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Eldar Shafir – Living Under Scarcity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 8, 2013

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

Related Situationist posts:

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

Not Your Granparents’ Prejudice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 26, 2013

Blind Spot Book CoverFrom NPR’s Code Switch (by Shankar Vedantam) a story about Situationist Contributor Mahzarin Banaji and Situationist friend Tony Greenwald.

Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji was once approached by a reporter for an interview. When Banaji heard the name of the magazine the reporter was writing for, she declined the interview: She didn’t think much of the magazine and believed it portrayed research in psychology inaccurately.

But then the reporter said something that made her reconsider, Banaji recalled: “She said, ‘You know, I used to be a student at Yale when you were there, and even though I didn’t take a course with you, I do remember hearing about your work.’ “

The next words out of Banaji’s mouth: “OK, come on over; I’ll talk to you.”

After she changed her mind, got to thinking. Why had she changed her mind? She still didn’t think much of the magazine in which the article would appear. The answer: The reporter had found a way to make a personal connection.

For most people, this would have been so obvious and self-explanatory it would have required no further thought. Of course, we might think. Of course we’d help someone with whom we have a personal connection.

For Banaji, however, it was the start of a psychological exploration into the nature and consequences of favoritism — why we give some people the kind of extra-special treatment we don’t give others.

In a new book, , Banaji and her co-author, Anthony Greenwald, a social psychologist at the University of Washington, turn the conventional way people think about prejudice on its head. Traditionally, Banaji says, psychologists in her field have looked for overt “acts of commission — what do I do? Do I go across town to burn down the church of somebody who’s not from my denomination? That, I can recognize as prejudice.”

Yet, far from springing from animosity and hatred, Banaji and Greenwald argue, prejudice may often stem from unintentional biases.

Take Banaji’s own behavior toward the reporter with a Yale connection. She would not have changed her mind for another reporter without the personal connection. In that sense, her decision was a form of prejudice, even though it didn’t feel that way.

Now, most people might argue such favoritism is harmless, but Banaji and Greenwald think it might actually explain a lot about the modern United States, where vanishingly few people say they hold explicit prejudice toward others but wide disparities remain along class, and gender lines.

Anthony Greenwald is a social psychologist and a professor at the University of Washington.

Jean Alexander Greenwald/Delacorte Press

The two psychologists have revolutionized the scientific study of prejudice in recent decades, and their — which measures the speed of people’s hidden associations — has been applied to the practice of , law and other fields. Few would doubt its impact, including . (I’ve written about and Greenwald’s work before, in this and in my 2010 book, .)

“I think that kind of act of helping towards people with whom we have some shared group identity is really the modern way in which discrimination likely happens,” Banaji says.

In many ways, the psychologists’ work mirrors the conclusion of another recent book: In , sociologist asks how it is that few people report feeling racial prejudice, while the United States still has enormous disparities. Discrimination today is less about treating people from other groups badly, DiTomaso writes, and more about giving preferential treatment to people who are part of our “in-groups.”

The insidious thing about favoritism is that it doesn’t feel icky in any way, Banaji says. We feel like a great friend when we give a buddy a foot in the door to a job interview at our workplace. We feel like good parents when we arrange a class trip for our daughter’s class to our place of work. We feel like generous people when we give our neighbors extra tickets to a sports game or a show.

In each case, however, Banaji, Greenwald and DiTomaso might argue, we strengthen existing patterns of advantage and disadvantage because our friends, neighbors and children’s classmates are overwhelmingly likely to share our own racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. When we help someone from one of these in-groups, we don’t stop to ask: Whom are we not helping?

Banaji tells a story in the book about a friend, , now a professor at Northeastern University. . . .

Read or listen to the rest of the story here.

Related Situationist posts:

Go to Project Implicit here.  Take the Policy IAT here.

To review all of the previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin, or, for a list of such posts, click here.

Learn more about the book, Blind Spot, here.

Posted in Book, Implicit Associations, Life, Marketing, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Adrian Raine on the Anatomy of Violence – SALMS Talk Today!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 4, 2013

Adrian Raine violence

The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime
When: Thursday 4/4/13 12-1pm
Where: WCC 1010

Why do some innocent kids grow up to become cold-blooded serial killers? Is bad biology partly to blame? Professor Adrian Raine (UPenn) will discuss his research on the biological roots of violence and neurocriminology, a new field that applies neuroscience techniques to investigate the causes and cures of crime.

Professor Raine has a book to be released on April 30, 2013 with the same title as well as a TV show inspired by his book!

Lunch will be provided.

Posted in Book, Events, SALMS | Leave a Comment »

New Book: Drunk Tank Pink

Posted by Adam Benforado on March 17, 2013

Here at The Situationist, we are always excited to learn about new books bringing insights from the mind sciences to broader audiences, but we are particularly excited when the book in question happens to be written by one of our friends.  And when the author has a great name (more on that later), all the better.

As a result, the publication of Adam Alter’s Drunk Tank Pink has us downright giddy.  Adam is an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at NYU and his research engages behavioral economics, marketing, and the psychology of judgment and decision-making.

Curious about his newest endeavor?  Here are the details:

Drunk Tank Pink

_____________________________________

An illuminating look at the way the thoughts we have and the decisions we make are influenced by forces that aren’t always in our control

Why are people named Kim, Kelly, and Ken more likely to donate to Hurricane Katrina victims than to Hurricane Rita victims? Are you really more likely to solve puzzles if you watch a light bulb illuminate? How did installing blue lights along a Japanese railway line halt rising crime and suicide rates? Can decorating your walls with the right artwork make you more honest? The human brain is fantastically complex, having engineered space travel and liberated nuclear energy, so it’s no wonder that we resist the idea that we’re deeply influenced by our surroundings. As profound as they are, these effects are almost impossible to detect both as they’re occurring and in hindsight. Drunk Tank Pink is the first detailed exploration of how our environment shapes what we think, how we feel, and the ways we behave.

The world is populated with words and images that prompt unexpected, unconscious decisions. We are so deeply attracted to our own initials that we give more willingly to the victims of hurricanes that match our initials: Kims and Kens donate more generously to Hurricane Katrina victims, whereas Rons and Rachels give more openly to Hurricane Rita victims. Meanwhile, an illuminated light bulb inspires creative thinking because it symbolizes insight.

Social interactions have similar effects, as professional cyclists pedal faster when people are watching. Teachers who took tea from the break room at Newcastle University contributed 300 percent more to a cash box when a picture of two eyes hung on the wall. We’re evolutionarily sensitive to human surveillance, so we behave more virtuously even if we’re only watched by a photograph. The physical environment, from locations to colors, also guides our hand in unseen ways. Dimly lit interiors metaphorically imply no one’s watching and encourage dishonesty and theft, while blue lights discourage violent activity because they’re associated with the police. Olympic taekwondo and judo athletes are more likely to win when they wear red rather than blue, because red makes them behave aggressively and referees see them as more dominant. Drunk Tank Pink is full of revelatory facts, riveting anecdotes, and cutting-edge experiments that collectively explain how the most unexpected factors lead us to think, feel, and behave the way we do.

_____________________________________

If you happen to be in New York on March 27th, Malcolm Gladwell will be discussing Drunk Tank Pink with Adam at 7:00 PM at the Barnes and Noble at 2289 Broadway (at 82nd Street).

In the meantime, you can order a copy from Amazon here.

As a special treat for Situationist readers, I have interviewed Adam about his experience writing Drunk Tank Pink and will share his interesting responses in an upcoming post.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

Blind Spot

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 3, 2013

Blind Spot Book Cover

From the Harvard Gazette (an article about Situationist Contributor Mahzarin Banaji’s extroardinary new book, co-authored with Anthony Greenwald):

Mahzarin Banaji shouldn’t have been biased against women. A leading social psychologist — who rose from unlikely circumstances in her native India, where she once dreamed of becoming a secretary — she knew better than most that women were just as cut out for the working world as men.

Then Banaji sat down to take a test. Names of men and women and words associated with “career” and “family” flashed across the computer screen, one after the other. As she tried to sort the words into groups as instructed, she found that she was much faster and more accurate when asked to lump the male names with job-oriented words. It wasn’t what a pathbreaking female scientist would have expected, or hoped, to see.

“I thought to myself: Something is wrong with this damned test,” said Banaji, Harvard’s Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, as she reflected during an interview in her William James Hall office on her first run-in with an Implicit Association Test (I.A.T.).

That Banaji specializes in creating just these kinds of assessments did nothing to change the results. But at least she can take comfort in knowing she’s not alone. In the past 15 years, more than 14 million such tests have been taken at Project Implicit, the website of Banaji and her longtime collaborator Anthony Greenwald.

What these curious test-takers, as well as Banaji and Greenwald, found was that many of us hold onto quite a bit of unconscious bias against all sorts of groups, no matter how unprejudiced we strive to be in our actions and conscious thoughts. It’s a counterintuitive, even unnerving proposition, and one that Banaji and Greenwald, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, set out to explain for a lay audience in “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.”

“This test can get under your skin in some ways,” Banaji said. “There is something annoying about us coming around and telling these good people that something may be less good here.”

But if most of us want to be good — to match our actions to our best intentions — our brains sometimes have other ideas. Just as the human eye has a blind spot in its field of vision, they write, our unconscious minds can contain hidden biases (often toward groups of which we are not a member or with which we are less familiar) that can guide our behavior. Banaji and Greenwald have devoted three decades to developing scientifically sound ways to uncover those biases.

“I’m not a good theoretician. I don’t have great ideas about how minds work or how people behave,” Banaji said, laughing. “But maybe as a result, I’ve focused a lot more on the development and understanding of a method that, if wielded appropriately, would produce evidence that would have to change our minds.”

In “Blindspot,” she and Greenwald offer people tools to overcome their hardwired biases, and to stoke conversation about the deeply ingrained, very human tendency toward bias in a country that prides itself on egalitarian values.

Banaji met Greenwald in the early 1980s at Ohio State University, where Banaji had enrolled to in a Ph.D. program almost on a whim, after picking up a cheap copy of the “Handbook of Social Psychology” in India. The subject seemed to meld science and philosophy, she said.

Until then, “I had no clue that it really was possible to conduct an honest-to-goodness experiment on human nature.”

Greenwald became her graduate adviser and, after she accepted a position at Yale, her collaborator. For years, the two worked together on a number of papers, largely by email. (“Neither of us likes talking on the phone,” Banaji said.)

They developed the I.A.T. in the 1990s at Yale with the help of Brian Nosek, then a graduate student of Banaji and now a professor at the University of Virginia. The simple tests can be taken in roughly 10 minutes and can be modified to assess unconscious bias in different categories, for example, whether white test-takers are likelier to associate “good” words with white faces more quickly than with black faces. (They are, and black test-takers show the reverse results.)

At the time, few psychology studies were conducted online. When the team members launched Project Implicit in 1998, Banaji hoped to garner 500 responses in the first year. With no advertising, they hit 45,000 in the first month. A flood of media attention followed, as did professional controversy.

Many critics were upset by the social implications of learning that humans may be unconscious unegalitarians, Banaji said. “But it’s been great for us to have the criticism. It has led to the work moving much faster. The standards the I.A.T. has been held to have been higher than anything I have seen.”

Banaji is quick to point out that an I.A.T. isn’t meant to shame people. If a patient went to a doctor and took a blood pressure test (which, she adds, is about as reliable as the I.A.T.), and was told he had hypertension, he wouldn’t beat himself up for not having detected it himself. Rather, he’d ask what he steps he could take to improve the situation.

“If somebody asked me what my kidneys are doing right now, I would have no idea,” she said. “Yet, we really do believe that we pretty much know what goes on in our heads. And that’s because we do have access to a piece of it called the conscious mind, and that wrongly gives us the feeling that we know all of it.”

Overcoming our biases, even the unconscious ones we can’t tell are influencing our actions, isn’t about striving for political correctness. In a globalized world, the tools of our primitive brains — the tendency to associate “the Other” with a threat, for instance — can often hold us back.

“When our ancestors met someone who was different from them, their first thought was probably: Are they going to kill me before I can kill them?” Banaji said. “Today, when we see someone who’s totally different from us, we have to ask: Can we outsource to them? Can we collaborate with them? Can we forge a relationship with them and beat somebody who’s genetically just like us? That’s a tall order!”

Though the idea of implicit bias has captured the public’s attention for more than a decade, Greenwald and Banaji did not conceive of a book on the topic until 2004, when both spent a year as fellows at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where Banaji had taken a faculty appointment in 2002. Free from their normal academic obligations and once again in the same town, they began to work on “Blindspot.”

The ideas in “Blindspot” will hardly incite debate among psychologists at this point, Banaji said. Rather, she and Greenwald wrote the book in response to the many requests they received to speak to groups of physicians, business executives, lawyers, and other private-sector professionals who saw how ignoring their unconscious biases — in hiring the best candidates, treating patients of all ages and races, selecting witnesses and jury members — could hurt their bottom line.

Twenty years ago, when Banaji asked her intro-psych students whether they held any biases, 95 percent would say no. Now that number is about one-fifth, she said.

“This recognition that we have failings is, I think, a much more accepted idea — which is why I think the book is not going to be controversial,” Banaji said.

Of course, she added, that’s what happens to many once-incendiary ideas. “They’re criticized; people say they can’t be true. And then over time it becomes common sense. While we’re not quite at the common sense stage, I do think we’re getting there.”

To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. To review many previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin or, for a list of such posts, click here.

Posted in Book, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

The Oxford Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 14, 2013

Deaux Snyder Personality and Social Psychology

From PsychCentral (Judy Crook reviews new book edited by Kay Deaux and Mark Snyder):

What’s the difference between personality psychology and social psychology? In essence, personality psychology focuses on the person, while social psychology focuses on the situation—how people act in different situations, or how situations affect individuals. In exploring how and why the two fields might be integrated, The Oxford Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology recounts the history of each subfield, discusses different approaches each takes to research topics, and analyzes the benefits that might come from integrating them.

This is a long reference book, and one not intended for the layperson. However, it turns out that it works quite well as a foundational text for those of us who are not research psychologists but readers simply wishing to learn about psychology. Each chapter follows a general pattern of explaining the foundational theories in each field, discussing ways these theories can be integrated, or providing new theories or frameworks for integration.

Take the book’s coverage of the Big Five Theory. The “Big Five” is a personality theory that provides a way to categorize all personality traits into five areas: extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, agreeableness, and emotional stability. When researchers used it to analyze what makes leaders effective, however, the results were mixed. In the chapter on leadership, Daan van Knippenberg states that “the relationship between personality and leadership effectiveness is modest at best.” Instead, he proposes that social psychology models work better than the Big Five Theory because they analyze leaders “by taking a person-in-situation approach to leadership effectiveness.” Thus, although personality traits such as extraversion may affect one’s ability to lead, he says, we can gain a more complete perspective by analyzing leadership performance in the context of a given situation.

In a book that covers topics as disparate as motivation, prejudice, friendship, leadership, relationships, helping behavior, and antisocial behavior—each topic explored from the two perspectives of personality psychology and social psychology—a lay reader is likely to find several topics of interest. For example, in a chapter on multiculturalism, Veronica Benet-Martinez describes how the study of multiculturalism can be beneficial to both personality and social psychologists. I found her definition of multiculturalism interesting because it is so inclusive: “those who are mixed-race and mixed-ethnic, those who have lived in more than one country…those reared with at least one other culture in addition to the dominant mainstream culture, and those in intercultural relationships.” There is no commonly agreed-upon definition of the term, she tells us.

Much of what psychologists have learned in the last few years has been based on new measuring techniques, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). In a chapter called “Neuroscience Approaches in Social and Personality Psychology,” David M. Amodio and Eddie Harmon-Jones discuss how these relatively new techniques measure brain activity, and describe several theories that have been proposed based on these methods. One theory, that of the mirror neuron system, posits “a brain network devoted to understanding other people through their actions.” Amodio and Harmon-Jones state that the term mirror neurons refers “loosely to areas of the brain that are activated both when an individual observes the behavior of another person, and when one performs the same behavior”—i.e., when one mimics another’s actions.

Read the entire review here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Jeremy Bailenson on Virtual Reality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 9, 2013

From Pacific Standard (a brief excerpt from a long, worthwhile article about the work of Jeremy Bailenson):

A few years ago, a research psychologist at Stanford University named Jeremy Bailenson effectively proved the soundness of Anderson’s recruitment methods (pdf). A week before the 2004 presidential election, Bailenson asked a bunch of prospective voters to look at photographs of George W. Bush and John Kerry and then give their opinions of the candidates. What the voters didn’t know was that the photographs had been doctored: each voter’s own visage had been subtly morphed together with that of one of the candidates.

In this and two follow-up experiments, Bailenson found what Rudy Rucker, the novelist who wrote Software, would have predicted: voters were significantly more likely to support the candidate who had been made to look like them. What’s more, not a single voter detected that it was, in part, his or her own face staring back.

In another experiment (pdf), Bailenson outfitted college students with head-mounted virtual-reality displays and then sat them across a digital table from an artificial-intelligence agent—a computer program with a human face. The students then listened as the “agent” delivered a short persuasive speech. When the agent was programmed to mimic a student’s facial movements on a four-second delay—a tilt of the chin, a look to the left, a downward glance—the students found it more likeable and compelling. And like the prospective voters, the students showed no sign that they knew they were being mimicked. Nothing, it seems, is more persuasive than a mirror.

Read entire article here.

From Google Talks (Bailenson discusses his work and book with Jim Blasovich, Infinite Reality):

Summary from Google Talks:

The coming explosion of immersive digital technology, combined with recent progress in unlocking how the mind works, will soon revolutionize our lives in ways only science fiction has imagined. In Infinite Reality, Jeremy Bailenson (Stanford University) and Jim Blascovich (University of California, Santa Barbara)—two of virtual reality’s pioneering authorities whose pathbreaking research has mapped how our brain behaves in digital worlds—take us on a mind-bending journey through the virtual universe.

Infinite Reality explores what emerging computer technologies and their radical applications will mean for the future of human life and society. Along the way, Bailenson and Blascovich examine the timeless philosophical questions of the self and “reality” that arise through the digital experience; explain how virtual reality’s latest and future forms—including immersive video games and social-networking sites—will soon be seamlessly integrated into our lives; show the many surprising practical applications of virtual reality, from education and medicine to sex and warfare; and probe further-off possibilities like “total personality downloads” that would allow your great-great-grandchildren to have a conversation with “you” a century or more after your death.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Pacific Standard.

Posted in Book, Illusions, Video | 1 Comment »

Sunstein on Motivated Judicial Reasoning

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 23, 2012

From Bloomberg (an op-ed by Harvard Law School’s Cass Sunstein):

In the context of affirmative action, some of the nation’s most important and distinguished conservative legal thinkers, including Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, appear to have abandoned their own deepest beliefs about how to interpret the Constitution.

Unfortunately, this is not the only area in which they have done so. To appreciate the problem, we have to step back a bit.

For at least 25 years, there has been a clear division between leading conservatives and liberals with respect to constitutional interpretation. Conservatives have tended to favor “originalism” — the view that the meaning of the Constitution is fixed by the original understanding of its provisions at the time they were ratified.

Liberals have tended to reject originalism. They contend that the Constitution establishes broad principles whose specific meaning changes over time and that must, in the words of the influential legal theorist Ronald Dworkin, be given a “moral reading.”

Consider debates over the right to choose abortion and to engage in sexual relationships with people of the same gender. Many conservatives insist, rightly and to their credit, that our moral judgments must be separated from our judgments about the meaning of the Constitution. They go on to argue that if no provision of the Constitution was understood to protect these rights when it was ratified, then none protects these rights today.

* * *

Just this month, Justice Scalia put the point unambiguously: “Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state.” By contrast, liberals have urged that the meaning of the Constitution’s broad principles evolves, and that judges can legitimately help shape the evolution.

Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments involving the constitutionality of an affirmative-action policy at the University of Texas. Here is the great paradox: None of the conservative justices asked a single question about whether affirmative-action programs are consistent with the original meaning of any provision of the Constitution.

This failure to consider history is long-standing. Justices Scalia and Thomas, the court’s leading “originalists,” have consistently argued that the Constitution requires colorblindness. But neither of them has devoted so much as a paragraph to the original understanding. As conservative Ramesh Ponnuru, liberal Adam Winkler and others have suggested, their silence is especially puzzling because for decades, well-known historical work has strongly suggested that when passed by Congress in 1866 and ratified by the states in 1868, the 14th Amendment did not compel colorblindness.

Perhaps the most important evidence is the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866, which specifically authorized the use of federal funds to provide educational and other benefits to African-Americans. Opponents of the act (including President Andrew Johnson) explicitly objected to the violation of colorblindness, in the form of special treatment along racial lines. In fact, much of the congressional debate involved colorblindness. Along with many others, Representative Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota gave what the strong majority of Congress saw as a decisive response: “We have liberated four million slaves in the South. It is proposed by some that we stop right here and do nothing more. Such a course would be a cruel mockery.”

As law professor Eric Schnapper has shown, the 1866 Freedmen’s Bureau Act was one of several race-conscious measures enacted in the same period during which the nation ratified the 14th Amendment — which is now being invoked to challenge affirmative action. If Congress enacted race-conscious measures in the same year that it passed that amendment, and just two years before the nation ratified it, we should ask: Isn’t it clear that the 14th Amendment doesn’t require colorblindness?

* * *

Maybe this question can be answered. Maybe current affirmative-action programs, including the one at the University of Texas, are meaningfully different from the measures enacted by Congress after the Civil War. But to invalidate current programs, constitutional originalists have to say more. They must show that such programs are fatally inconsistent with the original understanding. Maybe they can do this, but remarkably, they haven’t even tried.

How can we explain this conspicuous lack of historical curiosity? . . . .

To read the entire article, including Sunstein’s answer to that question, click here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Morality, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Seduction by Contract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 20, 2012

Oren Bar-Gill recently posted his introductory chapter for his intriguing new book, “Seduction by Contract: Law, Economics and Psychology in Consumer Markets” on SSRN.   Here’s the abstract.

Consumers routinely enter into contracts with providers of goods and services. These contracts are designed by sophisticated sellers to exploit the psychological biases of consumers. They provide short-term benefits, while imposing long-term costs – because consumers are myopic and optimistic. They are excessively complex – because complexity allows sellers to hide the true cost of the product or service from the imperfectly rational consumer. Using both general theory and detailed case studies, this book explains the costs – to consumers and society at large – imposed by seductive contracts, and outlines a promising legal policy solution: Disclosure mandates. Simple, aggregate disclosures can help consumers make better choice. Comprehensive disclosures can facilitate the work of intermediaries, enabling them to better advise consumers. Effective disclosure would expose the seductive nature of consumer contracts and, as a result, reduce sellers’ incentives to write inefficient contracts.

Download the introduction for free here.

Related Situationist posts:

One of the very first legal-academic articles (part of  a trilogy) devoted to the way sellers manipulate consumers is Taking Behavioralism Seriously: The Problem of Market Manipulation (74 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 363 (1999)) available for free download on SSRN.

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Choice Myth, Marketing, Public Policy | 3 Comments »

Another Review of “Ideology, Psychology, and Law”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 27, 2012

At PsychCentral, Dan Berkowitz wrote a terrific review of Jon Hanson’s 2012 volume, Ideology, Psychology, and LawHere are some excerpts:

Ideology, Psychology, and Law is a wonderful collection of essays edited by Jon Hanson, the Alfred Smart Professor of Law and Director of The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School. This is the first book edited by Hanson, whose work has appeared in six other books and many periodicals. Hanson also cofounded The Situationist blog in 2005, and in 2011 it won the Media Prize from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Spanning 21 essays, the first of which Hanson wrote (as well as four others which he cowrote), Ideology, Psychology, and Law is an academic book that belongs either on a classroom desk or a library shelf. It’s not really the kind of book you bring to the beach for light reading. That said, for students and academics looking to examine the intersection of the three titular areas, Hanson’s new contribution is nothing short of a marvel.

Each of its essays is distinct, coherently argued, well written and worthy of reading. Hanson starts the book with his own essay, “Ideology, Psychology, and Law.” In it, he lays the groundwork for the remaining essays and gives some background on and context to the meaning of the three terms under discussion. He does not aim to define them, leaving that task to the essays that follow. Rather, Hanson provides the reasoning behind the book’s composition:

It should not be obvious what a volume titled Ideology, Psychology, and Law is actually about. After all, each category—ideology, psychology, and law—has numerous definitions and covers a vast domain. Furthermore, the concepts are not commonly understood as closely linked. One goal of this volume, however, is to help delineate the sizable overlap between the categories of ideology, psychology, and law and to show that the links between them are tighter and stronger than conventionally perceived.

Hanson’s other goal is to, in a sense, create a new field of study—or rather, to look at preexisting fields in new ways. He writes:

In bringing together some of the world’s most illustrious scholars in law, political science, political psychology, and social psychology, my aspiration for this book has been not only to illuminate the intersections among those disciplines but also to expand the ties between those fields in the hope of encouraging more interdisciplinary collaboration, research, and insight in the future.

Hanson is almost calling for some quasi-revolution in how we study these three fields. Human behavior is not only dynamic, but also largely misunderstood. In this way, the implications contained in Hanson’s book can result in profoundly new ways of conceiving of these disciplines. And by attempting to reorient the reader’s world and renegotiate his perception of reality, Hanson is implicitly catalyzing the evolution of our studies. Are there arguments in Ideology, Psychology, and Law that will be contested? Of course. But they are rooted in such substantive theory and testimony that it is not easy simply to dismiss them.

Moreover, Ideology, Psychology, and Law does not have one single or even several themes that abstractly bind the book together. Instead, Hanson gave his contributors free rein to write and argue as they pleased. In this way, readers will surely agree with certain arguments and disagree with others, and they will surely favor certain essays over others.

My personal favorites are the first section of Hanson’s introduction from which I quoted above, “Ideology, Psychology, and Law;” “Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict” by Kathleen A. Kennedy and Emily Pronin; “Backlash: The Reaction to Mind Sciences in Legal Academia” by Adam Benforado and Hanson; and “Crowding Out Morality: How the Ideology of Self-Interest Can Be Self-Fulfilling” by Barry Schwartz.

* * *

Given its timeliness, thought-provoking nature and ability to elucidate key and heavy ideas, Ideology, Psychology, and Law should without question be studied by those interested in its subjects. As well, Hanson should be commended for his staggering efforts.

Read the entire review here.

Read more about or purchase Ideology, Psychology, and Law here.

Related Situationist posts:

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

The Situation of Money-Based Happiness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 12, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-order it on Amazon here.

Related Situationist posts:

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

Law and Social Cognition – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 10, 2012

Barbara Spellman and Frederick Schauer recently posted their illuminating chapter, “Law and Social Cognition” on SSRN:

The body of research on law and psychology is vast, but the overwhelming proportion of it is on jury decision making, especially in criminal cases. In this chapter for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on Social Cognition (D. Carlston ed.), we attempt to broaden this research agenda. We survey briefly the existing state of psychological research on jury decision making, but show that, even with respect to factual determinations, the jury is a less important decision maker than most psychologists appear to believe. Thus, further research on factual determination by judges, of which there is some but not much, could substantially enrich our understanding of the psychological dimensions of legal decision making. Moreover, the role of judges in finding, interpreting, and applying the law is itself a task necessarily involving social cognition, and we explain both this connection and how further research on the social cognition dimensions of legal reasoning and legal argument could be highly valuable. Finally, we explain how numerous issues of substantive law – questions of intent, reasonableness, and knowledge, to give just a few examples – are themselves dependent on assumptions about the social and cognitive psychological reasoning of the people affected and governed by the law. There is very little psychology research on such questions, and the agenda of law and psychology could usefully be expanded to include such themes.

Download the chapter for free here.

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Posted in Abstracts, Book, Law, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Waiting Game

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 23, 2012

From Financial Times (snippets of an article by Frank Partnoy inspired by his latest book):

During the two weeks of play that begin on Monday, professional tennis players at Wimbledon will return thousands of first serves. Many of those returns will be entertaining. Some will be remarkable. But all will give spectators an opportunity to improve on the personal and professional decisions we make in all aspects of our lives: by helping us learn to manage delay.

Watch Novak Djokovic. His advantage over the other professionals at Wimbledon won’t be his agility or stamina or even his sense of humour. Instead, as scientists who study superfast athletes have found, the key to Djokovic’s success will be his ability to wait just a few milliseconds longer than his opponents before hitting the ball. That tiny delay is why most players won’t have a chance against him. Djokovic wins because he can procrastinate – at the speed of light.

During superfast reactions, the best-performing experts in sport, and in life, instinctively know when to pause, if only for a split-second. The same is true over longer periods: some of us are better at understanding when to take a few extra seconds to deliver the punchline of a joke, or when we should wait a full hour before making a judgment about another person. Part of this skill is gut instinct, and part of it is analytical. We get some of it from trial and error or by watching experts, but we also can learn from observing toddlers and even animals. There is both an art and a science to managing delay.

* * *

A tennis court, baseline to baseline, is 78ft long. First serves are launched at well over 100mph. Some volleys come even faster. That means a player returning a shot has just 400 to 500 milliseconds from when the ball leaves their opponent’s racket until it hits his or her own. Just half a second.

Hitting a tennis ball at this speed is a paradoxical act. On one hand, it is a largely unconscious physical reaction. It has to be, given the speed of the ball. There is not enough time to consider spin or angle. Conscious contemplation takes at least half a second, so anyone who even tries to think about how to return a shot will end up helplessly watching the ball fly by.

On the other hand, tennis involves a range of sophisticated and creative responses. Ideally, a player should react to both the placement and trajectory of an incoming ball. The position and movement of an opponent are also crucial. Great tennis returners respond to the information cascade of an incoming ball as if they had taken time to process it consciously, even though we know that is not possible.

Professional tennis players are no faster than we are at pure visual reaction time. Imagine that you and Novak Djokovic are playing a video game. We can measure visual reaction time by having both of you simply press a button when you first see the ball leave an opponent’s racket. Both of you would take about 200 milliseconds. Most people are about that fast, and no one is much faster.

That means virtually anyone who can see a distance of 78ft can react visually to any tennis serve or shot in plenty of time. As even the slowest video gamer can attest, if all you have to do is “see” and then press a button to swing — if you don’t even have to get off the sofa — anyone could return a professional-speed serve.

In real tennis, the difficulty arises in the second stage of the service return. The remaining period of, say, 300 milliseconds is the time players have to react physically – to adjust themselves to what they know about the ball’s flight and then try to hit it how and where they’d like.

Having just 300 milliseconds to hit a ball is a serious problem for most of us. Amateurs cannot move to the correct spot and produce a swing with accuracy or power in 300 milliseconds. Most of us can barely adjust our rackets by a few inches. Many solid professionals cannot do much more.

Even Djokovic does not successfully return every shot. But for most returns, he has plenty of time. He is so skilled and practised that he can produce near-instantaneous muscle contractions to move his body and execute a swing in perhaps 100 milliseconds. For him, the physical part of hitting the ball is almost as easy as pressing a button.

Djokovic’s physical speed frees up time for him to prepare during the phase tennis coaches call “ball identification”. This is when he absorbs the crush of data generated after the ball leaves his opponent’s racket. He splits up the time available during a return shot; because he is so fast, he has extra time to gather and process information. Finally, at the last possible instant, he commits to his choice and swings. He can sandwich a lot of preparing between seeing and hitting.

Because Djokovic needs less time to hit, he has more time to gather and process information. He sees, prepares and, finally, only after he has processed as much information as possible, he hits. His preconscious time management and his extraordinary ability to delay enable him to stretch out a split-second and pack in a sequence of interpretation and action that would take most of us much longer.

* * *

Partnoy’s terrific article goes on to review the science of delayed reaction and to connect that research to all sorts of decisions, including investment decisions.  Better yet, Partnoy suggests how the underlying research may help explain the financial crisis.

Partnoy’s book, Wait: The useful art of procrastination’ will be published by Profile Books on July 5.

Related Situationist posts:

Why Goalies Often Dive To The Right

Image from Flickr.

Posted in Book, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Uncovering the Interior Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 18, 2012

From :

Every aspect of our mental lives plays out in two versions: one conscious, which we are constantly aware of, and the other unconscious, which remains hidden from us. Over the past two decades researchers have developed remarkable new tools for probing the unconscious, or subliminal, workings of the mind. This explosion of research has led to a sea change in our understanding of how the mind affects the way we live. As a result, scientists are becoming increasingly convinced that how we experience the world–our perception, behavior, memory, and social judgment–is largely driven by the mind’s subliminal processes and not by the conscious ones, as we have long believed.

A small sample of related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

Review of “Ideology, Psychology, and Law”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 30, 2012

Over at The Jury Expert, You can read an insightful review (by Rita R. Handrich, PhD) of Jon Hanson’s recent book, Ideology, Psychology, and Law” (Oxford University Press). [Introductory chapter available, here].

It opens this way:

Trial consultants, and the very best trial lawyers, practice with an awareness of the law, the domain of the case facts, and the way jurors are likely to understand and misunderstand all of it. If these avenues of thought had a single intersection, you would find that Jon Hanson has been living on that corner for 25 years. As a Harvard Law School professor and prolific writer, he has done much to keep me and many others informed of the traffic coming from these diverse directions. . . .

Read the entire review here.

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Posted in Book, Ideology, Law, Politics, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Haidt on “The Righteous Mind”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 7, 2012

From Wired:

Jonathan Haidt is a professor in social psychology and author of The Righteous Mind, an examination of the intuitive foundations of morality and its consequences. He has some disgusting stories for you.

Imagine, if you will, a man going to a supermarket, buying a ready-to-cook chicken, taking it home, and having sexual intercourse with it. He then cooks it and eats it.

Or imagine a brother and sister who go on holiday, and end up sleeping together. They feel that it brings them closer, and are very careful with birth control so there’s no absolutely chance of pregnancy.

Don’t worry if you found these stories sick and wrong — most people do. But trying to pin down what exactly is wrong with these stories can be tricky. No one is harmed, the food isn’t wasted, the siblings are happy, yet it’s somehow still wrong. This is “moral dumbfounding’, the strong feeling that something is wrong without clear reasons as to why that is. According to Haidt, this offers a deep insight into human morality, and has profound implications for politics and religion.

Haidt’s studies bear out his message is that for every one of us, however rational we think we are, intuition comes first, and strategic reasoning second. That is, we rationalise our gut instincts, rather than using reason to reach the best conclusion. So, with the chicken story, you’re left scrabbling around for reasons to explain why something is wrong when you just know that it is. For Haidt, this is something that modern thinking has failed to recognise. “In America there was a long period where we were trying to teach kids critical thinking, and you never hear about it anymore because it didn’t work,” says Haidt.

Haidt sees our reasoning mind and intuition as a rider on top of an elephant, with the rider (reason) serving the elephant (intuition). But he doesn’t necessarily see this as a flaw. “You need to learn how to get the rider and elephant to work together properly. Each have their separate skill, and if if you think that the rider is both in charge and deserves to rule, you’re going to find yourself screwing up, and wondering why you keep screwing up. I think maturity and wisdom occur when someone gets good integration between the rider and the elephant — and I picked an elephant rather than a horse because elephants are really big and really smart. If you see a trainer and an elephant working together it’s a beautiful sight.”

Not only do we start with a conclusion and work backwards when making moral judgements, the different moral tenets you use define where you lie on the political spectrum. Broadly, the left makes moral judgements mostly based on harm and fairness, while the right has a broader palette — harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

So when, for example David Cameron suggests children should be more deferential, Haidt sees this as textbook: “That’s the authority foundation right there. Respect for authority is an offensive idea to people on the left, but it is quite sensible to social conservatives. It’s speaking directly to the elephant. Did he suggest this because he has really long been upset about the decline of authority, or is he maybe doing this to appeal to the more working-class traditionalist voters, those who vote Labour but are socially conservative at heart?”

But isn’t this simply another typical liberal college professor finding yet another way to attack the right? Haidt says that his work into morality has changed his politics, making him less of a liberal, and more of a centrist: “I’ve really become less enamoured of liberalism and more enamoured of conservatism. I think both are important. It’s a yin-yang thing, you need both and if you let either side run things they’re going to screw it up in very predictable ways.”

Our flawed post-hoc reasoning, our cherry-picking of evidence to suit our instincts, makes us poor policy makers, and creates politics that is tribal, confrontational and ill-suited to solving the world’s problems. “Our reasoning is very good as a press agent and lawyer,” says Haidt, “But we’re so biased, no individual can design social policy just using reason. But once you can accept what reasoning is and what it is designed to do, you can start to design groups and institutions that can do a pretty good job of it. When you put people together, you can think of each person as being like a neuron, and if you put us together in the right way then you can get some very good reasoning coming out of it.”

Haidt’s plea is for us to avoid the demonisation of those we see as morally suspect by understanding the way we reach these moral judgements. Like any evolved mechanism, our brain is a hotchpotch of compromises rather than a perfectly designed machine. Our understanding of others starts with understanding ourselves.

“It’s easy to see how flawed and biased and post-hoc everyone else is. If you realise that it’s true about you too, at least you’ll be a little more modest, and if you’re a little more modest then you’ll at least be a little bit more open to the possibility that you might be wrong. There is some wisdom to be found on all sides, because nobody can see the whole problem.”

Watch Haidt’s TED talk on “the real difference between liberals and conservatives” below:


Related Situationist posts:

To review a collection of posts examining the the situation of ideology, click here.

Posted in Book, Conflict, Emotions, Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Exciting New Book from Tamara Piety!

Posted by Adam Benforado on April 16, 2012

Situationist friend and Tulsa law professor Tamara Piety’s new book, Brandishing the First Amendment: Commercial Expression in America, has just hit book stores!

It looks to be an engaging read for all of us interested in how commercial entities have shaped and wielded First Amendment jurisprudence to increase profits and secure power.  And it is hard to think of a more important topic as we continue into this election year.

Here is a description:

Over the past two decades, corporations and other commercial entities have used strategic litigation to win more expansive First Amendment protections for commercial speech—from the regulation of advertising to the role corporate interests play in the political process, most recently debated in the Supreme Court case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Tamara R. Piety, a nationally known critic of commercial and corporate speech, argues that such an expansion of First Amendment speech rights imperils public health, safety, and welfare; the reliability of commercial and consumer information; the stability of financial markets; and the global environment.

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Beginning with an evaluation of commonly evoked philosophical justifications for freedom of expression, Piety determines that, while these are appropriate for the protection of an individual’s rights, they should not be applied too literally to commercial expression because the corporate person is not the moral equivalent of the human person. She then gathers evidence from public relations and marketing, behavioral economics, psychology, and cognitive studies to show how overly permissive extensions of First Amendment protections to commercial expression limit governmental power to address some of the major social, economic, and environmental challenges of our time.

To purchase a copy, click here.

Congrats, Tamara!

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Carol Tavris Interview – Podcast

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 10, 2012

From (For Good Reason):

Carol Tavris describes dissonance theory and how self-justification and self-deception often keep people from changing their minds even in the light of compelling contrary evidence, because the evidence is often dissonant with one’s self-image. She details the implications of dissonance theory for the persistence of psychic charlatans and other peddlers of the paranormal, and how it may explain how someone like Sylvia Brown can live with herself, and also how it may explain how believers remain so gullible about such unsupportable claims. She describes confirmation bias as a component of dissonance theory. She talks about how dissonance theory applies to the skeptic movement, both in terms of suggesting the best strategies for engaging the credulous, and in terms of fostering skepticism about one’s own skeptical views. And she argues that skepticism should be affirmative rather than destructive in its approach, and focused on both critical thinking and creative thinking alike.

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Posted in Book, Ideology, Illusions, Marketing, Podcasts, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Comments Off

Ideology, Psychology, and Law – Introduction

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 29, 2012

On SSRN, you can now download the introductory chapter of Ideology, Psychology, and Law (published in 2012 by Oxford University Press and containing chapters from numerous Situationist Contributors and edited by Situationist Editor Jon Hanson).

Here’s a quick description.

Formally, the law is based solely on reasoned analysis, devoid of ideological biases or unconscious influences. Judges claim to act as umpires applying the rules, not making them. They frame their decisions as straightforward applications of an established set of legal doctrines, principles, and mandates to a given set of facts. As most legal scholars understand, however, the impression that the legal system projects is largely an illusion. As far back as 1881, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. made a similar claim, writing that “the felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed.”

More than a century later, we are now much closer to understanding the mechanisms responsible for the gap between the formal face of the law and the actual forces shaping it. Over the last decade or so, political scientists and legal academics have begun studying the linkages between ideologies, on one hand, and legal principles and policy outcomes on the other. During that same period, mind scientists have turned to understanding the psychological sources of ideology. This book is the first to bring many of the world’s experts on those topics together to examine the sometimes unsettling interactions between psychology, ideology, and law, and to better understand what, beyond and beneath the logic, animates the law.

This introductory chapter describes why this volume came together when it did and provides an overview of the general sections and the individual chapters and comments in the book. It begins with a brief, loose, and highly stylized history of the relationships between ideology, psychology, and law—a history premised on the oversimplifying assertion that something changed around the year 2000.

Download the chapter for free here.

Learn more about the book here.

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Social Justice

Posted by John Jost on February 17, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More.

Related Situationist posts:

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 »

 
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