominally feminine names. This could be due to the Portia Hypothesis. Alternatively, the correlation between attaining judgeship and masculine names could also arise from the fact that most judges are males, who tend to have more masculine names (by definition).  Because we do not observe the gender of South Carolina bar members, we are unable to control for male domination of the judiciary with that data source.

To separate these two possible causes of correlation between nominal masculinity and judgeship, we combine data on the names and genders of the entire population of registered voters in South Carolina with the publicly available names and genders of judges.  Controlling for gender, we find a significant correlation between nominal masculinity and judgeship, supporting the Portia Hypothesis.  A series of robustness checks confirm the Portia Hypothesis.

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You can download a pre-publication pdf draft of their paper here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Gendered Situation of Chess,” The Situation of Gender-Science Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situational Bind,” The Situation of Gender and Science,Stereotype Threat and Performance,” “The Gendered Situation of Science & 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 Abstracts, Implicit Associations, Law, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 17, 2009

MonkeyJohn Cloud has an interesting article, titled “Monkey See, Monkey Do: Imitation Breeds Bonding,” in the latest issue of Time Magazine.  Here are some excerpts.

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. . . . A new paper in Science . . . [investigates] whether a widely documented human phenomenon — the fact that we tend to prefer people who behave the same way we do in social interactions — exists in other species.

It turns out it does. Adhering to the old saying “monkey see, monkey do,” monkeys in the study appeared to favor those who mimicked them — even when the imitator was a member of another species (Homo sapiens). The authors of the paper, Annika Paukner of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Animal Center, who worked with her colleague Pier Ferrari as well as two Italian researchers, structured their study this way: Two experimenters, each holding a small plastic ball, faced each monkey in its cage (10 monkeys in all participated). The monkey was given an identical ball. One of the experimenters imitated whatever the monkey did with the ball — poking it, mouthing it, pounding it. The other experimenter didn’t imitate the animal.

The advantage of mimicry was clear. Monkeys looked longer at the imitator than they did at the other experimenter, and they chose to stand in front of the imitator more often. The monkeys also exchanged little tokens (in return for a bit of marshmallow) more often with the imitator than with the non-imitator.

The study reconfirms the notion that imitation is not uniquely human (past research has also shown that apes and monkeys easily recognize when they are being copied), and that our affinity for it may have roots in our evolution. What has never been precisely understood, though, is why we like to be parroted so much. One theory is that mimicry somehow promotes safety in groups of animals by binding them together — that mimicry is a kind of social glue.

That hypothesis certainly supports the human tendency toward “reflexive imitation,” a term coined in the 18th century by Adam Smith to describe the psychological act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and experiencing their feelings — you wouldn’t do that unless you were after some sort of social bond. Some years later, in 1999, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published an influential paper showing how socially bonding the act of mimicking can be, even when people aren’t aware they’re being imitated. In the study, psychologists Tanya Chartrand, who is now at Duke, and [Situationist Contributor] John Bargh, who is now at Yale, asked college students to describe a set of photographs in one-on-one discussions with researchers. During the discussions, the researchers subtly but consistently mirrored the mannerisms and posture of the students. If one of the college kids leaned back, then the researcher leaned back. If one of the kids folded his arms, then the researcher did as well. With a control group, the researchers made no attempt to copy behaviors; instead, they adopted a neutral tone and body language.

None of the kids noticed that the researchers were mimicking them. And yet compared with those who were not imitated, the students who were mimicked reported liking the researchers more and thinking the interaction went more smoothly. In short, when people imitate us — nodding when we do, tilting their heads when we do — we are more willing to be their ally.

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To read the entire article, which includes a discussion of how Chartrand and Bargh’s work has been expanded and some of the consequences of mimickry, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Monkey Fairness” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I.”

Posted in Life, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Daniel Dennett on the Situation of our Brain

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 16, 2009

Daniel Dennett is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and a University Professor at Tufts University.  Here is a brief Big Think video of Dennett discussing some of the problems of the human brain, including, the “very sharp limit to the depth that we as conscious agents can probe our own activities.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “Dan Dennett on our Interior Situation,” “The Situation of Reason,” 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.”

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

The Situation of Facebook Jealousy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 15, 2009

JealousyMarc Beja of the Chronicles of Higher Education has an interesting piece on jealousy driving people to spend inordinate amounts of time on Facebook.  We excerpt this piece below.

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Having relationship troubles? Is your significant other interrogating you, asking about your communication with people you used to date, or even with acquaintances you speak with infrequently?

Blame Facebook, say three researchers at the University of Guelph, in Ontario.

The reason? Jealousy. And not just any jealousy—”Facebook-specific jealousy,” say two Ph.D. candidates in psychology and their advisor. They add that such jealousy may increase the amount of time that you—or your significant other—spend on the social networking site.

The researchers—Amy Muise and Emily Christofides, both Ph.D. candidates, and Serge Desmarais, an associate professor of applied social psychology—wondered whether spying on their significant others would make people question the partners’ honesty and fidelity, and if time spent on the Web site would increase as a result. More than 300 undergraduate students completed an anonymous online survey about their Facebook habits. Of those, a little more than half said they were seriously dating one person.

The study relied on 27 items that were meant to assess Facebook-related jealousy, and a scale was created for each item. Results of the survey were published in the August edition of the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior in an article titled “More Information than You Even Wanted: Does Facebook Bring Out the Green-Eyed Monster of Jealousy?

The undergraduates were asked questions like “How likely are you to become jealous after your partner has added an unknown member of the opposite sex?” and “How likely are you to monitor your partner’s activities on Facebook?” The answer to both of those questions was “very likely” for a substantial number of participants. The respondents said they spent an average of nearly 40 minutes on the Web site each day, with women spending more time than men.

More than three-quarters of the participants said they knew their partners had added as “friends” people with whom they had previously had flings. And more than 92 percent said their partners were at least somewhat likely to have “friends” they did not themselves know.

Rising jealousy can be attributed to the social-networking site, which makes speaking with not-so-close friends easier than before, the researchers say. Many people add as friends people they have met in passing, rather than adding only acquaintances they see regularly. Men in the study reported having 100 more friends, on average, than women did. Women outscored men on the jealousy scale, averaging a score of 3.29 out of 7, while men scored 2.81. Three-quarters of those who completed the survey were women.

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To read the rest, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing, Virtual Bias, “Internet Disinhibition,” and The Situational Effect of Groups.

Posted in Emotions, Entertainment | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Robert Cialdini Explains Social Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 14, 2009

From the excellent Big Think, here’s a worthwhile video of social psychologist Robert Cialdini talking about some of the social psychologists who influenced his work, including Situationist contributor Phil Zimbardo.

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For a sample of other Situationist posts discussing Robert Cialdini’s research, see “The Situationist Overwhelmed with Visitors, Return Later if Necessary,” “Journalists as Social Psychologists & Social Psychologists as Entertainers,” and “The Situation of Interrogation and Marketing.”

Posted in Classic Experiments, Marketing, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Temptation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 13, 2009

Angel DevilIn early July, Drake Bennett had a terrific article in the Boston Globe, titlted “The nature of temptation: Why those who speak against vice so often fall for it.”  Here are some excerpts.

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There are plenty of people who cheat on their spouses, plenty of people who hire prostitutes. It’s hardly unheard of for an office to be plagued by a boss sending sexually explicit emails to underlings, even much younger ones, or for a man to solicit sex in a public restroom or to hire a male prostitute and then buy drugs from him.

In other words, it’s not just public figures with careers built around denouncing moral turpitude – crusading prosecutors like Eliot Spitzer, evangelical leaders like Ted Haggard, socially conservative politicians like Mark Foley, David Vitter and Larry Craig – who end up confessing to those very acts. And yet, with the back-to-back revelations of marital infidelity by Nevada senator John Ensign and South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, two more cultural conservatives, the question once again arises: why is it that people who set themselves up as moral paragons seem to have the hardest time living up to their own standards?

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It’s almost as if a reputation for morality is a gateway into vice.

And in fact, according to a growing body of psychological research, that may be exactly what’s going on. The study of how we form opinions of our own moral worth is a budding field, and it suggests that the human mind works in powerful, subtle ways to make hypocrites out of all of us – especially those who hold themselves in the highest moral esteem. People who inveigh against a vice in others are often themselves fixated on it, and more likely to succumb to its allure. And, the research suggests, virtuous deeds are often a form of penance for thoughts a person is ashamed of.

Indeed, recent work has suggested that the very act of seeing oneself as a good person can make it harder to avoid doing immoral things. In part it’s a matter of rationalization, and the better a person we think we are, the better we are at rationalizing. In part it stems from the oddly perishable nature of human self-control, and the way that, like a muscle, it tires after extended use. But also in operation, the researchers suggest, is a sort of moral “set point”: an innate human sense that there is such a thing as too much moral behavior. And when we stray too far from the mean in either direction – even if it’s toward saintliness – we revert, sometimes spectacularly.

“If you have a holier-than-thou attitude about temptation, you probably are ushering it in,” says Loran Nordgren, a social psychologist and assistant professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business who has studied how people underestimate the power of their impulses.

This new research may help explain the philandering of family-values politicians, but as a portrait of virtue it can feel a bit impoverished. Rather than a guide to a properly lived life, personal morality becomes a spur that grows out of guilt, or an after-the-fact story we tell ourselves about actions already decided on. And rather than a moral compass, what we may have is closer to a thermostat, stubbornly set to a comfortable moral mediocrity.

When asked about the phenomenon of the hypocritical moralizer, psychologists will often point to “projection,” an idea inherited from Freud. What it means – and there is a large literature to back it up – is that if someone is fixated on a particular worry or goal, they assume that everyone else is driven by that same worry or goal. Someone who covets his neighbor’s wife, in other words, would tend, rightly or wrongly, to see wife-coveting as a widespread phenomenon, and if that person were a politician or preacher, he might spend a lot of his time spreading the word about the dangers of adultery.

But more dangerous than this solipsistic misreading of others may be just how much we misapprehend ourselves. Psychologists and economists have repeatedly found that people are no good at predicting the power of their own urges, whether it’s sex, drugs, gambling, hunger, or simply spending too much money. George Loewenstein, a leading behavioral economist and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, calls this inability to imagine our way into the heat of the moment the “cold-to-hot empathy gap.”

And, according to work Nordgren has done, people with the most favorable opinion of their own moral fortitude seem to have the widest empathy gaps. In one study, Nordgren looked at a group of people trying to quit smoking and found that it was those who rated their willpower particularly highly who were most likely to end up smoking again within a few months. The reason, Nordgren argues, is that they were more cavalier about exposing themselves to situations where they might be tempted to smoke. It’s a tendency that he argues extends far beyond smokers. . . .

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There is other support for the idea that a strong sense of one’s own moral goodness may in fact trigger immoral or deeply selfish acts. Psychologists have started to look at what they call a “moral credentialing” effect. In this model, the ‘credential’ is a part of our self-image, a sort of merit badge we earn by doing – or merely thinking – things that make us feel good about ourselves as people.

Psychologists who study moral credentialing argue that the credentials themselves are highly perishable – people who have felt the glow of having done a good deed have also felt how quickly it begins to fade. But research suggests that during that span, when people are feeling particularly good about themselves, they’re less likely to do another good deed if the opportunity arises. A paper published this spring by Sonya Sachdeva, Rumen Iliev, and Douglas Medin of the psychology department at Northwestern University found that, if people were primed to think of themselves as good, caring people, they were actually less generous with donations, and less likely to advocate spending money on costly environmental protection measures, than people primed to think of themselves as selfish and cruel. A 2001 study by Benoît Monin and Dale Miller, two Stanford psychology professors who helped create the idea of moral credentialing, found that people given a chance to showcase their progressive views on race and gender were then more likely to make a discriminatory decision in a mock hiring setting.

“People feel like they have a free pass because they’ve amassed those moral credits as a good person,” Monin says. Someone who is constantly being reminded of their moral worth, a televangelist, say, or a strong-chinned prosecutor, might be more likely to lapse, because in a sense they’re constantly being recredentialed.

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“There’s a sort of goal turnoff effect,” says [Situationist Contributor] John Bargh, a Yale psychology professor who has done seminal work on unconscious motivation. “We’ve got a lot of different goals, from eating and drinking, and maybe sex, to higher-level ones like getting work done and making your parents proud of you. As soon as we feel like we’ve taken care of one, it drops down the list.”

Does that mean everyone with higher moral ambitions is destined to someday follow the tear-stained path of Jimmy Swaggart?

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To find out, read the entire article here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Jon Ensign, and Now Mark Sanford: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation,” “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me),” and “Investing in Vice.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Life, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Elizabeth Loftus and the Situation of False Memories

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 12, 2009

From Chautauqua Institution, here’s a worthwhile video in which renowned social psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Irvine, discusses her remarkable research on human memory and the prevalence of false memories.  She also explains how her findings are relevant for everything from law to dieting.

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For related Situationist posts “Emotional Content of True and False Memories – Abstract,” “Mood & Memory,” “The Situation of Confabulation,” “Emotional Content of True and False Memories – Abstract,” “The Situation of Memory,” and “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me).”

Posted in Illusions, Law, Life, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

 
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