The Situationist

Archive for November, 2013

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 26, 2013

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

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” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Existing levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

* * *

No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Altruism, History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Mahzarin Banaji on “Group Love”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 17, 2013

SillimanLecturePoster

From Yale News (by Phoebe Kimmelman):

On Thursday evening, Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji delivered a talk entitled “Group Love” where she demonstrated that the audience held an implicit bias for Yale over Princeton.

Banaji, who worked as a professor of psychology at Yale from 1986-2002 before taking a similar post at Harvard, focused in her talk on how group affiliations, or lack thereof, affect the ways in which we see the world and interact with others. In her research, Banaji has helped bring Freudian theories of the subconscious in the psychology laboratory to be empirically tested.

University President Peter Salovey delivered introductory remarks, saying Banaji had been the “heart and soul” of the Yale psychology department during her 16 years there.

“She is of those scientists who changes her field with her insights and her empirical data with a deep sense of social responsibility to her colleagues, her students and her field,” Salovey said.

In the lecture to roughly 100 people, Banaji first discussed an experiment she did in 2006 at Harvard that involved monitoring participants’ brain activity while they answered random questions about two hypothetical people, presented with only their political preferences. Neuroimaging showed that the subjects used different areas of the brain to make predictions about people with whom they agree and those with whom they disagree. Banaji used this study to introduce the idea of love of the in-group, a preference people have for a group of people who think the way that they themselves do.

Through presenting multiple studies, Banaji demonstrated the magnitude of positive bias towards the in-group in subjects ranging from sports fans to elementary school students. While we may not be able to eliminate our biases, Banaji said certain cognitive strategies can “outsmart” them. For instance, Banaji said she rotates among her computer screensavers images that defy racial and gender stereotypes.

“It’s not that we hate people of another group, but it’s love for the in-group that’s paramount,” she said.

Salovey and Banaji, who started as faculty at Yale on the very same day, were close friends and next door neighbors, he said. Salovey recalled that he and Banaji were each other’s “support systems” while writing PSYC 110 lectures together.

Banaji came to campus for this year’s Silliman Memorial Lecture, an annual speakership that began in 1888 and has brought such prominent scientific figures to campus as J.J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. Though a committee of faculty from Yale science departments usually chooses a speaker whose research is in the hard natural sciences, committee chair and Sterling professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry Joan Steitz said that her colleagues were eager to hear from Banaji this year. Though the lecture has no affiliation with Silliman College, the endowment is named for the mother of Benjamin Silliman, a scientist after whom the college is named.

“If you think about the impact that psychology and neurobiology and brain science [are] having these days, the committee did not consider it at all inappropriate to be going in that direction with this particular lecture,” Steitz said.

Since leaving Yale in 2002, Banaji has served as a professor of social ethics in Harvard’s psychology department, where she has continued her research on how unconscious thinking plays out in social situations.

Nick Friedlander ’17 said he found the lecture “eye-opening” because it revealed biases he did not know he held before.

For Zachary Williams ’17, the lecture demonstrated how little of the conscious mind controls mental processes.

“It was truly a treat to be able to sit in close quarters with such a fantastic paragon of academia and hear her talk about such relevant topics,” he said.

Banaji’s most recent book is entitled “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.”

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Implicit Associations, Morality, Neuroscience, Situationist Contributors | 1 Comment »

“The Future of Equality” ACS Conference – This Weekend

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 15, 2013

The American Constitution Society Northeast Regional Student Convening will bring together lawyers and law students from across the Northeast to hear leading practitioners, government officials, judges, and academics discuss a progressive vision for the future of equality across a number of salient policy issues. Learn more here.

acs future of equality poster 2013

acs 2013 schedule

Posted in Events, Politics, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

Eldar Shafir – Living Under Scarcity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 8, 2013

From TEDxMidAtlantic, 2011.  Eldar Shafir is the William Stewart Tod Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs in the Department of Psychology and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. His research focuses on decision-making, and on issues related to behavioral economics, with an emphasis on empirical studies of how people make decisions in situations of conflict and uncertainty.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Distribution, Education, Video | 1 Comment »

Nalini Ambady, Stanford psychology professor, dies at 54

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 2, 2013

By Bjorn Carey (Stanford News)Nalini Ambady

Nalini Ambady, a Stanford professor of psychology, died Oct. 28 after a long battle with leukemia. Her passing followed a yearlong, worldwide effort by family, friends and students to find a bone marrow donor match. She was 54.

A distinguished social psychologist, Ambady was well known for her research showing that people can form accurate first impressions about others based only on seconds-long observations of their nonverbal behavior.

“Thin slices,” as these quick impressions are known, are now a staple of social science textbooks, and were popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2005 bestselling book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Ambady was born in Calcutta, India, and earned her bachelor’s degree at Delhi University. She came to the United States for her master’s degree in psychology, from the College of William and Mary, and later received her PhD in social psychology from Harvard. While at Harvard, she met her future husband, Raj Marphatia, who was studying at Harvard Law School.

After earning her PhD in 1991, she quickly joined the ranks of academia by accepting a position as an assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross; she would go on to become an associate professor at Harvard and a professor at Tufts University. Ambady joined the Stanford faculty in 2011, becoming the first person of Indian origin to teach in Stanford’s Department of Psychology.

The importance of nonverbal communication

Ambady’s work on thin slices was fueled by her passion for nonverbal behavior. She argued that nonverbal behavior is important because it is a quick, efficient and relatively effortless way of obtaining information about others. At birth, humans respond to and produce nonverbal cues and nonverbal behavior that can serve as a primary mechanism of socialization across the lifespan. As she put it, “Nonverbal behavior offers a means of adapting to the social world.”

She put these concepts to the test in one of her first publications, in 1993. She created 30-second, silent video clips of college professors delivering a lecture and asked people who had never seen the professors before to assess their teaching effectiveness. Remarkably, the scores from independent raters fell in line with those of students who had actually spent an entire semester in the professor’s class. The results held even when she shortened the clip to 10, 6 and 2 seconds.

The work demonstrated that perceptual judgments made on the basis of very brief observations of nonverbal behavior can be surprisingly accurate and can influence a person’s long-term impressions. The findings challenged established wisdom that intuitive reasoning is typically wrong and became a basis for the growing appreciation of the usefulness of nonconscious or “fast” thinking.

Ambady believed that even without conscious awareness, initial evaluative impressions can influence whom we sit next to in a subway, whom we hire for a job and, perhaps, even whom we marry. Her follow-up studies showed that similar snap evaluations can accurately predict a person’s sexual orientation or political affiliation or a CEO’s company profits.

In 1999, she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Bill Clinton in recognition of this work. In February, she will be posthumously awarded the prestigious Carol and Ed Diener Award in Social Psychology, a recognition give by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology to scholars whose work has added substantially to the body of knowledge of the field.

A generous mentor and colleague

As a researcher, Ambady had a reputation for being collaborative and encouraging a very collegial lab space.

“Nalini had incredible energy, a very positive spirit,” said Hazel Markus, a professor of psychology. “She was brilliant and held herself and others to very high standards. She loved social psychology so much that people were very attracted to working with her.”

Ambady made her students and research assistants feel as though they were an extension of her family. When a first-generation college student from a low-income family was having difficulties getting to campus, Ambady took her to buy a bike. She bought a textbook for a struggling student who couldn’t afford it. And when she learned that some of her lab members either lived too far away or couldn’t afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, she invited them to dinner at her house.

She took immense pride in her students, said Marphatia, her husband, and was thrilled to see them rise to tenured professorships throughout academia. When her leukemia returned last November, she stayed deeply involved with her students’ work. She met with students at home and in the hospital while she was receiving treatment, and insisted on helping researchers with their grant proposals.

“Even though she was sick, she had this tremendous focus toward others,” said Brent Hughes, a postdoctoral scholar in Ambady’s lab. “She would stay on top of us in a really deeply caring way to make sure that we had everything we needed to do well.”

Upon coming to Stanford, one of her priorities was establishing a research center called SPARQ, designed to bring social psychological answers to real-world questions.

“She was the galvanizing force behind SPARQ,” said Jennifer Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology. “We now have a clinic which pairs practitioners with researchers and an online solutions catalog which describes effective interventions for a variety of social and environmental problems. This all happened within a year of Nalini coming to Stanford, and she continued to push hard on it until days before the end of her life.”

“She said, ‘Let’s take our academic research and findings and see if we can apply it to make changes in the real world,'” said Marphatia. “SPARQ is one thing that she was really looking forward to working on with her colleagues, and it is particularly disappointing that she won’t have a chance to work on that.

“It was the joy of her life to be at Stanford,” he said. “She thought it is such a wonderful environment to do research, with people inspiring each other and collaborating. It brought out the best of her professional abilities.”

A lasting legacy

One of the first projects that SPARQ-affiliated scientists will engage on will be done with Ambady in mind: A “Be the Match” initiative will aim to develop actionable ways to increase participation in bone marrow donor programs.

Ambady was originally diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, but treatment drove the disease into remission. When it returned last November, doctors told her that she needed a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, South Asians – and minorities in general – are severely underrepresented in bone marrow donor registries in the United States.

Students and friends began fundraising drives, including Nalini Needs You, to purchase and distribute the cheek swab kits used to identify potential donor matches, both in the United States and near her birthplace in India, where doctors believed there might be a better chance of locating a genetic match.

These efforts identified previously unregistered matches for seven other people in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant, for which Ambady was exceptionally pleased. Of the roughly dozen people who were potential matches for Ambady, however, half turned out to be incompatible or only superficial matches.

The others chose not to donate, a result that is common in bone marrow transplant cases. There are many reasons people ultimately decide not to donate, including cultural taboos or fears of pain or inconvenience. (Donating bone marrow is only slightly more complex than donating blood, though it requires multiple visits.) Some people’s contact information simply falls out of the system, especially the case with college-age donors who frequently change addresses.

Eberhardt and Markus said that SPARQ will partner with bone marrow registries to develop strategies for enrolling more people, and especially minorities, to participate in cheek swab tests, and also to encourage people to actually donate later on when they are identified as a match.

Ambady is survived by her husband, Raj Marphatia, and two daughters: Maya, who will enroll at Stanford next fall, and Leena, a sophomore at Castilleja School in Palo Alto.

Details of a memorial have yet to be finalized. Donations can be made to the Nalini Ambady Memorial Fund, care of the Department of Psychology, Jordan Hall, Building 420, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. Make checks payable to Stanford University.

Nalini Ambady was, among other things, a long-time Situationist friend who made two presentations of her extraordinary research at Harvard Law School over the years.  Her brilliance and warmth left a lasting impression on all who had the privilege of attending those talks.  Our hearts go out to her family and loved ones.

Situationist posts:

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Natasha Schvey on Obesity in the Courtroom – Today!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 1, 2013

weight bias courtroom - by Madelein witt

When: Friday 11/01/13 12-1pm
Where: WCC 2012

Today, join Section 6’s Ninja Tortles and the Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) for a talk by Natasha Schvey on bias against overweight defendants in the courtroom. Schvey, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Yale University, has focused her research on obesity, weight stigma, binge eating, and eating in response to negative affect. She argues that bias against the overweight should be addressed in the legal system through means such as juror selection, jury instructions, and anti-discrimination legislation.

The talk will be held at noon in WCC 2012, and food will be served.

Posted in Events, SALMS, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 827 other followers

%d bloggers like this: