The Situationist

Archive for January, 2010

The Situational Effects of Experimental Situations

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 31, 2010

Situationist PodcastFor some interesting listening, here is an excellent BBC podcast looking at the 1920s experiment in a Chicago factory that gave rise to the phenomenon known as the Hawthorne Effect.

From the BBC MindChangers Series:

Hawthorne Effect: (30 minutes)

Claudia Hammond presents a series looking at the development of the science of psychology during the 20th century.

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In the 1920s, at the enormous Western Electric Hawthorne Factory in Cicero outside Chicago, management began an experiment which was to improve the working life of millions and give rise to a phenomenon that anyone planning a psychology experiment would have to take into account in their design.

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Keen to improve productivity at a time when the telephone industry was growing and Western Electric was building the components for all the telephone exchanges in the United States, management decided to see whether working conditions affected production. But the initial ‘illumination studies’ were inconclusive; whether lighting was increased or decreased to no better than moonlight, productivity increased. Whatever the intervention, it seemed to promote faster work.

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Confused, management turned to economists from Harvard Business School to design a more complex study. So, in April 1927 five women were removed from the factory floor and put in a separate room – the relay assembly test room. For the next five years, as they assembled the complex relays they were minutely monitored. Their working conditions were regularly altered, but whether breaks were included or removed, their working day lengthened or shortened, their productivity continued to rise.

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The study improved working conditions throughout the factory, as breaks were introduced for all, but it also gave rise to a phenomenon known as The Hawthorne Effect, which has to be taken into account in the design of any experiment – the mere fact that subjects know that they are being studied may alter their behaviour.

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Yet The Hawthorne Effect is widely questioned. How can an experiment using such a small sample – five women, two of whom were changed during the study – have given rise to such a ubiquitous theory?

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With the help of the Hawthorne Museum in Cicero, the Baker Library archive and Professor Michel Anteby at Harvard Business School, Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale Business School who met the original participants in the study back in the 1970s, and Mecca Chiesa of the University of Kent, Claudia Hammond re-examines the classic Hawthorne Studies.

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To review a collection of  Situationist posts discussing other classic experiments, click here

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

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 30, 2010

situationism-in-the-news

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of the Situationist news over the last several weeks.

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From BBC News: “What’s my brain’s motivation?”

“For an actor, the performance conditions weren’t exactly ideal: flat on her back in a large machine, under strict instructions to lie as still as possible, speaking in short bursts interspersed with the shrill sound of a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. […] Professor Sophie Scott of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London wanted to know what happens physically in an actor’s head when they pretend to be someone else. Rivals on the dating scene could make one feel closer to God, according to new research that suggests one’s religiousness may be more closely related to mating strategies than previously known.” Read more . . .

From Wired: “Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why”

“[…] It’s not that the old meds are getting weaker, drug developers say. It’s as if the placebo effect is somehow getting stronger. The fact that an increasing number of medications are unable to beat sugar pills has thrown the industry into crisis. The stakes could hardly be higher. In today’s economy, the fate of a long-established company can hang on the outcome of a handful of tests.” Read more . . .

From Thaindian News: “How mating affects people’s decisions about spending and giving”

“Researchers have found that thinking about mating can significantly influence people’s decisions about spending and giving. A study led by Vladas Griskevicius from Arizona State University in Tempe and Josh Tybur from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque invited college students to the lab in small groups. Each was randomly assigned to one of two conditions: “mating” or “non-mating.” The findings revealed that men in the mating condition said they would spend much more money on luxuries than men in the non-mating condition.” Read more . . .

From The Washington Post: “The economics of happiness”

“Last year was not a happy one. Economic crisis. Job losses. Wars. Yet, while we can quantify things such as gross domestic product or home foreclosures, it’s harder to measure their impact on our collective happiness. One way to gauge that effect is through what has become known as the economics of happiness — a set of new techniques and data to measure well-being and contentment.” Read more . . .

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Stereotyping Political Ideology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 29, 2010

Susan Perry has a terrific article in yesterday’s Minneapolis Post, titled “How we use stereotypes to identify people’s political affiliations.”   Here are some excerpts.

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. . . . According to a study published this month in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, people can identify with remarkable accuracy (more than by chance guessing) whether another person is a Republican or a Democrat by simply looking at that person’s headshot.

How do we do it? By relying on stereotypes, the study found. Republicans, apparently, look “powerful” in our minds, and Democrats appear “warm.”

Of course, these kinds of stereotypes can lead to perceptual errors. “Not all Democrats appear warm and not all Republicans appear powerful,” wrote the study’s authors. “However, the linearity of these effects is noteworthy: appearing warmer led to a greater chance that a target would be perceived as a Democrat and appearing more powerful led to a greater chance that a target would be perceived as a Republican.”

Experiment #1
The study, which was conducted by Nalini Ambady, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and Tufts doctoral candidate Nicholas Rule, involved three separate experiments.

In the first experiment, 29 undergraduates were asked to categorize the faces of 118 unnamed professional politicians (2004 and 2006 U.S. Senate candidates).The photos (cropped to be of identical size and converted to grayscale) included women candidates, but minority candidates were excluded to avoid race-based stereotypes.

After the data was analyzed, the study found that participants had categorized the photos correctly at a rate that was significantly better than chance guessing. Those results held even when the responses of 10 participants who said they recognized at least one of the candidates were excluded from the calculations.

Experiment #2
To see if the results of the first experiment could be extended to other groups of people, the researchers conducted a second experiment. . . . [involving] the political affiliation of photos take from the senior yearbooks of a private U.S. university. . . .

Again, the participants’ categorization of the political affiliations of the students in the photos was significantly greater than chance guessing.

Experiment #3
Intrigued by these findings, the researchers decided to determine what, exactly, people were using to determine if someone were a Democrat or a Republican. . . .

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Faces perceived to be that of Republican scored higher on the “Power” scale and those perceived to be that of a Democrat scored high on the “Warmth” scale.

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Other research has pointed out that we’re quick to make snap judgments about the people we meet based on their appearance — and often, of course, unfairly. “People are known to form impression of others from their faces instantaneously and automatically,” write Rule and Ambady. “Moreover, these perceptions can have highly consequential outcomes, such as affecting the jobs that individuals are offered, their outcomes in court, and their financial success.”

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To read the entire article, including the conclusion, which summarizes “some truly provocative research about how election results can be predicted by the candidates’ facial traits,” click here.

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 1 and Part 2,” The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part II,” “Ideology is Back!,” A System-Justification Primer,” “Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism,” ““Yuck!” “EWW!” and Other Conservative Expressions,” Unclean Hands” and “The Situation of Political Disposition,” Ideology is Back!,” “The Situation of Confabulation,”

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Evolutionary Situation of Behavior

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 28, 2010

Thomas Brennan and Andrew Lo recently published their interesting paper, titled “The Origin of Behavior,” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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We propose a single evolutionary explanation for the origin of several behaviors that have been observed in organisms ranging from ants to human subjects, including risk-sensitive foraging, risk aversion, loss aversion, probability matching, randomization, and diversification. Given an initial population of individuals, each assigned a purely arbitrary behavior with respect to a binary choice problem, and assuming that offspring behave identically to their parents, only those behaviors linked to reproductive success will survive, and less reproductively successful behaviors will disappear at exponential rates. This framework generates a surprisingly rich set of behaviors, and the simplicity and generality of our model suggest that these behaviors are primitive and universal.

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You can download the paper for free, here.

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

Dan Kahan on the Situation of Risk Perceptions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 27, 2010

Situationist Contributor Dan Kahan was recently interviewed for the National Science Foundation website.  In the interview, which you can watch the on the video below, Kahan discusses how people’s values shape perceptions of the HPV vaccine.  Here’s the abstract.

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The “cultural cognition thesis” argues that individuals form risk perceptions based on often-contested personal views about what makes a good society. Now, Yale University Law professor Dr. Dan Kahan and his colleagues reveals how people’s values shape their perceptions of one of the most hotly debated health care proposals in recent years: vaccinating elementary-school girls, ages 11-12, against human papillomavirus (HPV), a widespread sexually transmitted disease.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see  “Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk,” Construing ‘Acquaintance Rape’,” The Cultural Situation of the HPV Vaccine – Abstract,” “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, Food and Drug Law, Video | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Mental Illness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 26, 2010

From Wikipedia:

The Rosenhan experiment was a famous experiment into the validity of psychiatric diagnosis conducted by psychologist David Rosenhan in 1973.  It was published in the journal Science under the title “On being sane in insane places.” The study is considered an important and influential criticism of psychiatric diagnosis.

Rosenhan’s study consisted of two parts. The first part involved the use of healthy associates or “pseudopatients” who briefly simulated auditory hallucinations in an attempt to gain admission to 12 different psychiatric hospitals in five different states in various locations in the United States. All were admitted and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. After admission, the pseudopatients acted normally and told staff that they felt fine and had not experienced any more hallucinations. Hospital staff failed to detect a single pseudopatient, and instead believed that all of the pseudopatients exhibited symptoms of ongoing mental illness. Several were confined for months. All were forced to admit to having a mental illness and agree to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release.

The second part involved asking staff at a psychiatric hospital to detect non-existent “fake” patients. The staff falsely identified large numbers of genuine patients as impostors.

The study concluded, “It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals” and also illustrated the dangers of depersonalization and labeling in psychiatric institutions. It suggested that the use of community mental health facilities which concentrated on specific problems and behaviors rather than psychiatric labels might be a solution and recommended education to make psychiatric workers more aware of the social psychology of their facilities.

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From the BBC MindChangers Series:

Listen now by clicking here (30 minutes).

Claudia Hammond revisits . . . David Rosenhan’s Pseudo-Patient Study, gaining access to his unpublished personal papers to discover how it changed our understanding of the human mind, and its impact 40 years on.

After Rosenhan published On Being Sane in Insane Places in the journal Science in 1973, the psychiatric profession went on the defensive to protest its diagnostic competence. The study struck at the heart of their attempts to medicalise psychiatry and be accepted as proper doctors. Its impact was felt when the third edition of the profession’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, came out in 1980: changes had been made which brought more rigour to the diagnostic process.

However, as Claudia discovers from Rosenhan’s unpublished papers, for him the study was less an experiment of diagnostic efficacy than an anthropological survey of psychiatric wards. In a chapter of the book he never finished, she reads his poignant account of his own first admission, and his sense that “minimal attention was paid to my presence, as if I hardly existed.”

Now suffering ill health and unable to speak, Rosenhan delegates his friends and colleagues professor of social psychology at Stanford University Lee Ross and clinical psychologist Florence Keller to speak to Claudia and show her the box containing previously unpublished material which throws new light on one of the most controversial and famous psychology experiments.

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From the New York Times, Ethan Watters (author of the forthcoming book, book “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche”) recently wrote a fascinating article, titled “The Americanization of Mental Illness.”  Here are some excerpts.

Americans, particularly if they are of a certain leftward-leaning, college-educated type, worry about our country’s blunders into other cultures. In some circles, it is easy to make friends with a rousing rant about the McDonald’s near Tiananmen Square, the Nike factory in Malaysia or the latest blowback from our political or military interventions abroad. For all our self-recrimination, however, we may have yet to face one of the most remarkable effects of American-led globalization. We have for many years been busily engaged in a grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of mental health and illness. We may indeed be far along in homogenizing the way the world goes mad.

This unnerving possibility springs from recent research by a loose group of anthropologists and cross-cultural psychiatrists. Swimming against the biomedical currents of the time, they have argued that mental illnesses are not discrete entities like the polio virus with their own natural histories. These researchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places. In some Southeast Asian cultures, men have been known to experience what is called amok, an episode of murderous rage followed by amnesia; men in the region also suffer from koro, which is characterized by the debilitating certainty that their genitals are retracting into their bodies. Across the fertile crescent of the Middle East there is zar, a condition related to spirit-possession beliefs that brings forth dissociative episodes of laughing, shouting and singing.

The diversity that can be found across cultures can be seen across time as well. In his book “Mad Travelers,” the philosopher Ian Hacking documents the fleeting appearance in the 1890s of a fugue state in which European men would walk in a trance for hundreds of miles with no knowledge of their identities. The hysterical-leg paralysis that afflicted thousands of middle-class women in the late 19th century not only gives us a visceral understanding of the restrictions set on women’s social roles at the time but can also be seen from this distance as a social role itself — the troubled unconscious minds of a certain class of women speaking the idiom of distress of their time.

“We might think of the culture as possessing a ‘symptom repertoire’ — a range of physical symptoms available to the unconscious mind for the physical expression of psychological conflict,” Edward Shorter, a medical historian at the University of Toronto, wrote in his book “Paralysis: The Rise and Fall of a ‘Hysterical’ Symptom.” “In some epochs, convulsions, the sudden inability to speak or terrible leg pain may loom prominently in the repertoire. In other epochs patients may draw chiefly upon such symptoms as abdominal pain, false estimates of body weight and enervating weakness as metaphors for conveying psychic stress.”

In any given era, those who minister to the mentally ill — doctors or shamans or priests — inadvertently help to select which symptoms will be recognized as legitimate. Because the troubled mind has been influenced by healers of diverse religious and scientific persuasions, the forms of madness from one place and time often look remarkably different from the forms of madness in another.

That is until recently.

For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.

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What is being missed, . . .[some doctors] have suggested, is a deep understanding of how the expectations and beliefs of the sufferer shape their suffering. “Culture shapes the way general psychopathology is going to be translated partially or completely into specific psychopathology. . . . When[, for example,] there is a cultural atmosphere in which professionals, the media, schools, doctors, psychologists all recognize and endorse and talk about and publicize eating disorders, then people can be triggered to consciously or unconsciously pick eating-disorder pathology as a way to express that conflict.”

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THE IDEA THAT our Western conception of mental health and illness might be shaping the expression of illnesses in other cultures is rarely discussed in the professional literature. Many modern mental-health practitioners and researchers believe that the scientific standing of our drugs, our illness categories and our theories of the mind have put the field beyond the influence of endlessly shifting cultural trends and beliefs. After all, we now have machines that can literally watch the mind at work. We can change the chemistry of the brain in a variety of interesting ways and we can examine DNA sequences for abnormalities. The assumption is that these remarkable scientific advances have allowed modern-day practitioners to avoid the blind spots and cultural biases of their predecessors.

Modern-day mental-health practitioners often look back at previous generations of psychiatrists and psychologists with a thinly veiled pity, wondering how they could have been so swept away by the cultural currents of their time. The confident pronouncements of Victorian-era doctors regarding the epidemic of hysterical women are now dismissed as cultural artifacts. Similarly, illnesses found only in other cultures are often treated like carnival sideshows. . . .

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Of course, we can become psychologically unhinged for many reasons that are common to all, like personal traumas, social upheavals or biochemical imbalances in our brains. Modern science has begun to reveal these causes. Whatever the trigger, however, the ill individual and those around him invariably rely on cultural beliefs and stories to understand what is happening. . . . It means that a mental illness is an illness of the mind and cannot be understood without understanding the ideas, habits and predispositions — the idiosyncratic cultural trappings — of the mind that is its host.

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CROSS-CULTURAL psychiatrists have pointed out that the mental-health ideas we export to the world are rarely unadulterated scientific facts and never culturally neutral. “Western mental-health discourse introduces core components of Western culture, including a theory of human nature, a definition of personhood, a sense of time and memory and a source of moral authority. None of this is universal,” Derek Summerfield of the Institute of Psychiatry in London observes. He has also written: “The problem is the overall thrust that comes from being at the heart of the one globalizing culture. It is as if one version of human nature is being presented as definitive, and one set of ideas about pain and suffering. . . . There is no one definitive psychology.”

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To read the entirety of Waters’s fascinating article (including an illuminating discussion of how the “brain disease” concept of mental illness may have increased, not decreased, the stigma of mental illness and thus hurt the very people it was supposed to help), click here.  (Thanks to Situationist friend, Andrew Perlman for suggesting this article to us.)

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers,” “Imagine You Could Change Your Brain. Oops, You Just Did!,” and “Placebo and the Situation of Healing.”

Posted in Book, Classic Experiments, Cultural Cognition, Life | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 25, 2010

situationism-in-the-news

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quote from some of the Situationist news over the last several weeks.

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From ABC News: “Smoking dangers seducing youth to light up”

“New research suggests that telling smokers cigarettes will kill them won’t necessarily convince them to quit. […] Matthew Rockloff from Queensland Central University says entire cultures are in some ways an attempt to imbue life with some sense of meaning so that people do not have to deal with the inevitable head-on.” Read more . . .

From The Med Guru: “Physical appearance reveals one’s persona”

“A new research suggests that the physical appearance of a person is the road map of his mind, a rough sketch of his persona revealing his personality traits. The study gave credibility to the notion that there was a co-relation between personality traits and physical appearance alone, since the participants were able to judge the characteristics of a person quite accurately by looking at his photographs.” Read more . . .

From The Press Democrat: “The Facebook effect on first impressions”

“First impressions do count — even when the impression we’re giving off is through a mere picture on our Facebook page. We’ve always known intuitively that we make snap judgments about people we meet based on appearance — the first bit of information available. But new research by a Sonoma State University professor and a colleague with the University of Texas shows that those conclusions can be surprisingly accurate in a photograph, depending on how one poses.” Read more . . .

From Scientific American: “Political Science: What Being Neat or Messy Says about Political Leanings”

“Researchers insist they can tell someone’s politlcal affiliation by looking at the condition of their offices and bedrooms. Messy? You’re a lefty. A neatnik? Welcome to the Right. According to a controversial new study, set to be published in The Journal of Political Psychology, the bedrooms and offices of liberals, who are generally thought of as open, tend to be colorful and awash in books about travel, ethnicity, feminism and music, along with music CDs covering folk, classic and modern rock, as well as art supplies, movie tickets and travel memorabilia.” Read more . . .

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Our Stake in Corporate Behavior

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 23, 2010

Situationist Contributor David Yosifon published a thoughtful and timely op-ed,  in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle. Here are some excerpts.

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Corporations are crucial institutions in our society. Consumers rely on them for everything from the basic provisions of food and clothing to the more dispensable delights of computers and cell phones. Workers rely on them for jobs. Communities need them for a tax base. Shareholders rely on them for profits that fund retirement, or entrepreneurial activity.

We all have a stake in effective corporate operations. Yet corporate directors are not required, indeed are not allowed, to put the interests of any party above shareholders in their decision making.

Now the Supreme Court has declared that the First Amendment forbids us from restricting corporate spending on political campaigns. If we cannot restrain corporations from influencing our democracy, then we must have more democracy in the management of our corporations. Directors of publicly traded corporations should be required to become informed about and to deliberate on the interests of all corporate stakeholders, not just shareholders.

The idea that we all have a stake in corporate behavior might seem at odds with the current “shareholder primacy” rule in corporate governance. But it could make sense. Most shareholders are highly diversified, with small investments in a large number of funds or corporations spread across the country and the world. The profit-maximization rule provides shareholders sufficient repose to invest their money at such a distance and with so little say in corporate decisions. Workers, on the other hand, can negotiate and monitor their wages and working conditions directly, or through unions. Consumers can manage their corporate interests at the cash register – they can buy at the offered price or walk away.

But corporations are often more powerful than workers or consumers. Firms can skimp on safety, for example, in ways that are difficult to observe – think asbestos in the factory or trans fats in the fries. Sure, sometimes the socially responsible corporate policy is also the most profitable – as when safer products attract more consumers. But it is naive to think that shareholder interests are always aligned with the rest of society. For a long time policymakers have argued that even where society is vulnerable to corporate overreaching, corporate boards should still focus on shareholder interests. We should rely, the story goes, on external government regulation – such as workplace safety, consumer protection or antipollution statutes – to safeguard social interests.

This approach assumes that government will be capable of developing regulations sufficient to constrain corporate misconduct. But corporations have the incentive and power to stunt such efforts. Firms accomplish this in part through lobbying, donations and direct spending in support of candidates. Because of their wealth, corporations can routinely best other constituencies in the competition for regulatory favor. This problem will only intensify with the new Supreme Court ruling.

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You can read the op-ed in its entirety here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Taking the Situation of Consumers Seriously,” “Against Freedom of Commercial Expression – Abstract,” “Merchants of Discontent – Abstract,” “The Changing Face of Marketing?,” Reclaiming Corporate Law in a New Gilded Age – Abstract,” “The Situation of Illusion,” “Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,” The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” “The Changing Face of Marketing?,” “The Illusion of Wall Street Reform,” “Reclaiming Corporate Law in a New Gilded Age – Abstract,” “Deep Capture – Part VI,” and “Deep Capture – Part VII.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Embodied Situation of Metaphors

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 22, 2010

In the current issue of  Observer, the magazine of the Association of Psychological Science, Barbara Isanski and Catherine wrote a great article, “The Body of Knowledge” summarizing the growing field of embodied cognition.  Here are some excerpts.

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The cold shoulder. A heavy topic. A heroic white knight. We regularly use concrete, sensory-rich metaphors like these to express abstract ideas and complicated emotions. But a growing body of research is suggesting that these metaphors are more than just colorful literary devices — there may be an underlying neural basis that literally embodies these metaphors. Psychological scientists are giving us more insight into embodied cognition — the notion that the brain circuits responsible for abstract thinking are closely tied to those circuits that analyze and process sensory experiences— and its role in how we think and feel about our world.

APS Fellow and Charter Member Art Glenberg (Arizona State University) says embodiment “provides a counterweight to the prevailing view that cognition is something in the head that is pretty much separate from behavior. We are animals, and so all of our biology and cognition is ultimately directed towards literal action/behavior for survival and reproduction.” And, he adds, “Explicitly recognizing this will help us to develop better theories.”

Cold Hands, Warm Heart

When someone is described as “chilly,” we understand it means “unfriendly” and not that they should put on a sweater. But using low temperature to capture social remoteness is more than just a convention of language. According to a number of studies, there may be a psychological reason for connecting temperature and social relationships.

In a 2008 study, when volunteers were asked to think about a time they felt socially rejected, they described the temperature in the room as being significantly colder than did volunteers who recalled an experience in which they felt socially included, even though the room temperature was actually the same for both groups. In a separate experiment, volunteers played an online version of a ball-tossing game with three other opponents (unbeknownst to the volunteers, they were the sole participants — a computer program controlled the throws). The game was rigged in a way that some of the volunteers never had the ball tossed to them while other volunteers were able to actively participate in the game. After the game, the volunteers were asked to rate the desirability of various foods and beverages. The volunteers who never had a turn in the ball-tossing game (that is, they were excluded) tended to desire soups and hot coffee more than did the volunteers who played a lot in the game. University of Toronto psychological scientists Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli, who conducted these experiments, suggest that the excluded volunteers craved warmer food and drinks because they felt cold (Zhong & Leonardelli, 2008).

The link between social isolation and physical sensations of cold may work in the other direction, too. A study by APS Fellow Gün R. Semin and his Utrecht University colleague Hans IJzerman suggests that temperature can affect how we feel towards others. Volunteers were handed a hot or cold beverage at the start of the experiment and then were asked to think about their relationships with friends and family. The volunteers who had held a warm beverage tended to rate themselves as being closer to the important people in their lives, compared to volunteers who had been given a cold beverage (IJzerman & Semin, 2009).

Cleanliness = Godliness

Just as feeling distant from other people makes us feel cold, feeling immoral makes us feel physically unclean. Shakespeare dramatized this link vividly: Feeling guilty about the murders she had precipitated, Lady Macbeth scrubs her hands as though she literally had blood on them: “Out damn spot, out I say!” Zhong and Katie Liljenquist (Northwestern University) coined the term “the Macbeth effect” to describe people’s increased urge to wash themselves when their morals become threatened — in other words, an attempt to cleanse ourselves of our sins (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006).

A recent study by University of Plymouth psychological scientists Simone Schnall, Jennifer Benton, and Sophie Harvey showed that just thinking about concepts related to cleanliness (words like “washed” and “pure,” for example) can influence moral decisions. When volunteers thought about clean concepts, they considered hypothetical moral transgressions to be more acceptable than did those volunteers who thought about neutral concepts. In a follow-up experiment, volunteers who washed their hands rated a moral dilemma as being less severe than did volunteers who didn’t wash their hands (Schnall, Benton, & Harvey, 2008).

Zhong says that the most surprising finding from the temperature and cleanliness studies “is the reciprocal relationship between physical and psychological experiences that are typically considered independent.” He adds, “Not only that our concrete experience of the physical world (e.g., cleanliness and coldness) can directly impact our conception of higher order, abstract constructs such as morality and social relations, but also that these abstract constructs can alter the way we experience the concrete and physical.”

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You can read the entire article here.  It includes sections summarizing studies suggesting that “colors can be linked to morality,” that “we ‘weigh’ important objects or consider difficult topics to be ‘heavy,'” that “[f]orward movement, weighed down or not, is typically associated with progress or achievement,” that “[w]hen we interact with others, our neural circuitry is engaged in a series of unconscious tasks, including mirroring the other person’s motor movements.”

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Our Metaphorical Situation,” The Situation of Metaphors,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will DebatePart I & Part II” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Unclean Hands,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?,” “The Situation of Snacking,” “The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” and The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Embodied Cognition, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Morality and Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 21, 2010

Situationist friend and author David Berreby recently conducted a fascinating interview of  primatologist Frans De Waal on BloggingHeads.  A rough table of contents of their discussion is listed just below the video.

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Frans’s latest book, “The Age of Empathy” (04:11)
Empathy as a social contagion (06:54)
A biological basis for morality and soccer hooliganism (18:48)
Does religion have to be at war with science? (12:48)
The fragility of empathy (04:08)
Enron, the selfish gene, and Nazi pseudoscience (08:14)

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To read about Frans de Waal’s latest book, The Age of Empathy, click here. To check out David Berreby’s excellent blog, Mind Matters, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Science of Morality,” “The Situation of Kindness,” The Situation of Caring,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” The Situational Benefits of Outsiders,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “Team-Interested Decision Making,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,”The Case for Obedience,” and “March Madness,”

Posted in Book, Conflict, Morality, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Revisiting Arden House and the Situation of Aging

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 20, 2010

Situationist PodcastFor those of you who would like to do some interesting listening, here is an excellent podcast featuring Situationist friend Ellen Langer.

From the BBC MindChangers Series:

Arden House: (30 minutes)

Claudia Hammond presents a series looking at the development of the science of psychology during the 20th century.

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She re-visits Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin’s 1976 study, conducted in a New England nursing home, Arden House.

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When the two psychologists set up the experiment so that residents on two floors of the 360-bed home for the elderly would experience some changes in their everyday life, they had no idea that they were introducing factors which could prolong life.

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While residents on both floors were given plants and film shows, only those on the fourth floor had the opportunity to control these events: choosing the plant and looking after it themselves, and choosing which night of the week to view the film.

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Eighteen months later, when Langer and Rodin returned to the home, they were astonished to discover that twice as many of the elderly residents in this ‘choices’ group were alive, compared with the control group on the second floor, who had been given plants that the staff tended, and were told which was their film night. It appeared that taking control made you live longer.

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These findings fit in well with the work on learned helplessness in dogs which Martin Seligman had done in the late 1960s, and on Langer and Rodin’s own studies on the perception of control.

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Claudia Hammond meets Ellen Langer, now Professor of Psychology at Harvard, and hears about Arden House and the work she has gone on to do on what she calls ‘mindfulness’. She visits Arden House, which is still a nursing home, and is shown around by current administrator Joanne Scafati.

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For a ssmple of relate Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Time and Mind,” The Situation of Health and Aging,” “Time and the Situation of Marshmallows,” and “January Fools’ Day.”

Posted in Classic Experiments, Life, Podcasts, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Martha Fineman on the Situation of Gender and Equality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 19, 2010

Martha Fineman recently posted on  SSRN her fasinating chapter, titled “Evolving Images of Gender and Equality: A Feminist Journey” examining the changing conceptions of gender and equality and the unjustified privileging of autonomy over equality in American culture.

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This chapter, which will be included in Transcending the Boundaries of Law, M.A. Fineman, Ed (Routledge 2010) brings a historical and analytic gaze on the concept of equality in the US legal system. Beginning with the establishment of Portia Law School for women and court decisions like Muller v. Oregon, I discuss the tension between seeking equality as sameness of treatment and seeking positive improvements in the lives of women. While women have officially attained legal equality with men, in terms of being able to vote, practice a profession, and own property among other things, the benefits of citizenship are still distributed in highly unequal ways. In part this is because as a nation Americans value autonomy over equality and thus sacrifice substantive equality in the name of greater independence, ignoring the realities of our shared states of episodic dependency and constant vulnerability.

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You can download the chapter for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Nicole Stephens on ‘Choice, Social Class, and Agency’,” The Blame Frame – Abstract,” “The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” and “The Space & Place (Situation) of Rural Women.”

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, History, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 18, 2010

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

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Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

mlk5.jpg

So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person's] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Larry Lessig’s Situationism,” Al Gore – The Situationist,”

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Cornel West’s Childhood Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 17, 2010

From BigThink:


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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Jock or Nerd? Where Did You Sit at the Dinner Table?,” “The Situation of Handguns on Urban Streets-Abstract,” and “Black History is Now.”

Posted in Education, Life, Video | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Law and Economics Primer

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 16, 2010

Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson, Kathleen Hanson, and Melissa Hart, have recently posted their outstanding introduction to law and economics (to be published in Dennis Patterson’s forthcoming volume, “Compantion to Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory) on SSRN.  The chapter includes a brief discussion of the emergence of economic behavioralism and situationism, and it is now available to download for free here.  Here’s the abstract.

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This chapter provides an introduction to the history, uses, methods, strengths, and limits of law and economics. It begins by examining the role of positive and normative approaches to law and economics. To examine the positivist thesis – that the law does in fact tend toward efficiency – the chapter discussed and analyzes the famous Hand Formula developed by Judge Learned Hand in United States v. Carroll Towing. As one of the only traditional cases in which a judge arguably made efficiency his explicit goal, the case presents an excellent opportunity to assess whether, even an efficiency-oriented judge will or can identify the efficient result. The chapter reviews the possible liability rules that might have been applied in Carroll Towing, and uses that review to introduce many of the core concepts and methods of law and economics, including game theory. Ultimately, the chapter concludes that, although the Hand Formula may have led to one of the possible efficient results, there is little reason to be confident, and some reason to doubt, that Judge Hand reached the most efficient outcome. The difficulties inherent in selecting the efficient rule through litigation present a significant challenge to the positivist case for legal economics.

The second part of the chapter considers both the normative support for efficiency and the range of challenges to, and refinements of, the normative position that have developed in recent years. The chapter highlights some of the trade-offs inherent in the law and economics approach and concludes that law and economics has, like any legal theory, both costs and benefits.

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Again, you can download the paper for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Tushnet on Teles and The Situation of Ideas – Abstract,” Deep Capture – Part X,” “Behavioral Economics and Policy,” and “Emotional Reactions to Law & Economics – Abstract.”

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Legal Theory, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – December, Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 15, 2010

blogosphere image

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of our favorite non-Situationist situationist blogging during December 2009 (they are listed in alphabetical order by source).

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From Mind Hacks: “Fan violence: take a swing when you’re winning”

“Popular sporting occasions have long been associated with violence and it was long assumed that assaults were more likely to be initiated by losing fans taking out their frustration. This has been contradicted by recent research that suggests it is fans of the winning team whom are more likely to be violent.” Read more . . .

From Neuronarrative: “What’s More Potent, Testosterone or the Power of Belief?”

“When most people think of testosterone, words like “aggression,” “dominance,” and “violence” usually come to mind.  Those words are memetically linked with testosterone the way “expensive” is linked with diamonds, and most of us have adopted the linkage without thinking much about it.  Collectively, we’ve adopted a “folk hypothesis” about testosterone–a generalized presupposition grounded in folk wisdom assumed to be correct.” Read more . . .

From Neuronarrative: “A Photo is Worth a Thousand Ways to Change Your Memory”

“[…]A recent study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology tested whether showing people photos of completed actions–such as a broken pencil or an opened envelope–could influence them to believe they’d done something they had not, particularly if they were shown the photos multiple times.” Read more . . .

From PsyBlog: “When Situations Not Personality Dictate Our Behaviour”

“A modern test of an ancient bible story demonstrates the power of situations to trump personality in determining behaviour. A fundamental mistake we often make when judging other people is assuming that their behaviour mainly reflects their personality. Unfortunately this ignores another major influence on how people behave staring us right in the face: the situation.” Read more . . .

From PsyBlog: “How Other People’s Unspoken Expectations Control Us”

“We quickly sense how others view us and play up to these expectations. A good exercise for learning about yourself is to think about how other people might view you in different ways. Consider how your family, your work colleagues or your partner think of you. Now here’s an interesting question: to what extent do you play up to these expectations about how they view you?” Read more . . .

For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Reporting Social Facts vs. Pining for Jim Crow: No Comparison Between Reid and Lott

Posted by Eric D. Knowles on January 13, 2010

Imagine a scenario. An African American lawyer, we can even call him “Barry,” has applied for a job at a prestigious firm—one that has never before hired a Black person. You eavesdrop on a couple of partners talking about the candidate. Question: Which, if either, of the these overheard comments is the more racist?

“I don’t know… Barry’s facing an uphill climb at an all-White firm like this. However, he just might have a shot given the fact that he’s fairly light-complected and doesn’t speak using African American Vernacular English.”

* * *

“This firm’s going to hell if it hires a Black guy. I wish Strom Thurmond were the head of the hiring committee.”

The analogy may be a bit crude. But those paying attention to recent political news will recognize the partners as stand-ins for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Senator (and Majority Leader) Trent Lott, respectively. Senator Reid has found himself in hot water for comments he made in 2008 assessing Barack Obama’s chances of winning the presidency. Republicans, in particular, have decried Reid’s “racist” comments, demanding that he apologize to the American people and relinquish his leadership position in the Senate. They insist that this is exactly what happened to their own Trent Lott in 2002. Let’s take a look at what Reid and Lott said:

Reid told the authors of a new book about the 2008 campaign that “the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama—a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.'”

* * *

Lott toasted the late Strom Thurmond by saying, “When [Thurmond] ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”

Interestingly, I haven’t read or heard a single commentator dispute the accuracy of what Reid said. I’ve heard many say—and I agree—that his comments were indelicate and his use of the term “Negro” anachronistic. Politically stupid, yes. But also true. Anti-Black racism is alive and well in our country, and there is good evidence that it affected voting patterns in the 2008 election and continues to shape attitudes toward President Obama’s policies. It is entirely plausible that the ways in which Obama doesn’t fit most Americans’ stereotype of “Black person” (itself a media-perpetuated caricature) mitigated the high electoral hurdles he faced. More to the point, the social-psychological literature on “colorism”—the tendency of lighter-skinned Blacks to be viewed and treated more positively than those with darker skin—corroborates Reid’s prediction that Obama would have a relatively good shot at the presidency. There is no incompatibility between the content of Reid’s observation and having perfectly progressive racial views.

What about Lott’s comments? In waxing nostalgic over Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential run, Lott is endorsing the politics of a segregationist firebrand who, as Senator, filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes. One can’t read Lott’s comments without suspecting that the “problems” he believes President Thurmond would have prevented include things like racial integration and equality under the law. Now that strikes me as racist, and for Republicans to liken Reid’s comment to Lott’s—and to imply that they should suffer similar fates—is silly.

This episode says a great deal about how Americans talk (or fail to talk) about race. Most illustrative were comments made by Liz Cheney on ABC’s This Week. Ms. Cheney found herself sparring with, of all people, conservative commentator George Will over the Reid affair. Cheney contended that Reid’s comments were “outrageous” and “racist.” When Will countered that Reid’s comments contained “not a scintilla of racism,” Cheney responded—and this is telling—”George, give me a break. I mean, talking about the color of the president’s skin…” For Cheney, the mere mention of race is tantamount to racism. It’s worth pausing to appreciate how pernicious this extreme form of color-blindness is. If we can’t talk about race, we can’t talk about racial inequality—and if we can’t talk about racial inequality, we’re guaranteed not to do anything about it. Perhaps this is exactly what some people want.

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This post first appeared on Seeing in Color.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Wages Are Only Skin Deep – Abstract,”  Colorblinded Wages – Abstract,” Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice,”The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” “Racial Attitudes in the Presidential Race,” Black History is Now,” “The Racial Situation of Voting,” Why Are They So Biased?,” and I’m Objective, You’re Biased,”

Posted in Naive Cynicism, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

A New Situationist – Eric D. Knowles

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 13, 2010

We are thrilled to introduce a new Situationist Contributor, Eric D. Knowles.

Since 2006, Eric D. Knowles has been an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine. He researches how individuals perceive and react to social inequities, focusing specifically on the role of motivations (e.g., to bolster the hierarchy, to see oneself as a good and deserving person) in leading people to deny the existence of inequity, dis-identify with their ingroup, or form attitudes likely to reduce intergroup disparities. He is also interested in political psychology, including how implicit intergroup biases shape perceptions of politicians and their policies.

Posted in Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Krieger on the Situation of Discrimination in France

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2010

Situationist Contributor Linda Hamilton Krieger is the French-American Foundation’s scholar-in-residence at Sciences Po.  She recently appeared on a France24 debate to discuss French and American strategies for fighting discrimination in hiring and education.  You can watch the roughly six-minute video of the interview below.

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To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see see “Implicit Associations on Oprah,” Afraid of Knowing Ourselves,” Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” “Geoffrey Cohen on “Identity, Belief, and Bias”,” Colorblinded Wages – Abstract,” “The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,”Measuring Implicit Attitudes,” Firefighters and the Situation of “Merit”,” The Situation of Situation in Employment Discrimination Law – Abstract.”

Posted in Implicit Associations, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Global Climate Change and The Situation of Denial

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 11, 2010

Situationist Contributor John T. Jost together with Irina Feygina and Rachel E. Goldsmith have recently completed a fascinating article examining the motivations behind some people’s unwillingness to take climate change seriously.  The article, titled “System Justification, the Denial of Global Warming, and the Possibility of ‘System-Sanctioned Change’” will be published later this year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here’s the abstract.

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Despite extensive evidence of climate change and environmental destruction, polls continue to reveal widespread denial and resistance to helping the environment. It is posited here that these responses are linked to the motivational tendency to defend and justify the societal status quo in the face of the threat posed by environmental problems. The present research finds that system justification tendencies are associated with greater denial of environmental realities and less commitment to pro-environmental action. Moreover, the effects of political conservatism, national identification, and gender on denial of environmental problems are explained by variability in system justification tendencies. However, this research finds that it is possible to eliminate the negative effect of system justification on environmentalism by encouraging people to regard pro-environmental change as patriotic and consistent with protecting the status quo (i.e., as a case of “system-sanctioned change”). Theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.

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For the NYU Alumni Magazine,  Sharon Tregaskis and Jason Hollander recently wrote a piece, titled “Why We Put Environmental Time Bomb on the Backburner,” in which she discusses that article.  Here are some excerpts.

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Imagine a mammoth meteor blazing toward Earth. When it will arrive and whether it will hit directly is debatable, but scientists are unanimous on one thing—it’s coming. And they’re trying desperately to motivate everyone to take action before it’s too late.

While this scenario is science fiction, a similar danger—just as daunting and apocalyptic—is on the horizon. Researchers now almost universally believe that catastrophic climate change, caused primarily by carbon dioxide emissions, is more a matter of “when,” rather than “if.” NASA climate scientist James Hansen predicts that we have perhaps a decade to halt our runaway greenhouse gases, otherwise we will guarantee for our children a fundamentally different planet—one where sea ice no longer blankets the Arctic, where storms relentlessly buffet coastal communities, and conflicts over scarce fresh water and shifting climactic zones rock international relations. And yet global carbon emissions are rising at unprecedented rates, and Americans are expected to produce ever-greater volumes of carbon dioxide in coming years.

Our inaction, in part, boils down to how we think. As with the meteor hurtling in our direction from millions of miles away, the science for measuring climate change and its future effects is complicated, and so far most evidence comes from distant, barely habited places. We, and our leaders, are easily distracted by closer issues—war, terrorism, disease, race relations, economic distress. “People get motivated with near-term dangers, but this is different,” says Tyler Volk (GSAS ’82, ’84), a biologist and core faculty member in NYU’s new environmental studies program. “It’s not like the Hudson River is suddenly full of mercury and everyone is threatened.”

As individuals, we may not deny the mounting evidence of global climate change, but we do harbor an inherent desire to keep our minds on other things. In his 1974 Pulitzer prize-winning book The Denial of Death, social scientist Ernest Becker argued that “the essence of normality is the refusal of reality,” echoing Freud who believed repression to be our natural self-protection. In order to tolerate all sorts of inequities, we will often support or rationalize the status quo even when it contradicts our own self-interest, says NYU social psychologist John Jost, who calls this phenomenon “system justification theory.”

Last spring, Jost collaborated with graduate student Irina Feygina (GSAS ’10) and Mount Sinai Hospital psychologist Rachel Goldsmith to investigate how system justification theory interacts with environmental attitudes. Among their findings: Most people who believe that society is generally fair are also skeptical about the forecasted climate crisis. “There are psychological obstacles to creating real, lasting change,” Jost says, “in addition to all of the scientific, technical, economic, and political obstacles.” Because of this, he notes, denial is far easier and more convenient than supporting a carbon tax, paying more for high-efficiency technology, or giving up cheap goods shipped through elaborate, fuel-guzzling supply chains.

Even so, denial is getting harder, as scientists gain an increasingly nuanced understanding of the mechanics—and the consequences—of climate change. . . .

* * *

This public conversation is slowly trickling up to policy makers. In April, a cadre of retired U.S. generals and admirals offered the chilling statement that climate change was a “a threat multiplier” for global security and the fight against terrorism, as it will further destabilize desperate regions in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Even George W. Bush, who rejected the Kyoto climate accord in 2001, for the first time acknowledged global climate change in last winter’s State of the Union address. “The problem is, among other things, ideological,” Jost says, “and it needs to be addressed at that level, as well as at other, more technological levels.”

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[T]he momentum seems to be growing, says philosopher and director of environmental studies Dale Jamieson, who sees a parallel between the climate campaign and the Civil Rights Movement or widespread efforts to enact smoking bans, where over time, a moral and personal imperative emerged. “There’s no way of addressing this unless people come to see it as an ethical issue that changes what they see as right and wrong, how they live, and what kind of world they’re going to leave to their children,” says Jamieson, adding, “The question [remains] whether we’re going to act, and whether it will be meaningful.”

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To read the entire essay, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “John Jost Speaks about His Own Research,” “The Situation of Climate Change,” “Getting a Grip on Climate Change,” “Juliet Schor, ‘Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies’,” “Denial,” The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” “Captured Science,” and Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and, particularly, Part V.”

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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