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Archive for the ‘Altruism’ Category

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.

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Some Upsides to Terror Management

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 1, 2012

From Science Daily:

Past research suggests that thinking about death is destructive and dangerous, fueling everything from prejudice and greed to violence. Such studies related to terror management theory (TMT), which posits that we uphold certain cultural beliefs to manage our feelings of mortality, have rarely explored the potential benefits of death awareness.

“This tendency for TMT research to primarily deal with negative attitudes and harmful behaviors has become so deeply entrenched in our field that some have recently suggested that death awareness is simply a bleak force of social destruction,” says Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri, lead author of the new study in the online edition of Personality and Social Psychology Review this month. “There has been very little integrative understanding of how subtle, day-to-day, death awareness might be capable of motivating attitudes and behaviors that can minimize harm to oneself and others, and can promote well-being.”

In constructing a new model for how we think about our own mortality, Vail and colleagues performed an extensive review of recent studies on the topic. They found numerous examples of experiments both in the lab and field that suggest a positive side to natural reminders about mortality.

For example, Vail points to a study by Matthew Gailliot and colleagues in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2008 that tested how just being physically near a cemetery affects how willing people are to help a stranger. “Researchers hypothesized that if the cultural value of helping was made important to people, then the heightened awareness of death would motivate an increase in helping behaviors,” Vail says.

The researchers observed people who were either passing through a cemetery or were one block away, out of sight of the cemetery. Actors at each location talked near the participants about either the value of helping others or a control topic, and then some moments later, another actor dropped her notebook. The researchers then tested in each condition how many people helped the stranger.

“When the value of helping was made salient, the number of participants who helped the second confederate with her notebook was 40% greater at the cemetery than a block away from the cemetery,” Vail says. “Other field experiments and tightly controlled laboratory experiments have replicated these and similar findings, showing that the awareness of death can motivate increased expressions of tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and pacifism.”

For example, a 2010 study by Immo Fritsche of the University of Leipzig and co-authors revealed how increased death awareness can motivate sustainable behaviors when pro-environmental norms are made salient. And a study by Zachary Rothschild of the University of Kansas and co-workers in 2009 showed how an increased awareness of death can motivate American and Iranian religious fundamentalists to display peaceful compassion toward members of other groups when religious texts make such values more important.

Thinking about death can also promote better health. Recent studies have shown that when reminded of death people may opt for better health choices, such as using more sunscreen, smoking less, or increasing levels of exercise. A 2011 study by D.P. Cooper and co-authors found that death reminders increased intentions to perform breast self-exams when women were exposed to information that linked the behavior to self-empowerment.

One major implication of this body of work, Vail says, is that we should “turn attention and research efforts toward better understanding of how the motivations triggered by death awareness can actually improve people’s lives, rather than how it can cause malady and social strife.” Write the authors: “The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life.”

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Humility and Helpfulness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 22, 2012

From the University of Maine Press Office:

Helping one another in times of need is a cornerstone of quality human relationships, according to a University of Maine psychology researcher who has determined that humility trumps arrogance when it comes to offering assistance.

In a three-part research project involving 310 students at Baylor University in Texas, UMaine psychology lecturer Jordan LaBouff and colleagues found that people determined to be humble were more willing to donate time and resources to a hypothetical student in need. The results held true even when researchers controlled the study for potential influencers like empathy, agreeableness and other personality traits.

“The finding is particularly surprising since nearly 30 years of research on helping have demonstrated that the situation, not the person, tends to predict whether someone in need will receive help,” says LaBouff, who also is a UMaine Honors College preceptor.

“This research builds upon a growing body of evidence that humility is an important trait that results in a variety of pro-social and positive outcomes,” says LaBouff, the lead author of an article on the study with Baylor researchers Wade Rowatt, Megan Johnson and Jo-Ann Tsang in Texas. “It also suggests that if we can encourage humility in our communities, people may be more helpful to those in need.”

The researchers believe the study is one of the first laboratory studies to document a correlation between a personality dimension like humility or narcissism with willingness to help others. Humility could be a personality trait that is linked with altruistically motivated acts of helping, according to LaBouff.

Researchers reached their conclusions by measuring participant humility through self-reporting, or answering questions about their perceived sense of humility, in addition to gauging reaction time on tasks designed to measure implicit humility, LaBouff says. Participants were then introduced to a fictitious classmate who had suffered a personal tragedy and was requesting help to overcome the tragedy with time and resources from each participant.

“Participants who were more humble were most likely to help their peers, even when social pressure to do so was lowest,” says LaBouff. “That is, humble people were most likely to help even when they had the fewest external pressures to do so.”

The study results are reported in the January 2012 issue of The Journal of Positive Psychology.

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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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Phil Zimbardo at HLS “We Need Heroes”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 6, 2012

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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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Paul Bloom at Harvard Law School – Do Babies Crave Justice?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 19, 2012

Paul Bloom, Yale psychology professor, will speak at Harvard Law School tomorrow (Monday) in a talk titled “Do Babies Have a Sense of Morality and Justice? Is Kindness Genetic or Learned?”

Professor Bloom will argue that even babies possess a rich moral sense. They distinguish between good and bad acts and prefer good characters over bad ones. They feel pain at the pain of others, and might even possess a primitive sense of justice. But this moral sense is narrow, and many principles that are central to adult morality, such as kindness to strangers, are the product of our intelligence and our imagination; they are not in our genes. He will end with a discussion of the evolution and psychology of purity and disgust.

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching. He is past-president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and co-editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, one of the major journals in the field. Dr. Bloom has written for scientific journals such as Nature and Science, and for popular outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic. He is the author or editor of four books, including How Children Learn the Meanings of Words, and Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. His newest book, How Pleasure Works, was published in June 2010.

Tomorrow’s talk will take place from 12 – 1 pm in Wasserstein Hall, Room 1023. Free Chinese food lunch!

Image from Flickr.

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

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

The Situation of Competition

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 12, 2012

From the University of Illinois News Bureau:

Researchers have found a way to study how our brains assess the behavior – and likely future actions – of others during competitive social interactions. Their study, described in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to use a computational approach to tease out differing patterns of brain activity during these interactions, the researchers report.

“When players compete against each other in a game, they try to make a mental model of the other person’s intentions, what they’re going to do and how they’re going to play, so they can play strategically against them,” said University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Kyle Mathewson, who conducted the study as a doctoral student in the Beckman Institute with graduate student Lusha Zhu and economics professor and Beckman affiliate Ming Hsu, who now is at the University of California, Berkeley. “We were interested in how this process happens in the brain.”

Previous studies have tended to consider only how one learns from the consequences of one’s own actions, called reinforcement learning, Mathewson said. These studies have found heightened activity in the basal ganglia, a set of brain structures known to be involved in the control of muscle movements, goals and learning. Many of these structures signal via the neurotransmitter dopamine.

“That’s been pretty well studied and it’s been figured out that dopamine seems to carry the signal for learning about the outcome of our own actions,” Mathewson said. “But how we learn from the actions of other people wasn’t very well characterized.”

Researchers call this type of learning “belief learning.”

To better understand how the brain processes information in a competitive setting, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track activity in the brains of participants while they played a competitive game, called a Patent Race, against other players. The goal of the game was to invest more than one’s opponent in each round to win a prize (a patent worth considerably more than the amount wagered), while minimizing one’s own losses (the amount wagered in each trial was lost). The fMRI tracked activity at the moment the player learned the outcome of the trial and how much his or her opponent had wagered.

A computational model evaluated the players’ strategies and the outcomes of the trials to map the brain regions involved in each type of learning.

“Both types of learning were tracked by activity in the ventral striatum, which is part of the basal ganglia,” Mathewson said. “That’s traditionally known to be involved in reinforcement learning, so we were a little bit surprised to see that belief learning also was represented in that area.”

Belief learning also spurred activity in the rostral anterior cingulate, a structure deep in the front of the brain. This region is known to be involved in error processing, regret and “learning with a more social and emotional flavor,” Mathewson said.

The findings offer new insight into the workings of the brain as it is engaged in strategic thinking, Hsu said, and may aid the understanding of neuropsychiatric illnesses that undermine those processes.

“There are a number of mental disorders that affect the brain circuits implicated in our study,” Hsu said. “These include schizophrenia, depression and Parkinson’s disease. They all affect these dopaminergic regions in the frontal and striatal brain areas. So to the degree that we can better understand these ubiquitous social functions in strategic settings, it may help us understand how to characterize and, eventually, treat the social deficits that are symptoms of these diseases.”

More.

The paper, “Dissociable Neural Representations of Reinforcement and Belief Prediction Errors Underlie Strategic Learning,” is available online or from the U. of I. News Bureau.

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The Situation of Cultivating Conscience

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 6, 2012

At the end of last year, I was asked if I might be interested in reviewing UCLA Law professor Lynn Stout’s new book Cultivating Conscience as part of a “book club” on PrawfsBlawg.  The fun and excitement went down on Monday and Tuesday, and I suspect both the book and the commentary may be of interest to Situationist readers.

The other participants are a mix of law professors, psychologists, economists, and law professor-psychologist-economist hybrids: Chad Flanders, Brett McDonnell, Matt Bodie, Thomas Ulen, and Molly Walker Wilson.

Here’s a summary of the book:

Contemporary law and public policy often treat human beings as selfish creatures who respond only to punishments and rewards. Yet every day we behave unselfishly–few of us mug the elderly or steal the paper from our neighbor’s yard, and many of us go out of our way to help strangers. We nevertheless overlook our own good behavior and fixate on the bad things people do and how we can stop them. In this pathbreaking book, acclaimed law and economics scholar Lynn Stout argues that this focus neglects the crucial role our better impulses could play in society. Rather than lean on the power of greed to shape laws and human behavior, Stout contends that we should rely on the force of conscience.

**

Stout makes the compelling case that conscience is neither a rare nor quirky phenomenon, but a vital force woven into our daily lives. Drawing from social psychology, behavioral economics, and evolutionary biology, Stout demonstrates how social cues–instructions from authorities, ideas about others’ selfishness and unselfishness, and beliefs about benefits to others–have a powerful role in triggering unselfish behavior. Stout illustrates how our legal system can use these social cues to craft better laws that encourage more unselfish, ethical behavior in many realms, including politics and business. Stout also shows how our current emphasis on self-interest and incentives may have contributed to the catastrophic political missteps and financial scandals of recent memory by encouraging corrupt and selfish actions, and undermining society’s collective moral compass.

**

This book proves that if we care about effective laws and civilized society, the powers of conscience are simply too important for us to ignore.

Sound interesting?  My review of the book is here.  Other reviews (along with Lynn’s responses) are here.

Posted in Altruism, Book, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

The Interior Situation of Atrocities

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More.

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Image from Flickr.

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

The Financial Situation of Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 24, 2011

From UC Berkeley News Center:

Emotional differences between the rich and poor, as depicted in such Charles Dickens classics as “A Christmas Carol” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” may have a scientific basis. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that people in the lower socio-economic classes are more physiologically attuned to suffering, and quicker to express compassion than their more affluent counterparts.

By comparison, the UC Berkeley study found that individuals in the upper middle and upper classes were less able to detect and respond to the distress signals of others. Overall, the results indicate that socio-economic status correlates with the level of empathy and compassion that people show in the face of emotionally charged situations.

“It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Jennifer Stellar, lead author of the study published online on Dec. 12 in the journal, Emotion. “They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”

Stellar and her colleagues’ findings challenge previous studies that have characterized lower-class people as being more prone to anxiety and hostility in the face of adversity.

“These latest results indicate that there’s a culture of compassion and cooperation among lower-class individuals that may be born out of threats to their wellbeing,” Stellar said.

It has not escaped the researchers’ attention that the findings come at a time of rising class tension, expressed in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Rather than widen the class divide, Stellar said she would like to see the findings promote understanding of different class cultures. For example, the findings suggest that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds may thrive better in cooperative settings than their upper-class counterparts.

“Upper-class individuals appear to be more self-focused, they’ve grown up with more freedom and autonomy,” she said. “They may do better in an individualist, competitive environment.”

More than 300 ethnically diverse young adults were recruited for the UC Berkeley study, which was divided into three experiments that used three separate groups of participants. Because all the volunteers were college undergraduates, their class identification – lower class, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class or upper class – was based on parental income and education.

In the first experiment, 148 young adults were rated on how frequently and intensely they experience such emotions as joy, contentment, pride, love, compassion, amusement and awe. In addition, they reported how much they agreed with such statements as “When I see someone hurt or in need, I feel a powerful urge to take care of them,” and “I often notice people who need help.” Compassion was the only positive emotion reported at greater levels by lower-class participants, the study found.

In the second experiment, a new group of 64 participants viewed two videos: an instructional video on construction and an emotionally charged video about families who are coping with the challenges of having a child with cancer. Participants showed no differences while watching the “neutral” instructional video, and all reported feeling sad in response to the video about families of cancer patients. However, members of the lower class reported higher levels of compassion and empathy as distinct from sorrow.

The researchers also monitored the heart rates of participants as they watched the neutral and emotionally charged videos. Lower-class participants showed greater decreases in heart rate as they watched the cancer family video than upper-class participants.

“One might assume that watching someone suffering would cause stress and raise the heart rate,” Stellar said. “But we have found that, during compassion, the heart rate lowers as if the body is calming itself to take care of another person.”

Finally, a new set of 106 participants was randomly divided into pairs and pitted against one another in mock interviews for a lab manager position. To further raise the stress level in interviews, those who performed best were to win a cash prize. Post-interview reports from the participants showed that the lower-class interviewees perceived their rivals to be feeling greater amounts of stress, anxiety and embarrassment and as a result reported more compassion and sympathy for their competitors. Conversely, upper-class participants were less able to detect emotional distress signals in their rivals.

“Recognizing suffering is the first step to responding compassionately. The results suggest that it’s not that upper classes don’t care, it’s that they just aren’t as good at perceiving stress or anxiety,” Stellar said.

More.

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Posted in Abstracts, Altruism, Distribution, Emotions, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

A Call for More Research on the Psychology of Inequality

Posted by Adam Benforado on December 9, 2011

Last spring, I had the pleasure of participating in the 2011 PLMS Conference: The Psychology of Inequality.  As chronicled on this blog (and elsewhere), it was a tremendous group of speakers and many of the talks have continued to resonate as issues of inequality have continued to boil up, particularly in the form of the Occupy movement.

One of the issues that is particularly interesting to me is how people react when confronted with evidence of inequality.  The psychology is complicated because people’s reactions are contingent on numerous situational variables.  For one thing, different people seem to have very different tolerances for inequality.  For another, it seems to matter whether the context is one of system threat or general optimism.

A number of mind scientists are busy at work documenting and sorting out these details and in the process we are learning a tremendous amount about how inequality is perpetuated.  One of the things that researchers have discovered is that those who are motivated to do so are incredibly adept at minimizing even the starkest data.

On Monday, for example Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist with the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at U.C. Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, pointed out that according to the 2011 Forbes 400, five children and one daughter-in-law of the founders of Wal-Mart have a total combined worth of $69.7 billion, which is equivalent to the total wealth of the bottom 30% of American families.

To me, that is absolutely staggering information.  Read it again: six people on the Forbes list have equivalent wealth to roughly one-third of all American families taken together.  To me, this is a clear sign that the need for reform is urgent.  But for other people, this isn’t troubling at all.  It’s not that they are being facetious; they genuinely view the data differently than I do.

Because of this divergence, I would argue that before we can make any sort of the changes that would address the growing inequality in the United States (which I believe we must do as a society from a both practical and moral perspective), we need to spend more time and energy understanding why some people don’t see a problem in the first place.

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Posted in Altruism, Distribution, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Pinker on the Changing Situation of Violence

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 21, 2011

From the Harvard Gazette:

Steven Pinker wants you to know that violence has declined.

Despite civil wars in Africa and the Mideast, ongoing strife in Afghanistan, and the barrage of local and national crimes reported on the nightly news, people are living in a much more peaceful era than they might think.

“During the thousands of years humans spent as hunter-gatherers, the average rate of violent death was higher than the worst years of World War II, and about five times higher than the rate of death from all wars, genocides, and human-made famines in the 20th century,” said Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology and Harvard College Professor.

“Believe it or not … today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence,” wrote Pinker in his latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” which takes its title from that age-old dichotomy: the devil on one shoulder, whispering temptation, enticing us to act on sinister urges, and the angel on the other shoulder, holding us back with caution and consequence.

“Human nature is extraordinarily complex, and includes both bellicose and peaceable motives. Outbreaks of violence or peace depend on which is more engaged in a given time and place,” said Pinker. “Among the better angels of our nature — the psychological faculties that caused violence to decline —  are self-control, empathy, and a sense of fairness.”

But, Pinker added, “My most surprising discovery was that the most important better angel may be reason: the cognitive faculties with which we understand the physical and social world. It was an ironic discovery, given that cognition and language are my research specialty.”

What historical forces have been engaging these better angels? Pinker cites “the outsourcing of deterrence and revenge to a disinterested third party, including the police and court system; the growth of commerce, which replaces zero-sum plunder with positive-sum trade and reciprocity; the forces of cosmopolitanism, such as mobility and literacy, which encourage people to take other vantage points and hence consider their interests; and the growth of education, public discourse, science, and abstract reasoning, which discourage parochial tribalism and encourage people to treat violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.”

To put this all in context, Pinker shows that homicide rates in Europe have declined 30-fold since the Middle Ages. Human sacrifice, slavery, punitive torture, and mutilation have been abolished around the world. And, he said, “Great powers and developed countries have stopped going to war. And in the world as a whole, deaths in warfare may be at an all-time low.”

In his research, Pinker’s favorite discovery was learning that “every category of violence — from deaths in war to the spanking of children to the number of motion pictures in which animals were harmed — had declined.” That, he admitted, “makes the present less sinister, the past less innocent.”

He believes that “forms of institutionalized violence that can be eliminated by the stroke of a pen — such as capital punishment, the criminalization of homosexuality, the callous treatment of farm animals, and the corporal punishment of children in schools — will continue to decline, because decision-making elites will continue to be swept by the humanitarian tide that has carried them along for centuries.”

* * *

“. . . . ‘Better Angels’ made me appreciate the forces of civilization and enlightenment which have made our lives so much more peaceable than those of our ancestors: the police, a court system, democracy, education, literacy, commerce, science, the Enlightenment, and the forms of secular humanism that grew out of it — which are easy to take for granted.”

More.

Related Situationist posts:

One series of posts was devoted to the situational sources of war.

To review a larger sample of posts on the causes and consequences of human conflict, click here.

Posted in Altruism, Conflict, Education | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Selfishness versus Altruism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 21, 2011

From the Stanford Daily:

Individuals who act in their own self-interest are more likely to gain prestige and leadership recognition than those who exhibit altruistic characteristics, according to a recent study.

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) collaborated with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business on the report, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Robert Livingston, co-author of the study and an assistant professor at Kellogg, wrote in an email to The Daily that the collaboration between these three business schools sprung out of personal friendships and similar academic interests. He said the researchers conducted all of their three experiments at the behavioral lab at Stanford’s GSB.

“One might think that generosity would be a virtue (and selfishness a bane) for people who are aspiring to be elevated to high positions of authority and power by others,” Livingston wrote. Instead, the study found the opposite was true.

According to Livingstone, their research sought to explore how an individual’s contribution to a group would affect teammates’ perceptions of him or her. He said that individuals who more frequently acted in their self-interest achieved a greater sense of prestige within the group — even over those who contributed often to the team.

The study also asked participants — called intergroup members — to choose a leader whom they felt would be best in one of two different situations. According to the report, the situations were designed to be either more “cooperative” or “competitive” in nature.

The “cooperative” test asked intergroup members to choose a leader who would allocate resources while the “competitive” test asked the members to choose a leader who would help them in competition against a rival out-group.

“These experiments demonstrate that the leaders that people want vary as a function of the intergroup situation,” wrote Nir Halevy, co-author of the study and GSB assistant professor, in an email to The Daily. He said that the qualities teammates seek in a leader change depending on the circumstance.

Halevy also said that these findings are universally applicable and could shine more light on how a system of leadership develops, whether in offices or on the reality show “Survivor.”

He said the study also explored the relationship between those who are in an in-group and those who are in an out-group within a society.

“One interesting finding was that generosity toward out-group members does not lead to respect and admiration in the eyes of others,” Halevy said. “In fact, it led to lower levels of prestige compared to showing generosity toward in-group members only.”

Halevy added that these findings should by no means discourage people in the process of climbing the ladder to show generosity — they simply explain the behavioral tendencies of individuals operating in a competitive atmosphere.

According to Halevy, the study’s co-authors have many ideas about where to take their research next. For instance, he said the study leaves areas open for examination, such as the extent to which “aspiring leaders strategically display behaviors that can boost their prestige or dominance, depending on the group context.”

More.

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Psychic Numbing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 8, 2011

Situationist Contributor, Paul Slovic and his co-authors (including Situationist friend, Andrew Woods) just posted their superb chapter, titled “Psychic Numbing and Mass Atrocity” (in  The Behavioral Foundations of Policy, E. Shafir, ed., Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press, 2011) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

The 20th Century is often said to be the bloodiest century in recorded history. In addition to its wars, the century witnessed many grave and widespread human rights abuses. But what stands out in historical accounts of those abuses, perhaps even more than the cruelty of their perpetration, is the inaction of bystanders. Why do people and their governments repeatedly fail to react to genocide and other mass scale human rights violations?

A chapter in Eldar Shafir’s edited volume, The Behavioral Foundations of Policy, forthcoming from the Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press. Posted on SSRN in advance of publication with kind permission from Princeton University Press.

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Download the chapter for free.

Related Situationist posts:

For related scholarship, see Paul Slovic’s Book, The Construction of Preference.

Posted in Abstracts, Altruism, Book, Distribution, Morality, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

Money Priming

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 21, 2011

From the BBC’s “Bang Goes the Theory Team.”

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Altruism, Choice Myth, Embodied Cognition, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Do Doctors Lack Empathy?

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 29, 2011

Shortly after I finished Simon Baron-Cohen’s new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, I spoke to one of my friends who had just had an extremely bad interaction with a doctor.  The friend had just received a frightening diagnosis and when she went to ask more questions, the doctor was blunt and emotionally-disengaged.  As I spoke to the friend, it occurred to me that, while there were some very important exceptions, I’d actually had a lot of similar experiences with doctors.  Might it be true that doctors have less empathy than other people?

Coincidentally, with the help of the gnomes of the World Wide Web, I found an interesting recent article by Omar Sultan Haque and Adam Waytz in Scientific American, which describes two experiments by Jean Decety and his collaborators at the University of Chicago that shed a bit of light on the answer:

In one experiment, physicians who practice acupuncture (as well as matched non-physician controls) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching videos of needles being inserted into another person’s hands, feet and areas around their mouth as well as videos of the same areas being touched by a cotton bud. Compared to controls, the physicians showed significantly less response in brain regions involved in empathy for pain. In addition, the physicians showed significantly greater activation of areas involved in executive control, self-regulation and thinking about the mental states of others.  The physicians appeared to show less empathy and more of a higher-level cognitive response.

This finding raised a further question. Perceiving pain in others typically involves two steps. First people engage in the emotional sharing of pain with another person, and then they make a cognitive appraisal of the emotion. Do physicians automatically feel empathy for the pain of others, but then quickly suppress it? Or is the cognitive suppression of empathy even deeper; has it become more automatic? Is it possible that the physicians no longer even experience the first step of empathy for pain that regular people show on their brain scans?

The investigators repeated the same experiment but rather than looking for changes in brain blood-flow by using fMRI, they assessed the brain’s event-related potentials (ERP). Results showed that when viewing the painful needle sticking, the physicians did not even show the early empathy response. The physicians had apparently become so good at empathy suppression that there was no early response to worry about.

Why might these effects exist? It could be that, compared to other professions, the people that gravitate to healthcare tend to be less empathic. This seems unlikely. Furthermore, studies of physicians show that they are often the most empathic and caring towards the beginning of medical school, and that they become steadily less empathetic with more clinical training. The more likely culprits are therefore the nature of medical training and the intrinsic demands of the profession.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Altruism, Book, Emotions | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

 
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