The Situationist

Archive for August, 2009

The Situation of Birthers’ Belief

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 11, 2009

Obama Uniquely AmericanScientific American has an interesting, “60-Second Podcast” by Steve Mirsky about research by Situationist Contributor  Mahzarin Banaji and San Diego State’s Thierry Devos finding that white Americans inherently regard white Europeans as somehow more “American” than Asian- or African-Americans.  Here are some excerpts from the podcast, which you can link to here.

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The so-called birthers can’t accept that President Obama is really a natural-born American citizen. Part of what’s behind this seemingly irrational belief may lie in what’s called implicit social cognition—the deep-rooted assumptions we all carry around, and may act on without realizing it.

Harvard’s Mahzarin Banaji studies such implicit cognition. Last fall she talked to journalists at the annual conference of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing about research into bias against Asian-Americans. “So we thought, what if we picked Asians who are very well known to be American. What about Connie Chung? Are they going to be seen as less American than, let’s say, Hugh Grant? And so we thought this was a bizarre study to do but we did it anyway.”

Amazingly, white Americans did see a white European like Hugh Grant as being somehow more American than the Asian-American Connie Chung. And similar research in 2008 found that whites thought of ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair as somehow more American than Obama. So the mental framework to believe that Obama is foreign probably was, to use a health care term, a preexisting condition.

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To read a closely related Situationist post, see “The Situation of Being ‘(un)American’.”

For some posts examining the the role of implicit associations in elections, see “Patricia Devine on Resisting Implicit Associations,” The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters,” On Being a Mindful Voter,”Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,”The Situation of Political Animals,” “Political Psychology in 2008,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,The Psychology of Barack Obama as the Antichrist,” and “The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters.”

To review all of the previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin, or, for a list of such posts, click here. For other Situationist posts on the 2008 Presidential Election, click here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Podcasts, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Consuming Merit, Gatekeeping, and Reproducing Wealth

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 10, 2009

Harvard Graduation Caps

The op-ed excerpted below, America’s Best Colleges: Merit by the Numbers,” by Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier and Columbia Law Professor Susan Sturm, appeared in the August 5, 2009, edition of Forbes. It eloquently examines the role played and not played by universities in educating young people to promote the system-justifying illusion of merit.

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In its recent commencement issue, an Ivy League college newspaper displayed a snapshot of the Class of 2009 “by the numbers.” Although the students had by then been at the college for four years, all of the relevant “numbers” were based on a profile of the class at the time of enrollment. Prominently featured were the 157 children of alumni; the 9.7% of applicants who were admitted; and, last but not least, the median SAT math and verbal scores–740 and 750, respectively–of the class.

Amazingly, all the “merits” of the graduating seniors involved attributes that predated the students’ arrival on campus. Totally missing from the portrait was the “merit” that the Class of 2009 developed as a result of the four years they had spent at the school. Nor was any mention made of the contributions they were poised to make. Apparently, the defining qualities of merit–and what was most valued in the students–were the attributes they already had as incoming freshmen.

Selective colleges and universities, like this one, act more like consumers than producers of merit. They build their reputation based on the credentials of the people they admit rather than the contributions of the people they graduate. Trapped by a rankings culture that ties their reputation to admissions inputs, they also define themselves by whom they exclude. Schools that attract a lot of applicants, and then reject 92.3% of them, are held in the highest esteem.

But this process valorizes a uniform set of test-taking skills that produce results no better at predicting college performance than family wealth. In fact, Jesse Rothstein, a Princeton economist, found that the socio-economic status of a high school is a better predictor of what kind of grades its students will earn their first year in college than the individual SAT scores of its students. In effect, the testocracy reproduces privilege and stratifies the higher-education system by race and class. Individuals who perform well on high-stakes tests are awarded admission to college or law school as a prize for performance on a test that best predicts not aptitude, but parental income and education. This inequality effect of the SAT undermines a range of public values, from providing access to college independent of wealth and privilege to developing problem-solving capabilities.

The preoccupation with backwards-looking statistical criteria also severs the tie between admissions and mission. The testing regime deflects the college’s responsibility away from, for example, producing a diverse and dynamic learning environment that actually builds capacity among the students to become the leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs of the Harvard Gatenext generation. Reputation based on numerical ranking assumes greater importance than reputation based on the development of innovative ideas and publicly spirited graduates. The primary function of admission becomes status and prestige enhancement for the institution itself and for those who enroll.

Beyond that, the pre-eminent role of high-stakes tests also negatively affects student engagement and learning. The standardized and time-limited nature of the SAT and the ACT fixate student attention on the mastery of test-taking techniques, rather than on developing qualities such as creativity, ability to collaborate, critical thinking and drive. It misleads, by reinforcing the view that ability is fixed when in fact intelligence is both malleable and incremental.

A static view of intelligence has been widely debunked; it undermines intellectual risk-taking. It is also self-fulfilling. According to social psychologist Carol Dweck, students who hold a “fixed” theory of intelligence expend enormous energy worrying about how smart they are–they become preoccupied with avoiding mistakes and are less likely to engage in the excitement of learning. In contrast, people who believe that one’s capacity to learn is “expandable” are more willing to challenge themselves.

An openness to learning from others is crucial in today’s complex environment. People who tackle the world’s problems with the benefit of different perspectives are less likely to get stuck in the same dead ends. As Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, has demonstrated, diverse groups have greater potential to generate effective and innovative solutions to tough problems.

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To read the entire column, including Guinier and Sturm’s discussion of solutions and alternatives to the “testocracy,” click here.

To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Firefighters and the Situation of “Merit”,” “Rich Brains, Poor Brains?,” “The Situation of ‘Genius’,” Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids,” How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition” (which includes a video of Carol Dweck), “The Perils of Being Smart,” “Stereotype Threat and Exit Exams,” The Situation of the Achievement Gap,” The Situation of Standardized Test Scores,” and “The Interior Situation of Intergenerational Poverty.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Distribution, Education, Illusions, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Brain Sciences and Criminal Law – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 9, 2009

Brain PuzzleTheodore Blumoff, recently posted his paper, “The Brain Sciences and Criminal Law Norms” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Although neuroscience and the tools of brain imaging are sufficiently well developed to provide evidence of our neurobiological processing at a level of detail unimaginable until even decade ago (roughly the size of a grain of rice), they are not yet sufficiently developed to be consistently useful in the guilt phase of most criminal trials. Given the advances in imaging and behavioral genetics, however, neuroscience is sufficiently mature today to effect some global procedural and substantive changes in our criminal law jurisprudence based on our advanced understanding of behavioral norms – e.g., changes in the definitions of, and burdens of proof on the issue of competency. In this work, I survey many of the presuppositions that guide work in a jurisprudence grounded in neuroscience and behavioral genetics and suggest how the findings in these areas could useful in effecting real change.

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You can download the paper for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Michael Gazzaniga on Brains and Gavels,” “Greely on Law and Neuroscience,” “Jurors, Brain Imaging, and the Allure of Pretty Pictures,” “Neurosciences and Criminal Law,” “Neurolaw Sampler,” “Neuroscience and the Law,” and “Law & the Brain.”

Posted in Abstracts, Law, Neuroscience | 2 Comments »

Michael Gazzaniga on Brains and Gavels

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 8, 2009

Brains and Gavels

In the 66-minute video below, Carl Zimmer interviews Michael S. Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology, University of California at Santa Barbara & Director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Law & Neuroscience Project. It’s worth watching.

Here is the video’s table of contents provided by Bloggingheads:

Mike’s project to connect law with neuroscience (13:59)
Why normal people sometimes make horrible choices (07:54)
How to be morally responsible—and causally determined (11:49)
Becoming your future self (06:48)
Poverty as a neurotoxin (12:51)
Left-brain, right-brain, split-brain (11:28)

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Greely on Law and Neuroscience,” Jurors, Brain Imaging, and the Allure of Pretty Pictures,” “Neurolaw Sampler,” Law & the Brain,” “The Split Brain and the Interior Situation of Theories of the Self,” “Our Interior Situations – The Human Brain,”and Your Brain and Morality.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Law, Legal Theory, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

The Cultural Situation of Tort Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 7, 2009

Cultural TortsDavid Engel and Michael McCann, have posted on SSRN their introduction to their forthcoming edited volume Tort Law as Cultural Practice.  Here’s the abstract.

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Most scholars would agree that tort law is a cultural phenomenon and that its norms, institutions, and procedures both reflect and shape the broader culture of which it is a part. Yet relatively few studies have attempted to analyze tort law as a form of cultural practice or to address basic challenges regarding the methods or subject matter that are appropriate to such analyses. This essay introduces and summarizes a new volume of interdisciplinary, comparative, and historical studies of tort law in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, India, Thailand, and elsewhere (the volume is entitled Fault Lines: Tort Law as Cultural Practice, Stanford University Press, 2009). The introductory essay contends that culture is not some ‘thing’ outside of tort law that may or may not influence legal behavior and deposit artifacts in the case law reporters. Rather, tort law and culture are inseparable dimensions of social practice in which risk, injury, liability, compensation, deterrence, and normative pronouncements about acceptable behavior are crucial features. Contributors to this volume demonstrate a variety of ways in which tort law’s cultural dimensions can be explored as they write about such topics as causation and duty, gender and race, the jury and the media, products liability and medical malpractice, insurance and the police, and tobacco and asbestos litigation. Their analyses extend far beyond the confines of the tort reform debate, which has until now set the agenda for much of the sociolegal research on tort law.

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To download the introduction for free, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Situationist Torts – Abstract,” “Mark Lanier visits Professor Jon Hanson’s Tort Class (web cast),” and “Why Torts Die – Abstract.”

Posted in Abstracts, Cultural Cognition, Law, Legal Theory | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Group-Serving Behavior

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 6, 2009

NYU LibraryHeather Barry and Situationist Contributor Tom Tyler recently published a fascinating article, “The Other Side of Injustice: When Unfair Procedures Increase Group-Serving Behavior,” in Psychological Science.  Here’s the abstract.

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Greater group identification and higher levels of procedural justice typically work together to encourage group members to engage in group-serving cooperative behavior. However, when people who already identify with a group receive information indicating that the group is procedurally unjust, their motivation to engage in group-serving behavior may increase. This article reports two studies in which college students’ identification with their university was measured and information about the procedural justice of the university was manipulated. Study 1 used an explicit measure of group identification and a deliberative measure of group-serving behavior. Study 2 used an implicit measure of group identification and both deliberative and spontaneous measures of group-serving behavior. The findings of both studies support the hypothesis that among people who are highly identified with a group, learning about the group’s injustice leads to short-term increases in group-serving behavior.

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To access the article, click here.  For a related Situationist post, see “Tom Tyler on ‘Strategies of Social Control’.”

Posted in Abstracts, Education, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Messiness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 5, 2009

Messy KitchenMelissa Kossler Dutton has an interesting article, “Letting it Slide,” (for AP) on changing standards of house cleaning.  Here are some excerpts.

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When Amy Herendeen first became a stay-at-home mom, she dedicated a lot of time and effort to keeping house. But the chores were often interrupted by her daughter’s needs. Trying to be the “perfect housewife” and take care of an infant left her feeling frustrated and angry.

So she changed her priorities.

“I didn’t quit my job to stay home to clean house,” said Herendeen, 31, of Manchester, Mo. “My daughter is my job. I am a stay-at-home mom, not a maid.”

Now Herendeen strives for a house that’s clean enough — meaning the bathrooms and kitchen are clean and the house appears tidy. But she doesn’t spend a lot of time scrubbing floors, washing windows or deep cleaning. And she doesn’t feel guilty if the laundry doesn’t get done.

Many people are making peace with messier lives, casting off the expectations they grew up with. Busy careers, super-scheduled children and less interest in housework have contributed to the new mindset.

“Over time, housekeeping standards have lowered,” said Francine Deutsch, a social psychologist at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Mass. “There’s no question about that.”

And while houses might not be as clean as they were a generation ago, that’s OK with today’s women.

“It’s about `what are the standards of my generation?’” Deutsch said. “If push comes to shove, housework is going to go — not child care.”

In fact, mothers devote an average of four more hours a week to tending their children and 14 more hours of paid work than they did 40 years ago, according to a report last year from the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-profit group based at the University of Illinois-Chicago. They do 14 fewer hours of housework a week, the study said.

“I don’t think we really had a choice,” said Alana Morales, a mother of two and author of “Domestically Challenged” (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2006). “We don’t have time to wash baseboards every day. You have to learn to let things go.”

Morales said she noticed standards changing about five years ago. Women are realizing, she said, that you don’t have to have a perfect home to be a good mother or wife.

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To read the entire article, discussing some of the ways that families are coping with busier situations and messier homes, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of the American Middle Class,” “January Fools’ Day,” “Women’s Situational Bind,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” and “The Space & Place (Situation) of Rural Women.”

Posted in Life | 1 Comment »

MSNBC Report on Implicit Associations

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 4, 2009

Here’s a ten-minute MSNBC segment on IAT test, in which Tony Greenwald attempts to shed light on the test results of two commentators on MSNBC’s Morning Meeting.

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see Mispredicting Our Reactions to Racism,” Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV,” Mahzarin Banaji’s Situation,” The Situation of  Situationist – Mahzarin Banaji.”

To review the full collextion of previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin or, for a list of such posts, click here. Go to Project Implicit to take the IAT discussed in this report here.  Take the Policy IAT here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

He’s a Banana-Eating Monkey, but I’m Not a Racist

Posted by Jon Hanson on August 3, 2009

banana

Whatever may have been the payoffs of the recent discussion between Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cambridge police Sergeant James Crowley, Vice President Biden, and President Obama, the teachable moments unfortunately continue.  Last week, Crowley’s colleague, Officer Paul Barrett wrote an e-mail responding to a Boston Globe columnist this way:

“If I was the officer he verbally assaulted like a banana eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC [pepper spray] deserving of his belligerent non-compliance.”

Barrett summed up his old-school rant as follows:

“Gates is a goddamned fool and you the article writer simply a poor follower and maybe worse, a poor writer. Your article title should read CONDUCT UNBECOMING A JUNGLE MONKEY-BACK TO ONE´S ROOTS.”

After copying his e-mail to some of his friends and colleagues, Barrett was promptly suspended.

In his subsequent Larry King Live interview (see 6-minute video above), Barrett would insist that he is not a racist.

“I did not intend any racial bigotry, harm or prejudice in my words.”

When asked by King about why he chose that language, Barrett (who never apologized to Professor Gates) explained:

“Larry, I don’t even know.  I couldn’t tell you.  I have no idea. I can tell you there was no intentional racial bigotry [or] prejudice.  By my words I did not intend that.”

Monkey Obama Cartoon

Barrett’s e-mail and subsequent remarks reminded me of the controversial cartoon (a portion of which is on the left) published in February in the New York Post and the reactions to it. The cartoon (the entirety of which is here) includes this punchline: “Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.”  Here’s the post I drafted in response.

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A common assumption among most Americans is that race is not an issue these days; after all, most of us rarely if ever feel ourselves being “racist.” If we are not thinking about race when we go about our daily lives and if we are not harboring any racial animus when we interact or socialize inter-racially, then, we assume, race is not influencing us.  We may not be blind to color, but we might as well be.  Most Americans, I’m guessing, would therefore not have a problem with this cartoon.

Rev. Al Sharpton, on the other hand, does:

“The cartoon is troubling at best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys. One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual reference to this when in the cartoon they have police saying after shooting a chimpanzee that ‘Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.’

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“Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama (the first African American president) and has become synonymous with him it is not a reach to wonder are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?”

The New York Post’s editor-in-chief, Col Allan, dismissed Sharpton’s  remarks with this retort:  “The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy. . . .”

But why couldn’t Mr. Allan and Rev. Sharpton both be right?  Why, in other words, would Mr. Allan conclude that a parody of a violent chimpanzee cannot also reflect and encourage troubling racial associations?

Perhaps it is because neither he nor his cartoonist were consciously thinking about race when creating or publishing the cartoon.  If they did not think about race, then they know race didn’t influence them.  From that perspective, Sharpton’s suggestion that race may have played some role seems preposterous.

But that sort of reasoning is itself preposterous when one takes seriously what social psychology and related mind sciences have discovered about the role of unconscious or implicit associations.   Our brains, it seems, have a mind of their own, and that mind is often operating automatically and powerfully in ways that reflect common cultural stereotypes — including those that we might consciously reject.  What we think we know about what is moving us is only a tiny, and often a misleading, part of what is actually going on in those parts of our brains that elude introspection but that can nonetheless manifest in our perceptions, emotions, and actions.

If one examines the cartoon mindful of racial stereotypes, the image scores a hat-trick and then some.  The association of blacks to guns, to crime, violence, and to hostile interactions with law enforcement officers is so strong and should be so well understood that I won’t take time to review the evidence.

What some people may not be aware of is the disturbingly robust implicit associations of African Americans to monkeys, chimps, and apes.

As social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt recently observed, “one of the oldest race battles that blacks have fought in this country has been the battle to be recognized as fully human. To be regarded not in the in-between status somewhere between ape and human but to be fully human.”  And with a black American now the President of the United States, the tendency to link black Americans to apes might be dismissed as an irrelevant relic of the past.

But is it?  In the video excerpts below (from the Project on Law and Mind Sciences 2007 Conference), Jennifer Eberhardt’s describes some of her research examining whether such a de-humanizing association continues to operate beneath the radar of our consciousness (10 minutes total).

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While it is no doubt affirming to believe that we live in a post-racial society as revealed by Barack Obama’s election, it is probably more accurate to say that race is alive and well in the recesses of our brains and that the election of Barack Obama is — particularly when he is connected to policies we disfavor — likely to activate some of those unseen associations.

If  one didn’t think about race while imagining and sketching a cartoon, that doesn’t imply that race didn’t play a role in shaping those processes.  Nor does it justify indifference, much less indignance, toward those who urge us to consider whether race did somehow play a role.

Quite the contrary, given our history and the hierarchies and inequalities that continue to define our country, all of us should be especially attentive and sensitive to the possibilities that what we “know” to be true about what  is moving us is often mistaken and that those mistakes have consequences.

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For a sample of related Situationst posts, see “Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” - Video,” “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas,” “Leaving the Past,” “A Situationist Considers the Implications of Simpson Sentencing,” “What does an Obama victory mean?,” “The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV.” For other Situationist posts discussing the Jennifer Eberhardt’s research, click here.

Posted in Conflict, Implicit Associations, Law, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

A Situationist View of Criminal Prosecutors

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 2, 2009

ScalesBarbara O’Brien has recently posted her interesting article, “A Recipe for Bias: An Empirical Look at the Interplay between Institutional Incentives and Bounded Rationality in Prosecutorial Decision Making” (forthcoming in Missouri Law Review, 2009) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Prosecutors wield tremendous power, which is kept in check by a set of unique ethical obligations. In explaining why prosecutors sometimes fail to honor these multiple and arguably divergent obligations, scholars tend to fall into two schools of thought. The first school focuses upon institutional incentives that promote abuses of power. These scholars implicitly treat the prosecutor as a rational actor who decides whether to comply with a rule based on an assessment of the expected costs and benefits of doing so. The second school focuses upon bounded human rationality, drawing on the teachings of cognitive science to argue that prosecutors transgress not because of sinister motives, but because they labor under the same cognitive limitations that all humans do. In this article, I begin to unify these two schools of thought into a comprehensive approach. I apply the lessons of cognitive science to identify the ways in which prosecutors’ distinctive institutional environment may undermine not just their willingness to play fair, but their ability to do so. Research on the psychological effects of accountability demonstrates that when people are judged primarily for their ability to persuade others of their position, they are susceptible to defensive bolstering at the expense of objectivity. I argue that prosecutors operate under precisely such a system, and are therefore particularly susceptible to biases that undermine their ability to honor obligations that require some objectivity on their part. In support of this claim, I present the results of two original experiments demonstrating that holding people accountable for their ability to persuade others of a suspect’s guilt exacerbates common cognitive biases relevant to prosecutorial decision making, and discuss the implications of this research for reform.

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To download the paper for free, click here.   To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Leaving the Past,” Behavioral Criminal Law and Economics – Abstract,” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “The Racial Situation of Criminal Juries and the Consequences,” “The Situation of “Justice” in Tulia Texas,” Jena 6 – Part I,” and “Jena 6 – Part II.”

Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Law | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 1, 2009

From Googlevideo: “John A. Bargh, Ph.D., professor at Yale University [and Situationist Contributor], speaks during a symposium at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Convention in Tampa, FL. This special keynote session was titled “What Social Psychology can Tell Us about the ‘Free Will’ Question.”

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From Googlevideo: Roy Baumeister of Florida State University speaks at the same event about the usefulness and complexity of consciousness and human culture.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating,” “Interview of Eric Kandel,” and “Coalition of the Will-less.”

Posted in Experimental Philosophy, Morality, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

 
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