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The Deeply Captured Situation of Medicine

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 21, 2010

From PBS’s Need to Know:

Prescription drug Avandia was once the top-selling diabetes drug in the world — and it still helps more than half a million Americans balance their blood sugar levels. But a Food and Drug Administration panel dealt the drug a blow this week that may have some diabetes sufferers questioning whether they want to use it.

The debate focused on whether Avandia, which is acknowledged to be one of the most effective drugs for treating Type 2 diabetes, comes with dangerous side effects: An increase in a patient’s chance of suffering a stroke or heart attack, and dying from it.

In the end, while a majority of the 33-member panel did agree that Avandia, compared to other diabetes drugs, does increase risk for cardiovascular problems, they didn’t agree that it increases a user’s risk of death. The FDA will decide if and how it will act on the panel’s recommendation soon. Whatever it decides, the drug’s reputation has already been tarnished.

Need to Know’s Jon Meacham sat down with Dr. Jerome Kassirer, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, to discuss the state of the FDA today in light of the Avandia ruling. Kassirer talked about the conditions that make it possible for drugs such as Fen-phen, Vioxx and now Avandia, the latest drug that may be pulled from the market, to reach consumers.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Tushnet on Teles and The Situation of Ideas – Abstract,” “Larry Lessig’s Situationism,” Industry-Funded Research,” “The Situation of Medical Research,”The company ‘had no control or influence over the research’ . . . .,” “Mark Lanier visits Professor Jon Hanson’s Tort Class (web cast),” “The Situation of University Research,” “Captured Science.”

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

The Situational Effects of (In)Equality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 29, 2010

Here is an intriguing (40-minute) interview with Richard Wilkinson co-author of the book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger and co-founder of The Equality Trust.

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For a sample of related Stiuationist posts, see “The Situational Consequences of Poverty on Brains,” For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Inequality and the Unequal Situation of Mental and Physical Health,” The Interior Situation of Intergenerational Poverty,” Rich Brains, Poor Brains?,” Jeffrey Sachs on the Situation of Global Poverty,” “The Situation of Financial Risk-Taking,” “The Situation of Standardized Test Scores,”The Toll of Discrimination on Black Women,” The Physical Pains of Discrimination,” The Depressing Effects of Racial Discrimination,” and The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions.”

Posted in Book, Conflict, Distribution, Ideology, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Sheena Iyengar on the Situation of Choice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 30, 2010

From Youtube: “Choice is a powerful tool to define ourselves and mold our lives — but what do we know about the wants, motivations, biases, and influences that aid or hinder our endeavors?”

In her new book The Art of Choosing, Columbia University professor [and Situationist friend] Sheena Iyengar, a leading expert on choice, sets herself the task of helping us become better choosers. She asks fascinating questions: Is the desire for choice innate or created by culture? Why do we sometimes choose against our best interests? How much control do we really have over what we choose? Ultimately, she offers unexpected and profound answers, drawn from her award-winning, discipline-spanning research.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Sheena Iyengar’s Situation and the Situation of Choosing,”Sheena Iyengar on ‘The Multiple Choice Problem,’”Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt – Part II,” “Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Our Decisions,”and “Just Choose It! “  To review all of the Situationist posts that discuss the problem with, or illusion of, choices, click here.

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Life, Social Psychology, Video | 3 Comments »

The Affective Situation of Ethics and Mediation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 29, 2010

Ellen Waldman recenly posted her thoughtful article, “Mindfulness, Emotions, and Ethics: The Right Stuff?” (Nevada Law Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2010) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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What role do emotions play in ethical decision-making? Philosophers have long debated the question, disagreeing about both the nature of “the good” and how best to achieve it. Rationalists ground one’s capacity for virtue in logic and deliberate cognition, while moral intuitionists look to one’s capacity for feeling deeply. Immanuel Kant, for example, maintained that right conduct flowed from a sense of duty that functioned independently of emotion. Conversely, David Hume argued that all right action involved sentiment and that reason, stripped of passion, could not impel ethical choice.

Philosophers are not alone in their fascination with the question. Psychologists also have delved into the relationship between emotion and moral development, creating varying models of maturation that either embrace or reject emotion as a critical component of moral discernment. Today, debates in the “soft sciences” of the mind spill into the “hard sciences” of the body. Interest in the biological bases of emotion invigorates neuroscience, and developments in functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) promise methods for mapping the synaptic pathways that induce affective states. Although we can now detect activity in portions of the brain associated with emotional experience, it remains unclear whether those electrical surges push us in “right” or “wrong” directions.

In the mediation world, scholars and practitioners frequently treat emotion as the unruly step-child of the problem-solving mind. Professor Leonard Riskin characterizes emotion as a potential negotiation saboteur and offers “mindful practice” as a useful corrective. He argues that mindful mediation can help negotiators gain better control over their wandering minds and negative emotions, and achieve more satisfying, interest-based solutions.

This essay celebrates Riskin’s call to arms while suggesting some limits to what mindfulness can achieve in the ethical realm. It examines in more detail the relationship Riskin posits between mindful practice and ethical decision-making. It discusses recent developments in neuroethics that imply a prominent role for emotions in establishing ethical restraint. It also surveys a growing body of evidence that suggests the directive power of our emotions remains largely hidden from and impervious to the control of our “reasoning” selves. Lastly, it examines what Riskin has, in an earlier work, described as the ethical “hard case” in light of recent explorations into the emotional wellsprings of deontological versus consequentialist thinking. Although the mediation community need not wade deeply into the debates currently roiling social psychologists, it is useful to reflect on the genesis of our ethical commitments and whether they continue to serve the field’s long-term goals and interests.

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You can download the article for free, here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Legal Ethics,” “Blind to our Situational Blindness,” “Mood and Moral Judgment,” Law, Psychology & Morality – Abstract,” “Situating Emotion,” “The Motivated Situation of Morality,” and “Moral Psychology Primer.”

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Emotions, Morality, Neuroscience, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Sexism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 17, 2010

Shankar Vedantam, author of the outstanding book, “The Hidden Brain,” excerpted a brief section of that book for TheAge.com. Here are some excerpts from that excerpt.

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. . . . The existence of unconscious sexism can be scientifically proved in laboratory experiments. . . .

Bias is much harder to demonstrate scientifically in real life, which may be why large numbers of people do not believe that sexism and other forms of prejudice still exist. Many people think we live in a “post-racial” and “post-sexist” world where egalitarian notions are the norm. Indeed, if you go by what people report, we do live in a bias-free world, because most people report feeling no prejudice whatsoever.

What would be remarkably instructive in real life would be if women in various professions could experience life as men, and vice versa. If the same person got treated differently, we would be sure sexism was at work, because the only thing that changed was the sex of the individual and not his or her skills, talent, knowledge, experience, or interests.

Joan Roughgarden and Ben Barres are biologists at Stanford University. Both are researchers at one of the premier academic institutions in the country; both are tenured professors. Both are transgendered people. Stanford has been a welcoming home for these scientists; if you are going to be a transgendered person anywhere in the United States, it would be difficult to imagine a place more tolerant than Palo Alto and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Ben Barres did not transition to being a man until he was 50. For much of her early life, Barbara Barres was oblivious to questions of sexism. She would hear Gloria Steinem and other feminists talk about discrimination and wonder, “What’s their problem?” She was no activist; all she wanted was to be a scientist. She was an excellent student. When a school guidance counsellor advised her to set her sights lower than MIT, Barbara ignored him, applied to MIT, and got admitted in 1972.

During a particularly difficult maths seminar at MIT, a professor handed out a quiz with five problems. He gave out the test at 9am, and students had to hand in their answers by midnight. The first four problems were easy, and Barbara knocked them off in short order. But the fifth one was a beauty; it involved writing a computer program where the solution required the program to generate a partial answer, and then loop around to the start in a recursive fashion.

“I remember when the professor handed back the exams, he made this announcement that there were five problems but no one had solved the fifth problem and therefore he only scored the class on the four problems,” Ben recalled. “I got an A. I went to the professor and I said, ‘I solved it.’ He looked at me and he had a look of disdain in his eyes, and he said, ‘You must have had your boyfriend solve it.’ To me, the most amazing thing is that I was indignant. I walked away. I didn’t know what to say. He was in essence accusing me of cheating. I was incensed by that. It did not occur to me for years and years that that was sexism.”

By the time she was done with MIT, Barbara had more or less decided she wanted to be a neuroscientist. She decided to go to medical school at Dartmouth in New Hampshire. Gender issues at med school were like the issues at MIT on steroids; one professor referred Barbara to his wife when she wanted to talk about her professional interests. An anatomy professor showed a slide of a nude female pin-up during a lecture.

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But things changed in large and subtle ways after Barbara became Ben.

Ben once gave a presentation at the prestigious Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A friend relayed a comment made by someone in the audience who didn’t know Ben Barres and Barbara Barres were the same person: “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but, then, his work is much better than his sister’s.”

Ben also noticed he was treated differently in the everyday world. “When I go into stores, I notice I am much more likely to be attended to. They come up to me and say, ‘Yes, sir? Can I help you, sir?’ I have had the thought a million times, I am taken more seriously.”

When former Harvard president Larry Summers (who went on to become a senior economic adviser to President Barack Obama) set off a firestorm a few years ago after musing about whether there were fewer women professors in the top ranks of science because of innate differences between men and women, Ben wrote an anguished essay in the journal Nature. He asked whether innate differences or subtle biases – from grade school to graduate school – explained the large disparities between men and women in the highest reaches of science.

“When it comes to bias, it seems that the desire to believe in a meritocracy is so powerful that until a person has experienced sufficient career-harming bias themselves they simply do not believe it exists … By far, the main difference that I have noticed is that people who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

Joan Roughgarden came to Stanford in 1972, more than a quarter century before she made her male-to-female transition in 1998. When the young biologist arrived at Stanford, it felt as though tracks had been laid down; all Roughgarden had to do was stick to the tracks, and the high expectations that others had of the young biologist would do the rest.

“It was clear when I got the job at Stanford that it was like being on a conveyer belt,” Roughgarden told me in an interview. “The career track is set up for young men. You are assumed to be competent unless revealed otherwise. You can speak, and people will pause and people will listen. You can enunciate in definitive terms and get away with it. You are taken as a player. You can use male diction, male tones of voice. … You can assert. You have the authority to frame issues.”

At the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, an outpost of the university about 150 kilometres from campus, Roughgarden ruffled feathers in the scientific establishment by arguing that a prominent theory that described the life cycle of marine animals was wrong. Where previous research had suggested that tide pools were involved in the transportation of certain larvae, Roughgarden reframed the issue and showed that the larger ocean played a significant role. The new theory got harsh reviews, but Roughgarden’s ideas were taken seriously. In short order, Roughgarden became a tenured professor, and a widely respected scientist and author.

Like Ben Barres, Roughgarden made her transition to Joan relatively late in life. Stanford proved tolerant, but very soon Joan started to feel that people were taking her ideas less seriously. In 2006, for example, Joan suggested another famous scientific theory was wrong – Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. . . .

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The scientific establishment, Joan said, was livid. But in contrast to the response to her earlier theory about tide pools and marine animals, few scientists engaged with her. At a workshop at Loyola University, a scientist “lost it” and started screaming at her for being irresponsible. “I had never had experiences of anyone trying to coerce me in this physically intimidating way,” she said, as she compared the reactions to her work before and after she became a woman. “You really think this guy is really going to come over and hit you.”

At a meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Minneapolis, Joan said, a prominent expert jumped up on the stage after her talk and started shouting at her. Once every month or two, she said, ”I will have some man shout at me, try to physically coerce me into stopping …When I was doing the marine ecology work, they did not try to physically intimidate me and say, ‘You have not read all the literature.’

“They would not assume they were smarter. The current crop of objectors assumes they are smarter.”

Joan is willing to acknowledge her theory might be wrong; that, after all, is the nature of science. But what she wants is to be proven wrong, rather than dismissed. Making bold and counter-intuitive assertions is precisely the way science progresses. Many bold ideas are wrong, but if there isn’t a regular supply of them and if they are not debated seriously, there is no progress. After her transition, Joan said she no longer feels she has “the right to be wrong”.

Where she used to be a member of Stanford University’s senate, Joan is no longer on any university or departmental committee. Where she was once able to access internal university funds for research, she said she finds it all but impossible to do so now. Before her transition, she enjoyed an above-average salary at Stanford. But since her transition, “My own salary has drifted down to the bottom 10 per cent of full professors in the School of Humanities and Sciences, even though my research and students are among the best of my career and are having international impact, albeit often controversial.”

I asked her about interpersonal dynamics before and after her transition. “You get interrupted when you are talking, you can’t command attention, but above all you can’t frame the issues,” she said. With a touch of wistfulness, she compared herself to Ben Barres. “Ben has migrated into the centre whereas I have had to migrate into the periphery.”

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You can read the entire excerpt here and learn more about the book here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Being ‘(un)American’,” “Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” “Examining the Gendered Situation of Harvard Business School,” which includes list of still more related links.  

Posted in Book, Distribution, Education, Life, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Not Just Whistling Vivaldi

Posted by Emily Pronin on May 1, 2010

One of the great social psychologists of our time, Claude Steele, was recently on NPR discussing his new book Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. The book is a moving personal account and a compelling scientific discussion of how stereotypes shape the thoughts, feelings, and actions of those whom they target. Steele is the originator of “stereotype threat,” an idea that has spawned countless experiments around the world and profoundly impacted the way that we think about the racial achievement gap in American schooling.

Stereotype threat is a situationist concept if ever there was one. The idea goes like this:  In certain situations, all of us are subject to negative stereotypes because of identities we have (as a professor, we might be stereotyped as absent-minded, as a lawyer as argumentative, or as an African American as violent). The experience of stereotype threat occurs when a person becomes aware that, in a particular situation, he or she may be judged according to a negative stereotype, or may even confirm that stereotype via his or her actions. For example, an African American high school student might experience stereotype threat when taking a standardized test of “intellectual ability.” I sometimes experience stereotype threat when I’m stopped on the street for driving directions (and fear that any error or imprecision could contribute to the stereotype that females lack spatial ability).

Steele and others have found that this experience can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. African American college students who have shown equal math ability to their white peers perform worse on standardized math test problems when they are told that those problems measure intellectual ability (a claim that makes the race stereotype relevant), but they perform equally well when told that those same problems measure problem solving in general—and are not a test of intellectual ability. Whites perform worse at golf putting than African Americans when they are told that it involves innate athletic ability (something that whites are stereotyped to have less of than their African American peers)—but perform better than African Americans when they are told it taps into “athletic intelligence.” And, the effects of stereotype threat go beyond test performance. Women in math and science cut off aspects of their feminine identity when they walk into math class or science lab, in order to avoid being subject to negative stereotypes about their abilities (full disclosure: I was a student of Steele, and this finding was from our research together – pdf).

So why is the book entitled Whistling Vivaldi?  The somewhat mysterious reference is inspired by a story once told by Steele’s friend Brent Staples, a writer for The New York Times. Staples described how, as a young African American graduate student living in Chicago, he found that whites sometimes seemed fearful as he approached them while walking down the street. Over time, he found himself whistling Vivaldi as he walked past, as a way to prevent others from seeing him through the lens of a negative stereotype about young African American men and proneness to violence. His whistling of classical music suggested that the stereotype did not apply to him, and that he was a man of education, “culture,” and “class.” The story is a moving one. It captures the burden of being in situations where we are subject to stereotypes, and also the remarkable capability we have to function in the face of them, albeit at a cost for our mental and psychic resources. Vivaldi probably couldn’t have composed the “Four Seasons” (or solved any difficult math problems) if he’d had to whistle Corelli at the same time.

–Emily Pronin

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To read more about Whistling Vivaldi or purchase the book, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situational Effects of a Black President,” “The Nerdy, Gendered Situation of Computer Science.” “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’,” Social Psychologists Discuss Stereotype Threat,” The Gendered Situation of Chess,” The Situation of Gender-Science Stereotypes,” “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “Women’s Situational Bind,” The Situation of Gender and Science,Stereotype Threat and Performance,” “The Gendered Situation of Science & Math,” Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

Posted in Book, Classic Experiments, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | 6 Comments »

The Situation of Bullying

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 27, 2010

Maia Szalavitz, co-author of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered wrote an intriguing article, titled “How Not to Raise a Bully: The Early Roots of Empathy” in a recent issue of Time Magazine.  Here are some excerpts.

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Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and educators believe that bullying and other kinds of violence can . . . be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age. Over the past decade, research in empathy — the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes — has suggested that it is key, if not the key, to all human social interaction and morality.

Without empathy, we would have no cohesive society, no trust and no reason not to murder, cheat, steal or lie. At best, we would act only out of self-interest; at worst, we would be a collection of sociopaths.

Although human nature has historically been seen as essentially selfish, recent science suggests that it is not. The capacity for empathy is believed to be innate in most humans, as well as some other species — chimps, for instance, will protest the unfair treatment of others, refusing to accept a treat they have rightfully earned if another chimp doing the same work fails to get the same reward.

The first stirrings of human empathy typically appear in babyhood: newborns cry when hearing another infant’s cry, and studies have shown that children as young as 14 months offer unsolicited help to adults who appear to be struggling to reach something. Babies have also shown a distinct preference for adults who help rather than hinder others.

But like language, the development of this inherent tendency may be affected by early experience. As evidence, look no further than ancient Greece and the millennia-old child-rearing practices of Sparta and Athens. Spartans, who were celebrated almost exclusively as warriors, raised their ruling-class boys in an environment of uncompromising brutality — enlisting them in boot camp at age 7 and starving them to encourage enough deviousness and cunning to steal food, which skillfully bred yet more generations of ruthless killers.

In Athens, future leaders were brought up in a more nurturing and peaceful way, at home with their mothers and nurses, starting education in music and poetry at age 6. They became pioneers of democracy, art, theater and culture. “Just like we can train people to kill, the same is true with empathy. You can be taught to be a Spartan or an Athenian — and you can taught to be both,” says Teny Gross, executive director of the outreach group Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, R.I., and a former sergeant in the Israeli army.

What the ancient Greeks intuited is supported by research today. Childhood — as early as infancy — is now known to be a critical time for the development of empathy. And although children can be astonishingly resilient, surviving and sometimes thriving despite abuse and neglect, studies show that those who experience such early trauma are at much greater risk of becoming aggressive or even psychopathic later on, bullying other children or being victimized by bullies themselves.

Simple neglect can be surprisingly damaging. In 2007, researchers published the first randomized, controlled study of the effect of being raised in an orphanage; that study, and subsequent research on the same sample of Romanian orphans, found that compared with babies placed with a foster family, those who were sent to institutions had lower IQs, slower physical growth, problems with human attachment and differences in functioning in brain areas related to emotional development.

Institutionalized infants do not experience being the center of a loving family’s attention; instead, they are cared for by a rotating staff of workers, which is inherently neglectful. The infants miss out on intensive, one-on-one affection and attachment with a parental figure, which babies need at that vulnerable age. Without that experience, they learn early on that the world is a cold, insecure and untrustworthy place. Their emotional needs having gone unmet, they frequently have trouble understanding or appreciating the feelings of others.

Nearly 90% of brain growth takes place in the first five years of life, and the minds of young children who have been neglected or traumatized often fail to make the connection between people and pleasure. That deficit can make it difficult for them to feel or demonstrate love later on. “You can enhance empathy by the way you treat children,” says Martin Hoffman, an emeritus professor of psychology at New York University and a pioneer of empathy research, “or you can kill it by providing a harsh punitive environment.”

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You can read the entire article here, including an extended discussion fo the “Roots of Empathy” program, a school-based program designed to foster empathy and compassion and which has been shown to significantly reduce bullying.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Cruelty of Children,” Jane Elliot’s Situationist Pedagogy,” “Examining the Bullying Situation,” The Situation of Bullying,” The Neuro-Situation of Violence and Empathy,” The Situation of Morality and Empathy,” The Situation of Kindness,” The Situation of Caring,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” The Situation of Gang Rape,” Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part III.”

Posted in Book, Conflict, Emotions, History, Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Deeply Captured Situation of the Economic Crisis

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 18, 2010

Here is an outstanding 30-minute video interview about the sources of the financial crisis.  The interview should resonate with regular readers of The Situationist and those otherwise familiar with the “deep capture” hypothesis.

From Bill Moyers Journal:

“How did Big Finance grow so powerful that its hijinks nearly brought down the global economy – and what hope is there for real reform with Washington politicians on Wall Street’s payroll? Bill Moyers talks with authors Simon Johnson and James Kwak, two of the nation’s most respected economic experts and authors of the new book 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltodown.”

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Here’s a sample of the transcript:

James Kwak: I think there are two things. There’s a narrow and a broad view of this. The narrow view is I think Rubin is actually not lying. I think it is true that Rubin did not know what the risks were. Although he certainly should have known what the risks were. And that’s because he was fully subscribed to this ideology that free markets are good. That the market will take care of itself. That, he also suffered from a lot of the blindness that corporate officers and directors have. Corporate officers and directors manage these enormous organizations with tens of hundreds of thousands of people. They have very little idea what’s going on. They’re getting their information from subordinates, who are giving them a filtered view of the world. On the other hand, when he says, no one could have foreseen this. This is what I call an intellectual cover up. And I say that because it’s very disingenuous. Over the past 20 years, these banks used their economic power and their political power to engineer an unregulated financial environment in which precisely this sort of thing could happen. And in that sense, I think that this was not an accident. It was not a natural disaster. It was not unforeseeable. It was the product of the efforts by the sector over the past 20 years to reshape Washington and to engineer an environment that would allow them to make as much money as possible. Simon talked earlier about money. And we know that the financial sector, especially Wall Street, has been, has made enormous contributions to both campaign contributions and lobbying expenses. But I think there were, there were two more potent weapons in their arsenal. One is the revolving door. So, we’ve seen an enormous number of people passing back and forth between Washington and Wall Street over the past 20 years. This is not a new phenomenon. It happens in every industry. But there are certain things that make it especially pernicious when it comes to finance. One is that, one is a question of incentives. So, compared to other industries, Wall Street can simply offer enormous amounts of money. I’m not saying that everyone did that. I’m not saying that even the majority of people did that. But that is, that is very clear.

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You can learn more about Wall Street reform and Simon Johnson and James Kwak here.

The most basic prediction of the “deep capture” hypothesis is that there will be a competition over the situation (including the way we think) to influence the behavior of individuals and institutions and that those individuals, groups, entities, or institutions that are most powerful will win that competition. The deep capture hypothesis was described in more detail in a series of posts.

  • Part I of that series explained that the “deep capture” story is analogous to the (shallow) capture story told by economists (such as Nobel laureate George Stigler) and public choice theorists for decades regarding the competition over prototypical regulatory institutions.
  • Part II looked to history (specifically, Galileo’s recantation) for another analogy to the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves.
  • Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has implications far broader and deeper than he or others realized.
  • Part IV examined the relative power (measured as the ability to influence situation) of large commercial interests today, much like the power of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day.
  • Part V described other parallels between the Catholic Church and geocentrism, on one hand, and modern corporate interests and dispositionism, on the other.
  • Part VI laid out the “deep capture hypothesis” a bit more and began loosely testing it by examining the role that it may have played in the “deregulatory” movement.
  • Part VII provided some illustrative examples of how atypical “regulators,” from courts to hard-hitting news networks, reflect and contribute to deep capture.
  • Part VIII contrasted different cultures for evidence of commercial interests in promoting dispositionism.
  • Part IX described the strategy of employing third-party messengers.
  • Part X summarized some of the evidence of how pro-commercial interests invested to shape legal theory and law.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Century of Dipositionism – Part I,” “Robert Reich on the Situation of Health Care Reform,” “Conference on the Free Market Mindset,” “Our Stake in Corporate Behavior,” “Tushnet on Teles and The Situation of Ideas – Abstract,” “Larry Lessig’s Situationism,” “The Situation of Policy Research and Policy Outcomes,” Reclaiming Corporate Law in a New Gilded Age – Abstract,” The Illusion of Wall Street Reform,” Industry-Funded Research,” “The Situation of Medical Research,” “The Situation of Talk Radio,” “The company ‘had no control or influence over the research’ . . . .,” “The Situation of University Research,” “Captured Science.”

Posted in Book, Deep Capture, Ideology, Law, Public Policy, Public Relations, Video | 3 Comments »

Sam Gosling on the Meaning of the Stuff in our Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 13, 2010

From ForaTV:

For the last 10 years psychologist Gosling has been studying how people project (and protect) their inner selves. By exploring our private worlds (desks, bedrooms, even our clothes and cars), he shows not only how we showcase our personalities in unexpected ways, but also how we create personality in the first place, communicate it others and interpret the world around us.

Does what’s on your desk reveal what’s on your mind? Do those pictures on your walls tell true tales about your character? Is your favorite outfit about to give you away?

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situational Power of Appearance and Posture,” “Seeing Your Interior Situation through your Exterior Situation,” What Our Exterior Situation Reveals About Our Interior Situation,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” and “The Situation of Ideology – Part II.”

Posted in Book, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Life, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Michael McCullough on the Situation of Revenge and Forgiveness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 6, 2010

From TempletonFoundation:

Why is revenge such a pervasive and destructive problem? Why is forgiveness so difficult? In “Beyond Revenge,” Michael E. McCullough argues that the key to creating a more forgiving world is to understand both the evolutionary forces that gave rise to these intimately human instincts and the social forces that activate them in our minds today. Drawing on the latest breakthroughs in the social and biological sciences, McCullough offers practical and often surprising advice for how individuals, social groups, and even nations might move beyond our deep penchant for revenge.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” The Situation of Revenge,” “The Situation of Punishment,” and “Why We Punish.”

Posted in Book, Conflict, Emotions, Life, Morality, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Tort Law’s Distributional Injustice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 16, 2010

Anita Bernstein, posted her recent review essay, titled “Distributive Justice Through Tort (And Why Sociolegal Scholars Should Care)” (forthcoming 35 Law of Social Inquiry) on  SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Drawing on two books central to an emerging sociolegal literature about tort-Fault Lines: Tort Law as Cultural Practice, a collection of chapters edited by David M. Engel and Michael McCann, and Torts, Egalitarianism and Distributive Justice, a monograph by Tsachi Keren-Paz–this essay argues that tort law in the United States redistributes wealth in ways that ought to trouble sociolegal scholars and enlist their reformist energy. Read together, the two volumes offer considerable description and critique of a distributive injustice, and lead to important proposals for change.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Cultural Situation of Tort Law,” Situationist Torts – Abstract,” “Mark Lanier visits Professor Jon Hanson’s Tort Class (web cast),” “The Distributional Situation of Obesity,” “Robin Hood Motives,” “The Interior Situational Reaction to Inequality,” Martha Fineman on the Situation of Gender and Equality,” “The Blame Frame – Abstract,” “The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” and “The Situation of Inequality – Guns, Germs, and Steel.”

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Distribution, Ideology, Legal Theory | 3 Comments »

Sheena Iyengar’s Situation and the Situation of Choosing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 7, 2010

Last week, Situationist friend, Sheena Iyengar, was interviewed on the Diane Rehm Show (American University Radio) about her new book, “The Art of Choosing.”

The show’s description is as follows:  “The power of choice: Understanding the motivations, biases, and cultural influences that determine the choices, large and small, we make in our lives.”  As interesting as those issues are, the interview itself is at its best when Sheena discusses her own remarkable situation and how that influenced her research.

You can listen to the entire podcast here.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Sheena Iyengar on ‘The Multiple Choice Problem,'”Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt – Part II,” “Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Our Decisions,”and “Just Choose It! “  To review all of the Situationist posts that discuss the problem with, or illusion of, choices, click here.


Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Life, Podcasts, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Mental Illness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 26, 2010

From Wikipedia:

The Rosenhan experiment was a famous experiment into the validity of psychiatric diagnosis conducted by psychologist David Rosenhan in 1973.  It was published in the journal Science under the title “On being sane in insane places.” The study is considered an important and influential criticism of psychiatric diagnosis.

Rosenhan’s study consisted of two parts. The first part involved the use of healthy associates or “pseudopatients” who briefly simulated auditory hallucinations in an attempt to gain admission to 12 different psychiatric hospitals in five different states in various locations in the United States. All were admitted and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. After admission, the pseudopatients acted normally and told staff that they felt fine and had not experienced any more hallucinations. Hospital staff failed to detect a single pseudopatient, and instead believed that all of the pseudopatients exhibited symptoms of ongoing mental illness. Several were confined for months. All were forced to admit to having a mental illness and agree to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release.

The second part involved asking staff at a psychiatric hospital to detect non-existent “fake” patients. The staff falsely identified large numbers of genuine patients as impostors.

The study concluded, “It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals” and also illustrated the dangers of depersonalization and labeling in psychiatric institutions. It suggested that the use of community mental health facilities which concentrated on specific problems and behaviors rather than psychiatric labels might be a solution and recommended education to make psychiatric workers more aware of the social psychology of their facilities.

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From the BBC MindChangers Series:

Listen now by clicking here (30 minutes).

Claudia Hammond revisits . . . David Rosenhan’s Pseudo-Patient Study, gaining access to his unpublished personal papers to discover how it changed our understanding of the human mind, and its impact 40 years on.

After Rosenhan published On Being Sane in Insane Places in the journal Science in 1973, the psychiatric profession went on the defensive to protest its diagnostic competence. The study struck at the heart of their attempts to medicalise psychiatry and be accepted as proper doctors. Its impact was felt when the third edition of the profession’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, came out in 1980: changes had been made which brought more rigour to the diagnostic process.

However, as Claudia discovers from Rosenhan’s unpublished papers, for him the study was less an experiment of diagnostic efficacy than an anthropological survey of psychiatric wards. In a chapter of the book he never finished, she reads his poignant account of his own first admission, and his sense that “minimal attention was paid to my presence, as if I hardly existed.”

Now suffering ill health and unable to speak, Rosenhan delegates his friends and colleagues professor of social psychology at Stanford University Lee Ross and clinical psychologist Florence Keller to speak to Claudia and show her the box containing previously unpublished material which throws new light on one of the most controversial and famous psychology experiments.

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From the New York Times, Ethan Watters (author of the forthcoming book, book “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche”) recently wrote a fascinating article, titled “The Americanization of Mental Illness.”  Here are some excerpts.

Americans, particularly if they are of a certain leftward-leaning, college-educated type, worry about our country’s blunders into other cultures. In some circles, it is easy to make friends with a rousing rant about the McDonald’s near Tiananmen Square, the Nike factory in Malaysia or the latest blowback from our political or military interventions abroad. For all our self-recrimination, however, we may have yet to face one of the most remarkable effects of American-led globalization. We have for many years been busily engaged in a grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of mental health and illness. We may indeed be far along in homogenizing the way the world goes mad.

This unnerving possibility springs from recent research by a loose group of anthropologists and cross-cultural psychiatrists. Swimming against the biomedical currents of the time, they have argued that mental illnesses are not discrete entities like the polio virus with their own natural histories. These researchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places. In some Southeast Asian cultures, men have been known to experience what is called amok, an episode of murderous rage followed by amnesia; men in the region also suffer from koro, which is characterized by the debilitating certainty that their genitals are retracting into their bodies. Across the fertile crescent of the Middle East there is zar, a condition related to spirit-possession beliefs that brings forth dissociative episodes of laughing, shouting and singing.

The diversity that can be found across cultures can be seen across time as well. In his book “Mad Travelers,” the philosopher Ian Hacking documents the fleeting appearance in the 1890s of a fugue state in which European men would walk in a trance for hundreds of miles with no knowledge of their identities. The hysterical-leg paralysis that afflicted thousands of middle-class women in the late 19th century not only gives us a visceral understanding of the restrictions set on women’s social roles at the time but can also be seen from this distance as a social role itself — the troubled unconscious minds of a certain class of women speaking the idiom of distress of their time.

“We might think of the culture as possessing a ‘symptom repertoire’ — a range of physical symptoms available to the unconscious mind for the physical expression of psychological conflict,” Edward Shorter, a medical historian at the University of Toronto, wrote in his book “Paralysis: The Rise and Fall of a ‘Hysterical’ Symptom.” “In some epochs, convulsions, the sudden inability to speak or terrible leg pain may loom prominently in the repertoire. In other epochs patients may draw chiefly upon such symptoms as abdominal pain, false estimates of body weight and enervating weakness as metaphors for conveying psychic stress.”

In any given era, those who minister to the mentally ill — doctors or shamans or priests — inadvertently help to select which symptoms will be recognized as legitimate. Because the troubled mind has been influenced by healers of diverse religious and scientific persuasions, the forms of madness from one place and time often look remarkably different from the forms of madness in another.

That is until recently.

For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.

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What is being missed, . . .[some doctors] have suggested, is a deep understanding of how the expectations and beliefs of the sufferer shape their suffering. “Culture shapes the way general psychopathology is going to be translated partially or completely into specific psychopathology. . . . When[, for example,] there is a cultural atmosphere in which professionals, the media, schools, doctors, psychologists all recognize and endorse and talk about and publicize eating disorders, then people can be triggered to consciously or unconsciously pick eating-disorder pathology as a way to express that conflict.”

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THE IDEA THAT our Western conception of mental health and illness might be shaping the expression of illnesses in other cultures is rarely discussed in the professional literature. Many modern mental-health practitioners and researchers believe that the scientific standing of our drugs, our illness categories and our theories of the mind have put the field beyond the influence of endlessly shifting cultural trends and beliefs. After all, we now have machines that can literally watch the mind at work. We can change the chemistry of the brain in a variety of interesting ways and we can examine DNA sequences for abnormalities. The assumption is that these remarkable scientific advances have allowed modern-day practitioners to avoid the blind spots and cultural biases of their predecessors.

Modern-day mental-health practitioners often look back at previous generations of psychiatrists and psychologists with a thinly veiled pity, wondering how they could have been so swept away by the cultural currents of their time. The confident pronouncements of Victorian-era doctors regarding the epidemic of hysterical women are now dismissed as cultural artifacts. Similarly, illnesses found only in other cultures are often treated like carnival sideshows. . . .

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Of course, we can become psychologically unhinged for many reasons that are common to all, like personal traumas, social upheavals or biochemical imbalances in our brains. Modern science has begun to reveal these causes. Whatever the trigger, however, the ill individual and those around him invariably rely on cultural beliefs and stories to understand what is happening. . . . It means that a mental illness is an illness of the mind and cannot be understood without understanding the ideas, habits and predispositions — the idiosyncratic cultural trappings — of the mind that is its host.

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CROSS-CULTURAL psychiatrists have pointed out that the mental-health ideas we export to the world are rarely unadulterated scientific facts and never culturally neutral. “Western mental-health discourse introduces core components of Western culture, including a theory of human nature, a definition of personhood, a sense of time and memory and a source of moral authority. None of this is universal,” Derek Summerfield of the Institute of Psychiatry in London observes. He has also written: “The problem is the overall thrust that comes from being at the heart of the one globalizing culture. It is as if one version of human nature is being presented as definitive, and one set of ideas about pain and suffering. . . . There is no one definitive psychology.”

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To read the entirety of Waters’s fascinating article (including an illuminating discussion of how the “brain disease” concept of mental illness may have increased, not decreased, the stigma of mental illness and thus hurt the very people it was supposed to help), click here.  (Thanks to Situationist friend, Andrew Perlman for suggesting this article to us.)

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers,” “Imagine You Could Change Your Brain. Oops, You Just Did!,” and “Placebo and the Situation of Healing.”

Posted in Book, Classic Experiments, Cultural Cognition, Life | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Morality and Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 21, 2010

Situationist friend and author David Berreby recently conducted a fascinating interview of  primatologist Frans De Waal on BloggingHeads.  A rough table of contents of their discussion is listed just below the video.

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Frans’s latest book, “The Age of Empathy” (04:11)
Empathy as a social contagion (06:54)
A biological basis for morality and soccer hooliganism (18:48)
Does religion have to be at war with science? (12:48)
The fragility of empathy (04:08)
Enron, the selfish gene, and Nazi pseudoscience (08:14)

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To read about Frans de Waal’s latest book, The Age of Empathy, click here. To check out David Berreby’s excellent blog, Mind Matters, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Science of Morality,” “The Situation of Kindness,” The Situation of Caring,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” The Situational Benefits of Outsiders,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “Team-Interested Decision Making,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,”The Case for Obedience,” and “March Madness,”

Posted in Book, Conflict, Morality, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Our Food – Part V

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 6, 2010

Michael Pollan (a professor of science and environmental journalism at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California) has a new, short book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Pollan’s writing has been frequently featured on this blog because it is superb and because of his fascinating situationist perspective regarding our food “choices.”  Here is a blurb about the book from Pollan’s website.

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Eating doesn’t have to be so complicated. In this age of ever-more elaborate diets and conflicting health advice, Food Rules brings a welcome simplicity to our daily decisions about food. Written with the clarity, concision and wit that has become bestselling author Michael Pollan’s trademark, this indispensable handbook lays out a set of straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely, one per page accompanied by a concise explanation. It’s an easy-to-use guide that draws from a variety of traditions, suggesting how different cultures through the ages have arrived at the same enduring wisdom about food. Whether at the supermarket or an all-you-can-eat buffet, this is the perfect guide for anyone who ever wondered, “What should I eat?”

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Here are a few excerprts from Jennifer Bain’s  telephone interview (for TheStar.com) of Michael Pollan about his new book.

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Q: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” is a powerful, memorable statement that was in In Defense of Food and now Food Rules and sums up your food philosophy. What effect has it had?

A: It has kind of entered the culture as a meme. I hear it all the time and see it on T-shirts. The idea was to make some very easy rules people would remember. The “mostly” (mostly plants) is controversial. It seems to annoy both carnivores and vegetarians.

Q: Now you’ve given us Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual with 64 digestible points/rules/personal policies. Why?

A: I did this because I was hearing from lots of medical professionals, doctors and parents that they would love to have something – a pamphlet, really – that pared things down to the essentials. I wanted to reduce the message and get it out to a lot of people who might not be ready or willing to read a whole book. I wanted to preach to beyond the choir. I spend a lot of time talking to upper-middle-class, affluent people, but talking to them about obesity and diabetes. I’m trying to reach a very broad audience. It’s meant to be user friendly, something where you can dive in anywhere and come back.

Q: You’ve nailed one of the biggest food problems with the term “edible foodlike substances.” Did you coin this phrase?

A: I think I did coin this phrase. I felt a big part of our problem is that we should eat “food” and a whole lot of things don’t deserve that designation. I felt I needed a counterpart to food to draw that distinction. I tried to be as value-neutral as I could.

Q: Rule 17: Eat food cooked by humans, not corporations. Does anybody want to cook anymore?

A: Yes and no. Many people feel they don’t have enough time to cook. Many people feel intimidated by cooking. Many do want to cook but are stymied by a lack or knowledge or equipment. I see inklings of a shift back to cooking, somewhat due to the economy. I think there are people rediscovering the kitchen right now. The more I look at this question, the collapse of cooking is a very big part of our problem all the way down to the farm.

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Q: Rule 46: Stop eating before you’re full and try to eat only to 67 to 80 per cent capacity. Easier said than done?

A: Once you start paying attention to it, it’s just about being mindful. Yeah, for most North Americans it is hard. We’ve been sort of taught by the culture to eat until you’re stuffed. The French say: “Je n’ai plus faim” – I have no more hunger. Ask yourself, before you take that bite, is my hunger gone?

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Q: Are you done with writing about food?

A: Um, no. I’m not. I have more to say. I want to write about cooking, and I want to learn how to cook better. I also have not written very much on the international food question – how you feed the world.

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Click on the following video to watch John Stewart’s (Daily Show, Monday 12/04/10) interview of Michael Pollan.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, go to “The Situation of our Food – Part I,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,”The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” and “The Situation of our Food – Part IV.”

Posted in Book, Food and Drug Law, Life, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Motivated Judicial Reasoning

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 30, 2009

In her recent book, Law, Politics, and Perception: How Policy Preferences Influence Legal Reasoning (2009), Eileen Braman examines how policy preferences and legal authority interact to influence judicial decision making.  Here’s the book’s abstract.

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Are judges’ decisions more likely to be based on personal inclinations or legal authority? The answer, Eileen Braman argues, is both. Law, Politics, and Perception brings cognitive psychology to bear on the question of the relative importance of norms of legal reasoning versus decision markers’ policy preferences in legal decision-making. While Braman acknowledges that decision makers’ attitudes—or, more precisely, their preference for policy outcomes—can play a significant role in judicial decisions, she also believes that decision-makers’ belief that they must abide by accepted rules of legal analysis significantly limits the role of preferences in their judgments. To reconcile these competing factors, Braman posits that judges engage in “motivated reasoning,” a biased process in which decision-makers are unconsciously predisposed to find legal authority that is consistent with their own preferences more convincing than those that go against them. But Braman also provides evidence that the scope of motivated reasoning is limited. Objective case facts and accepted norms of legal reasoning can often inhibit decision makers’ ability to reach conclusions consistent with their preferences.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Judicial Activism,” “The Situation of Biased Perceptions,” “The Bias of the Bar?,” “Judicial Ideology – Abstract,” The Situation of Judicial Methods – Abstract,” “The Situation of Constitutional Beliefs – Abstract,” The Political Situation of Judicial Activism,” Ideology is Back!,” “The Situation of Judges (1),” The Situation of Judges (2),” Blinking on the Bench,” “The Situation of Judging – Part I,” “The Situation of Judging – Part II,” and “Justice Thomas and the Conservative Hypocrisy.”

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Choice Myth, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 10, 2009

From GRITtv: “Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book looks at the downside of looking on the bright side, which she says has undermined America.”

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Barbara Ehrenreich – a Situationist,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?,” “Cheering for the Underdog,” “Ayn Rand’s Dispositionism: The Situation of Ideas,” Deep Capture – Part X,” “Promoting Dispositionism through Entertainment – Part I, Part II, & Part III,”

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Ideology, Illusions, Life, Positive Psychology, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Barbara Ehrenreich – a Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 14, 2009

Desert DaisyBarbara Ehrenreich’s terrific, highly situationist, new book is now on the shelves, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.

From a related Time Magazine article here’s a brief sample of her writing on the topic of optimism.

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If you’re craving a quick hit of optimism, reading a news magazine is probably not the best way to go about finding it. As the life coaches and motivational speakers have been trying to tell us for more than a decade now, a healthy, positive mental outlook requires strict abstinence from current events in all forms. Instead, you should patronize sites like Happynews.com, where the top international stories of the week include “Jobless Man Finds Buried Treasure” and “Adorable ‘Teacup Pigs’ Are Latest Hit with Brits.”

Or of course you can train yourself to be optimistic through sheer mental discipline. Ever since psychologist Martin Seligman crafted the phrase “learned optimism” in 1991 and started offering optimism training, there’s been a thriving industry in the kind of thought reform that supposedly overcomes negative thinking. You can buy any number of books and DVDs with titles like Little Gold Book of YES! Attitude, in which you will learn mental exercises to reprogram your outlook from gray to the rosiest pink: “affirmations,” for example, in which you repeat upbeat predictions over and over to yourself; “visualizations” in which you post on your bathroom mirror pictures of that car or boat you want; “disputations” to refute any stray negative thoughts that may come along. If money is no object, you can undergo a three-month “happiness makeover” from a life coach or invest $3,575 for three days of “optimism training” on a Good Mood Safari on the coast of New South Wales. . . .

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Americans have long prided themselves on being “positive” and optimistic — traits that reached a manic zenith in the early years of this millennium. Iraq would be a cakewalk! The Dow would reach 36,000! Housing prices could never decline! Optimism was not only patriotic, it was a Christian virtue, or so we learned from the proliferating preachers of the “prosperity gospel,” whose God wants to “prosper” you. In 2006, the runaway bestseller The Secret promised that you could have anything you wanted, anything at all, simply by using your mental powers to “attract” it. The poor listened to upbeat preachers like Joel Osteen and took out subprime mortgages. The rich paid for seminars led by motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and repackaged those mortgages into securities sold around the world. . . .

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Below are some excerpts from the introduction of her new book explaining that, optimism notwithstanding, Americans are not necessarily better off.

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Surprisingly, when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third, surpassed by the Dutch, the Danes, the Malaysians, the Bahamians, the Austrians, and even the supposedly dour Finns. In another potential sign of relative distress, Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. To my knowledge, no one knows how antidepressant use affects people’s responses to happiness surveys: do respondents report being happy because the drugs make them feel happy or do they report being unhappy because they know they are dependent on drugs to make them feel better? Without our heavy use of antidepressants, Americans would likely rank far lower in the happiness rankings than we currently do.

When economists attempt to rank nations more objectively in terms of “well-being,” taking into account such factors as health, environmental sustainability, and the possibility of upward mobility, the United States does even more poorly than it does when only the subjective state of “happiness” is measured. The Happy Planet Index, to give just one example, locates us at 150th among the world’s nations.

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Bright-Sided CoverBut of course it takes the effort of positive thinking to imagine that America is the “best” or the “greatest.” Militarily, yes, we are the mightiest nation on earth. But on many other fronts, the American score is dismal, and was dismal even before the economic downturn that began in 2007. Our children routinely turn out to be more ignorant of basic subjects like math and geography than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. They are also more likely to die in infancy or grow up in poverty. Almost everyone acknowledges that our health care system is “broken” and our physical infrastructure crumbling. We have lost so much of our edge in science and technology that American companies have even begun to outsource their research and development efforts. Worse, some of the measures by which we do lead the world should inspire embarrassment rather than pride: We have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated, and the greatest level of inequality in wealth and income. We are plagued by gun violence and racked by personal debt.

While positive thinking has reinforced and found reinforcement in American national pride, it has also entered into a kind of symbiotic relationship with American capitalism. There is no natural, innate affinity between capitalism and positive thinking. In fact, one of the classics of sociology, Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, makes a still impressive case for capitalism’s roots in the grim and punitive outlook of Calvinist Protestantism, which required people to defer gratification and resist all pleasurable temptations in favor of hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

But if early capitalism was inhospitable to positive thinking, “late” capitalism, or consumer capitalism, is far more congenial, depending as it does on the individual’s hunger for more and the firm’s imperative of growth. The consumer culture encourages individuals to want more — cars, larger homes, television sets, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds — and positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it. Meanwhile, in a competitive business world, the companies that manufacture these goods and provide the paychecks that purchase them have no alternative but to grow. If you don’t steadily increase market share and profits, you risk being driven out of business or swallowed by a larger enterprise. Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.

In addition, positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a “victim” and a “whiner.”

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You can read more about the book and purchase it here.   You can listen to an excellent, half-hour Talk of the Nation interview of Barbara Ehrenreich about the book here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Self-Serving Biases,” “The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?,” “Cheering for the Underdog,” “Ayn Rand’s Dispositionism: The Situation of Ideas,” Deep Capture – Part X,” “Promoting Dispositionism through Entertainment – Part I, Part II, & Part III,” “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III.”

Posted in Book, Cultural Cognition, Deep Capture, Emotions, Ideology, Life, Positive Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Toward a Situationist Perspective on Regulation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 27, 2009

New PerspectivesTobin Project Program Officer and Situationist friend, John Cisternino, has an important new co-edited book, titled “New Perspectives on Regulation.”  Here’s the abstract.

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New regulation shouldn’t rely on old ideas. Since the 1960s, influential research on government failure helped to drive the movement for deregulation and privatization. Yet even as this branch of research was flourishing, very different ideas were sprouting in the social sciences with profound implications for our understanding of human behavior and the role of government. Some of these ideas, particularly from the field of behavioral economics, have begun to enter into discussions of regulatory purpose, design, and implementation. The process is far from complete, and many other exciting new lines of research – on everything from social cooperation to co-regulation – have hardly been incorporated at all. It is imperative that lawmakers and their constituents be able to draw on the very latest academic work in thinking anew about the role of government. This is the purpose of this book: to make the newest and most important research accessible to a broad audience.

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The book contains several relatively situationist chapters, including the following (which you can download below):

  1. The Case for Behaviorally Informed Regulation PDF
    Michael S. Barr, Professor of Law, University of Michigan; Sendhil Mullainathan, Professor of Economics, Harvard University; Eldar Shafir, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University
  2. From Greenspan’s Despair to Obama’s Hope: The Scientific Basis of Cooperation as Principles of Regulation PDF
    Yochai Benkler, Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, Harvard University

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To read more about the book and to download individual chapters or the entire book, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Conference on the Free Market Mindset,” “Hanson’s Chair Lecture on Situationism,” Behavioral Economics and Policy,” “Do You Implicitly Prefer Markets or Regulation?,” “The Illusion of Wall Street Reform,” “Situationism’s Improving Situation,” “The Situation of the Mortgage Crisis,” and “Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health.”

Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Book, Law, Legal Theory | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Time and Mind

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 23, 2009

ClockSituationist friend, Ellen Langer takes a mindful view of our mental powers in her fascinating book, “Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.”  Here are some excerpts from Melora North’s review in Wicked Local.

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[Ellen Langer]  has taken on an awesome challenge to introduce readers of all ages to new concepts that may indeed change their lives and turn back time.

“Way back when we did research on elderly people,” she says. “We wanted to find out how a change in mind can change people. If you put the mind in a different place the results are dramatic, the mind and body come back together. Where you put the mind, you put the body.”

One of the studies Langer conducted with five of her grad students was to assemble a group of elderly, reasonably healthy men who would live for one week in a world where the clock was turned back 20 years to 1959. They lived in an environment where the television only played programs from that time, the radio shouting out tunes and news broadcasts from the same era. Photographs, newspapers and magazines, political discussions, everything was a replica of 1959 in their controlled world. The men were directed to let themselves “be just who you were in 1959. We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this, you will also feel as well as you did in 1959,” says Langer in her book.

Langer and her team were right; the mind does indeed have wondrous control over the body. During the week the men became more independent, motivated and engaging. At the conclusion of the week each man had gained an average of three pounds, their memories and hearing had improved and the strength of their grips increased — the participants actually got “younger.”

“This book is very important,” says Langer. “Especially with all the baby boomers. The mindsets we form when we’re younger lock us into our health when we get older. If you believe you can’t control your life and health then you can’t.”

Sharing her insights, research and experience, Langer introduces the reader to ideas that can trip up the mind, thus enabling it to actually heal the body. For instance, she conducted eye tests in which she reversed the eye chart. The results were astounding, patients could actually see better because they had more optimistic expectations.

Another example is the power of words. A simple concept, she found that those with cancer who consider themselves cured enjoy healthier lives while those who say they are in remission have higher depression scores.

For those of you out there struggling with your weight, there is good news, and again, it is all about words. One of Langer’s studies took on a group of hotel chambermaids who have highly physical jobs. Vacuuming, lugging garbage, all these exercises burn calories and test stamina. The maids had a mindset that they were just doing their jobs, not getting exercise. Ha! Once they were informed their work was exercise, the brain set in to shape a different mental image and the women actually began to lose weight, an added benefit being the lowering of their blood pressure.

In this book Langer shares her research on the power of placebos and whether patients actually need traditional medications. She tells how best to work with your doctor explaining that we are in charge of our own vessel and cannot assume that our annual check-ups and yearly blood work will tell the whole story of our physical being.

* * *

To read the entire review, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Health and Aging,” “Time and the Situation of Marshmallows,” and “January Fools’ Day.”

Posted in Book, Life, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

 
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