The Situationist

Archive for November 14th, 2011

The Situation of Penn State Bystanders

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 14, 2011

Many blame-laden fingers have been pointed at those who didn’t act immediately and decisively to stop the sexual atrocities that took place at Penn State.  We all know what the right thing to do was, and we are all confident that we would have done it.

But should we be?

To state the obvious, what transpired within the Penn State football system was wrong on many levels.  We know that rape is wrong, that rape should never happen, that if a rape does occur, it should be stopped from happening again.   We know that pedophilia is wrong, that using power to exploit the vulnerable is wrong, that turning a blind eye to misdeeds is wrong. Still, wrong happens.

Perhaps going forward many of us may be more likely to “do the right thing” after this media frenzy than we would have been had we never been confronted with this story.  But I’m interested in a slightly different question:  would we ourselves, in the precise situation of those we are judging, really have acted so differently?  Would we have immediately, vocally, and publicly intervened, protested, and contacted the police?

As this blog routinely highlights, for more than a half century, social psychology has been dismantling the notion that we can accurately predict our own behavior in strange situations.   The names of Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, and Phil Zimbardo are all familiar because of what their research reveals: We often fail where we expect we would succeed.

And yet that lesson doesn’t stick; the illusion of our own imagined heroism remains robust.  Even many of us familiar with the countless experiments illustrating the power of situation and the illusion of disposition manage to exempt ourselves from those lessons and assign blame to those who did not measure up to our standards.

We easily assign blame when they found ways to diffuse responsibility.  We see with clarity where they saw ambiguity.   We wonder how could they be so blind and so immoral and conclude that they are not like us.

To reach such a conclusion, we  place more faith in our rage than we do in the lessons of social science.  A mountain of research shows that we  have much more in common with those we judge harshly than we want to believe.  Among those similarities is the motive to see ourselves, our groups, our systems, and our world in affirming ways.  The tendency to see “them” as different and ourselves as superior is a symptom of the same nonconscious motivational force that allowed “them” to see themselves as doing enough.

We should resolve to do the right thing both when we encounter wrongdoing and when we judge others who encounter wrongdoing.  That is not only the honest and empathetic approach, it is our best hope to gird ourselves against the strong currents of our own situation.

* * *

The following 37-minute video was assembled hastily to introduce a small group of my students to the events unfolding at Penn State.  It contains video clips that depict, among other things, the integral role that football has long played at Penn State, the legendary and iconic status of Joe Paterno at that university, the different perspectives taken of those events and of Joe Paterno, and the various ways in which public and private law and the media have shaped the coverage and the reaction to the unfolding events.  The video also includes several clips from ABC’s “What Would You Do?” series hosted by John Quiñones.  Those clips might help remind viewers of some of the ways in which we tend to overestimate our own propensity to speak up, to resist, to get involved, or to fight back and underestimate our readiness to sit on our hands, to turn away, to opt for rose-tinted spectacles, or to go with the flow.

The video, be warned, has many problems (e.g., quality, editing, organization, redundancies); it did, however, provide useful fodder for what I thought was an illuminating discussion.  Because of that, I decided to include it here in case others might find it useful.  Though credits are not included, the vast majority of the videos can be found on Youtube.

A Sample of related Situationist posts:

 

Posted in Conflict, Education, Emotions, Life, Morality, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Skin

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 14, 2011

From Psych Central (an article about the recent work of Situationist friend, Kurt Gray):

A new study finds that when men or women look at someone wearing revealing attire they perceive the individual as being more sensitive, yet not as smart.

University of Maryland psychologist Kurt Gray and colleagues from Yale and Northeastern University have published their study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In the article the researchers acknowledge the obvious — that it would be absurd to think people’s mental capacities fundamentally change when they remove clothing.

“In six studies, however, we show that taking off a sweater, or otherwise revealing flesh, can significantly change the way a mind is perceived.”

The study is unique as past research, feminist theory and parental admonishments all have long suggested that when men see a woman wearing little or nothing, they focus on her body and think less of her mind.

In the new study, the researchers show that paying attention to someone’s body can alter how both men and women view both women and men.

“An important thing about our study is that, unlike much previous research, ours applies to both sexes. It also calls into question the nature of objectification because people without clothes are not seen as mindless objects, but they are instead attributed a different kind of mind,” says UMD’s Gray.

“We also show that this effect can happen even without the removal of clothes. Simply focusing on someone’s attractiveness, in essence concentrating on their body rather than their mind, makes you see her or him as less of an agent [someone who acts and plans], more of an experiencer.”

Traditional psychological theory suggests that we see the mind of others on a continuum between the full mind of a normal human and the mindlessness of an inanimate object.

This paradigm, termed objectification, suggests that looking at someone in a sexual context — such as in pornography — leads people to focus on physical characteristics, turning them into an object without a mind or moral status.

However, recent findings indicate that rather than looking at others on a continuum from object to human, we see others as having two aspects of mind: agency and experience.

Agency is the capacity to act, plan and exert self-control, whereas experience is the capacity to feel pain, pleasure and emotions. Various factors – including the amount of skin shown – can shift which type of mind we see in another person.

During the study multiple experiments provided support for the two kinds of mind view. When men and women in the study focused on someone’s body, perceptions of agency (self-control and action) were reduced, and perceptions of experience (emotion and sensation) were increased.

Gray and colleagues suggest that this effect occurs because people unconsciously think of minds and bodies as distinct, or even opposite, with the capacity to act and plan tied to the “mind” and the ability to experience or feel tied to the body.

According to Gray, their findings indicate that the change in perception that results from showing skin is not all bad.

“A focus on the body, and the increased perception of sensitivity and emotion it elicits might be good for lovers in the bedroom,” he says.

Researchers also found that a body focus can actually increase moral standing. Although those wearing little or no clothes –or otherwise represented as a body – were seen to be less morally responsible, they also were seen to be more sensitive to harm and hence deserving of more protection.

“Others appear to be less inclined to harm people with bare skin and more inclined to protect them. In one experiment, for example, people viewing male subjects with their shirts off were less inclined to give those subjects uncomfortable electric shocks than when the men had their shirts on,” Gray says.

Practically, the researchers note that in settings where people are primarily evaluated on their capacity to plan and act, a body focus clearly has negative effects.

Seeing someone as a body strips him or her of competence and leadership, potentially impacting job evaluations.

More.

Image from Flickr.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Embodied Cognition, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 864 other followers

%d bloggers like this: