The Situationist

Archive for July, 2013

Wegstock #4 – Tim Wilson

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 29, 2013

In 2011, a conference honoring Dan Wegner, “Wegstock,” was held at Harvard University.

Speakers include Dan Gilbert, Susan Fiske, Tim Wilson, Jon Haidt, Henk Aarts, Nick Epley, Bill Swann, Todd Heatherton, Thalia Wheatley, Ap Dijksterhuis, Jon Krosnick, Jerry Clore, Bill Crano, Robin Vallacher, Jamie Pennebaker, Jonathan Schooler and Dan Wegner.

The talks are brief and are well worth watching.  We will highlight the individual talks, roughly 15 minutes each, over the next month.

In this video, Situationist Contributor Timothy Wilson discusses the field and his research and a little bit about his book, Redirect.

To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here. Click here for Situationist posts about Tim Wilson’s research.

Posted in Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

Wegstock #3 – John Haidt

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 26, 2013

In 2011, a conference honoring Dan Wegner, “Wegstock,” was held at Harvard University.

Speakers include Dan Gilbert, Susan Fiske, Tim Wilson, Jon Haidt, Henk Aarts, Nick Epley, Bill Swann, Todd Heatherton, Thalia Wheatley, Ap Dijksterhuis, Jon Krosnick, Jerry Clore, Bill Crano, Robin Vallacher, Jamie Pennebaker, Jonathan Schooler and Dan Wegner.

The talks are brief and are well worth watching.  We will highlight the individual talks, roughly 15 minutes each, over the next month.

In this video, John Haidt describes (quite hilariously at times) his research and how Dan Wegner helped to shape it.

To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here. Click here for Situationist posts about Jon Haidt’s research.

Posted in Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

Wegstock #2 – Susan Fiske

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 24, 2013

In 2011, a conference honoring Dan Wegner, “Wegstock,” was held at Harvard University.

Speakers include Dan Gilbert, Susan Fiske, Tim Wilson, Jon Haidt, Henk Aarts, Nick Epley, Bill Swann, Todd Heatherton, Thalia Wheatley, Ap Dijksterhuis, Jon Krosnick, Jerry Clore, Bill Crano, Robin Vallacher, Jamie Pennebaker, Jonathan Schooler and Dan Wegner.

The talks are brief and are well worth watching.  We will highlight the individual talks, roughly 15 minutes each, over the next month.

In this video, Situationist friend Susan Fiske describes aspects of her scholarship and how Dan Wegner inspired them.

To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here.

Posted in Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

Wegstock #1 – Dan Gilbert’s Opening Remarks

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 21, 2013

In 2011, a conference honoring Dan Wegner, “Wegstock,” was held at Harvard University.

Speakers include Dan Gilbert, Susan Fiske, Tim Wilson, Jon Haidt, Henk Aarts, Nick Epley, Bill Swann, Todd Heatherton, Thalia Wheatley, Ap Dijksterhuis, Jon Krosnick, Jerry Clore, Bill Crano, Robin Vallacher, Jamie Pennebaker, Jonathan Schooler and Dan Wegner.

The talks are brief and are well worth watching.  We will highlight the individual talks, roughly 15 minutes each, over the next month.

In this video, Situationist friend Dan Gilbert opens the conference.

To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here.

Posted in Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Secret Pleasures (more on Dan Wegner’s Work)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 18, 2013

telling secrets

This excerpt, which highlights some of the remarkable work by the late Dan Wegner, comes from an article written by Eric Jaffe in a 2006 edition of the APS’s Observer:

“Freud’s Fundamental Rule of Psychoanalysis was for patients to be completely open with a therapist no matter how silly or embarrassing the thought,” says Anita Kelly, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame who published one of the first books on the formal study of secrets, The Psychology of Secrets, in 2002.

Only since the late 1980s and early 1990s have researchers like Daniel Wegner and James Pennebaker put Freud through the empirical ringer and begun to understand the science behind secrets. “The Freudian way of thinking about things was, he assumed suppression took place and looked at what was happening afterwards,” says Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard. “The insight we had was, let’s not wait until after the fact and assume it occurred, let’s get people to try to do it and see what happened. That turned out to be useful insight; it opened this up to experimental research. It became a lab science instead of an after-the-fact interpretation of peoples’ lives.”

For Wegner, an interest in secrets began with a white bear. In Russian folklore attributed to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or sometimes both, a man tells his younger brother to sit in the corner and not think of a white bear, only to find later that the sibling can think of nothing else. If a meaningless white bear can arouse such frustration, imagine the crippling psychological effects of trying not to think of something with actual importance when the situation requires silence — running into the wife of a friend who has a mistress, being on a jury and having to disregard a stunning fact, or hiding homosexuality in a room full of whack-happy wiseguys.

So in 1987, Wegner, who at that time was at Trinity University, published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology discussing what happens when research subjects confront the white bear in a laboratory. In the study, subjects entered a room alone with a tape recorder and reported everything that came to mind in a five-minute span. Before the experiment, Wegner told some subjects to think of anything except a white bear, and told others to try to think of a white bear. Afterwards, the subjects switched roles. Any time a subject mentioned, or merely thought of, a white bear, he or she had to ring a bell inside the room.

It was not quite Big Ben at noon, but those who suppressed the white bear rang the bell once a minute — more often than subjects who were free to express the thought. More remarkably, Wegner found what he called the “rebound effect”: When a subject was released from suppression and told to express a hidden thought, it poured out with greater frequency than if it had been mentionable from the start. (Think fresh gossip.) He also found evidence for an insight called “negative cuing.” The idea is that a person trying to ditch a thought will look around for something to displace it — first at the ceiling fan, then a candle, then a remote control. Soon the mind forms a latent bond between the unwanted thought and the surrounding items, so that everything now reminds the person of what he is trying to forget, exacerbating the original frustration.

“People will tend to misread the return of unwanted thoughts,” Wegner said recently. “We don’t realize that in keeping it secret we’ve created an obsession in a jar.” Wegner told the story of a suicidal student who once called him for help. Desperate to keep her on the phone, but lacking any clinical training, Wegner mentioned the white bear study. Slowly the student realized she had perpetuated a potentially fleeting thought by trying to avoid it. “She got so twisted up in the fact that she couldn’t stop thinking of killing herself, that she was making it come back to mind. She was misreading this as, there’s some part of me that wants to do it. What she really wanted was to get rid of the thought.”

One method of diverging attention from an unwanted thought, says Wegner, is to focus on a single distraction from the white bear, like a red Volkswagen, an idea that he tested successfully in later experiments. The concern with this technique, which Freud first laid out, is that a person could become obsessed with an arbitrary item, planting the seeds for abnormal behavior. In a later experiment, published in 1994 in the same journal, Wegner found more evidence that secrets lead to strange obsession. He placed four subjects who had never met around a table, split them into two male-female teams, and told them to play a card game. One team was instructed to play footsie without letting the other team know. At the end of the experiment, the secret footsie-players felt such a heightened attraction toward one another that the experimenters made them leave through separate doors, for ethical reasons. “We can end up being in a relationship we don’t want, or interested in things that aren’t at all important, because we had to keep them quiet,” Wegner said, “and it ends up growing.”

Live Free or Die

The logical opposite of an unhealthy obsession based on secrets is a healthy result from disclosing such secrets. This healing aspect of revelation is where Wegner’s work connects with James Pennebaker’s. In the late 1970s, Pennebaker was part of a research team that found, via survey, that people who had a traumatic sexual experience before age 17 were more likely to have health problems as they got older. Pennebaker looked further and found that the majority of these people had kept the trauma hidden, and in 1984 he began the first of many studies on the effects of revealing previously undisclosed secrets.

In most of Pennebaker’s experiments, subjects visited a lab for three or four consecutive days, each time writing about traumatic experiences for 15 or 20 minutes. In the first five years, hundreds of people poured their secrets onto the page. A college girl who knew her father was seeing his secretary; a concentration camp survivor who had seen babies tossed from a second-floor orphanage window; a Vietnam veteran who once shot a female fighter in the leg, had sex with her, then cut her throat. By the end of the experiment, many participants felt such intense release that their handwriting became freer and loopier. In one study of 50 students, those who revealed both a secret and their feelings visited the health center significantly fewer times in the ensuing six months than other students who had written about a generic topic, or those who had only revealed the secret and not the emotions surrounding it.

The work led to many papers showing evidence that divulging a secret, which can mean anything from telling someone to writing it on a piece of paper that is later burned, is correlated with tangible health improvements, both physical and mental. People hiding traumatic secrets showed more incidents of hypertension, influenza, even cancer, while those who wrote about their secrets showed, through blood tests, enhanced immune systems. In some cases, T-cell counts in AIDS patients increased. In another test, Pennebaker showed that writing about trauma actually unclogs the brain. Using an electroencephalogram, an instrument that measures brain waves through electrodes attached to the scalp, he found that the right and left brains communicated more frequently in subjects who disclosed traumas.

(It should be noted that the type of secrets discussed in this article are personal secrets—experiences a person chooses not to discuss with others. They can be positive, in the case of hiding a birthday cake, or negative, in the case of hiding a mistress. Secrets that could be considered “non-personal,” for example, information concealed as part of a job, were not specifically addressed.)

Exactly why revelation creates such health benefits is a complicated question. “Most people in psychology have been trained to think of a single, parsimonious explanation for an event,” said Pennebaker, who did much of his research at Southern Methodist University before coming to the University of Texas, where he is chair of the psychology department. “Well, welcome to the real world. There are multiple levels of explanation here.” Pennebaker lists a number of reasons for the health improvements. Writing about a secret helps label and organize it, which in turn helps understand features of the secret that had been ignored. Revelation can become habitual in a positive sense, making confrontation normal. Disclosure can reduce rumination and worry, freeing up the mental quagmires that hindered social relationships. People become better listeners. They even become better sleepers. “The fact is that all of us occasionally are dealing with experiences that are hard to talk about,” Pennebaker said. “Getting up and putting experiences into words has a powerful effect.”

At the end of a recent Sopranos episode, Vito looks most content after seeing a New Hampshire license plate, with its state motto: “Live free or die.” Pennebaker’s research may add a new level of truth to that phrase.

Little Machiavellis

In the early 1990s, it was not unusual for 3-year-old Jeremy Peskin to want a cookie. His mother, Joan, used to hide them in the high cupboards of their home in Toronto; when she left, Jeremy would climb up and sneak a few. One day, Jeremy had a problem: He wanted a cookie, but his mother was in the kitchen. “He said to me, ‘Go out of the kitchen, because I want to take a cookie,’ ” Joan recalled recently. Unfortunately for Jeremy, Joan Peskin was a doctorate student in psychology at the time, and smart enough to see through the ruse. Fortunately for developmental researchers, Peskin’s experience led her to study when children first develop the capacity for secrets.

What interested Peskin, now a professor at the University of Toronto, was Jeremy’s inability to separate his mother’s physical presence from her mental state. If she was out of the room, he would be able to take a cookie, whether or not his mother knew that he intended to take a cookie. Peskin took this insight to the laboratory — in this case, local day-care centers — where she tried to get children age three, four, and five to conceal a secret. She showed the children two types of stickers. The first, a gaudy, glittery sticker, aroused many a tiny smile; the second, a drab, beige sticker of an angel, was disliked. Then she introduced a mean puppet and explained that this puppet would take whatever sticker the children wanted most. When the puppet asked 4- and 5-year-olds which sticker they wanted, most of the children either lied or would not tell. The 3-year-olds almost always blurted out their preference, even when the scenario was repeated several times, she found in the study, which was published in Developmental Psychology in 1992. Often the 3-year-olds grabbed at the shiny sticker as the puppet took it away, showing a proper understanding of the situation but an inability to prevent it via secretive means.

The finding goes beyond secrets; 4 has become the age when psychologists think children develop the ability to understand distinct but related inner and outer worlds. “When I teach it I put a kid on the overhead with a thought bubble inside,” Peskin said. “When they could think of someone else’s mental state — say, ignorance, somebody not knowing something — that influences their social world.” In a follow-up study published in Social Development in 2003, Peskin found again that 3-year-olds were more likely than 4- or 5-year-olds to reveal the location of a surprise birthday cake to a hungry research confederate. “When a child is able to keep a secret,” Peskin says, “parents should take it as, that’s great, this is normal development. They aren’t going to be little Machiavellis. This is normal brain development.”

Confidence in Confidants

Soon after Mark Felt revealed himself as Deep Throat, the anonymous source who guided Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal, Anita Kelly’s phone began to ring. “One morning I had 10 messages from different news groups,” she recalled recently. “They wanted me to say that secrecy’s a bad thing, and I’d say, look, there’s no evidence. This guy’s in his early 90s, and has seemed to have a healthy life.”

When preparing The Psychology of Secrets, Kelly re-examined the consequences and benefits of secret-keeping, and began to believe that while divulging secrets improves health, concealing them does not necessarily cause physical problems. “I couldn’t find any evidence that keeping a secret makes a person sick,” Kelly said. “There is evidence that by writing about held-back information someone will get health benefits. Someone keeping a secret would miss out on those benefits. It’s not the same as saying if you keep a secret you’re going to get sick.”

Her latest work, in press at the Journal of Personality, challenged the notion that secret-keeping can cause sickness. Instead of merely looking at instances of sickness nine weeks after disclosure, Kelly and co-author Jonathan Yip adjusted their measurements for initial levels of health. They found, quite simply, that secretive people also tend to be sick people, both now and two months down the line.

“It doesn’t look like the process of keeping the secret made them sick,” she said. High “self-concealers,” as Kelly calls them, tend to be more depressed, anxious, and shy, and have more aches and pains by nature, perhaps suggesting some natural link between being secretive and being vulnerable to illness. “I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that being secretive could be linked to being symptomatic at a biological level.”

This conclusion came gradually. In the mid-1990s, following Pennebaker’s line of research that had really opened up the field, Kelly focused on the health effects of revealing and concealing secrets. The research clearly showed links between secrets and illness. In a review of the field for Current Directions in Psychological Science in 1999, Kelly notes some of these health correlations: cases in which breast cancer patients who talked about their concealed emotions survived almost twice as long as those who did not; students who wrote about private traumatic events showed higher antibody levels four and six months after a Hepatitis B vaccination; and gay men who concealed their sexuality had a higher rate of cancer and infectious disease.

But in 1998 she did a study asking patients about their relationships with their therapists. She found that 40 percent of them were keeping a secret, but generally felt no stress as a result. Kelly began to believe that some secrets can be kept successfully, and that, in some scenarios, disclosing a secret could cause more problems than it solves. Psychologists, she felt, were not paying enough attention to the situations in which disclosure should occur — only that it did. “The essence of the problem with revealing personal information is that revealers may come to see themselves in undesirable ways if others know their stigmatizing secrets,” she wrote in the 1999 paper.

John Caughlin, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied secrets, agrees that sometimes openness is not the best policy. “People are so accustomed to saying an open relationship is a good one, that if they have secrets it can make them feel that something’s wrong,” he said recently. In 2005, Caughlin published a paper in Personal Relationships suggesting that people have a poor ability to forecast how they will feel after revealing a secret, and how another person will respond to hearing it. “I’m not touting that people should keep a lot of secrets,” he said, “but I don’t think people should assume it’s bad, and I think they do.” In her new book, Anatomy of a Secret Life, published in April, Gail Saltz, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical School, referred to secrets as “benign” or “malignant,” depending on the scenario. “In teenagers, having secret identities is normal, healthy separation from parents and needs to go on,” said Saltz recently.

To address this concern, Kelly has focused her recent work on the role of confidants in the process of disclosure. She created a simple diagram advising self-concealers when they should, and when they should not, reveal a secret. On one hand, if the secret does not cause mental or physical stress, it should be kept, to provide a sense of personal boundary and avoid unnecessary social conflict. If it does cause anguish, the secret-keeper must then evaluate whether he or she has a worthy confidant, someone willing to work toward a cathartic insight. When such a confidant is not available, the person should write down his or her thoughts and feelings. “The world changes when you tell someone who knows all your friends,” said Kelly, who experienced this change firsthand 15 years back, when she shared with a colleague something “very personal and embarrassing,” as she called it, and then found her secret floating among her colleagues. “You have to think, what are the implications with my reputation,” she said. “It’s more complicated once you have to reveal to someone.”

To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Life, Morality, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

Ride to Hell and The Situation of Sexual Violence in Video Games

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 15, 2013

In late June, Deep Silver published a new video game called Ride to Hell: Retribution. The action game, which is available for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, has players taking on the role of a Vietnam War veteran who wages battles with a biker gang. In addition to receiving horrific reviews for its shoddy game play and pointless story — Ride to Hell: Retribution has one of the lowest scores of all video games on Metacritic — the game has attracted much scorn for “forced” sex scenes and its demeaning depiction of women.

For an example of the sexual content in Ride to Hell: Retribution, see from the 10:00 minute mark in this video:

Justin Alderman, a video game critic for We Got This Covered, explains the controversy:

* * *

The other thing to note about Ride to Hell: Retribution‘s missions is that each of them contain at least one impromptu, and very creepy, sex scene. At some point during each mission Jake will spot one or more male characters threatening (either physically or sexually) one or more female characters. After killing the hostile males, Jake is “rewarded” with a short cutscene of him having fully-clothed sex with the distressed damsel[s].

I’m not inherently against including sex in video games, but the circumstances surrounding the repeated sex scenes in Ride to Hell: Retribution are extremely offensive and troubling.

The most obvious issue is that almost all of the female characters in the game amount to nothing more than objects for Jake to eventually have sex with. What is far more disconcerting, in my opinion, is that the “sex reward” is basically forced upon players. You can either leave the distressed female to get beat up and/or raped, or you can stop the attack and then have sex with her yourself. There is never any option to be a decent human being and just stop the rape.

* * *

To read the rest, click here. For other Situationist posts on video games, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Marketing, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

Dan Wegner

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 10, 2013

Dan Wegner

From Harvard Gazette:

Daniel M. Wegner, a pioneering social psychologist who helped to reveal the mysteries of human experience through his work on thought suppression, conscious will, and mind perception, died July 5 as a result of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He was 65.

The John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in Memory of William James, Wegner redefined social psychology as the science of human experience. He was arguably most famous for his experiments on thought suppression, in which people were unable to keep from thinking of a white bear.

Wegner also broke ground in other areas of social psychology, including transactive memory (how memories are distributed across groups and relationship partners) and action identification (what people think they are doing). He had also explored the experience of conscious will, and most recently focused on mind perception (how people perceive human and nonhuman minds).

“Dan was, I believe, the most original thinker in modern psychology,” said Dan Gilbert, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, who knew Wegner for three decades. “Most of us work on problems that are important in our field, and we use theories others have invented to make progress. Dan didn’t make progress — Dan made new highways, new roads. He opened doors in walls that we didn’t know had doors in them, and he did this over and over.”

Gilbert said he was privileged to call Wegner one of his closest friends. The two met while they both worked in Texas — Gilbert at the University of Texas and Wegner at Trinity University.

“Being among the few social psychologists in Texas, we were introduced by a mutual friend, and it was love at first sight,” Gilbert said. “We’ve been true friends ever since.”  He added. “I’m heartbroken to lose my friend of 30 years, but I guess the only thing worse would have been not to have a friend of 30 years.”

While Wegner was known for his pioneering work on the mind, Gilbert said his intellectual curiosity seemed never to rest.

“The thing about Dan is he didn’t take the lab coat off,” Gilbert said. “For him, being a psychologist wasn’t a job, it was a way of being. He simply spent all his waking time thinking about the interesting aspects of the mind. It was 24/7 for him.”

That intellectual heft, however, never masked Wegner’s humor.

“Dan Wegner was the funniest human being I’ve ever known, and everybody else was a distant second,” Gilbert said. “To say someone was funny may sound frivolous, but I would make the claim that Dan understood something important, which is that humor is the place where intelligence and joy meet. Dan understood that … humor is where a brilliant mind tickles itself.”

That sense of humor, Gilbert said, often showed up in Wegner’s writing, and helped transform the way social psychology is described in many journals today.  “If you open a psychology journal now,” he said, “many, many people write in a Wegner-esque style.”

Even in his final days, Gilbert said, Wegner’s restless mind faced the challenge of his death with an inspirational degree of curiosity.

“It was a privilege to sit by his side as he took this journey to the end,” Gilbert said. “About a month ago, I asked him, ‘If you had to think of one word to describe this experience, what would it be?’ He looked at me, and he said ‘fascinating.’ He was a student of the human experience, and he was having an experience unlike most of us ever have. And rather than bemoaning it or crying about it, he took it as another fascinating thing to study and learn about and think about.”

Born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Wegner studied as an undergraduate and graduate student at Michigan State University, earning his Ph.D. in 1974. He was appointed an assistant professor and rose to full professor and chair of the psychology department at Trinity in San Antonio.

Wegner joined the faculty in the psychology department at the University of Virginia in 1990, where he was the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Psychology before joining the Harvard faculty in 2000.

Wegner was the author of four academic books, an introductory psychology textbook, and nearly 150 journal articles and book chapters.

Wegner’s research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health. In 1996-1997 he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and in 2011 was inducted as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He received many of the top honors in his field, including the William James Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science, the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, and the Donald T. Campbell Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Wegner is survived by his wife of 29 years, Toni Giuliano Wegner of Winchester, and his daughters, Kelsey Wegner Hurlburt of Dunkirk, Md., and Haley Wegner of Winchester. At Wegner’s request, his body was donated to the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Neurological Clinical Research Institute for ALS Research.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Winchester Unitarian Society, 478 Main St., Winchester, Mass. Wegner requested that his service be a celebration of life, and so would welcome Hawaiian shirts.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to:

Compassionate Care ALS
P.O. Box 1052
West Falmouth, Mass. 02574

Winchester Unitarian Society
478 Main Street
Winchester, Mass. 01890

To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here.

Posted in Illusions, Life, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

The Psychological Situation of Markets

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 8, 2013

Caltec Image

From Caltec News (by Marcus Woo):

When it comes to economics versus psychology, score one for psychology.

Economists argue that markets usually reflect rational behavior—that is, the dominant players in a market, such as the hedge-fund managers who make billions of dollars’ worth of trades, almost always make well-informed and objective decisions. Psychologists, on the other hand, say that markets are not immune from human irrationality, whether that irrationality is due to optimism, fear, greed, or other forces.

Now, a new analysis published the week of July 1 in the online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) supports the latter case, showing that markets are indeed susceptible to psychological phenomena. “There’s this tug-of-war between economics and psychology, and in this round, psychology wins,” says Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the corresponding author of the paper.

Indeed, it is difficult to claim that markets are immune to apparent irrationality in human behavior. “The recent financial crisis really has shaken a lot of people’s faith,” Camerer says. Despite the faith of many that markets would organize allocations of capital in ways that are efficient, he notes, the government still had to bail out banks, and millions of people lost their homes.

In their analysis, the researchers studied an effect called partition dependence, in which breaking down—or partitioning—the possible outcomes of an event in great detail makes people think that those outcomes are more likely to happen. The reason, psychologists say, is that providing specific scenarios makes them more explicit in people’s minds. “Whatever we’re thinking about, seems more likely,” Camerer explains.

For example, if you are asked to predict the next presidential election, you may say that a Democrat has a 50/50 chance of winning and a Republican has a 50/50 chance of winning. But if you are asked about the odds that a particular candidate from each party might win—for example, Hillary Clinton versus Chris Christie—you are likely to envision one of them in the White House, causing you to overestimate his or her odds.

The researchers looked for this bias in a variety of prediction markets, in which people bet on future events. In these markets, participants buy and sell claims on specific outcomes, and the prices of those claims—as set by the market—reflect people’s beliefs about how likely it is that each of those outcomes will happen. Say, for example, that the price for a claim that the Miami Heat will win 16 games during the NBA playoffs is $6.50 for a $10 return. That means that, in the collective judgment of the traders, Miami has a 65 percent chance of winning 16 games.

The researchers created two prediction markets via laboratory experiments and studied two others in the real world. In one lab experiment, which took place in 2006, volunteers traded claims on how many games an NBA team would win during the 2006 playoffs and how many goals a team would score in the 2006 World Cup. The volunteers traded claims on 16 teams each for the NBA playoffs and the World Cup.

In the basketball case, one group of volunteers was asked to bet on whether the Miami Heat would win 4–7 playoff games, 8–11 games, or some other range. Another group was given a range of 4–11 games, which combined the two intervals offered to the first group. Then, the volunteers traded claims on each of the intervals within their respective groups. As with all prediction markets, the price of a traded claim reflected the traders’ estimations of whether the total number of games won by the Heat would fall within a particular range.

Economic theory says that the first group’s perceived probability of the Heat winning 4–7 games and its perceived probability of winning 8–11 games should add up to a total close to the second group’s perceived probability of the team winning 4–11 games. But when they added the numbers up, the researchers found instead that the first group thought the likelihood of the team winning 4–7 or 8–11 games higher than did the second group, which was asked about the probability of them winning 4–11 games. All of this suggests that framing the possible outcomes in terms of more specific intervals caused people to think that those outcomes were more likely.

The researchers observed similar results in a second, similar lab experiment, and in two studies of natural markets—one involving a series of 153 prediction markets run by Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs, and another involving long-shot horses in horse races.

People tend to bet more money on a long-shot horse, because of its higher potential payoff, and they also tend to overestimate the chance that such a horse will win. Statistically, however, a horse’s chance of winning a particular race is the same regardless of how many other horses it’s racing against—a horse who habitually wins just five percent of the time will continue to do so whether it is racing against fields of 5 or of 11. But when the researchers looked at horse-race data from 1992 through 2001—a total of 6.3 million starts—they found that bettors were subject to the partition bias, believing that long-shot horses had higher odds of winning when they were racing against fewer horses.

While partition dependence has been looked at in the past in specific lab experiments, it hadn’t been studied in prediction markets, Camerer says. What makes this particular analysis powerful is that the researchers observed evidence for this phenomenon in a wide range of studies—short, well-controlled laboratory experiments; markets involving intelligent, well-informed traders at major financial institutions; and nine years of horse-racing data.

The title of the PNAS paper is “How psychological framing affects economic market prices in the lab and field.” In addition to Camerer, the other authors are Ulrich Sonnemann and Thomas Langer at the University of Münster, Germany, and Craig Fox at UCLA. Their research was supported by the German Research Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Human Frontier Science Program.

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Posted in Behavioral Economics, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 3, 2013

First Published on July 3, 2007:

Battle of Lexington

With the U.S. celebrating Independence Day — carnivals, fireworks, BBQs, parades and other customs that have, at best, only a tangential connection to our “independence,” — we thought it an opportune moment to return to its source in search of some situationism. No doubt, the Declaration of Independence is typically thought of as containing a dispositionist message (though few would express it in those terms) — all that language about individuals freely pursuing their own happiness. Great stuff, but arguably built on a dubious model of the human animal.

Declaration of IndependenceThat’s not the debate we want to provoke here. Instead, we are interested in simply highlighting some less familiar language in that same document that reveals something special about the mindset and celebrated courage of those behind the colonists’ revolt. Specifically, as Thomas Jefferson penned, “all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

Part of what made the July 4th heroes heroic, in our view, was their willingness to break from that disposition to suffer evils. They reacted, mobilized, strategized, resisted, and fought because they recognized that their suffering was not legitimate — a conclusion that many in the U.S. and abroad vehemently rejected.

Situationist contributor John Jost has researched and written extensively about a related topic — the widespread tendency to justify existing systems of power despite any unfair suffering that they may entail. As he and his co-authors recently summarized:

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people – regardless of their own social class or position – accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world.”

If we truly want to emulate and celebrate the “founding fathers” of this republic, perhaps we should begin by taking seriously the possibility that what “is” is not always what “ought to be.”

Happy Fourth!

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To read a couple of related Situationist posts, see “Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?” and “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!

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

 
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