The Situationist

Archive for September, 2010

Dan Dennett at Harvard Law on “Free Will, Responsibility, and the Brain”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 30, 2010

From The Crimson:

Tufts University professor Daniel C. Dennett discussed the ways in which neuroscience may impact human understanding of moral and legal responsibility to an overflowing audience in Pound Hall at Harvard Law School yesterday.

The event, titled “Free Will, Responsibility, and the Brain,” was sponsored by the Law School’s Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS), and began with a Dilbert comic strip depicting free will as an ambiguous concept.

“It does justice to our common sense thinking about free will,” he said of the comic strip.

Dennett, who co-directs the Tufts University Center for Cognitive Studies, is best known for his arguments that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes in the brain.

Early in the talk, Dennett asked the audience to flick their right wrists in the next ten seconds, explaining that their brains decided to perform the action a third of second before it actually occurred.

The experiment showed, he said, that unconscious action of the brain precedes the conscious action of an individual.

“Your conscious is out of the loop,” he said. “A voluntary act begins in the brain unconsciously before the person acts consciously.”

Yet Dennett said that the last minute “veto window,” also known as “free won’t,” allows conscious function to affect the final outcome.

Through the discussion, Dennett said he hoped to figure out how to undo the misunderstandings surrounding neuroscience’s implications on human responsibility.

He mentioned the common belief that determinism is incompatible with free will, but quickly dismissed it as a mistake.

The talk was intended to pique interest in understanding the human animal, in accordance with SALMS’s efforts to expose the Law School community to research and concepts from psychology, neuroscience, and other mind sciences, said SALMS President Matthew B. McFeely.

“I hope that attendees of the talk were encouraged to examine a little closer some of commonly held assumptions about people and their behavior,” McFeely said.

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The video of Dan Dennett’s talk will be made available on the PLMS website and The Situationist in November.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Interview with Professor Joshua Greene,”Daniel Dennett on the Situation of our Brain,” Dan Dennett on our Interior Situation,” Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II,” “The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating,” Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV and “Coalition of the Will-less.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Philosophy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Depression

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 29, 2010

From Gallup (09/28/10):

Residents of Gulf Coast-facing counties experienced a decline in their overall emotional health, as measured by the Gallup-Healthways Emotional Health Index, in the 15 weeks after the onset of the BP oil spill. Those living in inland counties in the same Gulf of Mexico states showed no such drops in emotional health in the oil spill’s aftermath.

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From The Associated Press:

A Gallup survey released Tuesday of almost 2,600 coastal residents showed that depression cases are up more than 25 percent since an explosion killed 11 people and unleashed a three-month gusher of crude into the Gulf in April that ruined many livelihoods. The conclusions were consistent with trends seen in smaller studies and witnessed by mental health workers.

People just aren’t as happy as they used to be despite palm trees and warm weather. A “well-being index” included in the Gallup study said many coastal residents are stressed out, worried and sad more often than people living inland, an indication that the spill’s emotional toll lingers even if most of the oil has vanished from view.

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The Gallup survey was conducted in 25 Gulf-front counties from Texas east to Florida over eight months before and after the spill, ending Aug. 6. People reported 25.6 percent more depression diagnoses after then spill than before it, although the study didn’t conclude the additional cases were tied directly to the oil.

The survey said people along the Gulf reported feeling sad, worried and stressed after the spill, while people living inland reported less over the same period. More than 40 percent of people in coastal areas reported feeling stress after the BP geyser blew, a 15 percent increase from before.

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[A]n earlier study conducted in 13 counties and parishes with a total population of 1.9 million showed that 13 percent of coastal adults from Louisiana to Florida suffered probable serious mental illnesses after the spill.

The level of mental illness was similar to that seen six months after Hurricane Katrina decimated the coast five years ago, and experts aren’t yet seeing any improvement in mental health five months after the oil crisis began. Before Katrina, a study by the National Institute of Mental Health said only 6 percent of area residents had likely mental illnesses.

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Steve Barrileaux, a psychologist at the Gulfport center, said some of the problems leading to mental health issues are obvious, like the loss of work by a person who rented chairs on the beach. Others are more subtle.

Many people are deeply worried about the environment, for instance, or lament the lost moments they would have spent fishing recreationally with loved ones. Others are still afraid to eat seafood, even on the coast where livelihoods depend on it.

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To read the article in its entirety, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Some Situational Effects of the BP Gulf Disaster,” “The Situation of Mental Illness,”Inequality and the Unequal Situation of Mental and Physical Health,” “The Situational Consequences of Uncertainty,” “The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers.”

Posted in Distribution, Emotions, Life, Poll | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Daniel Dennett To Speak at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 27, 2010

On Tuesday, September 28th, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Tufts professor Daniel Dennett entitled Free Will, Responsibility, and the Brain.

Professor Dennett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, as well as the co-director for the school’s Center for Cognitive Studies.  His work examines the intersection of philosophy and cognitive science in relation to religion, biology, science, and the human mind.  Professor Dennett has also contributed greatly to the fields of evolutionary theory and psychology.

Professor Dennett will turn a critical eye on the recent influx of work regarding the impact of neuroscience on scholarly concepts of moral and legal responsibility.

He will be speaking in Pound 101 from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Free burritos will be provided!

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For more information, e-mail salms@law.harvard.edu.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Daniel Dennett on the Situation of our Brain,” Dan Dennett on our Interior Situation,” Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II,” “The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating,” Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV and “Coalition of the Will-less.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Evolutionary Psychology, Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Neuroscience, Philosophy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Interview with Professor Joshua Greene

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 26, 2010

From The Project on Law & Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School (PLMS):

Here is an outstanding interview of Joshua Greene by Harvard Law Student Jeff Pote. The interview, titled “On Moral Judgment and Normative Questions” lasts just over 58 minutes. It was conducted as part of the Law and Mind Science Seminar at Harvard.

Bio:

Joshua D. Greene is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He received his A.B. at Harvard University in 1997 where he was advised by Derek Parfit. He received his PhD in Philosophy at Princeton University in 2002 having written a dissertation on the foundation of ethics advised by David Lewis and Gilbert Harman. From 2002 to 2006, when he began at Harvard, he studied as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton in the Neuroscience of Cognitive Control Laboratory under Jonathan Cohen. He is currently the Director of the Moral Cognition Lab.

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Table of contents:

  • 00:00 — Title Frame
  • 00:23 — Introduction
  • 00:54 — How did your professional interests develop?
  • 04:58 — What are the questions that interest you?
  • 06:07 — What research projects are you currently working on?
  • 08:32 — Could you describe the original experiment that supported a dual-process view of moral judgment?
  • 13:13 — Has further research supported the dual-process view of moral judgment?
  • 16:43 — Could you explain how this, or any, psychological understanding could bear on normative questions of law and policy?
  • 24:39 — Could you provide an example of a situation where we should not rely on “blunt intuition?”
  • 30:42 — Can you see other places where psychological research illuminates normative questions of law or policy?
  • 37:40 — Do any of our moral judgments represent an objective moral reality (or moral facts)?
  • 44:38 — Could you provide an example of a “moral objectivist” solution that you find unpersuasive?
  • 49:33 — What is the problem of “free will” and what is its relevance for legal responsibility and punishment?
  • 56:26 — How will this emerging scientific understanding of the human animal affect law and moral philosophy?

Duration: 58:04

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Joshua Greene To Speak at Harvard Law School,” “2010 Law and Mind Sciences Conference,”  The Interior Situation of Honesty (and Dishonesty),” “Moral Psychology Primer,” Law & the Brain,” “Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” “The Science of Morality,” and Your Brain and Morality.”

Posted in Experimental Philosophy, Morality, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Captured Situation of Justice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 26, 2010

Michael S. Kang and Joanna Shepherd recently posted the important paper “The Partisan Price of Justice: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions” on  SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Do campaign contributions affect judicial decisions by elected judges in favor of their contributors’ interests? Although the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. relies on this intuition for its logic, it has been until now largely a proposition that has gone empirically untested. No longer. Using a dataset of every state supreme court case in all fifty states over a four-year period, we find that elected judges are more likely to decide in favor of business interests as the amount of campaign contributions that they have received from those interests increases. In other words, every dollar of direct contributions from business groups is associated with an increase in the probability that the judges will vote for business litigants. However, we find surprisingly a statistically significant relationship between campaign contributions and judicial decisions in favor of contributors’ interests only for judges elected in partisan elections, not nonpartisan ones. Our findings suggest an important role of political parties in connecting campaign contributions to judicial decisions under partisan elections. In the flurry of reform activity responding to Caperton, our findings support judicial reforms that propose the replacement of partisan elections with nonpartisan methods of judicial selection and retention.

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You can download the paper for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Situationist Corruption,” “The Situation of Judges,”The Situation of Earmarks,” “The Situation of Judging – Part I,” and “The Situation of Judging – Part II.”

Posted in Abstracts, Deep Capture, Distribution, Law, Politics | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Halfalogues

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 24, 2010

From EurekAlert:

“Yeah, I’m on my way home.” “That’s funny.” “Uh-huh.” “What? No! I thought you were – ” “Oh, ok.” Listening to someone talk on a cell phone is very annoying. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds out why: Hearing just one side of a conversation is much more distracting than hearing both sides and reduces our attention in other tasks.

Lauren Emberson, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, came up with the idea for the study when she was taking the bus as an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “I was commuting for 45 minutes by bus every day and I really felt like I couldn’t do anything else when someone was on a cell phone,” she says. “I couldn’t read. I couldn’t even listen to my music. I was just so distracted, and I started to wonder about why that could be.”

For the experiment, Emberson recorded two pairs of female college roommates as they had a cell phone conversation. She recorded each conversation both as a dialogue, in which both women could be heard by a listener, and as a “halfalogue” in which only one side of the conversation could be heard, the same as overhearing a cell-phone conversation. She also recorded each woman recapping the conversation in a monologue. Then she played the recordings at volunteers as they did various tasks on the computer that require attention, such as tracking a moving dot using a computer mouse.

Sure enough, volunteers were much worse at the concentration tasks when they could only hear half of the conversation. Emberson thinks this is because our brains more or less ignore predictable things, while paying more attention to things that are unpredictable. When both sides of the conversation are audible, it flows predictably, but a cell phone conversation is quite unpredictable. Emberson conducted the study with Gary Lupyan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michael Goldstein of Cornell University, and Michael Spivey of the University of California-Merced.

“It’s definitely changed my own etiquette,” says Emberson. “I’m a lot more sensitive about talking on the phone in public. It has a really profound effect on the cognition of the people around you, and it’s not because they’re eavesdropping or they’re bad people. Their cognitive mechanism basically means that they’re forced to listen.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Driving While Texting,” The Situational Power of Anonymity,”  “The Situation of Staring,” “The Link Between Sideline Rage and Road Rage,” Alone Together – The Commuter’s Situation,” “Do Car Bumper Stickers Signal Driver Aggression?,” and “Car Bonding.”

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

Performing Under Pressure

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 22, 2010

Situationist friend Sian Beilock’s highly anticipated new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, is now out.  As someone who has had both great successes and great failures under pressure, I’ve been very excited to read Choke since Sian first mentioned it to me.  What exactly happened in that 8th-grade piano recital when my mind went blank halfway through that Bach three-part invention?  Mom, I finally have an answer . . .

Here’s a description of the book:

It happens to all of us. You’ve prepared for days, weeks, even years for the big day when you will finally show your stuff—in academics, in your career, in sports—but when the big moment arrives, nothing seems to work. You hit the wrong note, drop the ball, get stumped by a simple question. In other words, you choke. It’s not fun to think about, but now there’s good news: This doesn’t have to happen.

In lively prose and accessibly rendered science, Beilock examines how attention and working memory guide human performance, how experience and practice and brain development interact to create our abilities, and how stress affects all these factors. She sheds new light on counter-intuitive realities, like why the highest performing people are most susceptible to choking under pressure, why we may learn foreign languages best when we’re not paying attention, why early childhood athletic training can backfire, and how our emotions can make us both smarter and dumber. All these fascinating findings about academic, athletic, and creative intelligence come together in Beilock’s new ideas about performance under pressure—and her secrets to never choking again. Whether you’re at the Olympics, in the boardroom, or taking the SAT, Beilock’s clear, prescriptive guidance shows how to remain cool under pressure—the key to performing well when everything’s on the line.

Dr. Sian Beilock, an expert on performance and brain science, reveals in Choke the astonishing new science of why we all too often blunder when the stakes are high. What happens in our brain and body when we experience the dreaded performance anxiety? And what are we doing differently when everything magically “clicks” into place and the perfect golf swing, tricky test problem, or high-pressure business pitch becomes easy? In an energetic tour of the latest brain science, with surprising insights on every page, Beilock explains the inescapable links between body and mind; reveals the surprising similarities among the ways performers, students, athletes, and business people choke; and shows how to succeed brilliantly when it matters most.

Read an excerpt from Choke here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Psychologists Discuss Stereotype Threat,” Stereotype Threat and Performance,” Your Group is Bad at Math,” “The Bar Exam Situation,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” and The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers.’

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Life, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Viral Situation of Obesity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 21, 2010

From UC San Diego News:

The emerging idea that obesity may have an infectious origin gets new support in a cross-sectional study by University of California, San Diego School of Medicine researchers who found that children exposed to a particular strain of adenovirus were significantly more likely to be obese.

The study will be published in the September 20 online edition of the journal Pediatrics. September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

Jeffrey B. Schwimmer, MD,  associate professor of clinical pediatrics at UC San Diego, and colleagues examined 124 children, ages 8 to 18, for the presence of antibodies specific to adenovirus 36 (AD36), one of more than 50 strains of adenovirus known to infect humans and cause a variety of respiratory, gastrointestinal and other infections. AD36 is the only human adenovirus currently linked to human obesity.

Slightly more than half of the children in the study (67) were considered obese, based on a Body Mass Index or BMI in the 95th percentile or greater. The researchers detected neutralizing antibodies specific to AD36 in 19 of the children (15 percent). The majority of these AD36-positive children (78 percent) were obese, with AD36 antibodies much more frequent in obese children (15 of 67) than in non-obese children (4 of 57).

Children who were AD36-positive weighed almost 50 pounds more, on average, than children who were AD36-negative. Within the group of obese children, those with evidence of AD36 infection weighed an average of 35 pounds more than obese children who were AD36-negative.

“This amount of extra weight is a major concern at any age, but is especially so for a child,” said Schwimmer, who is also director of Weight and Wellness at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “Obesity can be a marker for future health problems like heart disease, liver disease and diabetes. An extra 35 to 50 pounds is more than enough to greatly increase those risks.”

Schwimmer said he hopes this research will help shift some of the burden that falls so heavily upon obese people, in particular children.

“Many people believe that obesity is one’s own fault or the fault of one’s parents or family. This work helps point out that body weight is more complicated than it’s made out to be. And it is time that we move away from assigning blame in favor of developing a level of understanding that will better support efforts at both prevention and treatment. These data add credence to the concept that an infection can be a cause or contributor to obesity.”

While an association between AD36 and obesity in both animals and human adults has been previously described, the particulars remain poorly understood. For example, it is not known how often or under what circumstances AD36 infects, why the virus affects people differently and whether weight gain is the result of an active infection or a lasting change in a person’s metabolism.

In cell cultures, Schwimmer said, the virus infects pre-adipocytes or immature fat cells, prompting them to develop more quickly and proliferate in greater numbers than normal. “This might be the mechanism for obesity,” Schwimmer said, “but more work needs to be done.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Addictive Situation of Fatty Food,” Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” The Policy Situation of Obesity,” The Situation of Body Image,”The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Social Situation of Contagious Outbreaks

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 20, 2010

From Harvard Medical School (written by David Cameron and Inga Kiderra):

Your friends are probably more popular than you are. And this “friendship paradox” may help predict the spread of infectious disease.

Nicholas Christakis, professor of medicine, medical sociology and sociology at Harvard University, and James Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California, San Diego, used the paradox to study the 2009 flu epidemic among 744 students. The findings, the researchers say, point to a novel method for early detection of contagious outbreaks.

Analyzing a social network and monitoring the health of its central members is an ideal way to predict an outbreak. But such detailed information simply doesn’t exist for most social groups, and producing it is time-consuming and expensive.

The “friendship paradox,” first described in 1991, potentially offers an easy way around this. Simply put, the paradox states that, statistically, the friends of any given individual are likely more popular than the individual herself. Take a random group of people, ask each of them to name one friend, and on average the named friends will rank higher in the social web than the ones who named them.

If this is hard to fathom, imagine a large cocktail party with a host holding court in the center while, at the fringes, a few loners lean against the walls staring at their drinks. Randomly ask the partygoers to each name a friend, and the results will undoubtedly weigh heavily in the direction of the well-connected host. Few people will name a recluse.

And just as they come across gossip, trends and good ideas sooner, the people at the center of a social network are exposed to diseases earlier than those at the margins.

As the 2009 influenza season approached, Christakis and Fowler decided to put these basic features of a social network to work, contacting 319 Harvard undergraduates who in turn named a total of 425 friends. Monitoring the two groups both through self-reporting and data from Harvard University Health Services, the researchers found that, on average, the friends group manifested the flu roughly two weeks prior to the random group using one method of detection, and a full 46 days prior to the epidemic peak using another method.

“We think this may have significant implications for public health,” said Christakis. “Public health officials often track epidemics by following random samples of people or monitoring people after they get sick. But that approach only provides a snapshot of what’s currently happening. By simply asking members of the random group to name friends, and then tracking and comparing both groups, we can predict epidemics before they strike the population at large. This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response.”

“If you want a crystal ball for finding out which parts of the country are going to get the flu first, then this may be the most effective method we have now,” said Fowler. “Currently used methods are based on statistics that lag the real world – or, at best, are contemporaneous with it. We show a way you can get ahead of an epidemic of flu, or potentially anything else that spreads in networks.”

Indeed, the authors note that the same method could be used very widely – to anticipate epidemics of behaviors like drug use or even the diffusion of ideas or fashions.

John Glasser, a mathematical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA, who was not involved in this research, said: “Christakis’ and Fowler’s provocative study should cause infectious disease epidemiologists and public health practitioners alike to consider the social contexts within which pathogens are transmitted. This study may be unique in demonstrating that social position affects one’s risk of acquiring disease. Consequently, epidemiologists and social scientists are modeling networks to evaluate novel disease surveillance and infection control strategies.”

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Fowler and Christakis are coauthors of the book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, as well as the article on which this post is based: Social Network Sensors for Early Detection of Contagious Outbreaks” (PLoS ONE, online publication Sep 15, 20100).

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Social Networks,” The Social Situation of Breaking Up,” Social Networks,” Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” and “Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg.”

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Life, Video | Leave a Comment »

Tamara Piety on Market Manipulation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 18, 2010

In response to Adam Beneforado’s terrific post this week, “Breaking Up Is Easy to Do: When Corporations Dump Consumers,” Situationist friend Tamara Piety wrote another excellent comment, a portion of which we’ve posted below.

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To me, one of most offensive examples of this type of channeling is the price discrimination practice involved in rebate/coupon schemes. Rebates and coupons are used as a way to expand the customer base by attracting a few more customers by virtue of the illusion (for most) of a lower price point. We see it in electronics all the time – “Laptop $999 [with $250 rebate]” There are several things at work here at once. One is that the seller ( or whoever actually pays the rebate) has your money for some period of time ranging from 30 days to 6 months as an interest free loan. Second is the anchoring effect that makes $999 seem some how much less than $1,000. But the principle objection for me is that they are actually creating a staggered pricing program. Again, this might not be a problem if it simply involved selling to as many customers as possible on the basis of the price that they will want to buy. The problem is that in order to do this companies make the process of obtaining the lower price (i.e. the with the rebate price), much more onerous than it appears to be through a variety of devices that are intended to take advantage of the psychological effect of the lower price and then relying on consumer inertia, lack of attention, recalculation of the efforts and so forth to avoid actually making good on that promise. Getting the rebate usually involves fair amount of time and effort (filling out the rebate form, mailing it back, waiting for the check, etc.) and uncertainty (if you fail to observe deadline, miss a requirement in the fine print, fail to send in the original, etc.) you lose. None of these difficulties are simply bureaucratic obstacles which have the ancillary effect of depressing the number of rebates redeemed. They are intended to have this effect. And sometimes the rebate is “paid” in the form of a “gift card” rather than in a cash or check which further draws out the redemption process by providing an expiration date for the card, limitations on where it can be used, or even a restriction limiting its use to other products from the same seller.

Every single step in this process is calculated to generate some failures to complete the redemption process so that the customer doesn’t actually receive the advertised price. And this is seen as a perfectly legitimate set of strategies to maximize the sales of the same good across a range of consumers – from those who don’t care about the rebate, to those who do and intend to redeem and then fail to do so, to those who intend to try redeem and try to do so but fail to successfully jump through all of the hoops of the conditions imposed, to those, finally, who intend to redeem and successfully do so. Some percentage of the last three groups are consumers who presumably wouldn’t have brought the product but for the promised (but in at least two instances) undelivered rebate. And the difference between groups 2 and 3 and group 4 are explained by the seller as being entirely attributable to some character “flaw” (lack of attention, lack of diligence, etc.) or a “choice” not to redeem when that “choice” has been structured to take advantage of consumers’ psychological vulnerabilities (or their dawning realization that the time and effort required to pursue the rebate is not really “free” and thus it might be more rational to abandon the effort.) It is disingenuous and unfair to describe these consumer “choices” as unmediated.

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Bottom line all these tropes – “control,” “choice,” “information,” as they are currently used and understood by many, operate to absolve the seller of any responsibility for their role in driving these choices even as several full-blown, mature industries’ very existence (advertising, marketing, PR) is predicated on the proposition that it is possible to manipulate and channel consumer choices. It is a feat of sleight-of-hand to argue (in essence) that entire industries’ efforts are of no consequence whatsoever even as billions of dollars are spent in plain sight on those efforts.

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To read Piety’s entire comment, click here. Her focus is particularly timely in light of the fact that another Situationist friend, Elizabeth Warren, accepted President Obama’s invitation this week to set up a a consumer financial watchdog and warned yesterday that the time for financial “tricks and traps” was over.

The themes of market manipulation and the “choice myth” are common on the Situationist.  In addition to the sample of related posts linked at the bottom of Adam’s post,  here are few more:  Taking Behavioralism Seriously (Part I) – Abstract and Top Ten List; Promoting Smoking through SituationThe Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain,” “Warren on the Situation of Credit,” “The Financial Squeeze: Bad Choices or Bad Situations?,” “No Contract for Old Men,” The Situation of Subprime Mortgage Contracts – Abstract.”

The first scholarly article (part of  a trilogy) devoted to these issues is Taking Behavioralism Seriously: The Problem of Market Manipulation (74 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 363 (1999)) available for free download on SSRN.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, Life, Marketing, Public Relations, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Andrew Papachristos Explains Why Criminals Obey the Law – Video

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 17, 2010

Last fall, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) hosted a fascinating talk by Professor  Andrew Papachristos entitled “Why Do Criminals Obey the Law: The Influence of Law and Social Networks on Active Gun Users.”  You can read the abstract for the talk and watch the video below.

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Our findings suggest that while criminals as a whole have negative opinions of the law and legal authority, the sample of gun offenders (just like non-criminals) are more likely to comply with the law when they believe in (a) the substance of the law, and (b) the legitimacy of legal actors, especially the police. Moreover, we find that opinions of compliance to the law are not uniformly distributed across the sample population. In other words, not all criminals are alike in their opinions of the law. Gang members – but especially gang members with social networks saturated with criminal associates – are significantly less likely to view the law and its agents as a legitimate form of authority. However, those individuals (including gang members) with less saturated criminal networks, actually tend to have more positive opinions of the law, albeit these opinions are still overall negative.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see”The Legal Situation of the Underclass,”The Situation of Criminality – Abstract,” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Why Criminals Obey the Law – Abstract,” and Tom Tyler on “Strategies of Social Control” – Video.”

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

Breaking Up Is Easy to Do: When Corporations Dump Consumers

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 16, 2010

As Jon Hanson and a number of other Situationist contributors (including yours truly) have profiled over the years, corporations go to great lengths to convince us that we are rational market actors, exercising free choice.  By using advertizing, marketing, and other means to encourage consumers to believe that they are in control, corporate entities can effectively evade liability and regulation.  When someone becomes obese from eating too much fast food or develops cancer from smoking too many cigarettes, the “choice myth” acts as a great shield.  How can the corporation be deemed blameworthy when individuals exercised free choice to buy the problematic products in copious quantities?

The great injustice, of course, is that at the same time that corporations are selling the narrative that the American public is in the driver’s seat, navigating an open market, they are actively working to ensure that that is not the case.

Take a recent article by Detlef Schoder and Alex Talalayevsky in the Wall Street Journal’s Executive Adviser on how companies can regain control of pricing power on the Internet.  What is fascinating about the piece is that Schoder and Talalayevsky portray consumers seeking to become well informed and exercising free choice as “taking advantage”—that is, not playing fair.  And the authors offer specific tactics to limit choice and confuse or reduce the knowledge of potential buyers.

For example, Schoder and Talalayevsky provide advice on decreasing “price transparency.”  As they explain, “Packaging, or bundling, a product with other products and/or services, makes it difficult for buyers to ascertain the specific cost of each single item within the bundle.”  Likewise, they recommend tracking online customers by delivery address and credit-card number and then banning “customers who repeatedly eat into [the] profit margin.”

Do companies actually do these things?

You bet.  Indeed, I have a friend who was banned from Bluefly.com after she was deemed to be too savvy and not profitable enough.  Bluefly broke the news in a letter canceling her most recent order: “While we understand that you may be upset by this situation, please understand that, by choosing not to accept your order, we are not saying that you have done anything wrong.  We are simply recognizing that based on our mutual past transaction history, we are not a good match to continue to do business together.”

When my friend forwarded me the “it’s not you, it’s me” email, my first instinct was to laugh, but as I thought more about it, it all seemed pretty underhanded.  There is something seemingly unjust about corporations celebrating the autonomous, rational consumer, while actively working to undermine autonomy and rationality, and to cull the most autonomous and rational individuals from the herd.

What do you think?

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Taking the Situation of Consumers Seriously,” Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!,” The Changing Face of Marketing?,” “The Situation of Credit Card Regulation,” The Financial Squeeze: Bad Choices or Bad Situations?” “The Situation of the American Middle Class,” “Are Debtors Rational Actors or Situational Characters?,” and “The Situation of College Debt” – Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Posted in Choice Myth, Marketing, Situationist Contributors, Uncategorized | Tagged: | 10 Comments »

Like the Situationist? Tell the ABA!

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 15, 2010

The American Bar Association Journal is compiling its list of the 100 best legal blogs . . . or, blawgs, as they are referred to in the “biz.”

If you enjoy following the Situationist, consider telling the editors here.  As they explain, “Editors make the final decisions about what’s included in the Blawg 100; this isn’t a scenario in which the blawgs that receive the most amici are the ones that make the list.”

Comments are being collected until the end of the month.

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To read what others have said about The Situationist, click here.

Posted in Events | Leave a Comment »

Situationist Corruption

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 14, 2010

Molly J. Walker Wilson recently posted her article, “Behavioral Decision Theory and Implications for the Supreme Court’s Campaign Finance Jurisprudence” (Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 31, p. 679, 2010) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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America stands at a moment in history when advances in the understanding of human decision-making are increasing the strategic efficacy of political strategy. As campaign spending for the presidential race reaches hundreds of millions of dollars, the potential for harnessing the power of psychological tactics becomes considerable. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has characterized campaign money as “speech” and has required evidence of corruption or the appearance of corruption in order to uphold restrictions on campaign expenditures. Ultimately, the Court has rejected virtually all restrictions on campaign spending on the ground that expenditures, unlike contributions, do not contribute to corruption or the appearance of corruption. However, behavioral decision research and theory provide strong support for the notion that expenditures do corrupt the political process, because there is a nexus between campaign spending, strategic manipulation, and sub-optimal voting decisions. This Article applies behavioral research and theory to advance a new definition of “corruption,” arguing that there is a vital governmental interest in regulating campaign expenditures in order to limit manipulative campaign tactics and to reduce the existing inequities in access to channels of communication and persuasion.

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You can download the entire article for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Corruption,” Larry Lessig’s Situationism,” The Situation of Swift-Boating,” “Deep Capture – Part VII,” “The Situation of Earmarks,” “The Deeply Captured Situation of the Economic Crisis,” and “Our Stake in Corporate Behavior.”

Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Deep Capture, Law, Politics | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Jim Sidanius Returns to Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 12, 2010

On Monday, September 12th, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Professor Jim Sidanius entitled “Under Color of Authority: Terror, Intergroup Violence, and the Law.”

Professor Sidanius, a Harvard University professor in the departments of Psychology and African and African American Studies, focuses his research on the political psychology of gender, group conflict, and institutional discrimination, as well as the evolutionary psychology of intergroup prejudice.  He runs the Sidanius Lab in Intergroup Relations, which conducts research regarding intergroup relations, social inequality, hierarchy, stereotyping, ideology, and prejudice.

Professor Sidanius will be speaking about ways in which the legal system has been, and continues to be, used as a means to effectuate intergroup violence, particularly through the criminal justice system.

Professor Sidanius will be speaking in Pound 100 from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.. Free burritos will be provided!

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For more information, e-mail salms@law.harvard.edu.

For a sample of previous Situationist posts discussing Professor Sidanius’s remarkable scholarship, see “Jim Sidanius, ‘Under Color of Authority: Terror, Intergroup Violence, and The Law’,” and “The Project’s Second Conference – ‘Ideology, Psychology & Law’.

Posted in Conflict, Deep Capture, Distribution, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Character Project

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on September 10, 2010

The Templeton Foundation has recently funded The Character Project–which is being run by Christian Miller (Wake Forest).  Given the focus of The Situationist and the relevance of the literature on the situational roots of behavior to character-based accounts of virtue (e.g., see here), readers of this blog should drop by and check out the details of the project.  Here is a brief overview from their homepage:

The past 30 years have seen a resurgence of interest in character, particularly in the areas of psychology, philosophy, and theology. This work has given rise to a number of challenging questions, such as:

  • (i) Do character traits such as honesty or compassion really exist?
  • (ii) If they do exist, how prevalent are they, and what is their underlying psychological nature?
  • (iii) Should character traits such as the virtues be the centerpiece of our best ethical theory?
  • (iv) How should we go about improving our characters and overcoming our character flaws?
  • (v) For those working in theology, should thinking about human and divine character be central to theological ethics?

The goal of the Character Project is to address these and a host of related questions, and thereby foster new advances in the study of character.

They recently posted the first RFP for the Psychology of Character:

Psychology of Character

A $1.5 million dollar RFP entitled “New Frontiers in the Psychology of Character” has been issued for work in psychology on the existence and nature of character and the relationship between character traits and beliefs, desires, identities, emotions, behavior, and situations. Full proposal requests would range between $50,000 and $200,000 for projects not to exceed two years in duration. We anticipate making 6-10 awards.

Full details about applying for the Psychology of Character funding competition can be found in PDF format here.

Hopefully, some of the readers of The Situationist will apply!

Posted in Education, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Fiery Cushman at Harvard law School – Video

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 8, 2010

From The Harvard Law Record (Sept. 2009):

On September 21st, Fiery Cushman, a newly-minted PhD recipient and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative, presented some of his recent research at an event titled “Outcome vs. Intent: Which Do We Punish, and Why?” Cushman’s work suggests that at a gut-level, people assess whether a behavior was morally right or wrong by looking at the actor’s intentions, but when assigning punishment, people are overwhelmingly interested in outcomes, even if an outcome was accidental.

Cushman described several experiments where he was able to look at a participant’s intentions in isolation from the actual outcome of the participant’s actions. In one case, participants were given the choice of dice that would later be rolled to assign rewards to a second, receiving party. When given the opportunity, the recipient would consistently punish more often when the dice produced less favorable rewards, even if the initial participant intended to provide rewards generously. This work has interesting implications for tort law, explaining in part why findings of negligence lead to large compensatory rewards even in the absence of any intentional action.

Below is the video of that fascinating talk.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, “Law Students Flock to Situationism,” “Fiery Cushman at Harvard Law School,” Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “John Darley on ‘Justice as Intuitions’ – Video,” “The Situation of Punishment in Schools,” Why We Punish,” “Kevin Jon Heller on The Cognitive Psychology of Mens Rea,” Mark Lanier visits Professor Jon Hanson’s Tort Class (web cast),” and “Situationist Torts – Abstract.”

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

The Situation of Property Ownership

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 7, 2010

Patricia Kanngiesser, Nathalia Gjersoe, and Bruce M. Hood recently published a fascinating paper, titled “The Effect of Creative Labor on Property-Ownership Transfer by Preschool Children and Adults,” in the August 16, 2010 issue of Psychological Science.  Here’s the abstract.

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Recognizing property ownership is of critical importance in social interactions, but little is known about how and when this attribute emerges. We investigated whether preschool children and adults believe that ownership of one person’s property is transferred to a second person following the second person’s investment of creative labor in that property. In our study, an experimenter and a participant borrowed modeling-clay objects from each other to mold into new objects. Participants were more likely to transfer ownership to the second individual after he or she invested creative labor in the object than after any other manipulations (holding the object, making small changes to it). This effect was significantly stronger in preschool children than in adults. Duration of manipulation had no effect on property-ownership transfer. Changes in the object’s identity acted only as a secondary cue for children. We conclude that ownership is transferred after an investment of creative labor and that determining property ownership may be an intuitive process that emerges in early childhood.

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You can learn m0re about the article here.  And Wray Herbert has a nice summary of the study on his blog, We’re Only Human.  To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,”Intuitions of Punishment?,” and “The Interior Situation of Infants.”

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Life, Morality | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situational Effects of Mirror Neurons

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 5, 2010

From TEDxTalks:

Gustaf Gredebäck is an Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology, Uppsala University where he manages the Uppsala Babylab. His research span several topics including occulomotor development, social cognition, and object representations in infancy. Central to his research is the active infant, that perceive, interpret, and interact with his/her physical and social environment in a goal directed and future oriented manner.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” Smart People Thinking about People Thinking about People Thinking,” “A Closer Look at Interior Situation,” “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” and “Brainicize: The Situational Malleability of our Brains.”

Posted in Embodied Cognition, Life, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Happiness and Legal Policy – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 3, 2010

Peter Huang recently posted his interesting paper, “Happiness Studies and Legal Policy” (forthcoming Annual Review of Law & Social Science) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Social scientists have conducted numerous empirical and experimental studies of self-reported happiness. This review focuses on two fundamental areas of research in happiness and law, namely alternative measures of happiness and various policies to foster happiness. There are many aspects, concepts, dimensions, and visions of happiness. Empirical findings often depend critically on which particular measure of happiness is analyzed. Happiness studies have applications to national well-being indices; policy evaluation; civil judicial and jury decision-making about liability and damages in cases of sexual harassment, employment discrimination, torts; optimal tax law design; family law; criminal sentencing, legal education, and legal practice. There are decision-making, health, productivity, and psychological benefits to various types of happiness. There are more or less paternalistic happiness interventions, including policies to encourage regular physical exercise, good sleep, and meditation. Hopefully analysis of these topics offers exemplars of possibilities and limits to utilizing happiness studies in designing legal policy.

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You can download the paper for free here.  To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Pleasure,” “Money and the Situation of Happiness,” and “Something to Smile About.” To review a collection of Situationist posts exploring the causes and consequences of happiness, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Legal Theory, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

 
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