The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Distribution’ Category

Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Religious Beliefs

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 22, 2012

From TED:

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt asks a simple, but difficult question: why do we search for self-transcendence? Why do we attempt to lose ourselves? In a tour through the science of evolution by group selection, he proposes a provocative answer.

Jonathan Haidt studies how — and why — we evolved to be moral. By understanding more about our moral roots, his hope is that we can learn to be civil and open-minded.

A small sample of related Situationist posts:

Posted in Altruism, Conflict, Distribution, Ideology, Morality, Politics, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Money-Based Happiness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 12, 2012

An excerpt from a recent, terrific New York Times piece by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton:

The notion that money can’t buy happiness has been around a long time — even before yoga came into vogue. But it turns out there is a measurable connection between income and happiness; not surprisingly, people with a comfortable living standard are happier than people living in poverty.

The catch is that additional income doesn’t buy us any additional happiness on a typical day once we reach that comfortable standard. The magic number that defines this “comfortable standard” varies across individuals and countries, but in the United States, it seems to fall somewhere around $75,000. Using Gallup data collected from almost half a million Americans, researchers at Princeton found that higher household incomes were associated with better moods on a daily basis — but the beneficial effects of money tapered off entirely after the $75,000 mark.

Why, then, do so many of us bother to work so hard long after we have reached an income level sufficient to make most of us happy? One reason is that our ideas about the relationship between money and happiness are misguided. In research we conducted with a national sample of Americans, people thought that their life satisfaction would double if they made $55,000 instead of $25,000: more than twice as much money, twice as much happiness. But our data showed that people who earned $55,000 were just 9 percent more satisfied than those making $25,000. Nine percent beats zero percent, but it’s still kind of a letdown when you were expecting a 100 percent return.

Interestingly, and usefully, it turns out that what we do with our money plays a far more important role than how much money we make. Imagine three people each win $1 million in the lottery. Suppose one person attempts to buy every single thing he has ever wanted; one puts it all in the bank and uses the money only sparingly, for special occasions; and one gives it all to charity. At the end of the year, they all would report an additional $1 million of income. Many of us would follow the first person’s strategy, but the latter two winners are likely to get the bigger happiness bang for their buck.

We usually think of having more money as allowing us to buy more and more of the stuff we like for ourselves, from bigger houses to fancier cars to better wine to more finely pixilated televisions. But these typical spending tendencies — buying more, and buying for ourselves — are ineffective at turning money into happiness. A decade of research has demonstrated that if you insist on spending money on yourself, you should shift from buying stuff (TVs and cars) to experiences (trips and special evenings out). Our own recent research shows that in addition to buying more experiences, you’re better served in many cases by simply buying less — and buying for others.

Read the entire article, including their discussion of value of “underindulgence.”

Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending (Simon & Schuster), co-authored by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, is due out in the spring of 2013!

Pre-order it on Amazon here.

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Posted in Altruism, Book, Deep Capture, Distribution, Emotions, Illusions, Life, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Kristina Olson on the Psychology of Inequality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 15, 2012

At the Fifth Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference,“Young Children’s Understanding of Social Inequality” (Harvard, 2011) , Kristina Olson made a fascinating presentation, titled “Stress and Reslience: Pathways to Social Disparities in Health.”  The video of her presentation is above.  Here is a short description:

Dr. Olson discusses recent research indicating that even young children (aged 3-5 years), have an understanding of social inequality. In her lab and others, researchers are finding astounding evidence that children routinely notice social inequality, they favor individuals and groups who are high in social status, and they often behave in ways that perpetuate inequalities between individuals and groups. Olson describes these results, their implications, and will describe other behaviors children engage in that might offset some of these biases to uphold or perpetuate the status quo.

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Posted in Distribution, Ideology, Social Psychology, Video | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Fairness – 2

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 30, 2012

Earlier this month wrote an excellent piece, “titled The Fairness Trap,” for the New Yorker.  Surowiecki considers some of the ways that the widespread preference for fairness may be contributing to some of the global and local economic woes.  Here are a few excerpts from the article.

With Europe’s economic woes dominating the headlines once more, it’s hard not to think of Yogi Berra’s dictum “It’s déjà vu all over again.” As usual, the turmoil centers on Greece, which is in its fifth year of recession and struggling beneath a colossal debt load. This year, in exchange for drastic austerity measures, Greece’s government agreed to an aid package (its second) with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, totalling $174 billion. But three weeks ago furious Greek voters tossed the ruling parties out of office; attempts to form a coalition government failed, and new elections are scheduled for next month. Now Greek politicians are talking tough about renegotiating, but the E.U., led by Germany, which is the largest contributor to the bailout, says that there will be no more money for Greece if it doesn’t live up to its promises. So policymakers are seriously discussing a so-called Grexit—in which Greece would default on its debts and abandon the euro.

This isn’t an outcome that anyone wants. Even though a devalued currency would make Greece’s exports cheaper and attract tourists, it would do so at a terrible price, destroying huge amounts of wealth and seriously harming the country’s G.D.P. It would be costly for the rest of Europe, too. Greece owes almost half a trillion euros, and containing the damage would likely require the recapitalization of banks, continent-wide deposit insurance (to prevent bank runs), and more aid to Portugal, Spain, and Italy, which seem to be the next countries in line to default. That’s a very high price to pay for getting rid of Greece, and much more expensive than letting it stay.

Rationally, then, this standoff should end with a compromise—relaxing some austerity measures, and giving Greece a little more aid and time to reform. And we may still end up there. But the catch is that Europe isn’t arguing just about what the most sensible economic policy is. It’s arguing about what is fair. German voters and politicians think it’s unfair to ask Germany to continue to foot the bill for countries that lived beyond their means and piled up huge debts they can’t repay. They think it’s unfair to expect Germany to make an open-ended commitment to support these countries in the absence of meaningful reform. But Greek voters are equally certain that it’s unfair for them to suffer years of slim government budgets and high unemployment in order to repay foreign banks and richer northern neighbors, which have reaped outsized benefits from closer European integration. The grievances aren’t unreasonable, on either side, but the focus on fairness, by making it harder to reach any kind of agreement at all, could prove disastrous.

The basic problem is that we care so much about fairness that we are often willing to sacrifice economic well-being to enforce it. Behavioral economists have shown that a sizable percentage of people are willing to pay real money to punish people who are taking from a common pot but not contributing to it. Just to insure that shirkers get what they deserve, we are prepared to make ourselves poorer. Similarly, a famous experiment known as the ultimatum game—one person offers another a cut of a sum of money and the second person decides whether or not to accept—shows that people will walk away from free money if they feel that an offer is unfair. Thus, even when there’s a solution that would leave everyone better off, a fixation on fairness can make agreement impossible.

You can see this in the way the U.S. has dealt with the foreclosure crisis. . . . * * *

The fairness problem is exacerbated by the fact that our definition of what counts as fair typically reflects what the economists Linda Babcock and George Loewenstein call a “self-serving bias” * * * [which] leads us to define fairness in ways that redound to our benefit, and to discount information that might conflict with our perspective. This effect is even more pronounced when bargainers don’t feel that they are part of the same community—a phenomenon that psychologists call “social distance.”  * * *

Read the entire article, including a discussion of the U.S. mortgage crisis here.

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Frans De Waal on Morality

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Rebecca Onie on the Situation of Health (and Health Care)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 22, 2012

From

Rebecca Onie asks audacious questions: What if waiting rooms were a place to improve daily health care? What if doctors could prescribe food, housing and heat in the winter? At TEDMED she describes Health Leads, an organization that does just that — and does it by building a volunteer base as elite and dedicated as a college sports team.

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The Situation of Inequality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 9, 2012

From  :

Talk by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett co-authors of “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger” recorded January 8, 2010 at Hogness Auditorium, University of Washington, Seattle.

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Malcolm Gladwell on the Situation of Equality Discourse

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 5, 2012

Malcolm Gladwell discusses America’s dramatically changing notions of wealth and income inequality since the mid-20th century. Gladwell notes that top-earning Americans faced a 91% income tax rate during most of the 1950s.

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The Power of Stereotypes and Need for “Affirmative Meritocracy”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 3, 2012

From Stanford University News:

When it comes to affirmative action, the argument usually focuses on diversity. Promoting diversity, the Supreme Court ruled in 2003, can justify taking race into account.

But some people say this leads to the admission of less qualified candidates over better ones and creates a devil’s choice between diversity and merit.

Not so, says Stanford psychologist Greg Walton. Diversity and meritocracy are not always at odds.

In fact, sometimes it is only by taking race and gender into account that schools and employers can admit and hire the best candidates, Walton argues in a paper slated for publication in the journal Social Issues and Policy Review with co-authors Steven J. Spencer of the University of Waterloo and Sam Erman of Harvard University.

Walton, an assistant professor of psychology, and Spencer plan to present their findings to the Supreme Court in an amicus brief in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case the justices are scheduled to hear next fall and that many court watchers believe threatens to upend affirmative action. (Supreme Court rules bar Erman, who was a recent Supreme Court clerk, from participating in the brief.)

“People have argued that affirmative action is consistent or is not consistent with meritocracy,” Walton said. “Our argument is not that it’s consistent or inconsistent. Our argument is that you need affirmative action to make meritocratic decisions – to get the best candidates.”

The researchers say that people often assume that measures of merit like grades and test scores are unbiased – that they reflect the same level of ability and potential for all students.

Under this assumption, when an ethnic-minority student and a non-minority student have the same high school grades, they probably have the same level of ability and are likely to do equally well in college. When a woman and a man have the same score on a math test, it’s assumed they have the same level of math ability.

The problem is that common school and testing environments create a different psychological experience for different students. This systematically disadvantages negatively stereotyped ethnic minority students like African Americans and Hispanic Americans, as well as girls and women in math and science.

“When people perform in standard school settings, they are often aware of negative stereotypes about their group,” Walton says. “Those stereotypes act like a psychological headwind – they cause people to perform worse. If you base your evaluation of candidates just on performance in settings that are biased, you end up discriminating.”

The conclusion comes out of research on what is called stereotype threat – the worry people have when they risk confirming a negative stereotype about their group. That worry prevents people from performing as well as they can, hundreds of studies have found.

As a consequence, Walton says, “Grades and test scores assessed in standard school settings underestimate the intellectual ability of students from negatively stereotyped groups and their potential to perform well in future settings.”

Walton gives an example of how stereotype threat relates to preferences in admissions or hiring.

A woman and a man each apply to an elite engineering program, he says. The man has slightly better SAT math scores than the woman. He gets accepted to the program, but she does not.

“If stereotype threat on the SAT undermined the woman’s performance and as a consequence caused her SAT score to underestimate her potential, then by not taking that bias into account, you have effectively discriminated against the woman,” Walton says.

Walton and his colleagues argue that schools need to take affirmative steps to level the playing field and to make meritocratic decisions. If the SAT underestimates women’s math ability or the ability of African American students, taking this into account will help schools both admit better candidates and more diverse ones.

While courts have ruled that diversity justifies taking race into account in admissions decisions, justices have not considered meritocracy as a reason for sorting by race.

“Our argument is that it is only by considering race that you can make meritocratic decisions,” Walton says. “It’s a separate argument from the diversity argument.”

Walton’s research provides the justices with another reason for upholding affirmative action.

But confronting legal questions is only part of the issue.

Walton says remedies need to be found in policy, as well. Environments need to be created that are fair and allow people to do well.

“The first step is for organizations to fix their own houses,” he says.

Testing officials should look at how they administer tests and ask what they can do to mitigate the psychological threats that are present in their settings that cause people to do poorly, Walton says.

Schools and employers, he continues, should look into their own internal environments and ask how they can make those environments safe and secure so everyone can do well and stereotypes are off the table.

But if stereotype threat was present in a prior environment, hiring and admissions decisions need to take that into account.

“In taking affirmative steps,” Walton, Spencer and Erman write, “organizations can promote meritocracy and diversity at once.”

The Citation: Walton, G. M., Spencer, S. J., & Erman, S. (in press). Affirmative meritocracy (pdf). Social Issues and Policy Review.

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For a collection of previous Situationist posts discussing how situation influences standardized test scores, click here.

Image from Flickr.

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Distribution, Education, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Laura Kubzansky on Stress and Reslience

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 22, 2012

At the Fifth Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference,“The Psychology of Inequality” (Harvard, 2011) , Laura Kubzansky made a fascinating presentation, titled “Stress and Reslience: Pathways to Social Disparities in Health.”  The video of her presentation is above.  Here is a short description:

This presentation discusses stress and resilience as important mechanisms by which social disparities influence health. It considers how being stressed or resilient is shaped by social environment, and whether these processes influence health.

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Posted in Distribution, Social Psychology, Video | 3 Comments »

Ichiro Kawachi on Income Inequality and Population Health

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 20, 2012

At the Fifth Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference,“The Psychology of Inequality” (Harvard, 2011) , Laura Kubzansky made a fascinating presentation, titled “Stress and Reslience: Pathways to Social Disparities in Health.”  The video of her presentation is above.  Here is a short description:

This presentation discusses stress and resilience as important mechanisms by which social disparities influence health. It considers how being stressed or resilient is shaped by social environment, and whether these processes influence health.

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Posted in Distribution, Video | 2 Comments »

The Situation of “Who We Help”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 19, 2012

Michaela Huber, Leaf  Van Boven, Peter McGraw, and Laura Johnson-Graham recently posted their intriguing article “Whom to Help? Immediacy Bias in Judgments and Decisions About Humanitarian Aid” (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 115, pp. 283-293, 2011) on SSRN.

People exhibit an immediacy bias when making judgments and decisions about humanitarian aid, perceiving as more deserving and donating disproportionately to humanitarian crises that happen to arouse immediate emotion. The immediacy bias produced different serial position effects, contingent on decision timing (Experiment 1). When making allocation decisions directly after viewing to four emotionally evocative films about four different humanitarian crises, participants donated disproportionately more to the final, immediate crisis, in contrast, when making donation decisions sequentially, after viewing each of the four crises, participants donated disproportionately to the immediate crisis. The immediacy bias was associated with “scope neglect.” causing people to take action against relatively less deadly crises (Experiments 2 and 3). The immediacy bias emerged even when participants were warned about emotional manipulation (Experiment 3). The immediacy bias diminished over time, as immediate emotions presumably subsided (Experiment 2). Implications for charitable giving, serial position effects, and the influence of emotion on choice are discussed.

Download the article for free here.

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The Situation of Gender in the Workplace

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 18, 2012

From Harvard Business Review (part of an op-ed written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen):

The new millennium has not brought much progress for women seeking top leadership roles in the workplace. Although female graduates continue to pour out of colleges and professional schools, the percentages of women running large companies, or serving as managing partners of their law firms, or sitting on corporate boards have barely budged in the past decade.

Why has progress stalled? A recent study suggests the unlikeliest of reasons: the marriage structure of men in the workplace.

A group of researchers from several universities recently published a report on the attitudes and beliefs of employed men, which shows that those with wives who did not work outside the home or who worked part-time were more likely than those with wives who worked to: (1) have an unfavorable view about women in the workplace; (2)think workplaces run less smoothly with more women; (3) view workplaces with female leaders as less desirable; and (4) conside female candidates for promotion to be less qualified than comparable male colleagues.

The researchers also found that the men who exhibited resistance to women’s advancement were “more likely to populate the upper echelons of organizations and thus, occupy more powerful positions.”

Their conclusion? “Marriage structures play an important role in economic life beyond the four walls of the house.” They affect how people view gender roles and how they categorize others. And, as Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji has documented in her work, using the Implicit Association Test, this can happen even unconsciously.

So even if a male boss explicitly states — and believes — he supports women in leadership, he might still exhibit contradictory behavior or remain oblivious to the obstacles that female colleagues face. Indeed, according to this HBR Research Report from the Center for Work-Life Policy, only 28% of men, compared with 49% of women, see gender bias as still prevalent in the workplace.

I saw this in my own research for Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law. Many of the women partners I interviewed described a lack of support and sponsorship from key men in their firms. Several talked to male colleagues who admitted that the success of married women as equity partners invalidated the choices they and their wives had made about how to divide the responsibilities of work and family.

These biases are understandable. It’s natural to seek validation for the choices, and particularly the sacrifices, you have made. But when this expresses itself in attitudes and actions that make it difficult for talented individuals whose choices have been different to advance, it is critical for workplace leaders to intervene.

More.

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The Situation of Political Ideology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 5, 2012

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The Religious Situation of Compassion and Generosity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 3, 2012

From UC Berkeley:

“Love thy neighbor” is preached from many a pulpit. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that the highly religious are less motivated by compassion when helping a stranger than are atheists, agnostics and less religious people.

In three experiments, social scientists found that compassion consistently drove less religious people to be more generous. For highly religious people, however, compassion was largely unrelated to how generous they were, according to the findings which are published in the most recent online issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The results challenge a widespread assumption that acts of generosity and charity are largely driven by feelings of empathy and compassion, researchers said. In the study, the link between compassion and generosity was found to be stronger for those who identified as being non-religious or less religious.

“Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study. “The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”

Compassion is defined in the study as an emotion felt when people see the suffering of others which then motivates them to help, often at a personal risk or cost.

While the study examined the link between religion, compassion and generosity, it did not directly examine the reasons for why highly religious people are less compelled by compassion to help others. However, researchers hypothesize that deeply religious people may be more strongly guided by a sense of moral obligation than their more non-religious counterparts.

“We hypothesized that religion would change how compassion impacts generous behavior,” said study lead author Laura Saslow, who conducted the research as a doctoral student at UC Berkeley.

Saslow, who is now a postdoctoral scholar at UC San Francisco, said she was inspired to examine this question after an altruistic, nonreligious friend lamented that he had only donated to earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti after watching an emotionally stirring video of a woman being saved from the rubble, not because of a logical understanding that help was needed.

“I was interested to find that this experience – an atheist being strongly influenced by his emotions to show generosity to strangers – was replicated in three large, systematic studies,” Saslow said.

In the first experiment, researchers analyzed data from a 2004 national survey of more than 1,300 American adults. Those who agreed with such statements as “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them” were also more inclined to show generosity in random acts of kindness, such as loaning out belongings and offering a seat on a crowded bus or train, researchers found.

When they looked into how much compassion motivated participants to be charitable in such ways as giving money or food to a homeless person, non-believers and those who rated low in religiosity came out ahead: “These findings indicate that although compassion is associated with pro-sociality among both less religious and more religious individuals, this relationship is particularly robust for less religious individuals,” the study found.

In the second experiment, 101 American adults watched one of two brief videos, a neutral video or a heartrending one, which showed portraits of children afflicted by poverty. Next, they were each given 10 “lab dollars” and directed to give any amount of that money to a stranger. The least religious participants appeared to be motivated by the emotionally charged video to give more of their money to a stranger.

“The compassion-inducing video had a big effect on their generosity,” Willer said. “But it did not significantly change the generosity of more religious participants.”

In the final experiment, more than 200 college students were asked to report how compassionate they felt at that moment. They then played “economic trust games” in which they were given money to share – or not – with a stranger. In one round, they were told that another person playing the game had given a portion of their money to them, and that they were free to reward them by giving back some of the money, which had since doubled in amount.

Those who scored low on the religiosity scale, and high on momentary compassion, were more inclined to share their winnings with strangers than other participants in the study.

“Overall, this research suggests that although less religious people tend to be less trusted in the U.S., when feeling compassionate, they may actually be more inclined to help their fellow citizens than more religious people,” Willer said.

More.

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The Economic Situation of the Middle Class

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 2, 2012

From Harvard Gazzette:

The American middle class has been battered by the loss of well-paying jobs for the 70 percent of the workforce without a college degree and failed by would-be protectors in government and private institutions, said panelists at the 35th Anniversary Forum of the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement on Friday.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, whose forthcoming book “A Nation of Wusses” criticizes politicians of both parties for failing to act in the country’s best interest, pointed to elected officials and corporate leaders who can’t see beyond the next election or quarterly earnings report.

“Nobody is looking at what happens 15 or 20 years down the road,” he said.  And regardless of political persuasion everyone has a stake in the future: “We can’t have a good economy if middle class income continues to go down.”

Frank Levy, an MIT urban studies and economics professor, outlined how the middle class has suffered declines since the 1970s as a result of trends ranging from globalization to rising tuition costs.

“Roughly speaking, the society, including the government and individuals, has made a lot of promises about payments to make in future that we can no longer make,” he said.

The middle class has been hurt by the failure of policymakers to plan and account for a sharp rise in health care costs and the widespread job losses tied to the housing collapse.

The question, Levy said, is: “How are we going to distribute the losses? How much will be absorbed by lower incomes and how much will be absorbed in the present versus the future?”

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera assigned another aspect of diminished incomes to the zeal corporate leaders since the 1980s have had for downsizing to boost profits, and the shift from pensions to mutual funds for retirees.  Nocera disavowed the conclusion of his 1995 book, “A Piece of the Action,” which painted a rosy picture of transition from a “country full of people who had money in the bank to a country of people who invested in the stock market.”

But as wages flattened with the decline of U.S. manufacturing, he said,  “This shift has turned out to be terrible for the people who have to save for their own retirement.”

It transferred risk from the institution to the individual, putting more pressure on the middle class, said Nocera, whose latest book, “All the Devils Are Here,” is about the hidden history of the financial crisis.

The best way to help middle-income residents in the United States would be to address the housing crisis, Nocera said. “We have no housing policy. Most people’s equity is tied up in their house and the country has not decided what to do with Fannie and Freddie.”

“Is it all the Republicans’ fault?” asked moderator Paul Solman, PBS business and economics correspondent and Harvard M.B.A. ’79, in introducing Rendell, a leading Democrat.

“Yes,” Rendell said, to widespread laughter at the nearly full First Parish church in Cambridge.

Rendell said the best thing that could happen to corporate America would be to get rid of quarterly earnings reports that put shareholders’ returns ahead of visionary and wise business management.

There was agreement among the panelists that U.S. corporations should pay more taxes.

Levy noted that the United States is in the bottom third of corporate taxes paid in the world.

Nocera said that tax reform would free up a lot of corporate money for better purposes.

“You would generate more revenue and make the corporations more efficient because GE wouldn’t have a 1,000-person tax office to find loopholes,” Nocera said. “But the reason it will never happen is this is how Congress lives and dies. They generate their own revenues by saving those loopholes or creating new ones.”

The panelists agreed that skyrocketing tuition is hitting the middle class hardest.

“If you’re poor, you can get grants and the rich pay full price,” said Nocera, using the example of the California public college system that now charges in-state students $30,000. “If you’re middle class you can’t afford it.

“The state of California has taken this jewel and said we’re not going to cut back on our prison system but we’re going to cut back on our university system and balancing its budget on the backs of the middle class.”

Nocera concluded, however, “The middle class is under siege but it’s not quite as hopeless as people like me portray it.”

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Resisting Materialism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 15, 2012

From the Center for a New American Dream () at http://www.newdream.org:

Psychologist Tim Kasser discusses how America’s culture of consumerism undermines our well-being. When people buy into the ever-present marketing messages that “the good life” is “the goods life,” they not only use up Earth’s limited resources, but they are less happy and less inclined toward helping others. The animation both lays out the problems of excess materialism and points toward solutions that promise a healthier, more just, and more sustainable life.

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Frans De Waal on Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 12, 2012

Empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity — caring about the well-being of others seems like a very human trait. But Frans de Waal shares some surprising videos of behavioral tests, on primates and other mammals, that show how many of these moral traits all of us share.

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The Situational Effects of Wealth and Status

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 6, 2012

From University of California Berkeley:

The upper class has a higher propensity for unethical behavior, being more likely to believe – as did Gordon Gekko in the movie “Wall Street” – that “greed is good,” according to a new study from the University of California, Berkeley.

In seven separate studies conducted on the UC Berkeley campus, in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationwide, UC Berkeley researchers consistently found that upper-class participants were more likely to lie and cheat when gambling or negotiating; cut people off when driving, and endorse unethical behavior in the workplace.

“The increased unethical tendencies of upper-class individuals are driven, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed,” said Paul Piff, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper published today (Monday, Feb. 27) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Piff’s study is the latest in a series of UC Berkeley scholarly investigations into the relationship between socio-economic class and prosocial and antisocial emotions and behaviors, revealing new information about class differences during a time of rising economic tension.

“As these issues come to the fore, our research – and that by others – helps shed light on the role of inequality in shaping patterns of ethical conduct and selfish behavior, and points to certain ways in which these patterns might also be changed,” Piff said.

To investigate how class relates to ethical conduct, the researchers surveyed the ethical tendencies of more than 1,000 individuals of lower-, middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Volunteers reported their social class using the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Socioeconomic Status and filled out surveys revealing their attitudes about unprincipled behaviors and greed. They also took part in tasks designed to measure their actual unethical behavior.

In two field studies on driving behavior, upper-class motorists were found to be four times more likely than the other drivers to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection and three times more likely to cut off a pedestrian waiting to enter a crosswalk. Another study found that upper-class participants presented with scenarios of unscrupulous behavior were more likely than the individuals in the other socio-economic classes to report replicating this type of behavior themselves.

Participants in the fourth study were assigned tasks in a laboratory where a jar of candy, reserved for visiting children, was on hand, and were invited to take a candy or two. Upper-class participants helped themselves to twice as much candy as did their counterparts in other classes.

In the fifth study, participants each were assigned the role of an employer negotiating a salary with a job candidate seeking long-term employment. Among other things, they were told that the job would soon be eliminated, and that they were free to convey that information to the candidate. Upper-class participants were more likely to deceive job candidates by withholding this information, the study found.

In the sixth study, participants played a computerized dice game, with each player getting five rolls of the dice and then reporting his or her scores. The player with the highest score would receive a cash prize. The players did not know that the game was rigged so that each player would receive no more than 12 points for the five rolls. Upper-class participants were more likely to report higher scores than would be possible, indicating a higher rate of cheating, according to the study.

The last study found attitudes about greed to be the most significant predictor of unethical behavior. Participants were primed to think about the advantages of greed and then presented with bad behavior-in-the-workplace scenarios, such as stealing cash, accepting bribes and overcharging customers. It turned out that even those participants not in the upper class were just as likely to report a willingness to engage in unethical behavior as the upper-class cohort once they had been primed to see the benefits of greed, researchers said.

“These findings have very clear implications for how increased wealth and status in society shapes patterns of ethical behavior, and suggest that the different social values among the haves and the have-nots help drive these tendencies,” Piff said of the cumulative findings.

Paper: “High social class predicts increased unethical behavior,” by Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner, PNAS (2012). (link)

NPR Marketplace Story on Paper.

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Posted in Abstracts, Altruism, Distribution, Embodied Cognition, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Babies + Fairness = ?

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 21, 2012

Here at The Situationist, we love babies (see here) and we love fairness (see here), and when you put the two together it’s like an apple pie baked inside a cake (see here) . . . or, well, this new article by Stephanie Sloane, Renée Baillargeon, and David Premack:

Two experiments examined infants’ expectations about how an experimenter should distribute resources and rewards to other individuals. In Experiment 1, 19-month-olds expected an experimenter to divide two items equally, as opposed to unequally, between two individuals. The infants held no particular expectation when the individuals were replaced with inanimate objects, or when the experimenter simply removed covers in front of the individuals to reveal the items (instead of distributing them). In Experiment 2, 21-month-olds expected an experimenter to give a reward to each of two individuals when both had worked to complete an assigned chore, but not when one of the individuals had done all the work while the other played. The infants held this expectation only when the experimenter could determine through visual inspection who had worked and who had not. Together, these results provide converging evidence that infants in the 2nd year of life already possess context-sensitive expectations relevant to fairness.

As Sloane explained to ScienceDaily, “We think children are born with a skeleton of general expectations about fairness, and these principles and concepts get shaped in different ways depending on the culture and the environment they’re brought up in. . . . [H]elping children behave more morally may not be as hard as it would be if they didn’t have that skeleton of expectations.”

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Posted in Abstracts, Altruism, Distribution, Morality | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Social Justice

Posted by John Jost on February 17, 2012

This book review appeared earlier this week in the American Scientist:

THE FAIR SOCIETY: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice. Peter Corning. xiv + 237 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2011. $27.50.

After decades of exclusion from meaningful social and political discourse, themes of social justice are making a serious comeback. One can point to several recent examples from the disciplines of political science, economics and philosophy, including, respectively, Larry M. Bartels’s Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton University Press, 2008), Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice (Harvard University Press, 2009) and Derek Parfit’s massive two-volume tome On What Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011). These books have arrived to coincide with the apparent awakening of the sense of injustice in popular movements from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street.

Peter Corning, who was trained as a biologist and is now the director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, joins the conversation at just the right time. His most recent book, The Fair Society, was published in early 2011, and—like Joseph Stiglitz’s Vanity Fair article “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”—it has turned out to be remarkably prescient. Several chapters read like an annotated list of complaints made by the most well-informed campers in Zuccotti Park last fall. Corning notes, for example, that in the United States, “since the 1980s, some 94 percent of the total increase in personal income has gone to the top 1 percent of the population”; at least 25 million Americans (17.2 percent of the workforce) are presently struggling with unemployment or drastic underemployment; “close to 50 million Americans experienced ‘food deprivation’ (hunger) at various times in 2009”; and as many as 75 million Americans (25 percent of the population) live in poverty. Adding insult to injury, the top 10 percent of income earners in the United States live 4.5 years longer on average than the bottom 10 percent.

In a nutshell, Corning’s thesis is that human nature has evolved in such a way as to create a natural revulsion to states of affairs like these. In the opening chapters, he recounts various evolutionary arguments for the notion that our hunter-gatherer ancestors possessed a deep sense of fairness and developed “a pattern of egalitarian sharing” in which “dominance behaviors were actively resisted by coalitions of other group members.” He draws eclectically on studies of baboons, descriptive anthropological accounts of hunter-gatherer societies and, in a few cases, the fossil record. With this biological framework in place, Corning endeavors to show that the capitalist system as currently practiced in the United States and elsewhere is manifestly unfair. His beef is not solely with laissez-faire capitalism, however; he claims that socialism is just as unfair, although in different ways, and that efforts to develop a “third way” that avoids the excesses of capitalism and socialism have been “anemic” and “unable to confront the status quo” of class-based inequality. In place of these failed institutions, he proposes a new type of society founded on a biosocial contract, which he describes as a “truly voluntary bargain among various (empowered) stakeholders over how the benefits and obligations in a society are to be apportioned among the members” that is “grounded in our growing understanding of human nature and the basic purpose of a human society.” Such a contract, he writes, must be focused on fairness and the obligation to address the “shared survival and reproductive needs” of our species.

Corning draws most heavily on evolutionary biology, behavioral economics and anthropology, but experimental social psychology would also back him up—and quite a bit more directly. Indeed, some of his ideas seem to have been inspired by the work of Morton Deutsch, who suggested, in a well-known 1975 article in the Journal of Social Issues, that human beings are finely attuned to three major principles of justice: equity, equality and need. Corning offers a slightly modified list. He defines fairness in terms of equality (in the satisfaction of basic needs, not necessarily in outcomes), equity (or merit) and reciprocity. The core thesis of The Fair Society was also anticipated by Melvin Lerner, who argued in 1977 that a universal “justice motive” compels individuals to pursue fairness goals to rectify unfairness and—only if these routes are blocked—to engage in victim-blaming and other defensive strategies to maintain the desired belief that we live in a just world (even if we do not). Although Lerner was perhaps more sensitive than Corning to the perverse consequences of caring passionately about the appearance of justice (for instance, blaming victims of rape, poverty or illness for their misfortune so as not to give up cherished illusions about personal deservingness), the two writers share the assumption that justice concerns are an essential part of human nature.

Anyone who is capable of critical perspicacity with regard to capitalist economic systems and practices is obliged to agree with Corning’s observation that the massive upswing in economic inequality over the past 30 years is at odds with nearly every conception of justice since Plato and, in that sense, is difficult (if not impossible) to justify on normative philosophical grounds (although some conservative libertarians have tried). Let us also grant that humans are prepared to experience moral outrage in the face of unjustified inequality (or gross inequity). Even capuchin monkeys show “inequity aversion,” refusing to participate in games in which other monkeys are given greater rewards for equal effort, as Sarah F. Brosnan and Frans de Waal showed in a 2003 article in Nature. Corning connects such observations to the present socioeconomic situation, writing, “Defection is the likely response to an exploitative, asymmetrical interaction,” and “No wonder there were protests and even riots at WTO [World Trade Organization] meetings.”

There is only one problem, and it is one that has given social scientists fits: What took so long? Why have U.S. citizens, for instance, put up with starkly increasing inequality and the kind of economic policies that only a dyslexic Robin Hood could embrace? There is a joke, often attributed to economist Paul A. Samuelson, which goes, “Economists have correctly predicted nine of the last five recessions.” I would say that sociologists, political scientists and others who study protest movements suffer from a similar problem, to wit: “Social scientists have correctly predicted nine of the last five revolutions.” The great political theorist Ted Robert Gurr, for instance, wrote in 1970 that “Men are quick to aspire beyond their social means and quick to anger when those means prove inadequate, but slow to accept their limitations.” If this were true in a deep psychological sense, rebellion would be far more common than acquiescence, but this is simply not the case.

My own, admittedly incomplete answer to the social scientists’ conundrum has emphasized a human motivation that is frequently on a collision course with Lerner’s justice motive and Corning’s biosocial contract, namely, system-justification motivation: the (typically nonconscious) desire to defend, justify and rationalize existing systems, institutions and widespread practices, even if (from a more objective point of view) they violate standards of justice, including equity, equality and need. Corning grants that our sense of fairness can be “easily subverted,” quotes Dr. Pangloss’s rosy rationalizations in Voltaire’s satire Candide, and touches—but only lightly—on beliefs and ideologies that blunt the sense of injustice. To my mind, the problem of system justification in U.S. public opinion about economic inequality (especially among political conservatives) is addressed far more satisfactorily in chapter 5 of Bartels’s Unequal Democracy.

Despite this conspicuous omission, much of what Corning has written is both important and accurate. The Fair Society is wide ranging and covers many areas of scholarship in a useful, integrative, insightful manner. It is an edifying book—not least because it offers a tremendous collection of memorable quotations from justice scholars over the centuries—more than a groundbreaking one. One could reasonably wonder whether his proposed biosocial model, which draws heavily on aspects of stakeholder capitalism and closely resembles that of Swedish society, is really enough of an improvement over the socialist and capitalist systems he so effectively lambastes in earlier chapters of the book. Even if one accepts Corning’s goal, there are huge obstacles standing in the way of its implementation. He recognizes, quite correctly, that “conservatives with vested interests in the status quo will no doubt dismiss the idea of a Fair Society as just another utopian scheme,” but it is far from clear how proponents of social and economic justice will ever overcome conservative skepticism. “There must be a broad political consensus that social justice is a core social value,” he writes, but this is precisely the problem; such a consensus does not exist. “How do the roughly 70 percent of us who support the principle of fairness and social justice overcome the formidable power of the 30 percent who largely control our politics and our wealth and who will fiercely defend the existing system, and their self-interest?” he asks. How, indeed? The difficulty, in my view, is that no one, including Corning himself, offers a convincing answer to this question.

At this moment in history, when our problems are so much clearer than their solutions, it is a genuine contribution to offer clearheaded analysis and moral encouragement to take much-needed steps in the direction of social and economic justice. I admire Corning’s attempt to develop a normative theory of justice that is “built on an empirical foundation”—that is, knowledge gleaned from the social and behavioral sciences, including aggregate sociological data from research on social indicators. Along very similar lines, psychologist Aaron Kay and I have advocated “naturalizing” the study of social justice, thereby integrating descriptive and normative insights gleaned from psychology, social science, philosophy, law and other disciplines.

Given the thick walls that separate academic scholarship from popular concern and policy outcomes, it is probably too much to expect rapid implementation of the specific recommendations made in The Fair Society, such as these, which address taxation: “Eliminate property tax deductions for second (vacation) homes, tax capital gains at the same graduated rate as earned income, and eliminate the expanded home equity line of credit loan provisions.” Nevertheless, one hopes that those who wish to occupy places of power on behalf of the 99 percent will heed Corning’s sage advice about what to do and—just as important—what not to do in planning for a better, more just society.

More.

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Posted in Altruism, Book, Distribution, Evolutionary Psychology, Ideology, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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