The Situationist

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Randomness, Luck, Chance, and other Situational Forces

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 24, 2009

Professor Leonard Mlodinow visits Google’s Mountain View, CA headquarters to discuss his book, “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” (42 minutes).

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To read a few related Situationist posts, see “Seeing Michael Phelps’s Gold Medal Situation,” “Randomness, Luck, and other Situational Sources of Success and Failure,” and The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’.”

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Illusions, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Homogeneity

Posted by Adam Benforado on July 20, 2009

NudgeThis summer, I have finally gotten around to reading Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge and, unsurprisingly, there is much in the book that parallels situationist work.  Indeed, many (if not most) of the referenced social psychology experiments and dynamics should already be familiar to readers of this website.

One paragraph that I came across this morning particularly struck a chord with me because it took up a topic that I addressed not a month earlier in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun: the problem with “collaborative filtering,” whereby consumers are given recommendations based on the preferences of others with identical tastes.  As Thaler and Sunstein explain,

[S]urprise and serendipity can be fun for people, and good for them too, and it may not be entirely wonderful if our primary source of information is about what people like us like.  Sometimes it’s good to learn what people unlike us like—and to see whether we might even like that.  If you like the mystery writer Robert B. Parker (and we agree that he’s great), collaborative filtering will probably direct you to other mystery writers (we suggest trying Lee Child, by the way), buy why not try a little Joyce Carol Oates, or maybe even Henry James?  If you’re a Democrat, and you like books that fit your predilections, you might want to see what Republicans think; no part can possibly have a monopoly on wisdom.  Public-spirited choice architects—those who run the daily newspaper, for example—know that it’s good to nudge people in directions that they might not have specifically chosen in advance.

As my op-ed, included below, suggests, Thaler and Sunstein’s faith in daily newspapers may be misplaced . . .

Segregating markets – and people

What do people interested in recent conservative attacks on federal appellate Judge Sonia Sotomayor buy? Portable pet carriers, moisturizing liquid hand soap, and flat screen televisions. The fact that I know this is not something I find comforting.

Let me explain. After I wrote a recent op-ed, a friend drew my attention to something at the bottom of the online version of the article. I have grown used to advertisements with my news and links to “most read articles,” but this seemed to raise the stakes. Alongside the helpful recommendation of other articles the newspaper imagined the reader might like based on her decision to read an op-ed on Supreme Court nominations was a list of “paired” products that other readers of the piece had purportedly purchased.

The list ought to be reassuring, I suppose: I would hate to think that readers were only purchasing catamarans and caviar. Still, I am not sure that this is an encouraging development.

True, the various technologies that make product linkage possible are not particularly mysterious or menacing. In a typicaAlso Readl scenario, when you visit a Web site, a tracking “cookie” may be placed on your computer. These cookies store data about the places you have visited on the Internet. By collecting such information for millions of people, advertisers know what individuals with an identical browsing history subsequently looked at and can direct you to the same page.

I wonder if it is good to assist individuals in this way – and, more specifically, for newspapers to be involved in this process.

Desire can be manufactured. Hummers can be sold to Manhattan housewives. Water that is by all measures inferior to that flowing out of the tap for free can be bottled and priced at $4 a pop.

Maybe readers of my op-ed do not really need or want a new flat screen TV, but what is the problem with a newspaper encouraging them to buy one? The paper makes a little revenue; Sam’s Club sells a TV; and the reader gets a fun status symbol.

The answer is that although “funneling” might be fairly harmless when it comes to being guided to other albums while shopping for a CD, the same may not be true on the broader scale. What does it mean for society when individuals who read the same articles are, as a result, encouraged to go to the same movies, wear the same clothes, drive the same cars, vacation in the same resorts and eat in the same restaurants?

Creating and reinforcing insular communities is likely to hurt us in the long run. Humans may gravitate toward those most like them, but we should resist the impulse to help the process along.

If I am going to be swayed into buying a product or watching a show, I would like to think that, at least, everyone else is being moved in the same way. In a country still deeply divided along racial, religious, economic, and ideological lines, wouldn’t it be nice if the liberal, black teenager in L.A. was encouraged to read the same book as the conservative, white soccer mom in Nashville?

How will we ever close the gaps, if we are constantly steered to opposite sides of the lunch counter?

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To review previous Situationis posts discussing marketing, click here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book, Choice Myth, Conflict, Entertainment, Ideology, Life, Marketing, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Dr. David Kessler Waxes Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 11, 2009

End of Overeating CoverTara Parker-Pope recently had a terrific article, titled “How the Food Makers Captured Our Brains,” in The New York Times.  Thanks to the many readers who forwarded us the link to this article, recognizing it’s situationist message.  Here are some excerpts.

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As head of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. David A. Kessler served two presidents and battled Congress and Big Tobacco. But the Harvard-educated pediatrician discovered he was helpless against the forces of a chocolate chip cookie.

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“Why does that chocolate chip cookie have such power over me?” Dr. Kessler asked in an interview. “Is it the cookie, the representation of the cookie in my brain? I spent seven years trying to figure out the answer.”

The result of Dr. Kessler’s quest is a fascinating new book, “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite” (Rodale).

During his time at the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Kessler . . . [was] perhaps best known for his efforts to investigate and regulate the tobacco industry, and his accusation that cigarette makers intentionally manipulated nicotine content to make their products more addictive.

In “The End of Overeating,” Dr. Kessler finds some similarities in the food industry, which has combined and created foods in a way that taps into our brain circuitry and stimulates our desire for more.

When it comes to stimulating our brains, Dr. Kessler noted, individual ingredients aren’t particularly potent. But by combining fats, sugar and salt in innumerable ways, food makers have essentially tapped into the brain’s reward system, creating a feedback loop that stimulates our desire to eat and leaves us wanting more and more even when we’re full.

Dr. Kessler isn’t convinced that food makers fully understand the neuroscience of the forces they have unleashed, but food companies certainly understand human behavior, taste preferences and desire. In fact, he offers descriptions of how restaurants and food makers manipulate ingredients to reach the aptly named “bliss point.” Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. But food scientists work hard to reach the precise point at which we derive the greatest pleasure from fat, sugar and salt.

The result is that chain restaurants like Chili’s cook up “hyper-palatable food that requires little chewing and goes down easily,” he notes. And Dr. Kessler reports that the Snickers bar, for instance, is “extraordinarily well engineered.” As we chew it, the sugar dissolves, the fat melts and the caramel traps the peanuts so the entire combination of flavors is blissfully experienced in the mouth at the same time.

Foods rich in sugar and fat are relatively recent arrivals on the food landscape, Dr. Kessler noted. But today, foods are more than just a combination of ingredients. They are highly complex creations, loaded up with layer upon layer of stimulating tastes that result in a multisensory experience for the brain. Food companies “design food for irresistibility,” Dr. Kessler noted. “It’s been part of their business plans.”

But this book is less an exposé about the food industry and more an exploration of us. “My real goal is, How do you explain to people what’s going on with them?” Dr. Kessler said. “Nobody has ever explained to people how their brains have been captured.”

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One of his main messages is that overeating is not due to an absence of willpower, but a biological challenge made more difficult by the overstimulating food environment that surrounds us. “Conditioned hypereating” is a chronic problem that is made worse by dieting and needs to be managed rather than cured, he said. And while lapses are inevitable, Dr. Kessler outlines several strategies that address the behavioral, cognitive and nutritional factors that fuel overeating.

Planned and structured eating and understanding your personal food triggers are essential. In addition, educating yourself about food can help alter your perceptions about what types of food are desirable. Just as many of us now find cigarettes repulsive, Dr. Kessler argues that we can also undergo similar “perceptual shifts” about large portion sizes and processed foods. For instance, he notes that when people who once loved to eat steak become vegetarians, they typically begin to view animal protein as disgusting.

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You can watch David Kessler’s Google presentation in the video below.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Food: The Movie,”Our Situation Is What We Eat,” Big Calories Come in Small Packages,” “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,”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, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Education, Food and Drug Law, Marketing, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Health and Aging

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 1, 2009

Ellen Langer three-nancysSituationist friend Ellen Langer‘s latest book, “Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility,”  is out, and Wray Herbert recently wrote a terrific review of it for Newsweek, which we have digested below.

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Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer [conducted] a study . . . with a group of elderly men some years ago, retrofitting an isolated old New England hotel so that every visible sign said it was 20 years earlier. The men—in their late 70s and early 80s—were told not to reminisce about the past, but to actually act as if they had traveled back in time. The idea was to see if changing the men’s mindset about their own age might lead to actual changes in health and fitness.

Langer’s findings were stunning: After just one week, the men in the experimental group (compared with controls of the same age) had more joint flexibility, increased dexterity and less arthritis in their hands. Their mental acuity had risen measurably, and they had improved gait and posture. Outsiders who were shown the men’s photographs judged them to be significantly younger than the controls. In other words, the aging process had in some measure been reversed.

Langer and her Harvard colleagues have been running similarly inventive experiments for decades, and the accumulated weight of the evidence is convincing. Her theory, argued in her new book, “Counterclockwise,” is that we are all victims of our own stereotypes about aging and health. We mindlessly accept negative cultural cues about disease and old age, and these cues shape our self-concepts and our behavior. If we can shake loose from the negative clichés that dominate our thinking about health, we can “mindfully” open ourselves to possibilities for more productive lives even into old age.

Consider another of Langer’s mindfulness studies, this one using an ordinary optometrist’s eye chart. That’s the chart with the huge E on top, and descending lines of smaller and smaller letters that eventually become unreadable. Langer and her colleagues wondered: what if we reversed it? The regular chart creates the expectation that at some point you will be unable to read. Would turning the chart upside down reverse that expectation, so that people would expect the letters to become readable? That’s exactly what they found. The subjects still couldn’t read the tiniest letters, but when they were expecting the letters to get more legible, they were able to read smaller letters than they could have normally. Their expectation—their mindset—improved their actual vision . . . .

Most people try to dress appropriately for their age, so clothing in effect becomes a cue for ingrained attitudes about age. But what if this cue disappeared? Langer decided to study people who routinely wear uniforms as part of their work life, and compare them with people who dress in street clothes. She found that people who wear uniforms missed fewer days owing to illness or injury, had fewer doctors’ visits and hospitalizations, and had fewer chronic diseases—even though they all had the same socioeconomic status. That’s because they were not constantly reminded of their own aging by their fashion choices. The health differences were even more exaggerated when Langer looked at affluent people: presumably the means to buy even more clothes provides a steady stream of new aging cues, which wealthy people internalize as unhealthy attitudes and expectations.

We are surrounded every day by subtle signals that aging is an undesirable period of decline. These signals make it difficult to age gracefully. Similar signals also lock all of us—regardless of age—into pigeonholes for disease. We are too quick to accept diagnostic categories like cancer and depression, and let them define us.  . . .  [W]ith a little mindfulness, we can try to embrace uncertainty and understand that the way we feel today may or may not connect to the way we will feel tomorrow.

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To read the entire Wray article, click here.  To read more about or purchase Professor Langer’s new book, click here.  The image above, titled “Three Nancy’s,” is from a collection of Ellen Langer’s artwork on Scouting for Art.  To watch a video interview of Ellen Langer about her new book, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Giving Is Receiving,” and “January Fools’ Day.”

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

The Situation of “Genius”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 11, 2009

Child Genius -  flickrDavid Brooks had a worthwhile, situationist op-ed in the New York Times on sources of “genius.”  Here are some excerpts.

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Some people live in romantic ages. They tend to believe that genius is the product of a divine spark. They believe that there have been, throughout the ages, certain paragons of greatness — Dante, Mozart, Einstein — whose talents far exceeded normal comprehension, who had an other-worldly access to transcendent truth, and who are best approached with reverential awe.

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The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.

The recent research has been conducted by people like K. Anders Ericsson, the late Benjamin Bloom and others. It’s been summarized in two enjoyable new books: “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle; and “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.

If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you’d take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It wouldn’t have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits. Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic background, or, shared the same birthday — anything to create a sense of affinity.

This contact would give the girl a vision of her future self. It would, Coyle emphasizes, give her a glimpse of an enchanted circle she might someday join. It would also help if one of her parents died when she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and fueling a desperate need for success.

Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary biographies without end. This would give her a core knowledge of her field. She’d be able to chunk Victorian novelists into one group, Magical Realists in another group and Renaissance poets into another. This ability to place information into patterns, or chunks, vastly improves memory skills. She’d be able to see new writing in deeper ways and quickly perceive its inner workings.

Then she would practice writing. Her practice would be slow, painstaking and error-focused. According to Colvin, Ben Franklin would take essays from The Spectator magazine and translate them into verse. Then he’d translate his verse back into prose and examine, sentence by sentence, where his essay was inferior to The Spectator’s original.

Coyle describes a tennis academy in Russia where they enact rallies without a ball. The aim is to focus meticulously on technique. (Try to slow down your golf swing so it takes 90 seconds to finish. See how many errors you detect.)

By practicing in this way, performers delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.

Then our young writer would find a mentor who would provide a constant stream of feedback, viewing her performance from the outside, correcting the smallest errors, pushing her to take on tougher challenges. By now she is redoing problems — how do I get characters into a room — dozens and dozens of times. She is ingraining habits of thought she can call upon in order to understand or solve future problems.

The primary trait she possesses is not some mysterious genius. It’s the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.

Coyle and Colvin describe dozens of experiments fleshing out this process. This research takes some of the magic out of great achievement. But it underlines a fact that is often neglected. Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re “hard-wired” to do. And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

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The entire op-ed is here.   For some related Situationist posts, see “Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids,” How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition” (which includes a video of Carol Dweck), “The Perils of Being Smart,” “Jock or Nerd,” “First Person or Third,”The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players,” and The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’.”

Posted in Book, Education, Situationist Sports, Video | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 16, 2009

Milgram's StudentSituationist Contributer Philip Zimbardo has authored the preface to a new edition of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s seminal book Obedience to Authority. This is the second of a two-part series derived from that preface. In Part I of the post, Zimbardo describes the inculcation of obedience and Milgram’s role as a research pioneer. In this part, Zimbardo answers challenges to Milgram’s work and locates its legacy.

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Unfortunately, many psychologists, students, and lay people who believe that they know the “Milgram Shock” study, know only one version of it, most likely from seeing his influential movie Obedience or reading a textbook summary.

He has been challenged for using only male participants, which was true initially, but later he replicated his findings with females. He has been challenged for relying only on Yale students, because the first studies were conducted at Yale University. However, the Milgram obedience research covers nineteen separate experimental versions, involving about a thousand participants, ages twenty to fifty, of whom none are college or high school students! His research has been heavily criticized for being unethical by creating a situation that generated much distress for the person playing the role of the teacher believing his shocks were causing suffering to the person in the role of the learner. I believe that it was seeing his movie, in which he includes scenes of distress and indecision among his participants, that fostered the initial impetus for concern about the ethics of his research. Reading his research articles or his book does not convey as vividly the stress of participants who continued to obey authority despite the apparent suffering they were causing their innocent victims. I raise this issue not to argue for or against the ethicality of this research, but rather to raise the issue that it is still critical to read the original presentations of his ideas, methods, results, and discussions to understand fully what he did. That is another virtue of this collection of Milgram’s obedience research.

A few words about how I view this body of research. First, it is the most representative and generalizable research in social psychology or social sciences due to his large sample size, systematic variations, use of a diverse body of ordinary people from two small towns—New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut—and detailed presentation of methodological features. Further, its replications across many cultures and time periods reveal its robust effectiveness.

As the most significant demonstration of the power of social situations to influence human behavior, Milgram’s experiments are at the core of the situationist view of behavioral determinants. It is a study of the failure of most people to resist unjust authority when commands no longer make sense given the seemingly reasonable stated intentions of the just authority who began the study. It makes sense that psychological researchers would care about the judicious use of punishment as a means to improve learning and memory. However, it makes no sense to continue to administer increasingly painful shocks to one’s learner after he insists on quitting, complains of a heart condition, and then, after 330 volts, stops responding at all. How could you be helping improve his memory when he was unconscious or worse? The most minimal exercise of critical thinking at that stage in the series should have resulted in virtually everyone refusing to go on, disobeying this now heartlessly unjust authority. To the contrary, most who had gone that far were trapped in what Milgram calls the “agentic state.”

These ordinary adults were reduced to mindless obedient school children who do not know how to exit from a most unpleasant situation until teacher gives them permission to do so. At that critical juncture when their shocks might have caused a serious medical problem, did any of them simply get out of their chairs and go into the next room to check on the victim? Before answering, consider the next question, which I posed directly to Stanley Milgram: “After the final 450 volt switch was thrown, how many of the participant-teachers spontaneously got out of their seats and went to inquire about the condition of their learner?” Milgram’s answer: “Not one, not ever!” So there is a continuity into adulthood of that grade-school mentality of obedience to those primitive rules of doing nothing until the teacher-authority allows it, permits it, and orders it.

My research on situational power (the Stanford Prison Experiment) complements that of Milgram in several ways. They are the bookends of situationism: his representing direct power of authority on individuals, mine representing institutional indirect power over all those within its power domain. Mine has come to represent the power of systems to create and maintain situations of dominance and control over individual behavior. In addition, both are dramatic demonstrations of powerful external influences on human action, with lessons that are readily apparent to the reader, and to the viewer. (I too have a movie, Quiet Rage, that has proven to be quite impactful on audiences around the world.) Both raise basic issues about the ethics of any research that engenders some degree of suffering and guilt from participants. I discuss at considerable length my views on the ethics of such research in my recent book The Lucifer James Monroe High School BronxEffect: Understanding Why Good People Turn Evil (2008). When I first presented a brief overview of the Stanford Prison Experiment at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in 1971, Milgram greeted me joyfully, saying that now I would take some of the ethics heat off his shoulders by doing an even more unethical study!

Finally, it may be of some passing interest to readers of this book, that Stanley Milgram and I were classmates at James Monroe High School in the Bronx (class of 1950), where we enjoyed a good time together. He was the smartest kid in the class, getting all the academic awards at graduation, while I was the most popular kid, being elected by senior class vote to be “Jimmie Monroe.” Little Stanley later told me, when we met ten years later at Yale University, that he wished he had been the most popular, and I confided that I wished I had been the smartest. We each did what we could with the cards dealt us. I had many interesting discussions with Stanley over the decades that followed, and we
almost wrote a social psychology text together. Sadly, in 1984 he died prematurely from a heart attack at the age of fifty-one.

[Milgram] left us with a vital legacy of brilliant ideas that began with those centered on obedience to authority and extended into many new realms—urban psychology, the small-world problem, six degrees of separation, and the Cyrano effect, among others—always using a creative mix of methods. Stanley Milgram was a keen observer of the human landscape, with an eye ever open for a new paradigm that might expose old truths or raise new awareness of hidden operating principles. I often wonder what new phenomena Stanley would be studying now were he still alive.

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To read Part I of this post, click here.  To read three related Situationist posts by Phil Zimbardo, see “The Situation of Evil,” Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Posted in Book, Classic Experiments, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Reason

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 15, 2009

pantyhose-displayIn the mid-1970s, Situationist contributor Timothy Wilson with Richard Nisbett conducted one of the best known social psychology experiments of all time. It was strikingly simple and involved asking subjects to assess the quality of hosiery. Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon have described the experiment this way:

Subjects were asked in a bargain store to judge which one of four nylon stocking pantyhose was the best quality. The subjects were not told that the stockings were in fact identical. Wilson and Nisbett presented the stockings to the subjects hanging on racks spaced equal distances apart. As situation would have it, the position of the stockings had a significant effect on the subjects’ quality judgments. In particular, moving from left to right, 12% of the subjects judged the first stockings as being the best quality, 17% of the subjects chose the second pair of stockings, 31% of the subjects chose the third pair of stockings, and 40% of the subjects chose the fourth—the most recently viewed pair of stockings. When asked about their respective judgments, most of the subjects attributed their decision to the knit, weave, sheerness, elasticity, or workmanship of the stockings that they chose to be of the best quality. Dispositional qualities of the stocking, if you will. Subjects provided a total of eighty different reasons for their choices. Not one, however, mentioned the position of the stockings, or the relative recency with which the pairs were viewed. None, that is, saw the situation. In fact, when asked whether the position of the stockings could have influenced their judgments, only one subject admitted that position could have been influential. Thus, Wilson and Nisbett conclude that “[w]hat matters . . . is not why the [position] effect occurs but that it occurs and that subjects do not report it or recognize it when it is pointed out to them.”

One of the core messages of more recent brain research is that most mental activity happens in the automatic or unconscious region of the brain. The unconscious mind is the platform for a set of mental activities that the brain has relegated beyond awareness for efficiency’s sake, so the conscious mind can focus on other things. In his book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” Timothy Wilson notes that the brain can absorb about 11 million pieces of information a second, of which it can process about 40 consciously. The unconscious brain handles the rest.

The automatic mind generally takes care of things like muscle control. But it also does more ethereal things. It recognizes patterns and construes situations, searching for danger, opportunities or the unexpected. It also shoves certain memories, thoughts, anxieties and emotions up into consciousness.

A lot has been learned about how what we think we know about what moves us is wrong. And much has also been learned about how what we don’t know we know can influence us. Psychologist Susan Courtney has an absolutely terrific article in Scientific American titled “Not So Deliberate: The decisive power of what you don’t know you know.” We excerpt portions of her article below.

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When we choose between two courses of action, are we aware of all the things that influence that decision? Particularly when deliberation leads us to take a less familiar or more difficult course, scientists often refer to a decision as an act of “cognitive control.” Such calculated decisions were once assumed to be influenced only by consciously perceived information, especially when the decision involved preparation for some action. But a //www.timrylands.com/blog/2007/02/recent paper by Hakwan Lau and Richard Passingham, “Unconscious Activation of the Cognitive Control System in the Human Prefrontal Cortex,” demonstrates that the influences we are not aware of can hold greater sway than those we can consciously reject.

Biased competition

We make countless “decisions” each day without conscious deliberation. For example, when we gaze at an unfamiliar scene, we cannot take in all the information at once. Objects in the scene compete for our attention. If we’re looking around with no particular goal in mind, we tend to focus on the objects most visually different from their surrounding background (for example, a bright bird against a dark backdrop) or those that experience or evolution have taught us are the most important, such as sudden movement or facial features — particularly threatening or fearful expressions. If we do have a goal, then our attention will be drawn to objects related to it, such as when we attend to anything red or striped in a “Where’s Waldo” picture. Stimulus-driven and goal-driven influences alike, then, bias the outcome of the competition for our attention among a scene’s many aspects.

The idea of such biased competition (a term coined in 1995 by Robert Desimone and John Duncan, also applies to situations in which we decide among many possible actions, thoughts or plans. What might create an unconscious bias affecting these types of competition?

For starters, previous experience in a situation can make some neural connections stronger than others, tipping the scales in favor of a previously performed action. The best-known examples of this kind of bias are habitual actions (as examined in a seminal 1995 article by Salmon and Butters and what is known as priming.

Habitual actions are what they sound like — driving your kids to school, you turn right on Elm because that’s how you get there every day. No conscious decision is involved. In fact, it takes considerable effort to remember to instead turn left if your goal is to go somewhere else.

Priming works a bit differently; it’s less a well-worn route than a prior suggestion that steers you a certain way. If I ask you today to tell me the first word that comes to mind that starts with the letters mot and you answer mother, you’ll probably answer the same way if I ask you the same thing again four months from now, even if you have no explicit recollection of my asking the question. The prior experience primes you to repeat your performance. Other potentially unconscious influences are generally emotional or motivational.

Of course, consciously processed information can override these emotional and experience-driven biases if we devote enough time and attention to the decision. Preparing to perform a cognitive action (“task set”) has traditionally been considered a deliberate act of control and part of this reflective, evaluative neural system. (See, for example, the 2002 review by Rees, Kreiman and Koch — pdf download.) As such, it was thought that task-set preparation was largely immune to subconscious influences.

We generally accept it as okay that some of our actions and emotional or motivational states are influenced by neural processes that happen without our awareness. For example, it aids my survival if subliminally processed stimuli increase my state of vigilance — if, for example, I jump out of the way before I am consciously aware that the thing at my feet is a snake. But we tend to think of more conscious decisions differently. If I have time to recognize an instruction, remember what that means I’m supposed to do and prepare to make a particular kind of judgment on the next thing I see, then the assumption is that this preparation must be based entirely on what I think I saw — not what I wasn’t even aware of.

Yet Lau and Passingham have found precisely the opposite in their study — that information we’re not aware of can more strongly influence even the most deliberative, non-emotional sort of decision even more than does information we are aware of.

Confusing cues

Lau and Passingham had their subjects perform one of two tasks: when shown a word on a screen, the subjects had to decide either a) whether or not the word referred to a concrete object or b) whether or not the word had two syllables. A cue given just before each word — the appearance of either a square of a diamond –lau06-fig1.jpg indicated whether to perform the concrete judgment task or the syllables task. These instruction cues were in turn preceded by smaller squares or diamonds that the subjects were told were irrelevant. A variation in timing between the first and second cues determined whether the participants were aware of seeing both cues or only the second.

As you would expect, the task was more difficult when the cues were the not same — that is, when a diamond preceded a square or a square a diamond. The surprising finding was that this confusion effect was greater when the timing between the cues was so close that the participants didn’t consciously notice the first cue. When the cues were mixed but the subjects were consciously aware of only the second instruction, their responses — and their brain activity as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — indicated that the “invisible” conflicting cue had made them more likely to prepare to do the “wrong” task. Although similar effects have been shown on tasks that involved making a decision about the appearance of the image immediately following the “invisible” image, this is the first time this effect has been demonstrated for complex task preparation.

It may not be surprising that we juggle multiple influences when we make decisions, including many of which we are not aware — particularly when the decisions involve emotional issues. Lau and Passingham, however, show us that even seemingly rational, straightforward, conscious decisions about arbitrary matters can easily be biased by inputs coming in below our radar of awareness. Although it wasn’t directly tested in this study, the results suggest that being aware of a misleading cue may allow us to inhibit its influence. And the study makes clear that influences we are not aware of (including, but not limited to, those brought in by experience and emotion) can sneak into our decisions unchecked.

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Susan Courtney is an associate professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University, where she runs the Courtney Lab of Cognitive Neuroscience and Working Memory.  To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Confabulation,” “The Situation of Constitutional Beliefs - Abstract,” “Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,”and “Unconscious Situation of Choice.”

This post was originally published in November of 2007.

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Illusions, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 14, 2009

Milgram Obedience ExperimentSituationist contributer Philip Zimbardo has authored the preface to a new edition of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s pathbreaking and now-classic book Obedience to Authority.  This is the first of a two-part series derived from that preface.  In this post, Zimbardo describes the inculcation of obedience and Milgram’s role as a research pioneer.  In Part II, Zimbardo answers challenges to Milgram’s work and locates its legacy.

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What is common about two of the most profound narratives in Western culture—Lucifer’s descent into Hell and Adam and Eve’s loss of Paradise—is the lesson of the dreadful consequences of one’s failure to obey authority. . . [T]hey are designed, as all parables are, to send a powerful message to all those who hear and read them: Obey authority at all costs! The consequences of disobedience to authority are formidable and damnable. Once created, these myths and parables get passed along by subsequent authorities, now parents, teachers, bosses, politicians, and dictators, among others, who want their word to be followed without dissent or challenge.

Thus, as school children, in virtually all traditional educational settings, the rules of law that we learned and lived were: Stay in your seat until permission is granted by the teacher to stand and leave it; do not talk unless given permission by the teacher to do so after having raised your hand to seek that recognition, and do not challenge the word of the teacher or complain. So deeply ingrained are these rules of conduct that even as we age and mature they generalize across many settings as permanent placards of our respect for authority. However, not all authority is just, fair, moral, and legal, and we are never given any explicit training in recognizing that critical difference between just and unjust authority.  The just one deserves respect and some obedience, maybe even without much questioning, while the unjust variety should arouse suspicion and distress, ultimately triggering acts of challenge, defiance, and revolution.

Stanley Milgram’s series of experiments on obedience to authority, so clearly and fully presented in this new edition of his work, represents some of the most significant investigations in all the social sciences of the central dynamics of this aspect of human nature. His work was the first to bring into the controlled setting of an experimental laboratory an investigation into the nature of obedience to authority. In a sense, he is following in the tradition of Kurt Lewin, although he is not generally considered to be in the Lewinian tradition, as Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, Lee Ross, and Richard Nisbett are, for example. Yet to study phenomena that have significance in their real world existence within the constraints and controls of a laboratory setting is at the essence of one of Lewin’s dictums of the way social psychology should proceed.

This exploration of obedience was initially motivated by Milgram’s reflections on the ease with which the German people obeyed Nazi authority in discriminating against Jews and, eventually, in allowing Hitler’s Final Solution to be enacted during the Holocaust. As a young Jewish man, he wondered if the Holocaust could be recreated in his own country, despite the many differences in those cultures and historical epochs. Though many said it could never happen in the United States, Milgram doubted whether we should be so sure. Believing in the goodness of people does not diminish the fact that ordinary, even once good people, just following orders, have committed much evil in the world.

British author C. P. Snow reminds us that more crimes against humanity have been committed in the name of obedience than disobedience. Milgram’s mentor, Solomon Asch, had earlier demonstrated the power of groups to sway the judgments of intelligent college students regarding false conceptions of visual reality. But that influence was indirect, creating a discrepancy between the group norm and the individual’s perception of the same stimulus event.

Conformity to the group’s false norm was the resolution to that discrepancy, with participants behaving in ways that would lead to group acceptance rather than rejection. Milgram wanted to discover the direct and immediate impact of one powerful individual’s commands to another person to behave in ways that challenged his or her conscience and morality. He designed his research paradigm to pit our general beliefs about what people would do in such a situation against what they actually did when immersed in that crucible of human nature.

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We’ll post Part II of this series later this week.  You can review a sizeable collection of Situationist posts discussing the work of Stanley Milgram here.

Posted in Book, Classic Experiments, Conflict, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Confabulation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 13, 2009

El Alma del EbroHelen Philips had a nice article  titled “Mind fiction: Why your brain tells tall tales,” in the October 2006 issue of New Scientist.  Here are some excerpts.

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The kind of storytelling my grandmother did after a series of strokes . . . [n]eurologists call . . . confabulation. It isn’t fibbing, as there is no intent to deceive and people seem to believe what they are saying. Until fairly recently it was seen simply as a neurological deficiency – a sign of something gone wrong. Now, however, it has become apparent that healthy people confabulate too.

Confabulation is clearly far more than a result of a deficit in our memory, says William Hirstein, a neurologist and philosopher at Elmhurst College in Chicago and author of a book on the subject entitled Brain Fiction . . . . Children and many adults confabulate when pressed to talk about something they have no knowledge of, and people do it during and after hypnosis. . . . In fact, we may all confabulate routinely as we try to rationalise decisions or justify opinions. Why do you love me? Why did you buy that outfit? Why did you choose that career? At the extreme, some experts argue that we can never be sure about what is actually real and so must confabulate all the time to try to make sense of the world around us.

Confabulation was first mentioned in the medical literature in the late 1880s, applied to patients of the Russian psychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff. He described a distinctive type of memory deficit in people who had abused alcohol for many years. These people had no recollection of recent events, yet filled in the blanks spontaneously with sometimes fantastical and impossible stories.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York wrote about a man with Korsakoff’s syndrome in his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Mr Thompson had no memory from moment to moment about where he was or why, or to whom he was speaking, but would invent elaborate explanations for the situations he found himself in. If someone entered the room, he might greet them as a customer of the shop he used to own. A doctor wearing a white coat might become the local butcher. To Mr Thompson, these fictions seemed plausible and he never seemed to notice that they kept changing. He behaved as though his improvised world was a perfectly normal and stable place.

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So confabulation can result from an inability to recognise whether or not memories are relevant, real and current. But that’s not the only time people make up stories, says Hirstein. He has found that those with delusions or false beliefs about their illnesses are among the most common confabulators. He thinks these cases reveal how we build up and interpret knowledge about ourselves and other people.

It is surprisingly common for stroke patients with paralysed limbs or even blindness to deny they have anything wrong with them, even if only for a couple of days after the event. They often make up elaborate tales to explain away their problems. One of Hirstein’s patients, for example, had a paralysed arm, but believed it was normal, telling him that the dead arm lying in the bed beside her was not in fact her own. When he pointed out her wedding ring, she said with horror that someone had taken it. When asked to prove her arm was fine, by moving it, she made up an excuse about her arthritis being painful. It seems amazing that she could believe such an impossible story. Yet when Vilayanur Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, offered cash to patients with this kind of delusion, promising higher rewards for tasks they couldn’t possibly do – such as clapping or changing a light bulb – and lower rewards for tasks they could, they would always attempt the high pay-off task, as if they genuinely had no idea they would fail.

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What all these conditions have in common is an apparent discrepancy between the patient’s internal knowledge or feelings and the external information they are getting from what they see. In all these cases “confabulation is a knowledge problem”, says Hirstein. Whether it is a lost memory, emotional response or body image, if the knowledge isn’t there, something fills the gap.

Helping to plug that gap may well be a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, which lies in the frontal lobes behind the eye sockets. The OFC is best known as part of the brain’s reward system, which guides us to do pleasurable things or seek what we need, but Hirstein . . . suggest that the system has an even more basic role. It and other frontal brain regions are busy monitoring all the information generated by our senses, memory and imagination, suppressing what is not needed and sorting out what is real and relevant. According to Morten Kringelbach, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford who studies pleasure, reward and the role of the OFC, this tracking of ongoing reality allows us to rate everything subjectively to help us work out our priorities and preferences.

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Kringelbach goes even further. He suspects that confabulation is not just something people do when the system goes wrong. We may all do it routinely. Children need little encouragement to make up stories when asked to talk about something they know little about. Adults, too, can be persuaded to confabulate, as [Situationist contributor] Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and his colleague Richard Nisbett have shown. They laid out a display of four identical items of clothing and asked people to pick which they thought was the best quality. It is known that people tend to subconsciously prefer the rightmost object in a sequence if given no other choice criteria, and sure enough about four out of five participants did favour the garment on the right. Yet when asked why they made the choice they did, nobody gave position as a reason. It was always about the fineness of the weave, richer colour or superior texture. This suggests that while we may make our decisions subconsciously, we rationalise them in our consciousness, and the way we do so may be pure fiction, or confabulation.

More recent experiments by philosopher Lars Hall of Lund University in Sweden develop this idea further. People were shown pairs of cards with pictures of faces on them and asked to choose the most attractive. Unbeknown to the subject, the person showing the cards was a magician and routinely swapped the chosen card for the rejected one. The subject was then asked why they picked this face. Often the swap went completely unnoticed, and the subjects came up with elaborate explanations about hair colour, the look of the eyes or the assumed personality of the substituted face. Clearly people routinely confabulate under conditions where they cannot know why they made a particular choice. Might confabulation be as routine in justifying our everyday choices?

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Even when we think we are making rational choices and decisions, this may be illusory too. The intriguing possibility is that we simply do not have access to all of the unconscious information on which we base our decisions, so we create fictions upon which to rationalise them, says Kringelbach. That may well be a good thing, he adds. If we were aware of how we made every choice we would never get anything done – we cannot hold that much information in our consciousness. Wilson backs up this idea with some numbers: he says our senses may take in more than 11 million pieces of information each second, whereas even the most liberal estimates suggest that we are conscious of just 40 of these.

Nevertheless it is an unsettling thought that perhaps all our conscious mind ever does is dream up stories in an attempt to make sense of our world. “The possibility is left open that in the most extreme case all of the people may confabulate all of the time,” says Hall.

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To read the entire article, including a discussion of the problem of relying on eyewitnesses, click here. To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “Magic is in the Mind,” “John Darley on “Justice as Intuitions” - Video,” “The Split Brain and the Interior Situation of Theories of the Self,” “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” and “Vilayanur Ramachandran On Your Mind.”

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Illusions, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – October, Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 1, 2008

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of our favorite non-Situationist situationist blogging during October 2008. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

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From Nueronarrative: “Certainty Takes the Stand: A Discussion with Robert Burton

“In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges his readers to ask one of the most basic—and crucial—of questions: how do we know what we know? With an engaging, conversational style, he tackles the neuropsychological underpinnings of belief and certainty, carefully examining these ubiquitous dynamics in light of what is known about how the mind works.” Read more . . .

From Nueronarrative: “The Lucifer Effect: An Interview with Dr. Philip Zimbardo

“Social psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Philip Zimbardo has been studying the anatomy of human psychology for nearly four decades. In the summer of 1971, Dr. Zimbardo created the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, a simulation of prison life that investigated a provocative question: what happens when you put good people in an evil place? The results were dramatic, and launched a decades-long journey to discover how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women. . . . In The Lucifer Effect, Dr. Zimbardo takes the reader through this often dark journey, and in the process sheds light on topics ranging from corporate malfeasance to torture at Abu Ghraib to organized genocide.” Read more . . .

From Psychology Today: “A dollar is a dollar is a dollar…Right?

“Despite the great flexibility that money permits us, people have trouble treating every dollar the same as every other dollar. Here are two examples.” Read more . . .

From Psychology Today: “The Kid-Ceiling: Women Feel It Long Before Seeing Glass-Ceiling

“The kid-ceiling seems to have little or no effect on Sarah Palin, but for most women who work having a family alters their income, their ability to advance, and their well-being. All is not right in the world of women’s work and the glaring deficiencies force women to move in the direction of the smaller, new traditional family. In this post I look at some of the more telling issues and facts. The more children you have, the more likely you’ll feel the impact of the kid-ceiling long before you see the glass-ceiling.” Read more . . .

From The Splintered Mind: “Six Ways to Know Your Mind

“Philosophers often provide accounts of self-knowledge as though we knew our own minds either entirely or predominantly in just one way (Jesse Prinz is a good exception to the rule, though). But let me count the ways (saving the fun ones for the end).”  Read more . . .

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For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click on the “Blogroll” category in the right margin.

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll, Book, Classic Experiments, Life, Naive Cynicism, Neuroscience, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Inequality – Guns, Germs, and Steel

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 27, 2008

Guns Germs Steel - NG CoverFrom Youtube: Jared Diamond’s journey of discovery began on the island of Papua New Guinea. There, in 1974, a local named Yali asked Diamond a deceptively simple question:

“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

Diamond realized that Yali’s question penetrated the heart of a great mystery of human history — the roots of global inequality.

Why were Europeans the ones with all the cargo? Why had they taken over so much of the world, instead of the native people of New Guinea? How did Europeans end up with what Diamond terms the agents of conquest: guns, germs and steel? It was these agents of conquest that allowed 168 Spanish conquistadors to defeat an Imperial Inca army of 80,000 in 1532, and set a pattern of European conquest which would continue right up to the present day.

Diamond knew that the answer had little to do with ingenuity or individual skill. From his own experience in the jungles of New Guinea, he had observed that native hunter-gatherers were just as intelligent as people of European descent — and far more resourceful. Their lives were tough, and it seemed a terrible paradox of history that these extraordinary people should be the conquered, and not the conquerors.

To examine the reasons for European success, Jared realized he had to peel back the layers of history and begin his search at a time of equality — a time when all the peoples of the world lived in exactly the same way.

Guns, Germs and Steel Part 1 of 18 (8:03)

Guns, Germs and Steel Part 2 of 18 (9:42)

Guns, Germs and Steel Part 3 of 18

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More to come.

Posted in Book, Conflict, History, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Jonestown (The Situation of Evil) Revisited

Posted by Philip Zimbardo on November 17, 2008

With the 30th Anniversary of the Jonestown Mass Suicide upon us, now is a good time to republish the three-part Situationist series from 2007 on the “Situational Sources of Evil” — published also in the January/February 2007 edition of the Yale Alumni Magazine and based my  book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House, March 2007).

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Imagine that you have responded to an advertisement in the New Haven newspaper seeking subjects for a study of memory. AMilgram Advertisement researcher whose serious demeanor and laboratory coat convey scientific importance greets you and another applicant at your arrival at a Yale laboratory in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. You are here to help science find ways to improve people’s learning and memory through the use of punishment. The researcher tells you why this work may have important consequences. The task is straightforward: one of you will be the “teacher” who gives the “learner” a set of word pairings to memorize. During the test, the teacher will give each key word, and the learner must respond with the correct association. When the learner is right, the teacher gives a verbal reward, such as “Good” or “That’s right.” When the learner is wrong, the teacher is to press a lever on an impressive-looking apparatus that delivers an immediate shock to punish the error.

The shock generator has 30 switches, starting from a low level of 15 volts and increasing by 15 volts to each higher level. The experimenter tells you that every time the learner makes a mistake, you have to press the next switch. The control panel shows both the voltage of each switch and a description. The tenth level (150 volts) is “Strong Shock”; the 17th level (255 volts) is “Intense Shock”; the 25th level (375 volts) is “Danger, Severe Shock.” At the 29th and 30th levels (435 and 450 volts) the control panel is marked simply with an ominous XXX: the pornography of ultimate pain and power.

You and another volunteer draw straws to see who will play each role; you are to be the teacher, and the other volunteer will be the learner. He is a mild-mannered, middle-aged man whom you help escort to the next chamber. “Okay, now we are going to set up the learner so he can get some punishment,” the experimenter tells you both. The learner’s arms are strapped down and an electrode is attached to his right wrist.“Learner” being strapped in The generator in the next room will deliver the shocks. The two of you communicate over an intercom, with the experimenter standing next to you. You get a sample shock of 45 volts — the third level, a slight tingly pain — so you have a sense of what the shock levels mean. The researcher then signals you to start.

Initially, your pupil does well, but soon he begins making errors, and you start pressing the shock switches. He complains that the shocks are starting to hurt. You look at the experimenter, who nods to continue. As the shock levels increase in intensity, so do the learner’s screams, saying he does not think he wants to continue. You hesitate and question whether you should go on. But the experimenter insists that you have no choice.

James Monroe High SchoolIn 1949, seated next to me in senior class at James Monroe High School in the Bronx, New York, was my classmate, Stanley Milgram. We were both skinny kids, full of ambition and a desire to make something of ourselves, so that we might escape life in the confines of our ghetto experience. Stanley was the little smart one who we went to for authoritative answers. I was the tall popular one, the smiling guy other kids would go to for social advice.

I had just returned to Monroe High from a horrible year at North Hollywood High School, where I had been shunned and friendless (because, as I later learned, there was a rumor circulating that I was from a New York Sicilian Mafia family). Back at Monroe, I would be chosen “Jimmy Monroe” — most popular boy in Monroe High School’s senior class. Stanley and I once discussed how that transformation could happen. We agreed that I had not changed; the situation was what mattered.

Situational psychology is the study of the human response to features of our social environment, the external behavioral context, above all to the other people around us. Stanley Milgram and I, budding situationists in 1949, both went on to become academic social psychologists. We met again at Yale in 1960 as beginning assistant professors — him starting out at Yale, me at NYU. Some of Milgram’s new research wasStanley Milgram conducted in a modified laboratory that I had fabricated a few years earlier as a graduate student — in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden, the building where we taught Introductory Psychology courses. That is where Milgram was to conduct his classic and controversial experiments on blind obedience to authority.

Milgram’s interest in the problem of obedience came from deep personal concerns about how readily the Nazis had obediently killed Jews during the Holocaust. His laboratory paradigm, he wrote years later, “gave scientific expression to a more general concern about authority, a concern forced upon members of my generation, in particular upon Jews such as myself, by the atrocities of World War II.”

As Milgram described it, he hit upon the concept for his experiment while musing about a study in which one of his professors, Solomon Asch, had tested how far subjects would conform to the judgment of a group. Asch had put each subject in a group of coached confederates and asked every member, one by one, to compare a set of lines in order of length. When the confederates all started giving the same obviously false answers, 70 percent of the subjects agreed with them at least some of the time.

Milgram wondered whether there was a way to craft a conformity experiment that would be “more humanly significant” than judgments about line length. He wrote later: “I wondered whether groups could pressure a person into performing an act whose human import was more readily apparent; perhaps behaving aggressively toward another person, say by administering increasingly severe shocks to him. But to study the group effect . . . you’d have to know how the subject performed without any group pressure. At that instant, my thought shifted, zeroing in on this experimental control. Just how far would a person go under the experimenter’s orders?”

How far up the scale do you predict that you would go under those orders? Put yourself back in the basement with the fake shock apparatus and the other “volunteer” — actually the experimenter’s confederate, who always plays the learner because the “drawing” is rigged — strapped down in the next room. As the shocks proceed, the learner begins complaining about his heart condition. You dissent, but the experimenter still insists that you continue. The learner makes errors galore. You plead with your pupil to concentrate; you don’t want to hurt him. But your concerns and motivational messages are to no avail. He gets the answers wrong again and again. As the shocks intensify, he shouts out, “I can’t stand the pain, let me out of here!” Then he says toMilgram’s Subject 1 the experimenter, “You have no right to keep me here!” Another level up, he screams, “I absolutely refuse to answer any more! You can’t hold me here! My heart’s bothering me!”

Obviously you want nothing more to do with this experiment. You tell the experimenter that you refuse to continue. You are not the kind of person who harms other people in this way. You want out. But the experimenter continues to insist that you go on. He reminds you of the contract, of your agreement to participate fully. Moreover, he claims responsibility for the consequences of your shocking actions. After you press the 300-volt switch, you read the next keyword, but the learner doesn’t answer. “He’s not responding,” you tell the experimenter. You want him to go into the other room and check on the learner to see if he is all right. The experimenter is impassive; he is not going to check on the learner. Instead he tells you, “If the learner doesn’t answer in a reasonable time, about five seconds, consider it wrong,” since errors of omission must be punished in the same way as errors of commission — that is a rule.

As you continue up to even more dangerous shock levels, there is no sound coming from your pupil’s shock chamber. He may be unconscious or worse. You are truly disturbed and want to quit, but nothing you say works to get your exit from this unexpectedly distressing situation. You are told to follow the rules and keep posing the test items and shocking the errors.

Now try to imagine fully what your participation as the teacher would be. If you actuallyMilgram’s Subject 2 go all the way to the last of the shock levels, the experimenter will insist that you repeat that XXX switch two more times. I am sure you are saying, “No way would I ever go all the way!” Obviously, you would have dissented, then disobeyed and just walked out. You would never sell out your morality. Right?

Milgram once described his shock experiment to a group of 40 psychiatrists and asked them to estimate the percentage of American citizens who would go to each of the 30 levels in the experiment. On average, they predicted that less than 1 percent would go all the way to the end, that only sadists would engage in such sadistic behavior, and that most people would drop out at the tenth level of 150 volts. They could not have been more wrong.

In Milgram’s experiment, two of every three (65 percent) of the volunteers went all the way up to the maximum shock level of 450 volts. The vast majority of people shocked the victim over and over again despite his increasingly desperate pleas to stop. Most participants dissented from time to time and said they did not want to go on, but the researcher would prod them to continue.

Over the course of a year, Milgram carried out 19 different experiments, each one a different variation of the basic paradigm. In each of these studies he varied one social psychological variable and observed its impact. In one study, he added women; in others he varied the physical proximity or remoteness of either the experimenter-teacher link or the teacher-learner link; had peers rebel or obey before the teacher had the chance to begin; and more.

Milgram’s Bridgeport LocationIn one set of experiments, Milgram wanted to show that his results were not due to the authority power of Yale University. So he transplanted his laboratory to a run-down office building in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut, and repeated the experiment as a project ostensibly of a private research firm with no connection to Yale. It made hardly any difference; the participants fell under the same spell of this situational power.

The data clearly revealed the extreme pliability of human nature: depending on the situation, almost everyone could be totally obedient or almost everyone could resist authority pressures. Milgram was able to demonstrate that compliance rates could soar to over 90 percent of people continuing to the 450-volt maximum or be reduced to less than 10 percent — by introducing just one crucial variable into the compliance recipe.

Want maximum obedience? Make the subject a member of a “teaching team,” in which the job of pulling the shock lever to punish the victim is given to another person (a confederate), while the subject assists with other parts of the procedure. Want resistance to authority pressures? Provide social models — peers who rebel. Participants also refused to deliver the shocks if the learner said he wanted to be shocked; that’s masochistic, and they are not sadists. They were also reluctant to give high levels of shock when the experimenter filled in as the learner. They were more likely to shock when the learner was remote than in proximity.

In each of the other variations on this diverse range of ordinary American citizens, of widely varying ages and occupations and of both genders, it was possible to elicit low, medium, or high levels of compliant obedience with a flick of the situational switch. Milgram’s large sample — a thousand ordinary citizens from varied backgrounds — makes the results of his obedience studies among the most generalizable in all the social sciences. His classic study has been replicated and extended by many other researchers in many countries.

Recently, Thomas Blass of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County [author of The Man Who Shocked The World and creator of the terrific website StanleyMilgram.Com] analyzed the rates of obedience in eight studies conducted in the United States and nine replications in European, African, and Asian countries. He found comparably high levels of compliance in all. The 61 percent mean obedience rate found in the U.S. was matched by the 66 percent rate found across all the other national samples. The degree of obedience was not affected by the timing of the studies, which ranged from 1963 to 1985.

Other studies based on Milgram’s have shown how powerful the obedience effect can be when legitimate authorities exercise their power within their power domains. In one Nurse Ratchedstudy, most college students administered shocks to whimpering puppies when required to do so by a professor. In another, all but one of 22 nurses flouted their hospital’s procedure by obeying a phone order from an unknown doctor to administer an excessive amount of a drug (actually a placebo); that solitary disobedient nurse should have been given a raise and a hero’s medal. In still another, a group of 20 high school students joined a history teacher’s supposed authoritarian political movement, and within a week had expelled their fellows from class and recruited nearly 200 others from around the school to the cause.

Now we ask the question that must be posed of all such research: what is its external validity, what are real-world parallels to the laboratory demonstration of authority power?

Hannah ArendtIn 1963, the social philosopher Hannah Arendt published what was to become a classic of our times, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. She provides a detailed analysis of the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi figure who personally arranged for the murder of millions of Jews. Eichmann’s defense of his actions was similar to the testimony of other Nazi leaders: “I was only following orders.” What is most striking in Arendt’s account of Eichmann is all the ways in which he seemed absolutely ordinary: half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as “normal.” Arendt’s famous conclusion: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” continues to resonate because genocide has been unleashed around the world and torture and terrorism continue to be common features of our global landscape. A few years ago, the sociologist and Brazil expert Martha Huggins, the Greek psychologist and torture expert Mika Haritos-Fatouros, and I interviewed several dozen torturers. These men did their daily dirty deeds for years in Brazil as policemen, sanctioned by the government to get confessions by torturing “subversive” enemies of the state.Voilence Workers

The systematic torture by men of their fellow men and women represents one of the darkest sides of human nature. Surely, my colleagues and I reasoned, here was a place where dispositional evil would be manifest. The torturers shared a common enemy: men, women, and children who, though citizens of their state, even neighbors, were declared by “the System” to be threats to the country’s national security — as socialists and Communists. Some had to be eliminated efficiently, while others, who might hold secret information, had to be made to yield it up by torture, confess and then be killed.

Torture always involves a personal relationship; it is essential for the torturer to understand what kind of torture to employ, what intensity of torture to use on a certain person at a certain time. Wrong kind or too little — no confession. Too much — the victim dies before confessing. In either case, the torturer fails to deliver the goods and incurs the wrath of the senior officers. Learning to determine the right kind and degree of torture that yields up the desired information elicits abounding rewards and flowing praise from one’s superiors. It took time and emerging insights into human weaknesses for these torturers to become adept at their craft.

What kind of men could do such deeds? Did they need to rely on sadistic impulses and a history of sociopathic life experiences to rip and tear the flesh of fellow beings day in and day out for years on end?

In a recent study of 400 al-Qaeda members, 90% came from caring, intact families.

We found that sadists are selected out of the training process by trainers because they are not controllable. They get off on the pleasure of inflicting pain, and thus do not sustain the focus on the goal of extracting confessions. From all the evidence we could muster, torturers were not unusual or deviant in any way prior to practicing their new roles, nor were there any persisting deviant tendencies or pathologies among any of them in the years following their work as torturers and executioners. Their transformation was entirely explainable as being the consequence of a number of situational and systemic factors, such as the training they were given to play this new role; their group camaraderie; acceptance of the national security ideology; and their learned belief in socialists and Communists as enemies of their state.

Young Bin Laden

Amazingly, the transformation of these men into violence workers is comparable to the transformation of young Palestinians into suicide bombers intent on killing innocent Israeli civilians. In a recent study, the forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman [at the Solomon Asch Center] found evidence of the normalcy of 400 al-Qaeda members. Three-quarters came from the upper or middle class. Ninety percent came from caring, intact families. Two-thirds had gone to college; two-thirds were married; and most had children and jobs in science and engineering. In many ways, Sageman concludes, “these are the best and brightest of their society.”

Israeli psychologist Ariel Merari, who has studied this phenomenon extensively for many years, outlines the common steps on the path to these explosive deaths. First, senior members of an extremist group identify young people who, based on their declarations at a public rally against Israel or their support of some Islamic cause or Palestinian action, appear to have an intense patriotic fervor. Next, they are invited to discuss how seriously they love their country and hate Israel. They are asked to commit to being trained. Those who do then become part of a small secret cell of three to five youths. From their elders, they learn bomb making, disguise, and selecting and timing targets. Finally, they make public their private commitment by making a videotape, declaring themselves to be “the living martyr” for Islam. The recruits are also told the Big Lie: their relatives will be entitled to a high place in Heaven, and they themselves will earn a place beside Allah. Of course, the rhetoric of dehumanization serves to deny the humanity and innocence of their victims.Suicide Bombers

The die is cast; their minds have been carefully prepared to do what is ordinarily unthinkable. In these systematic ways a host of normal, angry young men and women become transformed into true believers. The suicide, the murder, of any young person is a gash in the fabric of the human family that we elders from every nation must unite to prevent. To encourage the sacrifice of youth for the sake of advancing the ideologies of the old must be considered a form of evil that transcends local politics and expedient strategies.

A host of normal, angry young men and women become transformed into true believers.

Our final extension of the social psychology of evil from artificial laboratory experiments to real-world contexts comes to us from the jungles of Guyana. There, on November 28, 1978, an American religious leader persuaded more than 900 of his followers to commit mass suicide. In the ultimate test of blind obedience to authority, many of them killed their children on his command.

Jim JonesJim Jones, the pastor of Peoples Temple congregations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, had set out to create a socialist utopia in Guyana. But over time Jones was transformed from the caring, spiritual “father” of a large Protestant congregation into an Angel of Death. He instituted extended forced labor, armed guards, semistarvation diets, and daily punishments amounting to torture for the slightest breach of any of his many rules. Concerned relatives convinced a congressman and media crew to inspect the compound. But Jones arranged for them to be murdered as they left. He then gathered almost all the members at the compound and gave a long speech in which he exhorted them to take their lives by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

Jones was surely an egomaniac; he had all of his speeches and proclamations, even his torture sessions, tape-recorded — including his final suicide harangue. In it Jones distorts, lies, pleads, makes false analogies, appeals to ideology and to transcendent future life, and outright insists that his orders be followed, all while his staff is efficiently distributing deadly poison to the hundreds gathered around him. Some excerpts from that last hour convey a sense of the death-dealing tactics he used to induce total obedience to an authority gone mad:

Please get us some medication. It’s simple. It’s simple. There’s no convulsions with it. [Of course there are, especially for the children.] . . . Don’t be afraid to die. You’ll see, there’ll be a few people land[ing] out here. They’ll torture some of our children here. They’ll torture our people. They’ll torture our seniors. We cannot have this. . . . Please, can we hasten? Can we hasten with that medication? . . . We’ve lived — we’ve lived as no other people lived and loved. We’ve had as much of this world as you’re gonna get. Let’s just be done with it. (Applause.). . . . Who wants to go with their child has a right to go with their child. I think it’s humane. . . . Lay down your life with dignity. Don’t lay down with tears and agony. There’s nothing to death. . . . It’s just stepping over to another plane. Don’t beJonestown Massacre this way. Stop this hysterics. . . . Look, children, it’s just something to put you to rest. Oh, God. (Children crying.). . . . Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, please. Mother, please, please, please. Don’t — don’t do this. Don’t do this. Lay down your life with your child.

And they did, and they died for “Dad.”

A fitting conclusion comes from psychologist Mahrzarin Banaji: “What social psychology has given to an understanding of human nature is the discovery that forces larger than ourselves determine our mental life and our actions — chief among these forces [is] the power of the social situation.”

The most dramatic instances of directed behavior change and “mind control” are not the consequence of exotic forms of influence such as hypnosis, psychotropic drugs, or “brainwashing.” They are, rather, the systematic manipulation of the most mundane aspects of human nature over time in confining settings. Motives and needs that ordinarily serve us well can lead us astray when they are aroused, amplified, or manipulated by situational forces that we fail to recognize as potent. This is why evil is so pervasive. Its temptation is just a small turn away, a slight detour on the path of life, a blur in our sideview mirror, leading to disaster.

Milgram crafted his research paradigm to find out what strategies can seduce ordinary citizens to engage in apparently harmful behavior. Many of these methods have parallels to compliance strategies used by “influence professionals” in real-world settings, such as salespeople, cult and military recruiters, media advertisers, and others. Below are ten of the most effective.

1

Prearranging some form of contractual obligation, verbal or written, to control the individual’s behavior in pseudo-legal fashion. In Milgram’s obedience study, subjects publicly agreed to accept the tasks and the procedures.

2

Giving participants meaningful roles to play — “teacher,” “learner” — that carry with them previously learned positive values and automatically activate response scripts.

3

Presenting basic rules to be followed that seem to make sense before their actual use but can then be used arbitrarily and impersonally to justify mindless compliance. The authorities will change the rules as necessary but will insist that rules are rules and must be followed (as the researcher in the lab coat did in Milgram’s experiment).

4

Altering the semantics of the act, the actor, and the action — replacing unpleasant reality with desirable rhetoric, gilding the frame so that the real picture is disguised: from “hurting victims” to “helping the experimenter.” We can see the same semantic framing at work in advertising, where, for example, bad-tasting mouthwash is framed as good for you because it kills germs and tastes like medicine.

5

Creating opportunities for the diffusion of responsibility or abdication of responsibility for negative outcomes, such that the one who acts won’t be held liable. In Milgram’s experiment, the authority figure, when questioned by a teacher, said he would take responsibility for anything that happened to the learner.

6

Starting the path toward the ultimate evil act with a small, seemingly insignificant first step, the easy “foot in the door” that swings open subsequent greater compliance pressures. In the obedience study, the initial shock was only a mild 15 volts. This is also the operative principle in turning good kids into drug addicts with that first little hit or sniff.

7

Having successively increasing steps on the pathway that are gradual, so that they are hardly noticeably different from one’s most recent prior action. “Just a little bit more.”

8

Gradually changing the nature of the authority figure from initially “just” and reasonable to “unjust” and demanding, even irrational. This tactic elicits initial compliance and later confusion, since we expect consistency from authorities and friends. Not acknowledging that this transformation has occurred leads to mindless obedience. And it is part of many date rape scenarios and a reason why abused women stay with their abusing spouses.

9

Making the exit costs high and making the process of exiting difficult; allowing verbal dissent, which makes people feel better about themselves, while insisting on behavioral compliance.

10

Offering a “big lie” to justify the use of any means to achieve the seemingly desirable, essential goal. (In Milgram’s research the justification was that science will help people improve their memory by judicious use of reward and punishment.) In social psychology nazi-propaganda.jpgexperiments, this is known as the “cover story”; it is a cover-up for the procedures that follow, which do not make sense on their own. The real-world equivalent is an ideology. Most nations rely on an ideology, typically “threats to national security,” before going to war or suppressing political opposition. When citizens fear that their national security is being threatened, they become willing to surrender their basic freedoms in exchange. Erich Fromm’s classic analysis in Escape from Freedom made us aware of this trade-off, which Hitler and other dictators have long used to gain and maintain power.

Procedures like these are used when those in authority know that few would engage in the endgame without being prepared psychologically to do the unthinkable. But people who understand their own impulses to join with a group and to obey an authority may be able also to withstand those impulses at times when the mandate from outside comes into conflict with their own values and conscience. In the future, when you are in a compromising position where your compliance is at issue, thinking back to these ten stepping-stones to mindless obedience may enable you to step back and not go all the way down the path — their path. A good way to avoid crimes of obedience is to assert one’s personal authority and to always take full responsibility for one’s actions. Resist going on automatic pilot, be mindful of situational demands on you, engage your critical thinking skills, and be ready to admit an error in your initial compliance and to say, “Hell, no, I won’t go your way.”

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Below you can find several excellent videos of the Jonestown massacre and the circumstances leading up to it.

From PBS, here is a (fuzzy) 84-minute video “Jonestown: The Life And Death Of Peoples Temple.”

Here is a briefer but clearer 45-minute, video “Jonestown: The Final Report.”

Posted in Book, Classic Experiments, History, Morality, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 11, 2008

Benedict Carey had an interesting piece last week in the New York Times, titled “Citizen Enforcers Take Aim.”  Here are some excerpts.

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The public urge for punishment that helped delay the passage of Washington’s economic rescue plan is more than a simple case of Wall Street loathing, according to scientists who study the psychology of forgiveness and retaliation. The fury is based in instincts that have had a protective and often stabilizing effect on communities throughout human history. Small, integrated groups in particular often contain members who will stand up and — often at significant risk to themselves — punish cheaters, liars and freeloaders.

Scientists debate how common these citizen enforcers are, and whether an urge to punish infractions amounts to an overall gain or loss, given that it is costly for both parties. But recent research suggests that in individuals, the fairness instinct is a highly variable psychological impulse, rising and falling in response to what is happening in the world. And there is strong evidence that it hardens in times of crisis and uncertainty, like the current one.

The catch in this highly sensitive system, most researchers agree, is that it most likely evolved to inoculate small groups against invasive rogues, and not to set right the excesses of a vast and wildly diverse community like the American economy. . . .

“The urge to take revenge or punish cheaters,” said Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of the book “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct,” “is not a disease or toxin or sign that something has gone wrong. From the point of view of evolution, it’s not a problem but a solution.”

The downside of these instincts, Dr. McCullough added, “is that they often promote behavior that turns out to be spiteful in the long run.”

The urge to punish is not restricted to humans. . . .

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Given the choice, most people prefer that others do the hard work of enforcement, recent research has found. Scientists often study cooperation and punishment by having participants play one-on-one investment games in which each player chooses how much money to pony up in a joint investment, without knowing up front how much the other person will contribute. If both contribute a lot, they maximize their profits. If one snubs the other’s contribution, or “defects,” he or she is guaranteed a good profit and the other gets nothing.

Researchers adjust the costs and benefits of this game, as well as the number of times people play each other. And often another feature is added: an option to punish the other person, say, by spending a dollar to dock his or her earnings by two dollars.

In a series of such experiments, Jeffrey P. Carpenter and Peter Hans Matthews, economists at Middlebury College in Vermont, have found that depending on the costs of imposing penalties and the circumstances, 10 to 40 percent of people will act on their referee instincts.

“The urge to punish seems very strong,” Dr. Carpenter said. “Some people will spend money to punish even if it has no effect on them — if they’re watching players in another game and can penalize people. They’re inequality averse, it seems.” The researchers have found similar results across several cultures, including in Japan and Southeast Asia.

The conscious psychological motive for this behavior, regardless of its effect, is typically not deterrence but what some psychologists call just-deserts retribution. In a landmark 2002 study, psychologists at Princeton University had more than 1,000 participants evaluate vignettes describing various crimes and misdemeanors, and give sentencing recommendations. The psychologists found that people very carefully tailored their recommended sentences to the details of the infraction, its brutality and the record of the perpetrator. That is, people valued punishment for its own sake, as a measured consequence for behavior, not as a deterrent.

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The sense of betrayal Americans feel toward Wall Street, and the financial tumult’s effects on 401(k) accounts and small businesses, has certainly made many people less laissez-faire in their attitudes toward punishment, Dr. [Robert] Kurzban said. And there is nothing anonymous about the debates over the economic rescue plan, whether in Congress or at the water cooler: people are stating their views to an audience, and the collective fairness instinct is stoked to high heat.

Fortunately for the economy, researchers say, a strong countervailing psychological force is also at work: the instinct to forgive, and to cooperate. Punishments are balanced by peace offerings, and in fact researchers have come close to calculating the rough ratio most people employ.

Running thousands of computer variations of the investment game, scientists have found that the strategies that pay off the most are tipped toward cooperation.

* * *

The upshot of all this, researchers say, is that human beings prefer cooperation, both in their individual makeup and in the makeup of their social groups. In a recent study, Dr. McCullough found that the urge for revenge against personal betrayals erodes in the same way some kinds of memory do: sharply in the first few weeks, slowly thereafter.

“The forgiveness instinct is every bit as wired in as the revenge instinct,” he said. “It seems that our minds work very hard to get away from resentment, if we can.”

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To read the entire article, click here.  For related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Revenge,” “The Situation of Punishment,” and “Why We Punish.”

Posted in Book, Emotions, Life | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »

Situational Sway

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 3, 2008

From AtGoogleTalks (54 minutes):

Ori Brafman and his brother Rom Brafman visit Google’s Mountain View, CA headquarters to discuss Ori’s book “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.” This event took place on June 13, 2008, as part of the Authors@Google series.

Why is it so difficult to sell a plummeting stock or end a doomed relationship? Why do we listen to advice just because it came from someone “important”? Why are we more likely to fall in love when there’s danger involved? In Sway, renowned organizational thinker Ori Brafman and his brother, psychologist Rom Brafman, answer all these questions and more.

Drawing on cutting-edge research from the fields of social psychology, behavioral economics, and organizational behavior, Sway reveals dynamic forces that influence every aspect of our personal and business lives, including loss aversion (our tendency to go to great lengths to avoid perceived losses), the diagnosis bias (our inability to reevaluate our initial diagnosis of a person or situation), and the “chameleon effect” (our tendency to take on characteristics that have been arbitrarily assigned to us).

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From FORAtv (54 minutes)

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book, Choice Myth, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situationist Overwhelmed with Visitors, Return Later if Necessary

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 15, 2008

Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin, and Robert B. Cialdini have a new book, titled “Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.”  As you might have guessed, it makes a compelling case for itself.  Here’s an excerpt.

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How can inconveniencing your audience increase your persuasiveness?

Colleen Szot is one of the most successful writers in the paid programming industry. And for good reason: In addition to penning several well-known “infomercials” for the famed and fast-selling NordicTrac exercise machine, she recently authored a program that shattered a nearly twenty-year sales record for a home-shopping channel. Although her programs retain many of the elements common to most infomercials, including flashy catchphrases, an unrealistically enthusiastic audience, and celebrity endorsements, Szot changed three words to a standard infomercial line that caused a huge increase in the number of people who purchased her product. Even more remarkable, these three words made it clear to potential customers that the process of ordering the product might well prove somewhat of a hassle. What were those three words, and how did they cause sales to skyrocket?

Szot changed the all-too-familiar call-to-action line, “Operators are waiting, please call now,” to, “If operators are busy, please call again.” On the face of it, the change appears foolhardy. After all, the message seems to convey that potential customers might have to waste their time dialing and redialing the toll-free number until they finally reach a sales representative. Yet, that surface view underestimates the power of the principle of social proof: When people are uncertain about a course of action, they tend to look outside themselves and to other people around them to guide their decisions and actions. In the Colleen Szot example, consider the kind of mental image likely to be generated when you hear “operators are waiting”: scores of bored phone representatives filing their nails, clipping their coupons, or twiddling their thumbs while they wait by their silent telephones — an image indicative of low demand and poor sales.

Now consider how your perception of the popularity of the product would change when you heard the phrase “if operators are busy, please call again.” Instead of those bored, inactive representatives, you’re probably imagining operators going from phone call to phone call without a break. In the case of the modified “if operators are busy, please call again” line, home viewers followed their perceptions of others’ actions, even though those others were completely anonymous. After all, “if the phone lines are busy, then other people like me who are also watching this infomercial are calling, too.”

Many classical findings in social psychology demonstrate the power of social proof to influence other people’s actions. To take just one, in an experiment conducted by scientist Stanley Milgram and colleagues, an assistant of the researchers stopped on a busy New York City sidewalk and gazed skyward for sixty seconds. Most passersby simply walked around the man without even glancing to see what he was looking at. However, when the researchers added four other men to that group of sky gazers, the number of passersby who joined them more than quadrupled.

Although there’s little doubt that other people’s behavior is a powerful source of social influence, when we ask people in our own studies whether other people’s behavior influences their own, they are absolutely insistent that it does not. But social psychologists know better. We know that people’s ability to understand the factors that affect their behavior is surprisingly poor. Perhaps this is one reason that the people in the business of creating those little cards encouraging hotel guests to reuse their towels didn’t think to use the principle of social proof to their advantage. In asking themselves, “What would motivate me?” they might well have discounted the very real influence that others would have on their behavior. As a result, they focused all their attention on how the towel reuse program would be relevant to saving the environment, a motivator that seemed, at least on the surface of it, to be most relevant to the desired behavior.

In our hotel experiment, we considered the finding that the majority of hotel guests who encounter the towel reuse signs do actually recycle their towels at least some time during their stay. What if we simply informed guests of this fact? Would it have any influence on their participation in the conservation program relative to the participation rates that a basic environmental appeal yields? With the cooperation of a hotel manager, two of us and another colleague created two signs and placed them in hotel rooms. One was designed to reflect the type of basic environmental-protection message adopted throughout much of the hotel industry. It asked the guests to help save the environment and to show their respect for nature by participating in the program. A second sign used the social proof information by informing guests that the majority of guests at the hotel recycled their towels at least once during the course of their stay. These signs were randomly assigned to the rooms in the hotel.

Now, typically, experimental social psychologists are fortunate enough to have a team of eager undergraduate research assistants to help collect the data. But, as you might imagine, neither our research assistants nor the guests would have been very pleased with the research assistants’ sneaking into hotel bathrooms to collect our data, nor would our university’s ethics board (nor our mothers, for that matter). Fortunately, the hotel’s room attendants were kind enough to volunteer to collect the data for us. On the first day on which a particular guest’s room was serviced, they simply recorded whether the guest chose to reuse at least one towel.

Guests who learned that the majority of other guests had reused their towels (the social proof appeal), which was a message that we’ve never seen employed by even a single hotel, were 26 percent more likely than those who saw the basic environmental protection message to recycle their towels. That’s a 26 percent increase in participation relative to the industry standard, which we achieved simply by changing a few words on the sign to convey what others were doing. Not a bad improvement for a factor that people say has no influence on them at all.

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To join thousands of others in listening to a 22-minute interview of Robert Cialdini, click here.   For some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Interrogation and Marketing,” Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation,” “Promoting Smoking through Situation,” and “Journalists as Social Psychologists & Social Psychologists as Entertainers.”  To review archived posts on marketing, click here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book, Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Marketing, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Gary Marcus on the Construction of the Human Mind

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 9, 2008

New York University psychologist Gary Marcus speaks about his book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.  Marcus discusses the accidents of evolution that caused this structure and what we can do about it.

Posted in Book, Neuroscience, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Eating – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 21, 2008

Monday’s Boston Globe had a nice article, titled “Environmental cues affect how much you eat,” by Judy Foreman on the Situation of Eating. We’ve included the introduction below.

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Next time you sit down to dinner, dim the lights – but not too much. Both bright light and dim light may make you eat more. Watch the background music, too. If it’s too fast, you’ll eat fast, and therefore more; too slow and you’ll keep eating. And think small for plates – a portion that looks skimpy on a dinner plate looks ample on a salad plate.

The more that researchers study obesity, the more they are finding that portion control is key to successful weight loss. Often, people think they’re eating much less than really are. And these perceptions can be influenced, often outside our conscious awareness, by environmental cues, including lights and music.

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The article also includes this situationist gem of a quote by Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think:

“The big danger . . . is that we all think we are too smart to be influenced by environmental cues. . . . The good news is that it is very easy to reverse these cues and to just as mindlessly eat less.”

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To access the entire article, including tips on what might be done to influence the situation that is otherwise influencing us, click here.

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Below is six-minute interview of Brian Wansink in which he discusses several situational factors influencing what we eat and how much we enjoy it.

For a a more complete description and analysis of the situation of eating, see the law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America by Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion.

In case you missed Morgan’s Spurlock’ 2004 Academy-Award-Nominated documentary, Supersize Me, which explores some of the situational sources of obesity, you can watch the 100-minute movie below.

For those interested, here is a list of related Situationist posts to date: “The Situation of Eating,” “The Situation of the Dreaded ‘Freshman 15′,” “Our Situation Is What We Eat,” “Social Networks,” Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” “The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice,” 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 Behavioral Economics, Book, Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Illusions, Life, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Randomness, Luck, and other Situational Sources of Success and Failure

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 18, 2008

David Smith recently reviewed Leonard Mlodinow’s Book, A Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives for The Observer. For those unfamiliar with the book, here’s a quick (publisher’s) summary:

In this irreverent and illuminating book, acclaimed writer and scientist Leonard Mlodinow shows us how randomness, change, and probability reveal a tremendous amount about our daily lives, and how we misunderstand the significance of everything from a casual conversation to a major financial setback. As a result, successes and failures in life are often attributed to clear and obvious cases, when in actuality they are more profoundly influenced by chance.

The book and the review are worth checking out, but we found Smith’s discussion of the possible implications of Mlodnow’s insight worth sharing below.

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Mlodinow’s telling central premise is that our desire for control leaves us in denial about how important randomness is. Intuitively, we prefer to construct a linear narrative that makes events seem inevitable. Pearl Harbour and 9/11 were easy causal patterns to trace with hindsight, but rather less so beforehand. Individual success, too, is a lottery: JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by several publishers, Bruce Willis was a jobbing actor until he got a lucky break and even Bill Gates would have been ‘just another software entrepreneur’ but for a series of accidents. For every Rowling, Willis or Gates, how many equally talented people quit too soon because their coin hasn’t yet come up heads? Perseverance, it seems, is all.

Unfortunately, Mlodinow fails to develop this in what should have been his most provocative chapter. If the connection between actions and results is not as direct as we like to believe, what does that mean politically for the class system, social mobility and the self-justification of society’s elite? Sixties social psychologist Melvin Lerner, realising that ‘few people would engage in extended activity if they believed that there were a random connection between what they did and the rewards they received’, concluded that ‘for the sake of their own sanity’ people overestimate the degree to which ability can be inferred from success.

Would people in the US still fervently believe in the American Dream if they understood that hard work alone may not be enough? . . . .

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To watch a 42-minute video of Mlodinow discussing his book, click on the video below.

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For some a related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’.”

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, System Legitimacy, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Revenge

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 6, 2008

McCullough’s Beyond Revenge CoverMichael McCullough has a fascinating and important new book: “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.” Here’s a summary.

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For centuries, people have held several misconceptions about the nature of humanity’s desire for revenge and the human potential for forgiveness. First, from the earliest Greek tragedies to the modern mental health professions, revenge has been depicted as a disease or a poison that takes control of human minds and then plunges people into personal ruin and social chaos. Second, the capacity to forgive has been depicted as an “invention” that was deliberately created as a solution to the “problem” of revenge. Third, people have been led to believe that the key to making the world a more forgiving place is to help individual people to think, feel, and act differently than they currently do about the person, or people, who have harmed them—a view that fits very well with the modern emphasis on professional therapy and self-help as the solutions to people’s problems. Beyond Revenge takes these three assumptions to task because they are scientifically incorrect and because they prevent us from doing all we can to make the world a better place.

Using research from the social and biological sciences, interpreted through the lens of evolutionary theory, Beyond Revenge explains how modern humans’ propensity for revenge resulted from millions of years of evolution in which the capacity for revenge actually functioned as a solution to many of the social dilemmas that faced humans’ evolutionary ancestors, such as the problem of self-protection in the face of violence and the problem of encouraging cooperation among groups of unrelated individuals. As an evolutionary adaptation, the desire for revenge is a cross-cultural universal and it is responsive to a small set of social conditions. From the point of view of natural selection, revenge is only a problem for humans today because it was such an effective solution for our ancestors. Indeed, biologists have shown that humans are far from the only animals that use revenge to solve their social problems.

Second, Beyond Revenge demonstrates that humans’ capacity to forgive was not an invention or a discovery that people deliberately developed to control a runaway propensity for revenge, but rather, that it is an evolved feature of human nature that arose through the force of natural selection because it helped ancestral humans to solve certain adaptive social problems they encountered: conflicts of interest with their genetic relatives and with unrelated cooperation partners. Forgiveness, like revenge, is ubiquitous among the world’s human societies, and it appears to be a psychological process that we share in common with many other members of the animal kingdom. Recent scientific breakthroughs illustrate the factors that activate the “forgiveness instinct” in the minds of human beings, as well as in our closest living primate relatives.

Third, Beyond Revenge shows how these insights into the evolution and modern workings of the desire for revenge and the forgiveness instinct can be used to control human violence and destructiveness and to promote a more peaceful world. Rather than arguing that individual people must be changed in order to make the world a more forgiving place, Beyond Revenge argues that when people encounter the right sorts of social conditions, their tendencies to forgive are automatically activated. When people encounter offenders who are apologetic and contrite, and who attempt to make reparations for the damage they have caused, people are naturally inclined to forgive them. Likewise, when people live in societies in which their rights are protected, in which they are relatively safe from crime and victimization, and in which offenders are given incentives to apologize and compensate their victims, the desire for revenge is slaked and the forgiveness instinct is automatically activated. Beyond Revenge explains why. In an important chapter on religion, Beyond Revenge also explains exactly why religions have the capacity to encourage inspiring acts of forgiveness as well as shockingly destructive acts of vengeance.

Integrating insights from psychology, evolutionary biology, primatology, economics, and neuroscience, amply illustrated with examples from history, current events, popular culture, and everyday life, Beyond Revenge provides a balanced and realistic portrait of human nature, and it shows what people can do to make the world a less vengeful, more forgiving place.

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For some related Situationist posts, see “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “March Madness,” “Our Soldiers, Their Children: The Lasting Impact of the War in Iraq,” and “With God on Our Side . . ..”

The Situationist has a series of posts devoted to highlighting some of situational sources of war. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. Part IV and Part V in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Part VI contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts,” which gives special emphasis to the role of system justification. Part VII includes a video entitled “Resisting the Drums of War.” The film was created and narrated by psychologist Roy J. Eidelson, Executive Director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Posted in Book, Emotions, History | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Situationism’s Improving Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 4, 2008

In July Dan Finkelstein had a nice article in The Times titled “The social psychology revolution is reaching its tipping point.” In it, Finkelstein describes how relatively situationist ideas are beginning to influence policy theory and policy itself. Here are some excerpts.

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[A]n intellectual revolution is under way that will change the way we think about public policy just as the free market economists did in the 1980s. . . .

Those who doubt that there is something going on in the world of ideas should get themselves a publisher’s catalogue. One month there is a book called Nudge, the next a book called Sway. A volume called Predictably Irrational follows another called Irrationality. Since the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, books on tipping points have reached a tipping point.

Behind this publishing explosion, with its PR hoopla, is real and solid intellectual progress. It comes from two streams of thought, developing alongside each other. The first is the idea of evolutionary psychology.

The breakthrough came with E.O. Wilson‘s controversial work Sociobiology, first published in 1975. Since then a number of academics, including familiar names such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, have illuminated aspects of human behaviour by explaining how they arise from our Darwinian struggle. For example, we reciprocate favours because we are the genetic descendants of those who survived to breed because they reciprocated favours.

Why was this work controversial? Because it argued that behaviour is partly inherited, offending against those who believe that we are born completely free of such influence. . . .

The second stream of thought is behavioural economics. For twenty years now, some economists have been looking at the psychology of economic decision-making. Instead of seeing humans as rational calculating machines, behavioural economists have been conducting experiments to assess how real choices are made. On paper, two alternatives may look economically identical. But the way that they are framed and the context will, in the real world, determine the choice. Human beings are, for instance, highly loss-averse. They will take risks to avoid a loss, while behaving conservatively when a possible gain is in the offing.

This work has revolutionised economic thinking and helped to win Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. This was the prize that Milton Friedman won in 1976, just before monetarism swept all before it.

All this . . . suggests that there is such a thing as society and you can’t understand the impact of policy on individuals unless you realise that. We are not just individuals. We abide by social norms, reciprocate favours, stick by our commitments, are desperate to remain consistent and are tribal.

And you can see already this work seeping into the political mainstream. . . . George Osborne has written this week of social psychology, and his Tory frontbench colleague Greg Clark takes a close interest. On the Labour side James Purnell shows some familiarity and the former Blair aide Matthew Taylor is turning the Royal Society of Arts into one of the leading think-tanks in this area.

The most important step forward has come with David Cameron‘s correct insistence that social change is as likely, or more likely, to come through influencing behaviour as it is through regulation.

Yet the integration of the academic work on human behaviour into politics is still very much in its infancy. It is roughly now where economic understanding was in about 1978, before the Thatcher revolution. It is possible, indeed usual, to have entire policy debates in which the science of human behaviour doesn’t figure at all.

For instance, in the past two weeks we have had discussion of obesity and of knife crime. Social norms have hardly figured. If everybody thinks that everybody else is getting fat, then more people will put on weight. The campaigns designed to reduce obesity may be spreading it. Similarly the very idea that every young person is carrying a knife increases knife crime. The obvious route of making such behaviour seem odd and isolated appears not to have occurred to any major politician.

Similarly, the work of social psychologists on the power of public commitments is entirely absent from the debate on marriage and on reducing delinquency; and our struggle to overcome our tribal instincts doesn’t figure in the discussion of immigration.

It now seems hard to imagine political debate without rudimentary economic understanding. But we haven’t always had it. It’s quite a recent thing. The time will come when we feel the same about social psychology.

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To read the entire article, click here. For related Situationist posts, see “Changing Choices by Changing Situations,” “Free To Not Choose,” and “Predictably Irrational.” For some posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book, Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

 
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