The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Choice Myth’ Category

The Regulatory Situation of Smoking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 1, 2011

From The Independent:

More than half a century after scientists uncovered the link between smoking and cancer – triggering a war between health campaigners and the cigarette industry – big tobacco is thriving.

Despite the known catastrophic effects on health of smoking, profits from tobacco continue to soar and sales of cigarettes have increased: they have risen from 5,000 billion sticks a year in the 1990s to 5,900 billion a year in 2009. They now kill more people annually than alcohol, Aids, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined.

* * *

The West now consumes fewer and fewer of the world’s cigarettes: richer countries have changed – from smoking 38 per cent of the world total in 1990, they cut down to 24 per cent in 2009. Meanwhile, the developing world’s share in global cigarette sales has increased sharply, rising to 76 per cent in 2009.

An investigation by The Independent on Sunday reveals that tobacco firms have taken advantage of lax marketing rules in developing countries by aggressively promoting cigarettes to new, young consumers, while using lawyers, lobby groups and carefully selected statistics to bully governments that attempt to quash the industry in the West.

In 2010, the big four tobacco companies – Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco – made more than £27bn profit, up from £26bn in 2009.

The price of their profits will be measured in human lives. In the 20th century, some 100 million people were killed by tobacco use. If current trends continue, tobacco will kill a billion people in the 21st century.

* * *

Anna Gilmore, professor of public health at the University of Bath, said: “What most people don’t realise is that, although sales are falling in the West, industry profits are increasing. These companies remain some of the most profitable in the world. This is thanks in part to their endless inventive ways of undermining and circumventing regulation. They’re trying to reinvent their image to ingratiate themselves with governments, but behind the scenes it’s business as usual.”

* * *

In Indonesia alone there are 21 million child smokers. There is little to stop companies promoting cigarettes to young people. In countries such as Nigeria, Ukraine and Brazil, tobacco companies have sponsored club nights or parties aimed at attracting new young users. In Russia, attempts to entice women smokers have included packaging made to look like jewel-encrusted perfume bottles and even selling cigarettes branded by the fashion house Yves Saint Laurent.

Dr Armando Peruga, programme manager for the WHO’s tobacco free initiative, said: “We need to do more. We need to stop the tobacco industry promoting themselves as normal corporate citizens when they are killing people every day. We are lagging behind in establishing comprehensive bans on advertising, marketing, promotion and sponsorship.”

* * *

Laurent Huber, director of the Framework Convention Alliance on tobacco control, said: “In countries like Uruguay, the tobacco industry uses its vast wealth to tie up public health measures in court battles. Win or lose, this has a chilling effect on other governments.”

These tricks are by no means confined to the less-regulated emerging countries. In Australia, which will become the first country to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes by law, the industry has been accused of scaremongering against the measures by threatening to flood the market with cheap fags.

In Britain, the industry is also prone to taking any measures necessary to keep regulation at bay. This autumn a group of tobacco companies is taking the Government to court over its proposals to ban cigarette displays in all shops.

More often in the UK, though, Big Tobacco’s attempts to alter public opinion are more subtle. A study from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), out this week, scrutinises the credibility of economic arguments used by the industry to fight back against legislation. For example, when Christopher Ogden, chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, said in 2010 that the smoking ban had severely threatened the pub and bingo industry because of lost jobs and livelihoods, the reality was a little different. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows a net increase in the number of people visiting pubs since the smoking ban. When England went smoke-free in 2007, the number of premises licensed for alcohol increased by 5 per cent, and it has continued to grow every year since.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, said: “In line with our international treaty obligations, the UK government has not only banned advertising and put health warnings on packs, but also committed to protect public health policies from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry. To get round this, the industry uses front groups to covertly lobby politicians, arguing that smoke-free legislation has destroyed the pub trade, and that putting tobacco out of sight in shops will both be ineffective and put corner shops out of business.

More.

Related Situationist posts.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Education, Law, Politics | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

McDonald’s Favorite Man: Don Gorske

Posted by Adam Benforado on May 19, 2011

May 17th is an important day for Ronald.

You see, each year it marks the anniversary of when one Fond du Lac, Wisconsin man decided to start eating Big Macs.

Since 1972, that man, Don Gorske, has eaten 25,000 of McDonald’s famous burgers — typically two a day — becoming, as I and other Situationist contributors have chronicled (here in short form and here in long form), one of McDonald’s prize assets in its fight to avoid litigation and regulation related to the health consequences of consuming its products.  The reason?  In these 39 years, Gorske has been able to maintain relatively good health, low cholesterol, and, perhaps most importantly, a slim figure — clear proof that McDonald’s food can be eaten in copious quantities with no ill effects.

As McDonald’s explained in a press release for the special occasion: “Who could blame him for being such a fan of the Big Mac?  We’re honored that Don Gorske continues to be a longtime, loyal customer.  We look forward to serving him for many years to come.”

So what’s my “beef,” so to speak?

In part, it’s the same one that I’ve blogged about before (here and here): I think celebrating people like Gorske can seriously distort our conversation about the causes of obesity and undermine our ability to combat the epidemic.  When we constantly see or hear about skinny people eating excessively and not gaining weight, it is hard to get the message about the health costs of high calorie diets.  And these stories seem to be everywhere.

Here is Penelope Cruz, in the June issue of Vogue, talking about her post-Oscars routine:

When it was over, she headed over to In-N-Out Burger, still wrapped in her vintage white Balmain gown.  “You have to remove the tight dress to eat a Double Double monster cheeseburger with everything on it,” she says.   The post-Oscar In-N-Out burger has become a ritual.   It’s happened after each of her nominations–the hungry Spanish bombshell at the drive-through.

Here is extreme eating champion Kobayashi challenging a grizzly bear in a hotdog eating contest with the announcers explaining, “Look at how skinny Kobayashi is and look at the size of the bear. . . . He’s in great shape, you can tell he’s an athlete.”

Turn on the television or open a magazine and you’ll see countless other examples.

The other part of my problem with the Gorske celebration is that Gorske’s eating appears to be driven by a psychological disorder.  He has suggested that he suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Not only is he compelled to eat the same sandwich every single day (storing frozen sandwiches in his freezer for an emergency), but he has also kept most of the hamburger boxes and receipts from his purchases.  The 25,000 Big Macs is a manifestation of an often-debilitating mental illness, not the occasion for a corporate press release.

What do you think?

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Donald Trump

Posted by Adam Benforado on May 14, 2011

Michael Barbaro had an article in the New York Times earlier this week exploring several lawsuits against Donald Trump stemming from his educational ventures and real estate endeavors.  With respect to the latter,

[o]ver the last few years, according to interviews and hundreds of pages of court documents, the real estate mogul has aggressively marketed several luxury high-rises as “Trump properties” or “signature Trump” buildings, with names like Trump Tower and Trump International — even making appearances at the properties to woo buyers. The strong indication of his involvement as a developer generated waves of media attention and commanded premium prices.

* * *

But when three of the planned buildings encountered financial trouble, it became clear that Mr. Trump had essentially rented his name to the developments and had no responsibility for their outcomes, according to buyers. In each case, he yanked his name off the projects, which were never completed. The buyers lost millions of dollars in deposits even as Mr. Trump pocketed hefty license fees.

What particularly interested me about the story was how Trump’s lawyers framed the issue with the hopes of avoiding liability.

The first frame was to suggest that buyers who lost their life savings investing in properties were themselves to blame.  It was their flawed dispositions — their own personal failings — that led to their downfalls: “Alan Garten, a lawyer for Mr. Trump’s company, said that, regardless of what Mr. Trump himself or any marketing materials had suggested, his role was disclosed in lengthy purchasing documents that buyers should have carefully scrutinized.”  As Mr. Garten explained further, these were losers just trying to play the victim card: “They are people who lost money and are looking for somebody to blame.”

The second frame was a fall back position, necessary because the dispositional account of fair disclosure and lazy consumers is not supported by the facts:

The marketing materials left little doubt that Mr. Trump was a driving force behind the 52-story tower: “We are developing a signature landmark property,” Mr. Trump declared in a news release unveiling it, which described him as a partner. In a marketing video, Mr. Trump called it “my first project on the Gulf of Mexico,” and even showed up to mingle with potential buyers at a lavish, catered event. “I love to build buildings,” Mr. Robbins recalled Mr. Trump telling the audience.

* * *

A confidential agreement, later made public in court filings, told a different story: Mr. Trump was not one of the developers or builders. For $4 million, plus a share of any profits, he had licensed his name. As for the mingling with buyers? He was required to do it, up to two times, in the agreement, which spelled out that the appearances last “for no more than six (6) working hours each.”

According to the document, the very existence of the license agreement was to be kept confidential. And it remained that way, buyers said, long after they bought their units.

So what is the second frame?  It turns out to be a situationalizing one: okay, fine so perhaps the victims aren’t themselves to blame, but don’t then point the finger at Mr. Trump.  After all this was essentially an unpreventable accident.  Thus, Mr. Garten “suggested that the housing market collapse, not Mr. Trump, was the cause of [the buyers’] troubles.”  As the Donald explained, in truth, this was really a blessing in disguise: “They were better off losing their deposits” because it allowed buyers to avoid the bursting of the housing bubble and the loss in home values.

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Choice Myth, Ideology, Public Relations | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Train Crossing Accidents

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 10, 2011

From the Boston Globe:

On average, 10 people die daily by being hit as they’re crossing the tracks. Track trespassing is the largest everyday cause of unnatural deaths in Mumbai.

For just over a year, however, an experiment at Wadala station, on the Central Line, has been hinting at unorthodox solutions to this problem.

* * *
In the six months before the experiment went live in December 2009, Wadala had recorded 23 track-crossing deaths, said M. C. Chauhan, a manager with the Central Railway’s Mumbai division. Between January and June 2010, that number had dropped to nine; in the next eight months, up until February 2011, only one death was registered. “We think the project is a huge success,” Chauhan said.

* * *

To walk around the Wadala experiment is to understand the surprising effectiveness of simple appeals to the human mind’s irrationality. Before the experiment began, the few exhortations to trespassers consisted of warning signs with lengthy text and stick-figure diagrams. These had proved tragically inadequate, so Final Mile designed three specific “interventions,” each intended to tackle a particular cognitive problem.

First, Final Mile painted alternate sets of railway ties in fluorescent yellow — five painted, five unpainted, and so on — to tackle what is known as the Leibowitz Hypothesis. As laid out in a 1985 issue of American Scientist by experimental psychologist Herschel W. Leibowitz, the hypothesis found that we frequently underestimate the speed at which large objects move. Leibowitz, who died earlier this year, first observed this with aircraft, and in 2003, a pair of scientists proved the hypothesis for trains. “The misperception happens because the brain has no frame of reference, no way to evaluate roughly how fast a train is moving,” said Satish Krishnamurthy, a Final Mile behavior architect. But with the new paint job, Krishnamurthy said, “the mind now has a way to gauge the train’s speed, by observing how fast it traverses these ties.”

Second, the consultants replaced the stick-figure signboards with a graphic three-part tableau, featuring in extreme close-up the horror-struck face of a man being plowed down by a locomotive. “We hired an actor,” Krishnamurthy said, smiling, “because it had to be realistic.” They were drawing on the research of Joseph LeDoux, a New York University professor of neuroscience and psychology. LeDoux studies the links between emotion and memory, and in particular the mechanism of fear. “Emotional memory is stored in the nonconscious part of your brain,” Dominic said. “If you’ve been in a car crash and, months later, you hear tires squealing, your heart rate goes up and you start to sweat. That’s because your emotional memory has been stirred up.” The new signs dispense with explanatory text and instead attempt to trigger an emotional memory of fear.

Final Mile’s third intervention required train drivers to switch from one long warning whistle to two short, sharp blasts. By way of explanation, Dominic cited a 2007 paper from the Stanford University School of Medicine, which found that brain activity — and hence alertness — peaks during short silences between two musical notes. “The silence sets up a kind of expectation in the brain,” said Vinod Menon, the paper’s senior author and a behavioral scientist working with the Stanford Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Lab. “That’s the way it works in music, and it isn’t inconceivable that it would work similarly with train whistles.”

These simple, inexpensive interventions have worked so well that they’re now being extended across the length of the Central Line. But the larger implications of the experiment stretch beyond Mumbai, and beyond track-crossing deaths as well.

* * *

More.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions | Leave a Comment »

The Illusion of Health

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 15, 2011

From Time:

If a box of chocolate cookies had an “organic” label, would you feel less guilty about eating them? Would you think they were more nutritious, or tastier?

Economists who study social psychology refer to something called the “halo effect,” a bias in judgment that causes you to assume that one positive attribute comes packaged with a bunch of others. For example, you might perceive your attractive coworker as being more capable as well.

According to a new study by Jenny Wan-chen Lee, a graduate student at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, the halo effect extends to food too: if people are told a food is “organic,” they’re also biased to believe it’s more nutritious and better tasting.

Lee’s study involved 144 people, recruited at a local mall for a taste test: Lee presented shoppers with chocolate sandwich cookies, plain yogurt and potato chips, each in two varieties — “conventional” or “organic.” In reality, there was no difference between the food pairs; everything was organic.

Participants used a nine-point scale to rate various attributes of each food, including overall taste and estimated fat, fiber and calorie content. Tasters also estimated the price of each food.

Uniformly, the participants reported preferring the taste of the foods labeled “organic,” and believed them to be lower in fat, higher in fiber and lower in calories than the conventional alternatives. They also judged the organic foods to be higher in price.

Even in the cases of the cookies and chips — which wouldn’t be considered healthy under any circumstance — most participants believed that the organic versions were more nutritious.

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Illusions, Marketing | 1 Comment »

Gut Reactions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 14, 2011

From the Guardian:

The adage that justice depends on what the judge ate for breakfast may not be far from the truth, according to a study of more than a thousand court decisions.

The research, which examined judicial rulings by Israeli judges who presided over parole hearings in criminal cases, found that judges gave more lenient decisions at the start of the day and immediately after a scheduled break in court proceedings such as lunch. Jonathan Levav, associate professor of business at Columbia University, who co-authored the paper, said: “You are anywhere between two and six times as likely to be released if you’re one of the first three prisoners considered versus the last three prisoners considered.”

The authors of the peer-reviewed paper looked at more than 1,000 rulings made in 2009 by eight judges. They found that the likelihood of a favourable ruling peaked at the beginning of the day, steadily declining over time from a probability of about 65% to nearly zero, before spiking back up to about 65% after a break for a meal or snack.

* * *
The exact reason for the shift from parole approval to a “default” outcome of denial is not clear, but the paper speculates that breaks may replenish mental resources by providing “rest, improving mood or by increasing glucose levels in the body”.

Levav said: “I don’t measure the judge’s mood. I don’t measure the judge’s glucose level. It’s just a very consistent empirical regularity.

“It’s a quite robust effect, and it really doesn’t matter how you cut the data you get to reproduce it,” he added.

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Choice Myth, Law | Leave a Comment »

Preference, Principle, & Casuistry

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 2, 2011

From our sister blog, Law & Mind, here is an excellent post by Harvard Law LL.M. candidate David Simon. Simon summarizes a fascinating chapter by Situationist Contributors Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto (forthcoming in “Ideology, Psychology, and Law” (Jon Hanson, ed., 2011).

* * *

[T]he attribution of principle or its absence is more than an evaluative stance; it is also a lay-psychological hypothesis concerning the causes of another’s behavior.

- Eric D. Knowles & Peter H. DittoPreference , Principle, & Casuistry

We often value people who act on their principles  more than those who act solely on their preferences. In other words, we value behavior that is justified by reasons rather than emotions. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone. It’s ostensibly why people don’t like politicians who “flip-flop,” whether they be “liberal” or “conservative.” So, when people make decisions based on emotion, rather than reason, we think they are “biased” or “irrational.” (Knowles and Ditto call this the principle-preference dichotomy.) What’s strange, though, is that we often view our political opponents as emotional decision-makers, while we view people of our own political leanings as principled decision-makers.

The question Knowles & Ditto want to answer is, why?

They offer two reasons. First, they  argue that this results from the “actor-observer bias”: the tendency to see one’s own actions as based on beliefs and others’ as based on desire. Imagine, for example, Political Candidate is running for office. Her platform is to “make government smaller by cutting taxes and entitlement programs.” When Margo decides to support Political Candidate, Margo thinks she does so because of her beliefs about small government. Jim, on the other hand, views Margo’s behavior as merely reflecting her desires. Jim might say that Margo supported Political Candidate merely because she will receive more money in tax breaks while Margo might claim she dislikes lots of government regulation. The reason for the discrepancy, according to the authors, is one’s access to mental states: Margo has access to her own mental states (sort of), and Jim does not. Margo’s view of her own behavior is therefore privileged; Jim’s is epistemologically impoverished. As a result, she views her own choice as one of principle while Jim views it as one of desire.

Further reinforcing this view is individuals’ desire to see themselves and members of their group positively. As the authors note:

[T]he preference-principle dichotomy is powerfully reinforced by individuals’ desire to hold a positive view of themselves, as well as of others who share their attitudes and group memberships.

To achieve this end, people become “naive realists,” perceiving themselves as  “reasoned and free from bias.” In other words, individuals view their own attitudes as “reasoned,” “objective,” and, therefore, principled. That provides them with a much more flattering picture of themselves than one in which they make decisions based (solely) on preferences. Forget the somewhat false dichotomy for a moment and just ask yourself: Do you see yourself as someone who makes reasoned, as opposed to emotional, judgments? Do you see those who disagree with you differently?

There’s still a problem, though. Individuals often seem to be seeking self-interested goals while offering principled reasons. This

should, at least in principle (no pun intended), destroy the “objectiveness” people purport to adhere to when making decisions. Put another way, one must at least appear to be objective to gain credibility (with themselves or others). Preserving this appearance happens in two ways. First, we approach judgments “without an explicit sense that we are trying to construct a justification for one conclusion over another.” Instead, our “preferences” are part of cognitive structures: satisfying them produces greater coherence than not satisfying them. So, many times our interpretation of information produces preference-satisfying conclusions.

Second, our cognitive structures can lead us to preference-satisfaction in another, sometimes unconscious way: “‘shifting the standards’ by which a preferred conclusion is defined.” Because we do this somewhat intuitively and seemingly without pretense, Knowles & Ditto call it implicit casuistry.  By this they mean there are “circumstances in which individuals unwittingly select principles that happen to provide intellectual justification for preferred conclusions.” We are not good at being conscious reaonsers, always assessing problems objectively. Our brains select principles that cohere with our preferences. The principles–by way of implicit casuistry–serve in some ways to mask our preference-seeking behavior.

The reason implicit casuistry seems to work so well is because all ideologies seems equally susceptible to it. Indeed, small changes in factual situations can influence the way people use different standards. The authors give examples where subjects use either deontological (or rights-based) standards and consequentialist standards to justify certain behavior or conclusions. They show that people, regardless of their political preferences, will employ these reasoning strategies depending on the outcome that best accords with their political preferences.

Moving into the legal realm, Knowles & Ditto note that people’s views of judicial decisions often correlate with the extent to which the decision satisfies their preferences. They also note that judges may manipulate canons of constitutional interpretation to server various preferences. That, of course, is in line with a mature body of scholarship on judicial behavior. Scholars like Lee Epstein, Thomas Walker, Michael Giles, Ryan Owens, Ryan Black, et al. have shown that judges often seek policy preferences when deciding how to resolve a particular case.

Of course, casuistic reasoning occurs in other domains as well. Knowles & Ditto show how casuistic reasoning occurs in the context of race. Political preferences influence how people react to and justify their decisions when race becomes an issue. They note that frequently scholars disagree about why people hold particular racial attitudes. Some scholars claim disagreements of principle cause rifts; others claim that the disagreement results from claims to competing claims for finite goods (e.g., wealth, education). Knowles & Ditto argue it’s both:

The illusion of contraction may fade if one adopts a casuistic-reasoning model in which principles are frequently brought to bear dynamically in support of preferences.

In other words, people may use principles to justify their racial preferences. “Colorblindness,” for example, may serve as the principle that justifies an opposition to affirmative action.

In concluding, the authors note that casuistic judgments may have temporal effects. That is, using one principle may increase the probability of using that principle in the future. In lawyer speak, we might say people have a built-in stare decisis mechanism; it’s just not clear how strongly it operates in various situations or across time. Knowles & Ditto also are careful to explain that casuistic judgments are not per se illegitimate. (Here they venture into philosophy, essentially taking an hedged intuitionist stance.) Their claim is that attitudes are likely based on some form of intuition, and that intuition isn’t–in and of itself–a reason to reject a claim. For this reason, they argue that casuistic judgments may be legitimate.

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Legal Theory, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

If It’s Evitable, I Don’t Like It!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 24, 2011

Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay as well as Peter A. Ubel and Gavan Fitzsimons wrote the following editorial for the Detroit Free Press.:

This week it will be one year since President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law. Despite all the controversy that preceded the bill’s passage, most health policy experts confidently predicted that the public would soon embrace the legislation.

To back up these predictions, they pointed out that Medicare was quite controversial when it was established in the 1960s, but rapidly grew in popularity. Much the same happened more recently with Medicare Part D, the law championed by President George W. Bush to extend Medicare coverage to medications.

Recent polls belie these predictions, however, as support for health care reform has hit an all-time low. Why has the ACA failed to capture public support? Our research provides a novel explanation, one that pundits have failed to recognize to date.

Obama’s health reform bill is unpopular not simply because it is complicated, nor simply because it costs government money at a time when people are in a mood to balance the budget. Instead, it is unpopular in large part because it no longer feels inevitable.

And the key to gaining widespread support for Obama’s signature piece of domestic legislation is not to help the public better understand the intricacies of the bill, but instead to convince the public that the bill is here to stay.

Uncertainty can play a large role in reducing support for legislative actions. Consider a study we conducted, in which we asked people to imagine their local government had recently passed a bill to lower the speed limit, legislation spurred on by new evidence that such a law would save lives. The people we surveyed embraced the new rule, feeling thankful that legislators were paying attention to public safety.

However, in assessing public attitudes toward this bill, we conducted an experiment in which we told some of the people we surveyed that the legislature was about to pass the law but hadn’t yet voted on it – that is, it wasn’t officially a law yet. These people, in contrast to the first group, felt strongly that such legislation would be heavy-handed and paternalistic.

The same bill, when passed into law, was viewed more favorably than when it was merely pending legislation.

What about health care reform then? It has passed into law. Shouldn’t it be gaining in popularity?

Not if people don’t believe the bill is the law of the land. When the Republican-led House voted to repeal the bill, Washington insiders recognized the action as a symbolic gesture with no legislative consequence.

But many Americans thought this vote had actual legal implications. In fact, recent polls show that a fifth of the American public currently believe the ACA has been repealed, and another fifth is unsure if the bill still stands as law. This misperceived state of affairs provides no reason for these Americans to embrace a law they believe no longer stands.

Recent court rulings have created even greater uncertainty about the legal standing of the ACA. While most rulings have focused solely on the constitutionality of the health insurance mandate, one judge went as far as to opine that the entire law should be voided. This has left even more people wondering where the bill stands: as current law, pending law or past law?

Behavioral science has shown us that most people find uncertainty to be a very difficult pill to swallow, especially when it surrounds a proposed change to their lives. Half-hearted attempts at change often produce knee-jerk, negative reactions; people are not inclined to adapt to a change that may never occur or seems unlikely to stick. These are the types of situations most likely to breed backlash.

But when the uncertainty is removed, backlash reactions tend to dissipate and sometimes even reverse. When people know what cards they have been dealt – when they feel confident about what to expect in the future – people tend to begin the process of rationalizing the change and adapting to it.

The real battle over health care reform in the next few months will extend beyond the specifics of budget debates and regulatory wranglings. Instead the fate of health care reforms stands mainly on how soon, if ever, the public comes to feel that the legislation is enduring. If the permanence of the Affordable Care Act continues to feel unsettled, that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Law, Life, Politics, Situationist Contributors, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Paul Bloom on Disgust

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 19, 2011

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Choice Myth, Ideology, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Pause.

Posted by Adam Benforado on January 24, 2011

I find it very hard to do nothing.

I think I’ve always been this way to some extent,  but each year it seems to get a little worse.

Part of the story is simply about how our lives seem to get busier and busier as we age.

Another factor in the activity narrative is the constant flow of novel technologies that promise productivity and entertainment at any time and in any place in a dozen ways at once.

I love wireless Internet, my laptop, my iPhone, my dual computer screens at work, but they do take a toll.  I feel constantly compelled to use them.

Didn’t I use to be able to sit and watch a football game without writing a blog post?  Wasn’t I once able to walk to the bathroom at a restaurant without scanning through emails on my phone or wait at a subway stop without reading op-eds or phoning a friend or listening to music?

Enter Alex Tew’s new website “Do Nothing for 2 Minutes.”

As the Huffington Post reports,

The new site shows a photograph of the ocean at sunset and plays the sound of waves crashing on a beach.  “Just relax and listen to the waves,” it instructs.  “Don’t touch your mouse or keyboard.”  If you don’t follow the instructions and begin to fidget, type, scroll, or move your mouse, the two-minute timer resets itself and a red “FAIL” appears on the screen.

It’s depressing to think that I need the help of a website and a timer to take two minutes out of my day to contemplate, but perhaps I should just face up to the fact that I’m sick, sick man.  And maybe with a little practice, I can build in a few spontaneous pauses into my routine . . .

Try the new site out for yourself right here.

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Choice Myth, Life | 1 Comment »

Secondhand Smoking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 20, 2011

From EurekaAlert:

Seeing actors smoke in a movie activated the brain areas of smokers that are known to interpret and plan hand movements, as though they too were about to light a cigarette, according to a new study in the Jan. 19 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

Habitual smokers repeat the same hand motions, sometimes dozens of times a day. In this study, researchers led by senior investigator Todd Heatherton, PhD, and graduate student Dylan Wagner of Dartmouth College set out to determine whether the parts of the brain that control that routine gesture could be triggered by simply seeing someone else smoke.

The authors found that seeing this familiar action — even when embedded in a Hollywood movie — evoked the same brain responses as planning to actually make that movement. These results may provide additional insight for people trying to overcome nicotine addiction, a condition that leads to one in five U.S. deaths each year.

“Our findings support prior studies that show smokers who exit a movie that had images of smoking are more likely to crave a cigarette, compared with ones who watched a movie without them,” Wagner said. “More work is needed to show whether brain activity in response to movie smoking predicts relapse for a smoker trying to quit.”

During the study, 17 smokers and 17 non-smokers watched the first 30 minutes of the movie “Matchstick Men” while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The researchers chose the movie because it prominently features smoking scenes but otherwise lacks alcohol use, violence, and sexual content.

The volunteers were unaware that the study was about smoking. When they viewed smoking scenes, smokers showed greater brain activity in a part of the parietal lobe called the intraparietal sulcus, as well as other areas involved in the perception and coordination of actions. In the smokers’ brains specifically, the activity corresponded to the hand they use to smoke.

“Smokers trying to quit are frequently advised to avoid other smokers and remove smoking paraphernalia from their homes, but they might not think to avoid a movie with smoking content,” Wagner said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that exposure to onscreen smoking in movies makes adolescents more likely to smoke. According to their 2010 report, tobacco use in films has decreased in recent years, but about half of popular movies still contained tobacco imagery in 2009, including 54 percent of those rated PG-13.

Scott Huettel, PhD, of Duke University, an expert in the neuroscience of decision-making who was unaffiliated with the study, said scientists have long known that visual cues often induce drug cravings. “This finding builds upon the growing body of evidence that addiction may be reinforced not just by drugs themselves, but by images and other experiences associated with those drugs,” Huettel said.

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Entertainment, Food and Drug Law, Marketing, Neuroscience | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

A Horror Movie for Palinites?

Posted by Adam Benforado on January 19, 2011

Despite my love of cinema, I tend to always fall behind on catching the latest movies.

Case in point: during the past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to see The King’s Speech, which my own grandmother watched and wrote me about . . . last year.

As a sort of New Year’s resolution, I’m attempting to be a bit more up-to-date on this front, and, thus, I’m going to dedicate this blog post to a film that hasn’t even been released yet, but that should be of interest to Situationist readers.

What caught my attention about the preview for the film was that it seemed as if it could easily be modified into a Sarah Palin 2012 political advertisement.

In the opening frames, we watch Senate candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) as he first crosses paths with the ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt).  There is clearly an attraction, but, as the film website explains, “just as he realizes he’s falling for her, mysterious men conspire to keep the two apart.”

Who are these mysterious men?

“[T]he agents of Fate itself—the men of The Adjustment Bureau—who will do everything in their considerable power to prevent David and Elise from being together.”

As one Adjustment Bureau agent explains, “We are the people who make sure that things happen according to plan.  We monitor the entire world.”

David (er, Matt) is then faced with a momentous decision: “let her go and accept a predetermined path . . . or risk everything to defy Fate and be with her.”

In the trailer, David explains, “All I have are the choices I make, and I choose her,” as the following lines scroll across the screen:

If you believe in free will.

If you believe in chance.

If you believe in choice.

Fight for it.

So . . . yes, perhaps I’m off my rocker (watch the trailer below for yourself), but I think the narrative of the film could have been pieced together straight from Palin’s tweets: (1) Americans are rational actors who can make their own choices and should be allowed to pursue freely their own conceptions of the good; (2) the agents of big government are extremely dangerous and are intent on controlling our environments; (3) Obama’s regulatory state (including the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection) is a paternalistic nightmare; . . . and, of course, (4) we must let our values and guts tell us what is right, and not allow regulators with their misguided “science” and “reason” to direct us (in one of my favorite moments in the trailer, one of the agents of the Adjustment Bureau is heard saying, “Remember we tried to reason with you.”).

Okay, readers, consider yourselves provoked.  What do you think?

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Entertainment, Ideology, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Chris Chabris and the Invisible Gorilla

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 7, 2011

Tom Vanderbilt Reviews The Invisible Gorilla:

“Do you remember when you first saw–or more likely, didn’t see–the gorilla? For me it was one afternoon a number of years ago when I clicked open one of those noxious-but-irresistible forwarded emails (“You Won’t Believe Your Eyes!”). The task was simple–count the number of passes in a tight cluster of basketball players–but the ensuing result was astonishing: As I dutifully (and correctly) tracked the number of passes made, a guy in a gorilla suit had strolled into the center, beat his chest, and sauntered off. But I never saw the gorilla. And I was hardly alone.

The video, which went on to become a global viral sensation, brought “inattentional blindness”–a once comparatively obscure interest of cognitive psychologists–into striking relief. Here was a dramatic reminder that looking is not necessarily seeing, that “paying” attention to one thing might come at the cost of missing another altogether. No one was more taken with the experience than the authors of the original study, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, as they recount in their new–and, dare I say, eye-opening–book, The Invisible Gorilla. “The fact that people miss things is important,” they write, “but what impressed us even more was the surprise people showed when they realized what they had missed.”

The Invisible Gorilla uses that ersatz primate as a departure point (and overarching metaphor) for exploring the myriad of other illusions, perceptual or otherwise, that we encounter in everyday life–and our often complete lack of awareness as we do so. These “gorillas” are lurking everywhere–from the (often false) memories we think we have to the futures we think we can anticipate to the cause-and-effect chains we feel must exist. Writing with authority, clarity, and a healthy dose of skepticism, Simons and Chabris explore why these illusions persist–and, indeed, seem to multiply in the modern world–and how we might work to avoid them. Alas, there are no easy solutions–doing crosswords to stave off cognitive decline in one’s dotage may simply make you better at doing crosswords. But looking for those “gorillas in our midst” is as rewarding as actually finding them. “

* * *

The Invisible Gorilla website is here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts (including several containing of the illusions excerpted out of the, see

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Illusions, Video | 1 Comment »

The Unequal Situation of Seperation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 5, 2011

From Rice News (by Mike Williams):

However much people choose to live in a segregated society, the trend is a losing proposition for all.

That was the takeaway message delivered by Rice’s Michael Emerson in a presentation to the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals (HAHMP) last week. Members came to campus to hear him discuss select results from the Houston Area Survey, particularly as they relate to housing preferences among blacks, whites and Hispanics.

Emerson, the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology and co-director of the university’s new Institute for Urban Research (IUR), gave a brief summary of segregation in Houston based on the 2000 Census that showed distinct separation between black and white neighborhoods, with Hispanics somewhat more integrated but still dominating many neighborhoods of their own.

“People make their own decisions, their own incomes, and they’re all trying to get the best house and neighborhood they can get. How does it end up they live so segregated by race?” he asked.

Emerson said he hears two common answers. The first: “It’s not race; it’s class.”

“In fact, that’s not the answer,” he said. “There is a range of incomes within any racial group, and when we look at where people live by income level, (they’re) still segregated by race. Segregation by race is substantially greater than segregation by income.”

The second answer — “People like to live with people like themselves” — is somewhat more accurate, he said, but still not the answer. “What we have found is that in current times, many people want not to live with certain people — people they think will drive down their property values, raise crime and lower the quality of local education. They use race to decide these other factors.”

Emerson’s own neighborhood is a good example of what has befallen not only Houston but also major cities nationwide. “When I moved there, it was mixed with many racial groups, but now it’s 99 percent black and Hispanic,” said the professor, who is white. He noted that in 21st-century America, he’s “totally convinced we have to live in integrated neighborhoods, so my family and I choose to do so.”

Too few are so committed to diversity, according to the most recent Houston Area Survey.

A “factorial experiment” of African-Americans, Hispanics and whites, 1,000 each, revealed important results. Individuals were first asked if they’d buy a house that had everything they were looking for, was close to work and within their price range.

“Everybody hears that,” Emerson said. “Then there was a part that was computer-generated (with parameters that changed for each phone call): Checking on the neighborhood, you find the property values are increasing/decreasing, the crime rate is high/low, the schools are of high/low quality, and the neighborhood is X percent respondent’s own race and X-to-100 percent of another racial group.

“This is a lot to remember,” he said. “That’s exactly what we want, because we’re looking to see what people key on. For example, if I hear ‘crime rate is increasing,’ that’s what I’ll remember, and I probably won’t buy that home.”

Emerson said the results showed, as expected, sensitivity among all groups to high crime rates and low-quality schools. Blacks and whites were more sensitive to home valuation than Hispanics.

“Are there still racial-composition effects? If what people tell us is true, they should go away,” he said. Race is indeed less of an issue for Hispanics, at least in Harris County. But for whites, “you get a different story. They are highly sensitive to percent black and percent Hispanic.

“Even if you take a neighborhood that has low crime, high-quality schools and rising property values and you say it’s 30 percent black, in almost every single case, the white respondent will say, ‘Not likely to buy the home.'”

And the more educated whites are, the more likely they are to live in highly segregated neighborhoods, he said. “Again, this is not an income effect; it’s an education effect.

“What we find is that we can have diverse neighborhoods; we just can’t have whites in those diverse neighborhoods for very long because of their racial preferences.”

Similarly, he said, African-Americans in Harris County proved less interested in neighborhoods where the percent of Asian residents was on the rise.

Why does neighborhood segregation by race matter? The fourfold increase in the national gap between net worth of white and black families — demonstrated in an “incredibly detailed” study of 2,000 families followed over 24 years from 1984 to 2007 — is telling, Emerson said. The study, he said, “shows most middle-class Americans generate their wealth through their homes, and white neighborhoods, due to higher demand, rise in value more than in other neighborhoods. So it’s a big deal where people live. We must find ways to stop giving benefits along racial lines. As most Americans believe, benefits should go to people by merit, not race.”

Emerson said he and his IUR colleagues are anxious to see the results of the 2010 Census when they become available next year. He hopes to find Houston neighborhoods that have been integrated for 20 years or more. “We will attempt to understand why they are stably integrated and what the consequences are, positive and negative, for people who live there,” he said.

“People give all kinds of reasons why it’s OK to have segregation and to have inequality by class and race, never actually trying to face it,” he said. “That’s what we’ve really got to push on. Why is it OK? Who is it OK for? Who gets hurt by it?

“The fact is,” he said, “the society our children inherit will suffer and the society our grandchildren inherit will suffer even more if we don’t address racial segregation and the resulting increasing racial wealth gap.”

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Choice Myth, Distribution, Education, History, Ideology, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Norfolk Four and the Situation of False Confessions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 11, 2010

From Frontline:

Why would four innocent men confess to a brutal crime they didn’t commit? FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel (Innocence Lost, An Ordinary Crime) investigates the conviction of four Navy sailors for the rape and murder of a Norfolk, Va., woman in 1997. In interviews with the sailors, Bikel learns of some of the high-pressure police interrogation techniques — including the threat of the death penalty, sleep deprivation, and intimidation — that led each of the “Norfolk Four” to confess, despite a lack of evidence linking them to the crime. All four sailors are now out of prison — one served his sentence and the other three were granted conditional pardons last summer — but the men were not exonerated as felons or sex offenders. The case raises disturbing questions about the actions of the police and prosecutors, who relied on the sailors’ often contradictory confessions for their convictions, and disregarded DNA evidence that pointed to a lone assailant who would later confess to the crime himself while serving prison time for another rape.

* * *

To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of False Confessions,” The Situation of False Confessions,” The Painful Situation of Guilt,” A Situationist View of Criminal Prosecutors,”  The Justice Department, Milgram, & Torture,” “Why Torture? Because It Feels Good (at least to “Us”),” “The Situation of Solitary Confinement,” The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” and “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Winning the Food Fight

Posted by Adam Benforado on October 27, 2010

Back at the end of August, I wrote a post about the benefits of “nudging” people towards heath, in particular, by resetting food defaults.  I argued that we could combat obesity without unduly infringing on individual choice or autonomy by changing the food situation so that when a person ordered “a latte,” for example, she was given skim milk unless she specified that she wanted whole milk.

Thus, I was extremely excited to see Brian Wansink, David R. Just, and Joe McKendry’s great “Lunch Line Redesign” op-chart in the New York Times a few days ago.  For decades, experts have been working hard to design supermarkets and fast food restaurants to maximize sales; it sure is nice to see scientists taking a similar approach to maximize nutrition.  As they explain,

Experiments that we and other researchers have done in cafeterias at high schools, middle schools and summer camp programs, as well as in laboratories, have revealed many ways to use behavioral psychology to coax children to eat better. Here are a dozen such strategies that work without requiring drastic or expensive changes in school menus.

I highly encourage you to check out their interactive proposal here.

* * *

To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Situationism’s Improving Situation,” “Dr. David Kessler Waxes Situationist,” “The Situation of Eating – Part II,” The Situation of Eating,” “The Situation of the Dreaded ‘Freshman 15′,” “Our Situation Is What We Eat,” “Social Networks,” The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” and “The Situation of Repackaging.”

To access Adam Benforado’s article, entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America (co-written with Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon), on the situationist causes of the American obesity epidemic, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Education, Food and Drug Law, Situationist Contributors | 1 Comment »

The Situation of False Confessions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 15, 2010

Deborah Davis and Richard Leo recently posted their paper, “Three Prongs of the Confession Problem: Issues and Proposed Solutions” on SSRN.  (forthcoming in The Future of Evidence (Epstein, Jules, ed.) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

Many cases could not be successfully prosecuted without a confession, and, in the absence of a confession, many would be much more costly to investigate and to develop other evidence sufficient to convict. Responding to this pressure to reliably elicit confessions from their suspects, the police have developed sophisticated psychological techniques to accomplish two goals: to induce suspects to submit to questioning without an attorney, and to induce them to confess. Unfortunately, these methods are sufficiently powerful to induce false as well as true confessions and to render them involuntary. Further, because they are based upon often subtle, yet sophisticated weapons of influence, their coercive power sometimes goes unrecognized by those who must judge their voluntariness or validity. This yields a crucially important yet often unrecognized three-pronged problem with confession evidence – voluntariness, validity, and prejudicial impact. In this chapter, the authors first briefly review the nature of modern interrogation tactics, and then turn to consideration of the three-pronged confession problem, systemic barriers to recognizing and addressing the problem, and some proposed solutions.

* * *

You can download the paper for free here.  To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see”The Situation of False Confessions,” The Painful Situation of Guilt,” A Situationist View of Criminal Prosecutors,”  The Justice Department, Milgram, & Torture,” “Why Torture? Because It Feels Good (at least to “Us”),” “The Situation of Solitary Confinement,” The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” and “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors.”

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Law | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

You Spoke. We Ignored It.

Posted by Adam Benforado on October 9, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I questioned the practice of corporations (1) selling a narrative that the American public is made up of rational actors, exercising free choice, in an open market, while, at the same time, (2) working hard to “limit choice and confuse or reduce the knowledge of potential buyers.”

This morning, while cleaning up my office, I came across the following excerpt that I’d clipped from an article by Barry Berman, the Walter H. “Bud” Miller distinguished professor of business and director of the Executive M.B.A. program at Hofstra University’s Zarb School of Business:

If you ask customers whether they want more variety, I can tell you right now what they’re going to say: Yes.  After all, who doesn’t think they want a lot of choices?  And it’s common for consumers to be both sad and angry when a product they like is discontinued.

So don’t bother asking.  It’s better to depend on data, rather than what is often a mistaken emotional response.

Gather information from point-of-sale systems and loyalty programs, analyze product data such as sales per square foot, and conduct field experiments to determine what effect offering a wide selection of similar goods—say, 16 similar black-and-white laser printers—really has on total sales in certain product categories.

Use the findings to identify products that don’t sell well, products with high revenue but low profitability and/or high inventory carrying costs, and products plagued by production problems. Consider targeting them for elimination.

As various posts on the Situationist have chronicled, the evidence provided by psychologists and others who study “choice” suggests that Professor Berman is right.  And, if your goal is solely to increase the profitability of your company, you’d do well to heed his advice.

However, as a consumer, I think that the broader message in Professor Berman’s comments is troubling primarily because corporations go to such lengths to convince us that they are listening to the wants, desires, and ideas that we voice.  Indeed, it’s a major part of many corporate strategies.

Think about all of the advertisements and marketing campaigns that you come across in your day-to-day routine that emphasize the theme of customers speaking out and corporations listening and responding.  As Best Buy explains, “You Spoke.  We Listened.  Thanks to your ideas, we’re continuing to create future technology designed just for you.”  Moss Adams LLP, one of the largest accounting and consulting firms in the United States, offers the identical statement on its website: “You Spoke.  We Listened.”  Whole Foods serves up a subtle variation: “You Talked, We Listened.”  It turns out, “Whole Foods Market has been listening to its customers for over 30 years.”

Why do all of these companies sing the same song?  The answer, in part, is because it’s music to our ears.  We like to feel in control.  And encouraging this perception allows companies to engrain the idea that corporate entities merely respond to our preferences.  That is, they do not create preferences, or steer individuals toward harmful, but profitable, products—actions that would make the case for significant regulation or legal liability.  They are our passive pals—dutifully hanging on our every word.

Perhaps I’m out to sea, but if corporations aren’t in fact listening to what I say—if they know, as Professor Berman suggests, that I exhibit “mistaken emotional responses” and am a situational character, rather than a rational actor—I don’t want them telling me how valuable my feedback is and how clever, smart, and capable a consumer I am.

I’d prefer the cold, hard truth.

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Market Manipulation – Assuaging Cognitive Dissonance,” “Tamara Piety on Market Manipulation,” and Taking Behavioralism Seriously (Part I) – Abstract and Top Ten List.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I questioned the practice of corporations (1) selling a narrative that the American public is made up of rational actors, exercising free choice, in an open market, while, at the same time, (2) working hard to “limit choice and confuse or reduce the knowledge of potential buyers.”

This morning, while cleaning up my office, I came across the following excerpt that I’d clipped from an article by Barry Berman, the Walter H. “Bud” Miller distinguished professor of business and director of the Executive M.B.A. program at Hofstra University’s Zarb School of Business:

If you ask customers whether they want more variety, I can tell you right now what they’re going to say: Yes.  After all, who doesn’t think they want a lot of choices?  And it’s common for consumers to be both sad and angry when a product they like is discontinued.

So don’t bother asking.  It’s better to depend on data, rather than what is often a mistaken emotional response.

Gather information from point-of-sale systems and loyalty programs, analyze product data such as sales per square foot, and conduct field experiments to determine what effect offering a wide selection of similar goods—say, 16 similar black-and-white laser printers—really has on total sales in certain product categories.

Use the findings to identify products that don’t sell well, products with high revenue but low profitability and/or high inventory carrying costs, and products plagued by production problems. Consider targeting them for elimination.

As various posts on the Situationist have chronicled, the evidence provided by psychologists and others who study “choice” suggests that Professor Berman is right.  And, if your goal is solely to increase the profitability of your company, you’d do well to heed his advice.

However, as a consumer, I think that the broader message in Professor Berman’s comments is troubling primarily because corporations go to such lengths to convince us that they are listening to the wants, desires, and ideas that we voice.  Indeed, it’s a major part of many corporate strategies.

Think about all of the advertisements and marketing campaigns that you come across in your day-to-day routine that emphasize the theme of customers speaking out and corporations listening and responding.  As Best Buy explains, “You Spoke.  We Listened.  Thanks to your ideas, we’re continuing to create future technology designed just for you.”  Moss Adams LLP, one of the largest accounting and consulting firms in the United States, offers the identical statement on its website: “You Spoke.  We Listened.”  Whole Foods serves up a subtle variation: “You Talked, We Listened.”  It turns out, “Whole Foods Market has been listening to its customers for over 30 years.”

Why do all of these companies sing the same song? 

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I questioned the practice of corporations (1) selling a narrative that the American public is made up of rational actors, exercising free choice, in an open market, while, at the same time, (2) working hard to “limit choice and confuse or reduce the knowledge of potential buyers.”

This morning, while cleaning up my office, I came across the following excerpt that I’d clipped from an article by Barry Berman, the Walter H. “Bud” Miller distinguished professor of business and director of the Executive M.B.A. program at Hofstra University’s Zarb School of Business:

If you ask customers whether they want more variety, I can tell you right now what they’re going to say: Yes.  After all, who doesn’t think they want a lot of choices?  And it’s common for consumers to be both sad and angry when a product they like is discontinued.

So don’t bother asking.  It’s better to depend on data, rather than what is often a mistaken emotional response.

Gather information from point-of-sale systems and loyalty programs, analyze product data such as sales per square foot, and conduct field experiments to determine what effect offering a wide selection of similar goods—say, 16 similar black-and-white laser printers—really has on total sales in certain product categories.

Use the findings to identify products that don’t sell well, products with high revenue but low profitability and/or high inventory carrying costs, and products plagued by production problems. Consider targeting them for elimination.

As various posts on the Situationist have chronicled, the evidence provided by psychologists and others who study “choice” suggests that Professor Berman is right.  And, if your goal is solely to increase the profitability of your company, you’d do well to heed his advice.

However, as a consumer, I think that the broader message in Professor Berman’s comments is troubling primarily because corporations go to such lengths to convince us that they are listening to the wants, desires, and ideas that we voice.  Indeed, it’s a major part of many corporate strategies.

Think about all of the advertisements and marketing campaigns that you come across in your day-to-day routine that emphasize the theme of customers speaking out and corporations listening and responding.  As Best Buy explains, “You Spoke.  We Listened.  Thanks to your ideas, we’re continuing to create future technology designed just for you.”  Moss Adams LLP, one of the largest accounting and consulting firms in the United States, offers the identical statement on its website: “You Spoke.  We Listened.”  Whole Foods serves up a subtle variation: “You Talked, We Listened.”  It turns out, “Whole Foods Market has been listening to its customers for over 30 years.”

Why do all of these companies sing the same song?  The answer, in part, is because it’s music to our ears.  We like to feel in control.  And encouraging this perception allows companies to engrain the idea that corporate entities merely respond to our preferences.  That is, they do not create preferences, or steer individuals toward harmful, but profitable, products—actions that would make the case for significant regulation or legal liability.  They are our passive pals—dutifully hanging on our every word.

Perhaps I’m out to sea, but if corporations aren’t in fact listening to what I say—if they know, as Professor Berman suggests, that I exhibit “mistaken emotional responses” and am a situational character, rather than a rational actor—I don’t want them telling me how valuable my feedback is and how clever, smart, and capable a consumer I am.

The answer, in part, is because it’s music to our ears.  We like to feel in control.  And encouraging this perception allows companies to engrain the idea that corporate entities merely respond to our preferences.  That is, they do not create preferences, or steer individuals toward harmful, but profitable, products—actions that would make the case for significant regulation or legal liability.  They are our passive pals—dutifully hanging on our every word.

Perhaps I’m out to sea, but if corporations aren’t in fact listening to what I say—if they know, as Professor Berman suggests, that I exhibit “mistaken emotional responses” and am a situational character, rather than a rational actor—I don’t want them telling me how valuable my feedback is and how clever, smart, and capable a consumer I am.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Marketing, Public Relations, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Dan Dennett at Harvard Law on “Free Will, Responsibility, and the Brain”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 30, 2010

From The Crimson:

Tufts University professor Daniel C. Dennett discussed the ways in which neuroscience may impact human understanding of moral and legal responsibility to an overflowing audience in Pound Hall at Harvard Law School yesterday.

The event, titled “Free Will, Responsibility, and the Brain,” was sponsored by the Law School’s Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS), and began with a Dilbert comic strip depicting free will as an ambiguous concept.

“It does justice to our common sense thinking about free will,” he said of the comic strip.

Dennett, who co-directs the Tufts University Center for Cognitive Studies, is best known for his arguments that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes in the brain.

Early in the talk, Dennett asked the audience to flick their right wrists in the next ten seconds, explaining that their brains decided to perform the action a third of second before it actually occurred.

The experiment showed, he said, that unconscious action of the brain precedes the conscious action of an individual.

“Your conscious is out of the loop,” he said. “A voluntary act begins in the brain unconsciously before the person acts consciously.”

Yet Dennett said that the last minute “veto window,” also known as “free won’t,” allows conscious function to affect the final outcome.

Through the discussion, Dennett said he hoped to figure out how to undo the misunderstandings surrounding neuroscience’s implications on human responsibility.

He mentioned the common belief that determinism is incompatible with free will, but quickly dismissed it as a mistake.

The talk was intended to pique interest in understanding the human animal, in accordance with SALMS’s efforts to expose the Law School community to research and concepts from psychology, neuroscience, and other mind sciences, said SALMS President Matthew B. McFeely.

“I hope that attendees of the talk were encouraged to examine a little closer some of commonly held assumptions about people and their behavior,” McFeely said.

* * *

The video of Dan Dennett’s talk will be made available on the PLMS website and The Situationist in November.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Interview with Professor Joshua Greene,”Daniel Dennett on the Situation of our Brain,” Dan Dennett on our Interior Situation,” Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II,” “The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating,” Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV and “Coalition of the Will-less.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Philosophy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Daniel Dennett To Speak at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 27, 2010

On Tuesday, September 28th, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Tufts professor Daniel Dennett entitled Free Will, Responsibility, and the Brain.

Professor Dennett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, as well as the co-director for the school’s Center for Cognitive Studies.  His work examines the intersection of philosophy and cognitive science in relation to religion, biology, science, and the human mind.  Professor Dennett has also contributed greatly to the fields of evolutionary theory and psychology.

Professor Dennett will turn a critical eye on the recent influx of work regarding the impact of neuroscience on scholarly concepts of moral and legal responsibility.

He will be speaking in Pound 101 from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Free burritos will be provided!

* * *

For more information, e-mail salms@law.harvard.edu.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Daniel Dennett on the Situation of our Brain,” Dan Dennett on our Interior Situation,” Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II,” “The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating,” Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV and “Coalition of the Will-less.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Evolutionary Psychology, Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Neuroscience, Philosophy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 862 other followers

%d bloggers like this: