The Situationist

Archive for August, 2011

The Situation of Eyewitness Identification

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 31, 2011

Read the Innocence Project’s “Reevaluating Lineups” report on eyewitness misidentifications here (pdf).

From the BBC, here are some revealing clips from their series, Eyewitness.

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

Do Doctors Lack Empathy?

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 29, 2011

Shortly after I finished Simon Baron-Cohen’s new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, I spoke to one of my friends who had just had an extremely bad interaction with a doctor.  The friend had just received a frightening diagnosis and when she went to ask more questions, the doctor was blunt and emotionally-disengaged.  As I spoke to the friend, it occurred to me that, while there were some very important exceptions, I’d actually had a lot of similar experiences with doctors.  Might it be true that doctors have less empathy than other people?

Coincidentally, with the help of the gnomes of the World Wide Web, I found an interesting recent article by Omar Sultan Haque and Adam Waytz in Scientific American, which describes two experiments by Jean Decety and his collaborators at the University of Chicago that shed a bit of light on the answer:

In one experiment, physicians who practice acupuncture (as well as matched non-physician controls) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching videos of needles being inserted into another person’s hands, feet and areas around their mouth as well as videos of the same areas being touched by a cotton bud. Compared to controls, the physicians showed significantly less response in brain regions involved in empathy for pain. In addition, the physicians showed significantly greater activation of areas involved in executive control, self-regulation and thinking about the mental states of others.  The physicians appeared to show less empathy and more of a higher-level cognitive response.

This finding raised a further question. Perceiving pain in others typically involves two steps. First people engage in the emotional sharing of pain with another person, and then they make a cognitive appraisal of the emotion. Do physicians automatically feel empathy for the pain of others, but then quickly suppress it? Or is the cognitive suppression of empathy even deeper; has it become more automatic? Is it possible that the physicians no longer even experience the first step of empathy for pain that regular people show on their brain scans?

The investigators repeated the same experiment but rather than looking for changes in brain blood-flow by using fMRI, they assessed the brain’s event-related potentials (ERP). Results showed that when viewing the painful needle sticking, the physicians did not even show the early empathy response. The physicians had apparently become so good at empathy suppression that there was no early response to worry about.

Why might these effects exist? It could be that, compared to other professions, the people that gravitate to healthcare tend to be less empathic. This seems unlikely. Furthermore, studies of physicians show that they are often the most empathic and caring towards the beginning of medical school, and that they become steadily less empathetic with more clinical training. The more likely culprits are therefore the nature of medical training and the intrinsic demands of the profession.

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Posted in Abstracts, Altruism, Book, Emotions | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

The Situationist Honored by SPSP

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 28, 2011


We just learned that the Society for Personality and Social
Psychology (SPSP) awarded its 2011 Media Award to The Situationist.  We are thrilled and will provide more details next week.

Posted in Awards, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

The Science of Evil

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 27, 2011

Following up on my review of Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, I just finished reading the other new offering in the world of “psychopath studies”: Simone Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.

Baron-Cohen’s central theory is that evil is critically tied to lack of empathy.  It’s a thought-provoking notion and I was very intrigued by the connections that he made between various “empathy deficient” conditions from psychopaths, to narcissists, to borderlines, to those on the autism spectrum.

At points, I think he gets so carried away considering the particular dispositions of his “zero negatives” (those, like psychopaths, whose lack of empathy brings about “unequivocally bad” results) and “zero positives” (those, like Asperger’s sufferers, whose lack of empathy is not inherently harmful) that he misses the power of our situations to inform “evil” behavior.  Indeed, at these moments Baron-Cohen would have done well to pan out and emphasize that many of us (even those of us testing high on the Empathy Quotient questionnaire in the book’s Appendix) can be influenced to be less empathetic, with disastrous results.

These criticisms aside, and despite not feeling totally convinced by his argument, it’s an interesting book and worth a read.  I found myself continuing to ponder Baron-Cohen’s insights long after I’d set the book back on shelf.

One of these musings, I’ll share in my next post . . .

Posted in Book, Morality | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Human Rights

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 25, 2011

Ryan Goodman, Derek Jinks, Andrew Woods,  have recently posted their chapter, “Social Science and Human Rights”   (forthcoming in their edited book, “Understanding Social Action, Promoting Human Rights,” Oxford University Press, 2012) on SSRN

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Over the last twenty years, the social scientific understanding of human behavior has taken a significant leap forward. Important advances in several fields have increased the complexity and accuracy of prevailing models of individual actors, group dynamics, and communication. Unfortunately, too few of the key insights of that scholarship have been incorporated into the theory or practice of human rights promotion. In this project, we collect research from a broad set of disciplines and analyze its implications for human rights scholarship and practice. By focusing on non-legal scholarship that touches on norm creation, diffusion, and institutionalization, we present a broad range of interdisciplinary insights relevant to human rights scholars and practitioners.

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Download the chapter for free here.

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

“Taxi to the Darkside”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 23, 2011

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(BBC Broadcast, 2011)

From

This documentary murder mystery examines the death of an Afghan taxi driver at Bagram Air Base from injuries inflicted by U.S. soldiers. In an unflinching look at the Bush administration’s policy on torture, the filmmaker behind Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room takes us from a village in Afghanistan to Guantanamo and straight to the White House. In English and Pashtu.

Related Situationist posts:

 

 

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

Sarah Haskins on “Ladyfriend” Stereotypes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 21, 2011

From :

The best part about being a girl is your girlfriends. They keep you happy when you’re sad and make you laugh when you want to cry, and most importantly, tell you what to buy.

Related Situationist posts:

 

Posted in Entertainment, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Life, Marketing, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Breastfeeding Prejudice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 20, 2011

From Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

A study conducted at Montana State University finds that even though breastfeeding is healthy, cheap and beneficial to mother and child, there is a strong bias against nursing mothers among both men and women.

Jessi L. Smith, psychology professor at MSU, found that participants in three studies thought nursing mothers were not as mentally competent as other groups of women and said they’d be less likely to hire breastfeeding mothers for a job.

The results of Smith’s study were published this summer in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Smith and her co-authors questioned MSU students in three double-blind studies about how they perceived breastfeeding moms’ competence and hire-ability compared to non-breastfeeding people.

In all three studies, the students rated breastfeeding women as significantly less competent in general and particularly less competent in math.

Smith, who became a mother in 2007 after the study was under way, chose to breastfeed her child and said it’s not surprising that new mothers considering breastfeeding are often daunted just thinking about the task.

“It’s the 21st century,” she said. “We have come a long way today in educating ourselves about the health and economic benefits of nursing to both mother and child, but we have done nothing to talk about the fact that breast milk actually comes from the breast and not bottles.”

Promoting breastfeeding to increase the number of nursing mothers would help stem the bias by letting people see that it isn’t a rare thing, Smith said.

“Right now, it’s not surprising that nursing mothers feel isolated,” she said.

Employers could also do their part to encourage breastfeeding by providing a private place for mothers to nurse their children since many mothers are required to return to work just six weeks after the birth of their babies.

“You can’t establish a good breastfeeding bond in six weeks and make a good assessment if breastfeeding will work for you and your child,” she said.

She pointed out that health organizations, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health, stress the economic and health benefits of nursing and advise that breastfeeding protects babies, benefits mothers’ health and society.

Smith has taken her research a step further with an INBRE-funded grant to study actual social psychological barriers to breastfeeding mothers. She has collected data from new mothers in Billings, Bozeman, Kalispell, Miles City and Missoula. She is now analyzing the data and plans to publish the results early next year.

More.

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

The Psychopath Test

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 18, 2011

It is late summer and the time of year when I get to catch up on books that have been piling up in my office.

One of these, Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, had been on my radar since I read a positive review by Janet Maslin in The New York Times a couple months ago and knowing Ronson’s other work (including The Men Who Stare at Goats), I was eager to dive in.

Ronson has a talent for picking out quirky characters and fringe topics and knitting them together with sharp (and, frequently, cutting) prose.  In The Psychopath Test, he mingles with Scientologists, denizens of Broadmoor (an English psychiatric hospital once known as Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum), David Shayler (the former MI5 spy turned conspiracy theorist turned messiah), and numerous other intriguing individuals.  Although he describes himself as highly anxious, Ronson does not shy away from awkwardness in his interviews or skewering those with whom he disagrees.

This makes for entertaining reading, but I worry that it may lead to distortions and this is where my main issue with the book comes.  Ronson’s central goal seems to debunk (or at least) unsettle the psychiatric establishment.  He aims to show that the insiders of what he refers to as “the madness industry” are themselves mad and that fairly normal people end up being labeled and destroyed by a system riddled with problems.  But Ronson doesn’t use the tools of science to accomplish his task.  Indeed, his account is profoundly unscientific.

Rather than really engaging the research, Ronson relies on interviews with scientists, patients, and others—and it often seems that he uses these interviews to build support for his preset conclusions, rather than allowing his investigations to drive his theory, or lets his theory be driven by his personal reactions to the players involved (i.e., this guy is a jerk, therefore his research is rubbish).  Consider Ronson’s epiphany concerning “what a mutually passionate and sometimes dysfunctional bubble the relationship between therapist and client can be.”  The spark and proof for this statement is the fact that one psychiatrist, Gary Maier, who he interviewed “sounded mournful, defensive, and utterly convinced of himself” when arguing that psychopath patients who later reoffended after his treatment program was shut down did so because the dissolution of the program suggested to them that the therapy was ineffective.  Ronson may be right about the “sometimes dysfunctional bubble” but he hasn’t made his case at all.

Perhaps more worrisome is the haphazard way Ronson goes about wielding the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist noting whenever he comes across someone—an arrogant CEO, a reviewer who crossed him, etc.—who seems to show signs of one item or another.  Certainly that’s part of the point (that such checklists can be used haphazardly), but I often got the sense that Ronson genuinely believed, after having taken a three-day course, that he was now able to spot the psychopaths in our midst.  And overall I thought he gave short shrift to the training and experience that go into wielding the DSM.  A layperson flipping through the manual will immediately diagnose his spouse with 15 conditions; a trained psychologist will not.

So, my final verdict?  Check out one of Ronson’s other books instead — he’s a talented writer but this book left me feeling cold (which may or may not make me a psychopath).

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Sample of other Situationist book reviews:

Posted in Book, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

The Cause of Rioting? That’s Easy: Rioters!

Posted by JH on August 16, 2011

British Prime Minister David Cameron attributed the recent riots in his to “the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations.”   The message may seem vaguely situationist at first blush, as Cameron emphasizes the problem of a “broken society.”

But what he really seems to care about are the bad “choices” made by selfish, irresponsible individuals.

Cameron’s comments resemble remarks he’s made in the past.  In 2008, according to one account, he declared that “people who are fat, poor or addicted to drugs could only have themselves to blame.”

It’s a one-size-fits-all ideology:  If you have problems, look in the mirror!

To be fair, Cameron does acknowledge one situational force that has played a significant role in encouraging the moral decay behind the looting and lawlessness.  According to Cameron, “[s]ome of the worst aspects of human nature [have been] tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies.”

Such has been the conservative mantra at least since Reagan and Thatcher:  The problem with the poor is their disposition and the government policies and programs that encourage that disposition. Prime Minister Cameron explains:

“For years we’ve had a system that encourages the worst in people — that incites laziness, that excuses bad behavior, that erodes self-discipline, that discourages hard work… well this is moral hazard in our welfare system — people thinking they can be as irresponsible as they like because the state will always bail them out.”

When a “society is broken,” by this view, the government needs to do less for the people and thus do more to encourage personal responsbility.  Less is more.

Yesterday, U.S. conservative Arthur Herman wrote a piece for the National Review, that purported to identify the person behind our problems.  According to Herman, the blame for the riots and many of our country’s problems should ultimately fall on one American man: John Dollard.

Not heard of him? He’s been deceased for 30 years, and his primary work was published in 1939.  Still, according to Herman, Dollard was “one of the most influential social thinkers of the past century.”  He was:

“a Yale social psychologist . . . who triggered a major and disastrous shift in the way we look at crime and urban violence, which we’ve been living with ever since, and which has left us, like the British today, largely disarmed in dealing with our own worst enemies.”

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“Dollard and his colleagues in effect infantilized human motives — and threw out the notion of individual moral responsibility. If people turn violent and smash windows or someone’s face, Dollard was saying, it’s not really their fault. They can’t help it; they’re feeling frustrated. Punishing people for their aggression in hopes they will learn a lesson, is doomed to fail. The best way to prevent violence is to give them what they want from the start.”

Really?  Dollard is to “the man behind the riots,” and his was the argument that won the day and profoundly contaminated policy in the U.S. and England?

As someone who has been teaching at a law school for twenty years, who went to Yale, who devotes the bulk of his professional energy to studying the implications of social psychology for law, I should confess that I had never heard of Professor Dollard, and I have no reason to believe that his research has been particularly influential.  And one doesn’t need to sit where I sit to question Herman’s assertion that our society (or England’s) has somehow given to the impoverished underclasses “what they want from the start” or that such an argument has held much sway among policymakers or the public.

Herman’s point, like Cameron’s, seems to be that the best way to understand social turmoil and intergroup conflict is to look at the individuals behind it.  Where there is trouble, find the troublemakers.  To Herman, the rioters rioted because of their own character, nothing more.  In his words, “[t]he rioters were criminals pure and simple.”  Like Cameron, Herman believes that the appropriate solution is more criminal punishment, pure and simple.  It is time to get tough!

Many who have looked closely at the U.S. criminal system and it’s bulging prison population would reject the claim that we have been light on criminals (or that our punitive actions have been just or yielded positive results).

Social psychology suggests that there may be more to the riots than just the rioters.  Indeed, there is a strong human tendency (as social psychologists since Dollard have shown) to blame the poor for being poor and to assure ourselves that little is owed to those who have less than we ourselves do.  Our world, we like to believe, is just.  We achieve that affirming feat of rationalization in part by ignoring the many situational forces that contribute to the underlying inequalities and injustices.

That tendency is in evidence this week in the remarks of Prime Minister Cameron and editorial by Arthur Herman.  As reported this week in The Guardian, much of the public also blames the riots and looting on the disposition (that is, the “criminality” and “disrespect”) of the rioters:

“Asked to pick from a list of possible reasons, 45% blame criminality on the part of the rioters. Older voters and richer ones are most likely to lay the blame on this.

“Of other possible reasons, 28% cite lack of respect within families and communities. Only 8% think a lack of jobs for young people is the main reason. A further 5% say the shooting by the police of Mark Duggan, which led to the initial disorder in Tottenham, was the main cause, while 4% blame the coalition government, 2% the police and 2% the state of the economy.  At the bottom of the list only 1% blame racial tension. . . .”

It is completely predictable and understandable that leaders, commentators, and much of the public would speak up against the individuals who have been lighting the flames, breaking the windows, and making off with the DVD players.  That’s the easy part.

It doesn’t take insight to propose a greater police presence or harsher penalties or an increased incarceration rate.  Anger or fear will suffice.  Providing a cartoon rendering of a social psychologist’s 1939 thesis and dubbing it the “formula for social disaster” seems equally facile.  Simplistic causal stories that affirm the status quo and the system are typically more the consequence of raw reflex than of thoughtful reflection.

Professor Dollard’s theories, however flawed, at least represented a social scientific attempt to better understand the underlying causes of violence and resist the system-affirming impulse to attribute “criminal conduct” to the fact that the people who engage in it are “criminals, pure and simple.”  Dollard offered a testable theory, while Herman offers a tautology: criminals engage in crime because they are criminals.

Still, Herman is satisfied with his causal claims because they permit him to place all the moral responsibility and blame for the events on the rioters. According to Herman, the problem with Dollard’s approach, is that it shifts “the moral responsibility for crime and violence . . . from the rioter to his or her victims.”

But Herman has it wrong.  One need not excuse the perpetrators of violence to care about deeper, underlying causes.  One can quash a riot and punish the rioters and still ask questions about what may have led the individuals to engage in behavior beyond simply their riotous propensities.

When rioting broke out in Egypt some months back, the rioters were not said to be the cause (except by Egyptian leaders and their apologists); instead, the riots were seen as the consequence of inept leaders, oppressive systems, hopelessness, and desperation.  Jim Geraghty, from  The National Review, put it this way:

“a large number of previously apolitical Egyptians . . . are fed up with three decades of governance that were not merely oppressive, but incompetent.  The Egyptian economy has never thrived; you know the usual figures – 40 percent get by on less than $2 per day. But when you pile rising wheat prices on an impoverished country, ordinary folks find the usual poor governance untenable. They have to eat, and have to believe there’s some small possibility of their lives getting better someday. Hosni Mubarak and his regime have worn out a decades-long benefit of the doubt from a people who historically were inclined to have tea, complain, and shrug rather than burn cars and take on riot police.”

As similar as sipping tea in Cairo and London may be, burning cars is another story.  There are, to be sure, significant differences between the riots and their causes in Egypt and those and theirs in England.  Nonetheless, the tendency to ignore the underlying economic, social, historical, and cultural situation in one setting and to focus on it in another reveals the motivated nature of our attributions.  We like to believe “our” systems are just — and that “their” systems are unjust.  In the former, rioting is the result of gangs, hoodlums, and criminals.  In the latter, rioting is the only way to topple an oppressive regime.  In the former, the dictator has been too callous and stingy toward the plight of the poor; in the latter, the government has been too sensitive and generous.

To take the situation in our own society seriously, however, is to raise the possibility that our system is unjust — that the (growing) disparities between the haves and have-nots lack normative legitimacy.  A thorough causal analysis is not only complex, it also risks implicating all of us and our system.

When the powerful and wealthy  members of society focus primarily on the disposition of  the poor (or of, say, the forgotten arguments of a dead Yalie), it may be because they prefer not to consider seriously the role of the situation from which they benefit.

They are, in a way, doing what they claim to despise: shifting moral responsibility from themselves to their victims.

We should all take seriously our “moral responsibility for the crime and violence.”  We should all, as they say, look in the mirror.

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Related Situationist posts:

A reader sent me the following video of a fascinating BBC debate on whether we “should punish or try to understand” the rioters.  It reflects many of the themes of this post.

 

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Law, Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Would You Obey?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 14, 2011

Here is another segment from John Quinones’s excellent ABC 20/20 series titled “What Would You Do?” — a series that, in essence, conducts situationist experiments through hidden-camera scenarios. This episode asks, “Would You Obey a Total Stranger”

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To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see

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

Brain and Blame

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 11, 2011

From The Atlantic (by David Eagleman):

On the steamy first day of August 1966, Charles Whitman took an elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The 25-year-old climbed the stairs to the observation deck, lugging with him a footlocker full of guns and ammunition. At the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them.

The evening before, Whitman had sat at his typewriter and composed a suicide note:

I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

By the time the police shot him dead, Whitman had killed 13 people and wounded 32 more. The story of his rampage dominated national headlines the next day. And when police went to investigate his home for clues, the story became even stranger: in the early hours of the morning on the day of the shooting, he had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep.

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight … I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationa[l]ly pinpoint any specific reason for doing this …

Along with the shock of the murders lay another, more hidden, surprise: the juxtaposition of his aberrant actions with his unremarkable personal life. Whitman was an Eagle Scout and a former marine, studied architectural engineering at the University of Texas, and briefly worked as a bank teller and volunteered as a scoutmaster for Austin’s Boy Scout Troop 5. As a child, he’d scored 138 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, placing in the 99th percentile. So after his shooting spree from the University of Texas Tower, everyone wanted answers.

For that matter, so did Whitman. He requested in his suicide note that an autopsy be performed to determine if something had changed in his brain—because he suspected it had.

I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.

Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction. Female monkeys with amygdala damage often neglected or physically abused their infants. In humans, activity in the amygdala increases when people are shown threatening faces, are put into frightening situations, or experience social phobias. Whitman’s intuition about himself—that something in his brain was changing his behavior—was spot-on.

Stories like Whitman’s are not uncommon: legal cases involving brain damage crop up increasingly often. As we develop better technologies for probing the brain, we detect more problems, and link them more easily to aberrant behavior. Take the 2000 case of a 40-year-old man we’ll call Alex, whose sexual preferences suddenly began to transform. He developed an interest in child pornography—and not just a little interest, but an overwhelming one. He poured his time into child-pornography Web sites and magazines. He also solicited prostitution at a massage parlor, something he said he had never previously done. He reported later that he’d wanted to stop, but “the pleasure principle overrode” his restraint. He worked to hide his acts, but subtle sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter alarmed his wife, who soon discovered his collection of child pornography. He was removed from his house, found guilty of child molestation, and sentenced to rehabilitation in lieu of prison. In the rehabilitation program, he made inappropriate sexual advances toward the staff and other clients, and was expelled and routed toward prison.

At the same time, Alex was complaining of worsening headaches. The night before he was to report for prison sentencing, he couldn’t stand the pain anymore, and took himself to the emergency room. He underwent a brain scan, which revealed a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex. Neurosurgeons removed the tumor. Alex’s sexual appetite returned to normal.

The year after the brain surgery, his pedophilic behavior began to return. The neuroradiologist discovered that a portion of the tumor had been missed in the surgery and was regrowing—and Alex went back under the knife. After the removal of the remaining tumor, his behavior again returned to normal.

When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted (“I’m a heterosexual/homosexual,” “I’m attracted to children/adults,” “I’m aggressive/not aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption.

Alex’s sudden pedophilia illustrates that hidden drives and desires can lurk undetected behind the neural machinery of socialization. When the frontal lobes are compromised, people become disinhibited, and startling behaviors can emerge. Disinhibition is commonly seen in patients with frontotemporal dementia, a tragic disease in which the frontal and temporal lobes degenerate. With the loss of that brain tissue, patients lose the ability to control their hidden impulses. To the frustration of their loved ones, these patients violate social norms in endless ways: shoplifting in front of store managers, removing their clothes in public, running stop signs, breaking out in song at inappropriate times, eating food scraps found in public trash cans, being physically aggressive or sexually transgressive. Patients with frontotemporal dementia commonly end up in courtrooms, where their lawyers, doctors, and embarrassed adult children must explain to the judge that the violation was not the perpetrator’s fault, exactly: much of the brain has degenerated, and medicine offers no remedy. Fifty-seven percent of frontotemporal-dementia patients violate social norms, as compared with only 27 percent of Alzheimer’s patients.

Changes in the balance of brain chemistry, even small ones, can also cause large and unexpected changes in behavior. Victims of Parkinson’s disease offer an example. In 2001, families and caretakers of Parkinson’s patients began to notice something strange. When patients were given a drug called pramipexole, some of them turned into gamblers. And not just casual gamblers, but pathological gamblers. These were people who had never gambled much before, and now they were flying off to Vegas. One 68-year-old man amassed losses of more than $200,000 in six months at a series of casinos. Some patients became consumed with Internet poker, racking up unpayable credit-card bills. For several, the new addiction reached beyond gambling, to compulsive eating, excessive alcohol consumption, and hypersexuality.

What was going on? Parkinson’s involves the loss of brain cells that produce a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Pramipexole works by impersonating dopamine. But it turns out that dopamine is a chemical doing double duty in the brain. Along with its role in motor commands, it also mediates the reward systems, guiding a person toward food, drink, mates, and other things useful for survival. Because of dopamine’s role in weighing the costs and benefits of decisions, imbalances in its levels can trigger gambling, overeating, and drug addiction—behaviors that result from a reward system gone awry. Physicians now watch for these behavioral changes as a possible side effect of drugs like pramipexole. Luckily, the negative effects of the drug are reversible—the physician simply lowers the dosage, and the compulsive gambling goes away.

The lesson from all these stories is the same: human behavior cannot be separated from human biology. If we like to believe that people make free choices about their behavior (as in, “I don’t gamble, because I’m strong-willed”), cases like Alex the pedophile, the frontotemporal shoplifters, and the gambling Parkinson’s patients may encourage us to examine our views more carefully. Perhaps not everyone is equally “free” to make socially appropriate choices.

Does the discovery of Charles Whitman’s brain tumor modify your feelings about the senseless murders he committed? Does it affect the sentence you would find appropriate for him, had he survived that day? Does the tumor change the degree to which you consider the killings “his fault”? Couldn’t you just as easily be unlucky enough to develop a tumor and lose control of your behavior?

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be dangerous to conclude that people with a tumor are free of guilt, and that they should be let off the hook for their crimes?

More.

Related Situationist Posts:

Posted in Emotions, Law, Morality, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Antitrust Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 9, 2011

Maurice E. Stucke recently posted his thoughtful paper, “Reconsidering Antitrust’s Goals” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Antitrust policy today is an anomaly. On the one hand, antitrust is thriving internationally. On the other hand, antitrust’s influence has diminished domestically. Over the past thirty years, there have been fewer antitrust investigations and private actions. Today the Supreme Court complains about antitrust suits, and places greater faith in the antitrust function being subsumed in a regulatory framework. So what happened to the antitrust movement in the United States?

Two import factors contributed to antitrust policy’s domestic decline. The first is salience, especially the salience of the U.S. antitrust goals. In the past thirty years, enforcers and courts abandoned antitrust’s political, social, and moral goals, in their quest for a single economic goal. Second antitrust policy increasingly relied on an incomplete, distorted conception of competition. Adopting the Chicago School’s simplifying assumptions of self-correcting markets composed of rational, self-interested market participants, the courts and enforcers sacrificed important political, social, and moral values to promote certain economic beliefs.

With the anger over taxpayer bailouts for firms deemed too-big-and-integral-to-fail, the wealth inequality that accelerated over the past thirty years, and the current budget cuts and austerity measures, the United States is ripe for a new antitrust policy cycle.

This Article first summarizes the quest during the past 30 years for a single economic goal. It discusses why this quest failed. Four oft-cited economic goals (ensuring an effective competitive process, promoting consumer welfare, maximizing efficiency, and ensuring economic freedom) never unified antitrust analysis. After discussing why it is unrealistic to believe that a single well-defined antitrust objective exists, the Article proposes how to account antitrust’s multiple policy objectives into the legal framework. It outlines a blended goal approach, and the benefits of this approach in providing better legal standards and reviving antitrust’s relevance.

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Download the paper for free here.

Sample of related Situationist posts.

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

Barry Schwartz on the Choices that Matter

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 6, 2011

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Policy Implications of Implicit Social Cognition

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 4, 2011

Situationist Contributor Brian Nosek and Rachel Riskind recently posted their paper, “Policy Implications of Implicit Social Cognition” on SSRN.  Here is the abstract.

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Basic research in implicit social cognition demonstrates that thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness or conscious control can influence perception, judgment and action. Implicit measures reveal that people possess implicit attitudes and stereotypes about social groups that are often distinct from their explicitly endorsed beliefs and values. The evidence that behavior can be influenced by implicit social cognition contrasts with social policies that implicitly or explicitly assume that people know and control the causes of their behavior. We consider the present state of evidence for implicit social cognition and its implications for social policy. We conclude that considering implicit social cognition can contribute usefully to policy, but that most uses of implicit measures themselves as selection or evaluation devices is not easily justified.

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Download the paper for free here.

Related Situationist posts:

For a list of Situationist posts discussing the research on implicit bias and the IAT, click here.

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

Paul Bloom on the Situation of Pleasure

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 2, 2011

From TedTalks:

Why do we like an original painting better than a forgery? Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that human beings are essentialists — that our beliefs about the history of an object change how we experience it, not simply as an illusion, but as a deep feature of what pleasure (and pain) is.

Related Situationist posts:

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

 
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