The Situationist

Archive for January, 2012

20% off for Situationist Readers

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 31, 2012

Ideology, Psychology, and Law (the Situationist book edited by Jon Hanson and published by Oxford University Press) is now available.  Use the promotional code (30552) from the following flyer to save 20%.  Click here (or on the image below) to go to the book’s website for more information.

Posted in Book, Ideology, Law, Social Psychology | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

The Imagined Ideological Divide

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 29, 2012

From Eureka Alert (regarding research co-authored by Situationist Contributor Peter Ditto):

Republicans and Democrats are less divided in their attitudes than popularly believed, according to new research. It is exactly those perceptions of polarization, however, that help drive political engagement, researchers say.

“American polarization is largely exaggerated,” says Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado Boulder, especially by people who adopt strong political stances. And when people perceive a large gap between political parties, they may be more motivated to vote. That message emerges from analyses of 40 years’ worth of voter data and could help predict voting behavior for the 2012 presidential election, according to social psychologists presenting their work today at a conference in San Diego, CA.

Polarization and political engagement

Much of the data comes from the American National Election Studies, a large survey of American’s political attitudes and voting behaviors from 1948 to 2008 funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and from a nationally representative sample of American adults from 2008. Using a subset of 26,000 respondents from this data, John Chambers of the University of Florida and colleagues studied the degree to which people estimate differences between Republicans’ and Democrats’ attitudes. They found that the actual gap between the parties’ political attitudes has not increased substantially over time and that members of both parties have consistently overestimated the size of that gap.

Moreover, Chambers’ team found that those who perceived the greatest political polarization were more politically engaged – for example, more likely to have voted in the last election, tried to influence the vote of other voters, attended political rallies, or donated money to a party or candidate. “These findings may have important implications for election outcomes,” Chambers says. “Particularly in close or hotly-contested elections, the balance may be tipped in favor of the party whose members perceive more polarization between the two parties.”

Indeed, in the 2008 Presidential election, people who strongly supported either Obama or McCain perceived Americans as more polarized than did people whose support for either of the two candidates was more moderate, according to work by Van Boven of the University of Colorado Boulder. His NSF-funded study likewise found that people who perceived Americans as more polarized were more inclined to vote in the presidential election compared with people who perceived less polarization – independent how strongly they supported Obama or McCain.

Morality drives people to the polls

In another analysis from the 2008 election, moral conviction also significantly predicted the likelihood to vote, even when statistically controlling for people’s ideology, says G. Scott Morgan of Drew University. His research team surveyed 827 US residents about their political orientation, intentions to vote, and degrees of moral conviction on several issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage, tax cuts, and healthcare reform. They found that no party holds a monopoly on moral conviction.

The study counters the notion that conservatives’ political views and behaviors might be more greatly shaped by morality than those of liberals, Morgan says. Indeed, during the 2012 political campaign, he says “liberals and conservatives seem similarly likely to feel moral conviction about the issues that are important to them.”

Moral convictions change factual beliefs

Other researchers are investigating how people view morally controversial political issues. They are finding that people’s moral sensibilities shape their perceptions of facts.

Brittany Liu and Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine, tested how people’s perceptions of the costs and benefits of capital punishment changed when they read essays advocating either its inherent morality or immorality. The essays changed not only participants’ perceptions of the inherent morality of capital punishment but also beliefs about whether capital punishment deterred future crime or led to miscarriages of justice. “Changing participants’ moral beliefs led to corresponding changes in factual beliefs,” Liu says.

Related survey work found a similar pattern of results across many different issues, including forceful interrogations, stem cell research, abstinence-only sexual education, and global warming. The results help explain some of the major impediments to bipartisan cooperation, Liu says. “For both liberals and conservatives, there is no clean separation between moral intuitions and factual beliefs,” she says. “This affects how politicians and partisans interpret scientific and economic data, making compromise difficult as both sides hold drastically different beliefs about the relevant facts and data.”

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Posted in Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

2011 SPSP Award Recipients (including Co-Founders of this Blog!)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 26, 2012

The Annual SPSP Conference is taking place in San Diego this week.

Congratulations to the 2011 SPSP Award Recipients!

The 2011 Jack Block Award

Charles Carver

This award is for career research accomplishment or distinguished career contributions in personality psychology and honors an individual who has demonstrated “analytic sophistication, theoretical depth, and wide scholarship.”
Sponsored by SPSP

The 2011 Donald T. Campbell Award

John Dovidio

This award is for career research accomplishment or distinguished career contributions in social psychology and honors an individual who “has contributed and is continuing to contribute to the field of social psychology in significant ways.”
Sponsored by SPSP

The 2011 Career Contribution Award

Thomas Pettigrew, Harry Triandis

New in 2011, this award honors scholars who have made “major theoretical and/or empirical contributions to social psychology and/or personality psychology or to bridging these areas.” Recipients are recognized for distinguished scholarly contributions across productive careers.
Sponsored by SPSP

The 2011 Robert B. Cialdini Award

Ayelet Gneezy, Uri Gneezy, Leif Nelson, and Amber Brown

“Shared social responsibility: A field experiment in pay-what-you-want pricing and charitable giving.” Published in Science in 2010.

This award recognizes a publication “that best explicates social psychological phenomena principally through the use of field research methods and settings and that thereby demonstrates the relevance of the discipline to communities outside of academic social psychology.”
Endowed by FPSP

The 2011 Carol and Ed Diener Award in Personality

Laura King

This award recognizes a mid-career scholar “whose work substantially adds to the body of knowledge” in personality psychology and/or brings together personality psychology and social psychology.
Endowed by FPSP

The 2011 Carol and Ed Diener Award in Social Psychology

Galen Bodenhausen

This award recognizes a mid-career scholar “whose work substantially adds to the body of knowledge” in social psychology and/or brings together personality psychology and social psychology.
Endowed by FPSP

The 2011 Media Achievement Award

David Brooks

This award honors a person, normally outside the SPSP community, who has “a sustained and distinguished record for disseminating knowledge in personality or social psychology to the general public through popular media.”
Sponsored by SPSP

The 2011 Media Prize

[Situationist Co-Founders] Jon Hanson and Michael McCann

SPSP’s first Media Prize recipients – This prize recognizes a person, normally outside the SPSP community, providing the best piece or collection of pieces in popular media that represents the contributions of personality or social psychology to the general public in a given calendar year.
Sponsored by SPSP

The 2011 Murray Award

Michelle Fine

This award, which is presented at the APA Convention, is for “distinguished contributions to the study of lives … in the demanding kind of inquiry pioneered by Henry A. Murray.“
Sponsored by the Society of Personology and SPSP

The 2012 SAGE Young Scholars Awards

To be announced in January

These awards support the research of junior colleagues and recognize “outstanding young researchers” representing the broad spectrum of personality and social psychology research areas.
Sponsored by FPSP with the generous support of SAGE Publications

The 2011 Award for Distinguished Service to the Society

Richard Petty, Mark Snyder

This award recognizes “distinguished service, either in the form of a particular, significant activity or cumulative contributions over time, to the Society.”
Sponsored by SPSP

The 2011 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality & Social Psychology

Congressman Brian Baird

This award ”recognizes distinguished efforts by individuals to benefit the field of social and personality psychology,” including noteworthy efforts to support educational and research activities in the field, professional leadership, and achievements that enhance the reputation of the field.
Sponsored by SPSP

The 2011 Theoretical Innovation Prize

Mark Landau, Brian Meier and Lucas Keefer

“A metaphor-enriched social cognition.” Published in Psychological Bulletin in 2010.

This prize recognizes “the most theoretically innovative article, book chapter, or unpublished manuscript of the year.” It honors theoretical articles that are especially likely to generate the discovery of new hypotheses, new phenomena, or new ways of thinking about the discipline of social/personality psychology.
Sponsored by SPSP

Read the press release for the awards below the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Accept or Rebel?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 25, 2012

From Duke Today (a press release about research co-authored by Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay):

The political unrest in the Middle East, which continues today in Syria, raises some intriguing questions: How can we explain the contagion effect of rebellion when revolution spreads from nation to nation? Is it possible to predict whether people will respond to limits on freedom with submission or rebellion?

New research from Duke University and the University of Waterloo to be published in the February edition of the journal Psychological Science finds the certainty of a restriction is significant in determining how people will respond to enforced limitations on freedom.

Across several studies, participants responded to restrictions that were certain to come into effect more favorably and valuing the restricted freedoms less, a form of “rationalization.” Participants responded to identical restrictions that were described as having a small chance of not coming into effect with “reactance,” viewing restrictions less favorably and valuing the restricted freedoms more.

“There have traditionally been two schools of thought on how people react to restrictions on freedoms,” said Gavan Fitzsimons, professor of marketing at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and one of the study’s authors. “One school of thought says people are likely to react to restrictions with rationalization and a level of acceptance, while a second suggests people are motivated to restore restricted freedoms and will respond negatively on attempts to constrain them. Our research reconciles these two opposing views by considering the restrictions’ degree of absoluteness.”

The study cites several hypothetical situations to explain the varied responses to restrictions on freedom. In one survey, participants read that the government had decided to reduce speed limits after experts concluded lower speed limits in cities increase safety. Some participants were told the new limits would definitely come into effect (an absolute condition), while others were told the limits would come into effect only if a majority of government officials voted to enact it (a non-absolute condition).

Participants in the absolute group tended to rationalize the new restrictions; they reacted with more positive attitudes and lower levels of annoyance toward reduced speed limits. In contrast, participants in the non-absolute group reacted strongly against the limits.

“Our findings have a number of practical applications, potentially shedding some light on the recent string of uprisings in the Middle East,” said co-author Aaron Kay, an associate professor of management and of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

“To the extent a political regime feels absolute and permanent to its citizens, people will rationalize its actions and decisions, even minimizing the importance of freedoms. But once they learn similar regimes have been toppled and are therefore not as permanent as people once thought, they may become reactant and perhaps motivated to revolt,” he said.

The study is here.

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Image from Flickr.

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

The Situation of Choice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 23, 2012

From the APS Monitor (excerpts from a terrific primer on “The Mechanics of Choice”):

* * *

The prediction of social behavior significantly involves the way people make decisions about resources and wealth, so the science of decision making historically was the province of economists. And the basic assumption of economists was always that, when it comes to money, people are essentially rational. It was largely inconceivable that people would make decisions that go against their own interests. Although successive refinements of expected-utility theory made room for individual differences in how probabilities were estimated, the on-the-surface irrational economic behavior of groups and individuals could always be forced to fit some rigid, rational calculation.The problem is — and everything from fluctuations in the stock market to decisions between saving for retirement or purchasing a lottery ticket or a shirt on the sale rack shows it — people just aren’t rational. They systematically make choices that go against what an economist would predict or advocate.Enter a pair of psychological scientists — Daniel Kahneman (currently a professor emeritus at Princeton) and Amos Tversky — who in the 1970s turned the economists’ rational theories on their heads. Kahneman and Tversky’s research on heuristics and biases and their Nobel Prize winning contribution, prospect theory, poured real, irrational, only-human behavior into the calculations, enabling much more powerful prediction of how individuals really choose between risky options.

* * *

Univ. of Toronto psychologist Keith E. Stanovich and James Madison Univ. psychologist Richard F. West refer to these experiential and analytical modes as “System 1” and “System 2,” respectively. Both systems may be involved in making any particular choice — the second system may monitor the quality of the snap, System-1 judgment and adjust a decision accordingly.7 But System 1 will win out when the decider is under time pressure or when his or her System-2 processes are already taxed.

This is not to entirely disparage System-1 thinking, however. Rules of thumb are handy, after all, and for experts in high-stakes domains, it may be the quicker form of risk processing that leads to better real-world choices. In a study by Cornell University psychologist Valerie Reyna and Mayo Clinic physician Farrell J. Lloyd, expert cardiologists took less relevant information into account than younger doctors and medical students did when making decisions to admit or not admit patients with chest pain to the hospital. Experts also tended to process that information in an all-or-none fashion (a patient was either at risk of a heart attack or not) rather than expending time and effort dealing with shades of gray. In other words, the more expertise a doctor has, the more that his or her intuitive sense of the gist of a situation was used as a guide.8

In Reyna’s variant of the dual-system account, fuzzy-trace theory, the quick-decision system focuses on the gist or overall meaning of a problem instead of rationally deliberating on facts and odds of alternative outcomes.9 Because it relies on the late-developing ventromedial and dorsolateral parts of the frontal lobe, this intuitive (but informed) system is the more mature of the two systems used to make decisions involving risks.

A 2004 study by Vassar biopsychologist Abigail A. Baird and Univ. of Waterloo cognitive psychologist Jonathan A. Fugelsang showed that this gist-based system matures later than do other systems. People of different ages were asked to respond quickly to easy, risk-related questions such as “Is it a good idea to set your hair on fire?”, “Is it a good idea to drink Drano?”, and “Is it a good idea to swim with sharks?” They found that young people took about a sixth of a second longer than adults to arrive at the obvious answers (it’s “no” in all three cases, in case you were having trouble deciding).10 The fact that our gist-processing centers don’t fully mature until the 20s in most people may help explain the poor, risky choices younger, less experienced decision makers commonly make.

Adolescents decide to drive fast, have unprotected sex, use drugs, drink, or smoke not simply on impulse but also because their young brains get bogged down in calculating odds. Youth are bombarded by warning statistics intended to set them straight, yet risks of undesirable outcomes from risky activities remain objectively small — smaller than teens may have initially estimated, even — and this may actually encourage young people to take those risks rather than avoid them. Adults, in contrast, make their choices more like expert doctors: going with their guts and making an immediate black/white judgment. They just say no to risky activities because, however objectively unlikely the risks are, there’s too much at stake to warrant even considering them.11

Making Better Choices

The gist of the matter is, though, that none of us, no matter how grown up our frontal lobes, make optimal decisions; if we did, the world would be a better place. So the future of decision science is to take what we’ve learned about heuristics, biases, and System-1 versus System-2 thinking and apply it to the problem of actually improving people’s real-world choices.

One obvious approach is to get people to increase their use of System 2 to temper their emotional, snap judgments. Giving people more time to make decisions and reducing taxing demands on deliberative processing are obvious ways of bringing System 2 more into the act. Katherine L. Milkman (U. Penn.), Dolly Chugh (NYU), and Max H. Bazerman (Harvard) identify several other ways of facilitating System-2 thinking.12 One example is encouraging decision makers to replace their intuitions with formal analysis — taking into account data on all known variables, providing weights to variables, and quantifying the different choices. This method has been shown to significantly improve decisions in contexts like school admissions and hiring.

Having decision makers take an outsider’s perspective on a decision can reduce overconfidence in their knowledge, in their odds of success, and in their time to complete tasks. Encouraging decision makers to consider the opposite of their preferred choice can reduce judgment errors and biases, as can training them in statistical reasoning. Considering multiple options simultaneously rather than separately can optimize outcomes and increase an individual’s willpower in carrying out a choice. Analogical reasoning can reduce System-1 errors by highlighting how a particular task shares underlying principles with another unrelated one, thereby helping people to see past distracting surface details to more fully understand a problem. And decision making by committee rather than individually can improve decisions in group contexts, as can making individuals more accountable for their decisions.13

In some domains, however, a better approach may be to work with, rather than against, our tendency to make decisions based on visceral reactions. In the health arena, this may involve appealing to people’s gist-based thinking. Doctors and the media bombard health consumers with numerical facts and data, yet according to Reyna, patients — like teenagers — tend initially to overestimate their risks; when they learn their risk for a particular disease is actually objectively lower than they thought, they become more complacent — for instance by forgoing screening. Instead, communicating the gist, “You’re at (some) risk, you should get screened because it detects disease early” may be a more powerful motivator to make the right decision than the raw numbers. And when statistics are presented, doing so in easy-to-grasp graphic formats rather than numerically can help patients (as well as physicians, who can be as statistically challenged as most laypeople) extract their own gists from the facts.14

Complacency is a problem when decisions involve issues that feel more remote from our daily lives — problems like global warming. The biggest obstacle to changing people’s individual behavior and collectively changing environmental policy, according to Columbia University decision scientist Elke Weber, is that people just aren’t scared of climate change. Being bombarded by facts and data about perils to come is not the same as having it affect us directly and immediately; in the absence of direct personal experience, our visceral decision system does not kick in to spur us to make better environmental choices such as buying more fuel-efficient vehicles.15

How should scientists and policymakers make climate change more immediate to people? Partly, it involves shifting from facts and data to experiential button-pressing. Powerful images of global warming and its effects can help. Unfortunately, according to research conducted by Yale environmental scientist Anthony A. Leisurowitz, the dominant images of global warming in Americans’ current consciousness are of melting ice and effects on nonhuman nature, not consequences that hit closer to home; as a result, people still think of global warming as only a moderate concern.16

Reframing options in terms that connect tangibly with people’s more immediate priorities, such as the social rules and norms they want to follow, is a way to encourage environmentally sound choices even in the absence of fear.17 For example, a study by Noah J. Goldstein (Univ. of Chicago), Robert B. Cialdini (Arizona State), and Vladas Griskevicius (Univ. of Minnesota) compared the effectiveness of different types of messages in getting hotel guests to reuse their towels rather than send them to the laundry. Messages framed in terms of social norms — “the majority of guests in this room reuse their towels” — were more effective than messages simply emphasizing the environmental benefits of reuse.18

Yet another approach to getting us to make the most beneficial decisions is to appeal to our natural laziness. If there is a default option, most people will accept it because it is easiest to do so — and because they may assume that the default is the best. University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler suggests using policy changes to shift default choices in areas like retirement planning. Because it is expressed as normal, most people begin claiming their Social Security benefits as soon as they are eligible, in their early to mid 60s — a symbolic retirement age but not the age at which most people these days are actually retiring. Moving up the “normal” retirement age to 70 — a higher anchor — would encourage people to let their money grow longer untouched.19

* * *

Making Decisions About the Environment

APS Fellow Elke Weber recently had the opportunity to discuss her research with others who share her concern about climate change, including scientists, activists, and the Dalai Lama. Weber . . . shared her research on why people fail to act on environmental problems. According to her, both cognitive and emotional barriers prevent us from acting on environmental problems. Cognitively, for example, a person’s attention is naturally focused on the present to allow for their immediate survival in dangerous surroundings. This present-focused attitude can discourage someone from taking action on long-term challenges such as climate change. Similarly, emotions such as fear can motivate people to act, but fear is more effective for responding to immediate threats. In spite of these challenges, Weber said that there are ways to encourage people to change their behavior. Because people often fail to act when they feel powerless, it’s important to share good as well as bad environmental news and to set measurable goals for the public to pursue. Also, said Weber, simply portraying reduced consumption as a gain rather than a loss in pleasure could inspire people to act.

References and Further Reading:

  • 7. Stanovich, K.E., & West, R.F. (2000). Individual differences in reasoning: Implications for the rationality debate.
  • Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 23, 645–665.
  • 8. Reyna, V.F., & Lloyd, F. (2006). Physician decision making and cardiac risk: Effects of knowledge, risk perception, risk
  • tolerance, and fuzzy processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 12, 179–195.
  • 9. Reyna, V.F. (2004). How people make decisions that involve risk: A dual-processes approach. Current Directions in
  • Psychological Science, 13, 60–66.
  • 10. Baird, A.A., & Fugelsang, J.A. (2004). The emergence of consequential thought: Evidence from neuroscience.
  • Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 359, 1797–1804.
  • 11. Reyna, VF., & Farley, F. (2006). Risk and rationality in adolescent decision making. Psychological Science in the Public
  • Interest, 7, 1–44.
  • 12. Milkman, K.L., Chugh, D., & Bazerman, M.H. (2009). How can decision making be improved? Perspectives on
  • Psychological Science, 4, 379–383.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. See Wargo, E. (2007). More than just the facts: Helping patients make informed choices. Cornell University Department
  • of Human Development: Outreach & Extension. Downloaded from http://www.human.cornell.edu/hd/outreach-extension/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=43508
  • 15. Weber, E.U. (2006). Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: Why global warming does
  • not scare us (yet). Climatic Change, 77, 103–120.
  • 16. Leisurowitz, A. (2006). Climate change risk perception and policy preferences: The role of affect, imagery, and values.
  • Climatic Change, 77, 45–72.
  • 17. Weber, E.U. (2010). What shapes perceptions of climate change? Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1,
  • 332–342.
  • 18. Goldstein, N.J., Cialdini, R.B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate
  • environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35. Downloaded from http://www.csom.umn.edu/assets/118359.pdf
  • 19. Thaler, R.H. (2011, July 16). Getting the Most Out of Social Security. The New York Times. Downloaded from
  • http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/business/economy/when-the-wait-for-social-security-checks-is-worth-it.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1322835490-9f6qOJ9Sp2jSw4LKDjmYgw

More.

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You can review hundreds of Situationist posts related to the topic of “choice myth” here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, History, Ideology, Neuroscience, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Officer Selection – Harvard SALMS

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 22, 2012

SALMS is excited to announce the opening of 2012 Officer Selection process, and to prepare for the new year with a Board meeting on Friday, 1/27 at noon in Houser 101:

1. NEW OFFICER SELECTION: In the next few weeks, SALMS will begin a transition from its current officer class to the leadership that will direct SALMS into the New Year. Tentative Officer titles and descriptions for the 2012 year include:

i. President

- responsible for setting the vision and agenda of the organization, for delegating responsibilities to the SALMS officers and Board, and for collaborating with the Vice President to manage the daily operations of the organization (including managing logistics of Speakers Series events).

ii. Vice President and Treasurer

- responsible for managing the SALMS budget and collaborating with the president to manage the daily operations of the organization (including managing logistics of Speakers Series events).

iii. Speakers Chair

- responsible for organizing and overseeing the selection process for the SALMS Speakers Series, as well as managing invitations and coordinating with speakers.

iv. Communications / Technology Chair

- responsible for updating and running the SALMS website and blog and maintaining the SALMS email list.

1Ls interested in serving in these positions should email dkorn[at]jd13.law.harvard.edu to schedule a meeting (please include a copy of your resume, though no prior mind science background is required).

2. SPRING ORGANIZATIONAL MEETING: At noon on Friday, January 27, 2012, in Hauser 101, the SALMS Board will meet to discuss the upcoming semester. In addition to dividing up responsibilities for the spring, we will look ahead to our scheduled Speakers Series events.

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If Guns Don’t Kill People, Sometimes Gun-Saturated Situations Do

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 20, 2012

Matty McFeely, former President of SALMS and current 3L, just had a situationist-inspired letter to the editor published in The New YorkerThe article to which he was responding (by Rachel Aviv’s “No Remorse,” January 2, 2012) was about a 15-year-old sentenced to life without parole for shooting his grandfather.  Before the murder, the boy’s girlfriend had just dumped him and a number of other things weren’t going his way, and the article asked whether putting a minor away for life was appropriate. Matty’s letter read as follows:

Aviv’s article forces us to rethink the justice system’s treatment of young adults, but it should also be a call for stricter gun control. It was too simple for Eliason to take “his grandfather’s loaded gun off the coatrack” and then shoot his grandfather. Eliason’s grim tale shows what surveys have already told us: the availability of guns is linked to higher rates of both suicide and homicide. A teen-ager’s rather routine funk became a senseless tragedy because a lethal device was at hand. A person’s situation has a lot of power over his or her behavior; we would be wise to recognize that fact and shape our situations accordingly.

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The Situation of Psychopathy

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 20, 2012

A former student of mine, Brett Murphy, has co-authored a fascinating and sophisticated paper on the roots of psychopathy, which you can download on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

“Psychopathy” is a psychopathological construct involving a diverse set of affective deficits and behavioral disinhibitions that result in substantial antisocial behavior, and includes traits such as extreme egocentricity, profound lack of empathy, and limited ability to experience guilt and remorse. The costs that “psychopaths” impose on society are enormous. Researchers have estimated that they comprise more than 15 percent of the adult prison population and are even more highly represented among repeat violent offenders. Although psychopaths are not necessarily violent, when they do commit violent offenses, their violence is very often coldblooded, predatorial, and instrumentally employed in the pursuit of another goal, such as money, sex, or power.

This unpublished manuscript extensively reviews and summarizes much of the psychological and neurobiological literature related to “psychopathy.” In addition to reviewing the existing findings regarding psychopathy and the prominent hypotheses regarding its etiology and unifying characteristics, this manuscript also offers a novel theory of the primary form of psychopathy, the “power assessment” hypothesis. This “power assessment” hypothesis argues: (1) that much of human behavior and cognition is causally influenced by bioregulatory mechanisms related to internal, subconscious assessments of power; and (2) that abnormalities in these mechanisms, when present starting early in childhood, may generate the cognitive, attentional, and behavorial characteristics of primary psychopathy.

Download the paper for free here.

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

RADIOLAB on the Situation of Badness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 19, 2012

From RADIOLAB:

Cruelty, violence, badness… This episode of Radiolab, we wrestle with the dark side of human nature, and ask whether it’s something we can ever really understand, or fully escape.

We begin with a chilling statistic: 91% of men, and 84% of women, have fantasized about killing someone. We take a look at one particular fantasy lurking behind these numbers, and wonder what this shadow world might tell us about ourselves and our neighbors. Then, we reconsider what Stanley Milgrim’s famous experiment really revealed about human nature (it’s both better and worse than we thought). Next, we meet a man who scrambles our notions of good and evil: chemist Fritz Haber, who won a Nobel Prize in 1918…around the same time officials in the US were calling him a war criminal. And we end with the story of a man who chased one of the most prolific serial killers in US history, then got a chance to ask him the question that had haunted him for years: why?

Go to the RADIOLAB website to listen to the podcast.

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Posted in Classic Experiments, Conflict, History, Morality, Podcasts, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Human Vision

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 18, 2012

Experimental psychologist Professor Bruce Hood illustrating how human vision works (from the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2011).

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Click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

Posted in Illusions, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Historical Situation of Social Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 17, 2012

From The Association for Psychological Science:

Psychology textbooks have made the same historical mistake over and over. Now the inaccuracy is pointed out in a new article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

For generations, social psychology students have read that Norman Triplett did the first social psychology experiment in 1889, when he found that children reeled in a fishing line faster when they were in the presence of another child than when they were alone.

But almost everything about that sentence is wrong. The new paper’s author, Wolfgang Stroebe of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, had recently published a handbook on the history of social psychology (with Aria W. Kruglanski) when he came across a 2005 reanalysis of Triplett’s data and dug farther.

It turned out that the children in the study were turning a reel, but not reeling in a fishing line, and that Triplett was studying whether children performed better with competition. For his study, he eyeballed the data—an acceptable scientific practice in the 19th century—and decided that some children performed better when competing, some performed worse, and others were not affected. The 2005 analysis found that these results were not statistically significant by modern standards.

So the modern textbooks have the details of the study wrong. But they’re also wrong that Triplett was the first psychologist to look at how people are affected by each other.

In the 1880s, Max Ringelmann studied whether workers pulled harder when they were together than when they worked alone. In 1894, Binet and Henri published a study of social influence among children and in 1887, Charles Féré authored a book that described experiments on how the presence of others could increase individual performance. But the field didn’t find its modern identity until 1924, says Stroebe, when Floyd Allport published a textbook defining social psychology as the experimental study of social behavior.

“I think the more interesting fact is that in the 1890s so many authors tried to answer questions relevant to social psychology with experimental methods,” Stroebe says. “This is much more important than to figure out who was really the first author.”

It’s time to fix the textbooks, Stroebe says. “I especially tried to get the article into a major journal in the hope that authors will take more notice of it than of articles published in historical journals.” He thinks his paper is important even though it isn’t at the cutting edge of research. “I was trained many decades ago in a period where one would have considered correcting the history of the origin of an important subfield of psychology to be important,” Stroebe writes in the conclusion of his article. “We even had a word for it. We called it scholarship.”

Peruse dozens of Situationist posts about classic social psychological experiments here.

Posted in Classic Experiments, Education, History, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 15, 2012

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mlk5.jpg

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

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

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Harvard SALMS Spring Schedule

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 14, 2012

SALMS is excited to announce its Speakers Series slate for Spring 2012. All of the following talks will take place at noon; stay tuned for further details, including room locations on the Harvard Law School Campus.
AmabileJostBloom
LernerBuckholtzRoithmayr
Go to the SALMS website here.

Posted in Events, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Ideology, Psychology, and Law – Available Now!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2012

Edited by Situationist Editor Jon Hanson, Ideology, Psychology, and Law examines the sometimes unsettling interactions between psychology, ideology, and law and elucidates the forces, beyond and beneath the logic, that animate the law.

Here is some of the glowing praise for the volume from, among others, several Situationist Contributors:

“Ideology, Psychology, and Law is a revolution in the making. Encyclopedic in its breadth, this volume captures a moment – like the early heady days of the law and economics movement – when bold, new inquiries are suddenly possible.  For those who still cling to the centrality of preferences and incentives, thisbook will be usefully threatening.”

~ Ian Ayres, William K. Townsend Professor, Yale Law School, and author of Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done

“This volume is the first of its kind, employing the latest mind science research to illuminate the motivated and unconscious inspirations for ideology, law, and policy. The superbly edited and timely volume is a highly accessible, interdisciplinary collection, bringing together the perspectives and insights of many of the world’s most thoughtful and influential social psychologists, political scientists, and legal scholars. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand the psychological winds buffeting our institutions of collective governance.”

~ Philip G. Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University

“With this collection, Jon Hanson and the contributors to this volume have gone a long way towards breaking the iron grip that Law and Economics have held on serious legal policy analysis. By incorporating insights from psychology and other behavioral and mind sciences, this volume maps animportant and inspiring interdisciplinarity that will guide path breaking work in the future.”

~ Gerald Torres and Lani Guinier, co-authors of The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy

“This volume shows what ideology is and does. The chapters written by psychologists demonstrate that there is little about the mind’s work that can be called ‘neutral.’ The legal scholars who contribute to this volume push forward to ask how the law must itself bend toward justice, if such is the case. This compendium contains facts and ideas that, if heeded, may bring the law closer to the aspiration that everybody be equal before the law.”

~ Mahzarin R. Banaji, Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Department of Psychology, Harvard University

“Insightful, comprehensive, boundary-spanning. Hanson pulls together research and ideas from multiple disciplines to create a new way of looking at the most important legal questions of our time.”

~ Sheena S. Iyengar, S.T. Lee Professor of Business, Columbia Business School and author of The Art of Choosing

Purchase information here.

Posted in Book, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Marines Defiling Dead Taliban – Might Recent Neuroscience Shed Light?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 11, 2012

From The Daily Princetonian:

Failure in the part of the brain that controls social functions could explain why regular people might commit acts of ruthless violence, according to new study by a University research team.

A particular network in the brain is normally activated when we meet someone, empathize with him and think about his experiences.

However, MRI technology showed that when a person encounters someone he deems a drug addict, homeless person or anyone he finds repulsive, parts of this network may fail to activate, creating a pathway to “dehumanized perception” — a failure to acknowledge others’ thoughts and experiences.

According to the study, this process of dehumanizing victims could explain how propoganda portraying Jews as vermin in Nazi Germany and Tutsis of Rwanda as cockroaches led to genocide.

“We all dehumanize other people to some extent,” psychology professor [and Situationist Contributor] Susan Fiske said in an email, noting that it is impossible to delve into the mind of every person we pass.

“That being said, we have shown that people can rehumanize a group they might normally ignore, just by thinking about their preferences, as when a soup kitchen worker thinks about a homeless person’s food preferences.”

Earlier work from the team dealt with social cognition or how individuals perceive the thoughts of others with a study that had individuals think about a day in the life of another person.

The new research attempted to build upon this idea further to include the network in the brain charged with disgust, attention and cognitive control.

To collect their data, the scientists had 119 undergraduates at the University complete judgment and decision-making surveys as they looked at images of individuals such as a firefighter, female college student, elderly man, disabled woman, homeless woman and male drug addict.

This exercise sought to study how the network in the brain involved in social cognition reacted to common emotions shared by participants about the people in the images.

The researchers found that parts of the network in the brain did not activate when participants viewed the images of drug addicts, homeless people and immigrants.

“We all have the capacity to engage in dehumanized perception; it’s not just reserved for serial killers,” Harris said in an email. “There are many routes to dehumanization, and different people may use different routes.”

One such route, according to Harris, may be to avoid thinking about the suffering of others — people who dehumanize homeless people may do this.

Another route could be to view someone as a means to an end. Sports fans may engage in this when they think about trading a favorite player to another team.

Fiske and Harris plan to replicate the study on imprisoned psychopaths, and are continuing to explore the different routes to dehumanized perception.

For a collection of related Situationist posts, see The Interior Situation of Atrocities.

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

The Interior Situation of Atrocities

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 10, 2012

From People’s World (an article summarizing recent research by Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske):

Why do people commit atrocities? What is responsible for brutality and the cold blooded murder of innocents carried out by Nazis, the Hutu in Rwanda, or the United States against the Vietnamese people and more recently much of the civilian population of Iraq? Some scientists believe they have found the answer.

ScienceDaily reports (“Brain’s Failure to Appreciate Others May Permit Human Atrocities,” 12-14-2011) that the part of the brain responsible for social interaction with others may malfunction resulting in callousness leading to inhumane actions towards others. Scientists at Duke and Princeton have hypothesized, in a recent study, that this brain area can “disengage” when people encounter others they think are “disgusting” and the resulting violence perpetrated against them is due to thinking these objectified others have no “thoughts and feelings.”

The study, according to ScienceDaily, considers this a “shortcoming” which could account for the genocide and torture of other peoples. Examples of this kind of objectification can be seen in the calling of Jews “vermin” by the Nazis, the Tutsi “cockroaches” by the Hutu, and the American habit of calling others “gooks” (as well as other unflattering terms).

Lasana Harris (Duke) says, “When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds [do they have more than one?] Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human.” I wonder about this? What is meant by fully human? Surely the Hutu, for example, who had lived with the Tutsi for centuries, did not really fail to infer that they had “minds.”

Practicing something called “social neuroscience” which seems to consist of showing different people pictures while they are undergoing an MRI and then drawing conclusions from which areas of the brain do or do not “light up” when asked questions about these pictures, the scientists conducting this study discovered that an area of the brain dealing with “social cognition”– i.e., feelings, thoughts, empathy, etc., “failed to engage” when pictures of homeless people, drug addicts, and others “low on the social ladder” were shown.

Susan Fiske (Princeton) remarked, “We need to think about other people’s experience. It’s what makes them fully human to us.” ScienceDaily adds the researchers were struck by the fact that “people will easily ascribe social cognition– a belief in an internal life such as emotions– to animals and cars, but will avoid making eye contact with the homeless panhandler in the subway.”

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr.

Posted in Altruism, Conflict, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Neuroscience, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

God’s Situational Effects

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 8, 2012

This is the fourth in our series of posts intended to help our readers with their New Year’s resolutions.  From USA Today, here is a brief description of research recently co-authored by Kristin Laurin and Situationist Contributors Aaron Kay and Gráinne Fitzsimons .  

God references slipped into tests decreased student’s belief that they controlled their own destiny, researchers report, but made them more resistant to junk food temptation.

In the current Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study, six experiments on engineering students, researchers led by Kristin Laurin of Canada’s University of Waterlooo reported that just mentioning the Supreme Being in tests affected student self-perceptions and self-control, regardless of their fundamental religious views.

In the first set of tests, the research team gave half the students word-game type-tasks, telling them the tests were indicators of future achievement. Half the tests included references to religion in the sentences read by the students, while the rest contained reference to merely pleasant things, such as the sun, instead.

The result? Religion references dropped student views significantly on how much they felt in control of their careers.

However, in the last three experiments the team slipped religious references into similar tasks tests, but then checked student ability to resist junk food and sweets.

The result? Religion references increased the student’s ability to resist temptation. Most remarkable, the effect seemed independent of the depth of the engineers’ piety.

Given how often religious references crop up in daily life, the study authors suggest that they may play a role in even the most godless person’s psychology, and call for more research to confirm their finding.

More.

(Citation: Laurin, K., Kay., A. C., & Fitzsimons, G. M. (in press). Divergent effects of activating thoughts of god on self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – pdf available here.)

For more on the situation of eating, see Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion’s law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in AmericaFor a listing of numerous Situaitonist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Life, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Good Habits

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 6, 2012

This is the third in our series of posts intended to help our readers with their New Year’s resolutions.  From The Sun Herald, here is a brief description of recent research on the benefits of retraining your brain.

What does it really take to change a habit? It may have less to do with willpower and more to do with consistency and a person’s environment, researchers have found.

A 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology had 96 people adopt a new healthful habit over 12 weeks – things like running for 15 minutes at the same time each day or eating a piece of fruit with lunch. The average number of days it took for participants to pick up the habit was 66, but the range was huge, from 18 to 254 days.

Those who chose simple habits, such as drinking a glass of water, did better overall than those who had more involved tasks, such as running.

Skipping a day here and there didn’t seem to derail things, but greater levels of inconsistency did. Erratic performers tended not to form habits.

The same study also found that having a cue for when or where you performed the habit acted as a reminder and helped to make the habit stick. By always exercising in the morning you’re reminded that when you get up, it’s time to head to the gym. Consistently eating meals at the dining table takes away the urge to eat while sitting on the sofa with the television on.

Contrary to popular belief, adopting more healthful routines may have little to do with how much resolve someone has, says Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California.

“We tell ourselves that if only we had willpower we’d be able to exercise every day and avoid eating bags of chips,” she says. “But those behaviors are difficult to control because we have patterns that are cued by the environment” – patterns that we’ve learned from past bad habits.

We’ve learned to associate being in the car with eating from fast-food restaurant drive-throughs, so that when we’re out running errands we find ourselves wanting a burger and fries, perhaps when we’re not even hungry.

We’ve learned to associate arriving home with collapsing in front of the TV, and arriving at work with taking the elevator.

We go to the movies and automatically purchase a giant drum of buttery popcorn – and once the habit is formed, we’ll eat the popcorn even if it tastes bad, Wood has found.

In a study she coauthored that was published in 2011 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, moviegoers were given fresh or stale popcorn to snack on while watching trailers.

People who were avid popcorn-eaters ate the same amount of stale popcorn as fresh: They evidently were snacking mindlessly. In contrast, those who didn’t have a movie-popcorn habit ate less stale popcorn than fresh.

“Once these habits become cued by the environment,” Wood says, “they tend to continue whether people are enjoying them or not.”

Wood suggests devising new activities to link to our environmental cues.

At the movie theater, instead of getting a large popcorn, get a small one or drink water instead. Soon you’ll associate movies with those new choices. Take the stairs the minute you walk into the building where you work – soon you’ll associate arriving at work with stair-climbing.

Instead of succumbing to the habit of snacking while sitting on the sofa and watching TV, use the time instead to do some simple exercises. After a while … you get the idea.

It takes some thought in the beginning, Wood says, “but once you’ve figured it out, it runs on its own. You’ve outsourced your behavior to the environment.”

More.

For more on the situation of eating, see Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion’s law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in AmericaFor a listing of numerous Situaitonist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Environment, Life, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Willpower

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 4, 2012

With New Year’s resolutions still reasonably fresh in mind, we thought we’d add another post or two on what the mind sciences teach about how better to achieve those elusive goals.

The current APA Monitor includes an excellent interview (by Kirsten Weir) of Roy Baumeister, social psychology’s guru on willpower.  We highly recommend his new book (with John Tierney); this interview highlights a few of the insights and discoveries that are the focus of that book.

Willpower touches on nearly all aspects of healthy living: eating right, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, studying more, working harder, spending less. Unsurprisingly, self-control has become a hot topic, both for scientists interested in understanding the roots of human behavior and for practitioners who want to help people live healthier lives. Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, a social psychologist at Florida State University, is one of the field’s leading researchers. His new book, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” co-authored with journalist John Tierney and released in September, describes surprising evidence that willpower is a limited resource subject to being used up.

Baumeister spoke to the Monitor about his research on self-control — where it comes from, how to get more of it and what psychologists still need to learn.

What drives you to better understand willpower?

The practical significance is enormous. Most of the problems that plague modern individuals in our society — addiction, overeating, crime, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, prejudice, debt, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, underperformance at school and work, lack of savings, failure to exercise — have some degree of self-control failure as a central aspect.

Psychology has identified two main traits that seem to produce an immensely broad range of benefits: intelligence and self-control. Despite many decades of trying, psychology has not found much one can do to produce lasting increases in intelligence. But self-control can be strengthened. Therefore, self-control is a rare and powerful opportunity for psychology to make a palpable and highly beneficial difference in the lives of ordinary people.

You’ve found that willpower is a limited resource. Can you explain that?

Many studies have found that people perform relatively poorly on tests of self-control when they have engaged in a previous, seemingly unrelated act of self-control. For instance, in a study in my lab, we invited some students to eat fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and asked others to resist the cookies and munch on radishes instead. Then we gave them impossible geometry puzzles to solve. The students who ate the cookies worked on the puzzles for 20 minutes, on average. But the students who had resisted the tempting cookies gave up after an average of eight minutes.

Such studies suggest that some willpower was used up by the first task, leaving less for the second. The pattern is opposite to what one would expect based on priming or activating a response mode. So we began to think that some kind of limited resource is at work: It gets depleted as people perform various acts of self-control. Over time, we have begun to link this resource to the folk notion of willpower. “Willpower” itself is a folk term, and the idea that we have some strength of character is a staple of folk psychology. Until recently, these folk notions had little resemblance to much in psychological theory — but our findings suggest that these notions are at least partly correct. However, in some respects, willpower depletion differs from traditional and folk ideas about willpower.

How so?

For example, we found that making decisions also seems to deplete one’s willpower. We found the same energy that is used for self-control is also used for making decisions. After making decisions, people perform worse at self-control. Conversely, after exerting selfcontrol, decision-making shifts toward simpler and easier processes. That can lead people to make poorer decisions, or to avoid making choices at all. I was a bit surprised that decisionmaking depleted the same resource as self-control. Intuitively it did not seem right, but on paper the hypothesis was a plausible extension. So we tested it, and have now demonstrated the effect repeatedly. Once we realized that the same resource is used for both self-regulation and decision-making, it became necessary to look for a broader framework. I think this common process is the psychological reality behind the folk notion of free will.

Can you walk us through a typical example of willpower depletion?

A dieter may easily avoid a doughnut for breakfast, but after a long day of making difficult decisions at work, he has a much harder time resisting that piece of cake for dessert. Another example might be losing your temper. Normally, you refrain from responding negatively to unpleasant things your romantic partner says. But if one day you’re especially depleted — maybe you’re trying to meet a stressful work deadline — and the person says precisely the wrong thing, you erupt and say the words you would have stifled if your self-control strength was at full capacity. What do you call this process? My collaborators and I use the term “ego depletion” to refer to the state of depleted willpower. Initially, we called it “regulatory depletion” because the first findings focused purely on acts of self-regulation. When it emerged that the same resource was also used for decision-making, we wanted a broader term that would suggest some core aspect of the self was depleted. We borrowed the term “ego” from Freudian theory because Freud had spoken about the self as being partly composed of energy and of processes involving energy.

How common are ego-depleting events?

Some people imagine that self-control or willpower is something you only use once in a while, such as when you are tempted to do something wrong. The opposite is true. Research indicates that the average person spends three to four hours a day resisting desires. Plus, self-control is used for other things as well, such as controlling thoughts and emotions, regulating task performance and making decisions. So most people use their willpower many times a day, all day.

You’ve found a physical basis for ego depletion?

Yes. My former student Matthew Gailliot, PhD, and I discovered the role of glucose in self-control, more or less by accident. While testing a different theory, we stumbled on the finding that people who got some food showed improvements in self-control afterward — regardless of whether they had enjoyed the food. This led us into several years of work aimed at finding out how glucose is related to self-control.

Glucose is the chemical in the bloodstream that carries energy to the brain, muscles and other organs and systems. In simple terms, glucose is fuel for the brain. Acts of self-control reduce blood glucose levels. Low levels of glucose predict poor performance on self-control tasks and tests. Replenishing glucose, even just with a glass of lemonade, improves self-control performance.

Aside from sipping lemonade, how can willpower be strengthened?

Quite a few studies in multiple labs have now shown that people can improve their self-control even as adults. As with a muscle, it gets stronger from regular exercise. So engaging in some extra self-control activities for a couple weeks produces improvement in self-control, even on tasks that have no relation to the exercise activities. The exercises can be arbitrary, such as using your left hand instead of your right hand to open doors and brush your teeth. Or they can be meaningful, such as working to manage money better and save more. The important thing is to practice overriding habitual ways of doing things and exerting deliberate control over your actions. Over time, that practice improves self-control.

Is there a lot left to learn about ego depletion?

I am constantly surprised and delighted to see how many different researchers are coming up with creative extensions, refinements and applications of these basic ideas about willpower. Within the last year, there have been studies on how willpower processes can help explain the troubles of students who worry about fitting in at college, how leaders may burn out, whether dogs get into fights, whether people keep their promises to romantic partners and more.

Our own work has recently found evidence for ego depletion outside the lab, which is a very important step. In an experience sampling study I worked on with Wilhelm Hofmann, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, participants wore beepers and reported their desires and relevant actions throughout their daily lives over the course of a week. We found that as people depleted their willpower, they became increasingly likely to give in to desires they might otherwise have resisted. This was true for all manner of desires: desires to sleep, to eat, to have sex, to play games, to spend money, to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, and on and on.

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr.

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Want To Lose Weight?: Consider the Situational Values of Values

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 3, 2012

The outstanding Wray Herbert has a terrific piece on The Huffington Post about research done by Situationist Contributor, Geoffrey Cohen.

Dieting and weight control are really pretty simple. We gain weight and have trouble losing it because we eat too much and move too little. If we can switch that around, most of us should be able to maintain a sensible weight without resorting to unhealthy gimmicks.

But that’s just the biology of weight control. What about the psychology? Why do we habitually take in too many calories, even when we know those calories are a ticket to obesity and all sorts of chronic diseases?

There are two major reasons for unhealthy weight, according to experts. One is a simple lack of self-control. We live in a society where every day we confront an abundance of high-calorie foods. Not overeating in this environment requires extraordinary discipline. The second is an inability to cope with stress. Struggling with ordinary but constant life stresses can drain the cognitive energy needed for discipline, weakening our resolve. Stress-related eating packs on unhealthy calories, contributing to weight gain — and over time to obesity.

What if there were a simple psychological intervention that addressed both of these issues at once — bolstering self-control and buffering against everyday stress?

I know. It sounds like one more gimmick, too good to be true. Perhaps, but in a new study, two psychological scientists propose just such an intervention — along with some preliminary evidence to back it up. Christine Logel of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford University describe a brief and simple way to give people the tools for resisting temptation and coping with life’s pressures.

It’s called “values affirmation,” and it’s done with a simple writing exercise. The theory is that focusing on one’s core values triggers a cascade of psychological processes: It bolsters a sense of self-worth and personal integrity. It underscores our higher values rather than our impulses, and by reminding us what’s really important in life, it buffers against mundane stresses. Since stress saps our limited cognitive resources, such an affirmation frees up these resources for willpower and self-discipline.

At least that’s the theory, which Logel and Cohen tested in a simple experiment. They recruited a group of young women (apparently, women are more prone to stress-related overeating), recording their baseline weight and body mass index, or BMI. The women were representative of North American women in general. That is, nearly 60 percent were overweight or obese, the rest normal. Notably, all were dissatisfied with their current weight.

Then half of the women wrote an essay about their most cherished values — religious beliefs, relationships, whatever they considered most important to them. The remainder, the controls, wrote about something they did not prize particularly, and why it might be important to someone else. Importantly, none of the values in the exercise had to do with weight or health.

That’s it. That’s the entire intervention. Then the scientists waited for about 2.5 months, at which point they called all the volunteers back into the lab. They again measured their weight and BMI, and also their waistlines. They also gave the volunteers a test of working memory, which is one of the cognitive processes crucial to self-control. Reducing stress should theoretically boost working memory capacity, and consequently discipline.

The results, reported online in the journal Psychological Science, were clear and quite dramatic. The control subjects gained 2.76 pounds on average, and this gain boosted average BMI as well. Anyone who has ever struggled with weight knows that this is a huge weight gain in just 2.5 months. It’s the equivalent of more than 13 pounds in a year — for no particular reason. By contrast, those who had completed the values affirmation lost an average of 3.4 pounds — also huge — and trimmed their BMI in the process. Women in the values intervention also had smaller waistlines, independent of BMI. And these women also had better working memory, suggesting that it was indeed their enhanced cognitive function that bolstered their self control. Even the most seriously overweight women experienced these dramatic results after the brief writing exercise.

Losing even a few pounds and keeping them off can be maddeningly difficult. So how could one brief intervention like this have such long-term results? The scientists believe that people can get stuck in repeating cycles, in which failure to lose weight impairs psychological functioning, which in turn increases the risk of more failure. Even a quick and simple intervention has the power to disrupt this destructive cycle.

More.

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Posted in Life, Positive Psychology, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , | 12 Comments »

 
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