The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Conflict’ Category

Situationist Political Science and the Situation of Voters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 14, 2010

Joe Keohane wrote an outstanding article, “How Facts Backfire: Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains,” for the Boston Globe last week.  Here are some excerpts.

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It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. . . . Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

These findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals. Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.

Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be,” read a recent Onion headline. Like the best satire, this nasty little gem elicits a laugh, which is then promptly muffled by the queasy feeling of recognition. The last five decades of political science have definitively established that most modern-day Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works. In 1996, Princeton University’s Larry M. Bartels argued, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science.”

On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)

Studies by other researchers have observed similar phenomena when addressing education, health care reform, immigration, affirmative action, gun control, and other issues that tend to attract strong partisan opinion. Kuklinski calls this sort of response the “I know I’m right” syndrome, and considers it a “potentially formidable problem” in a democratic system. “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs,” he wrote, “but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.”

What’s going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we’re right?

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To read the rest of the article, including Keohane‘s answers to those questions, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Presidential Death Threats,” Voting for a Face,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,”Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” “Your Brain on Politics.” The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,” Racial Attitudes in the Presidential Race,” The Racial Situation of Voting,” The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters,” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” and “What does an Obama victory mean?

Posted in Choice Myth, Conflict, Cultural Cognition, Deep Capture, Education, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situational Effects of (In)Equality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 29, 2010

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

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

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

The Social Situation of Breaking Up

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 17, 2010

Rose McDermott, Nicholas Christakis, and James Fowler have recently posted their fascinating paper “Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample Followed for 32 Years” on SSRN.   Here’s the abstract.

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Divorce is the dissolution of a social tie, but it is also possible that attitudes about divorce flow across social ties. To explore how social networks influence divorce and vice versa, we utilize a longitudinal data set from the long-running Framingham Heart Study. We find that divorce can spread between friends, siblings, and coworkers, and there are clusters of divorcees that extend two degrees of separation in the network. We also find that popular people are less likely to get divorced, divorcees have denser social networks, and they are much more likely to remarry other divorcees. Interestingly, we do not find that the presence of children influences the likelihood of divorce, but we do find that each child reduces the susceptibility to being influenced by peers who get divorced. Overall, the results suggest that attending to the health of one’s friends’ marriages serves to support and enhance the durability of one’s own relationship, and that, from a policy perspective, divorce should be understood as a collective phenomenon that extends far beyond those directly affected.

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You can download the paper for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Networks,” Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg,” “Smile If You Love Your Future Relationships,” and “Deterring Divorce through Major League Baseball?.”

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Conflict, Life | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Students’ Situations Leave Them Less Empathetic (Situationist)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 16, 2010

From University of Michigan News Service:

Today’s college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and ’90s, a University of Michigan study shows. The study, presented in Boston at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, analyzes data on empathy among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years. “We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,” said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”

Konrath conducted the meta-analysis, combining the results of 72 different studies of American college students conducted between 1979 and 2009, with U-M graduate student Edward O’Brien and undergraduate student Courtney Hsing. Compared to college students of the late 1970s, the study found, college students today are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

In a related but separate analysis, Konrath found that nationally representative samples of Americans see changes in other people’s kindness and helpfulness over a similar time period. “

Many people see the current group of college students—sometimes called ‘Generation Me’—as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history,” said Konrath, who is also affiliated with the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry. “It’s not surprising that this growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluation of others,” O’Brien said.

Why is empathy declining among young adults? Konrath and O’Brien suggest there could be several reasons, which they hope to explore in future research. “The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor,” Konrath said. “Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”

The recent rise of social media may also play a role in the drop in empathy, suggests O’Brien. “The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline,” he said. Add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity “reality shows,” and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy, he says. “College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited,” O’Brien said.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of College Education: Why Going for the Money Makes Sense for Some Prep Players,” “Racial bias clouds ability to feel others’ pain,” “The Neuro-Situation of Violence and Empathy,” “The Situation of Morality and Empathy,” The Situation of Caring,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “Virtual Bias,” “Internet Disinhibition,” Resident Evil 5 and Racism in Video Games,” and “The Situation of First-Person Shooters.”

Posted in Conflict, Education, Emotions, Life, Morality | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

The Situation of Hate Crimes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 10, 2010

Here is another segment from John Quinones excellent ABC 20/20 series titled “What Would You Do?” — a series that, in essence, conducts situationist experiments through hidden-camera scenarios. This episode asks, “what would you do if you witnessed a hate crime?” (and includes analysis from social psychologist John Dovidio).

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To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Jena 6 – Part I,” “The Situation of Racism in LA Gangs,” “Racial bias clouds ability to feel others’ pain,” “An Apathy Epidemic,” “The Situation of Blaming Rihanna,” “Situationist Theories of Hate – Part III,” Obesity and Bullying,” Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas,” Unrecognized Injustice — The Situation of Rape,” The Situation of Prejudice: Us vs. Them? or Them Is Us?” and “The Racialized Situation of Vandalism and Crime.”

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

“Talk to an Iraqi” from This American Life 

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 1, 2010

From This American Life:

“A young Iraqi ends up in America after fleeing Iraq and goes on a road trip to ask Americans questions about the War. But he approaches people in a very specific way, a way you might actually recognize from Peanuts comics. The conversations he has illuminate how we form opinions about a war happening far away.”

The roughly sixteen minutes worth of video are, like most TAL stories, outstanding.  We include them on the Situationist, however, because of how powerfully the dialogues illustrate the influence of system justification, in-group bias, and other psychological motives.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Cruelty of Children,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “The Situation of an Airstrike,” The Situation of Soldiers,” Our Soldiers, Their Children: The Lasting Impact of the War in Iraq,” The Situation of a “Volunteer” Army,” Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” Some (Interior) Situational Sources of War – Part VII,” “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors,” “Michael McCullough on the Situation of Revenge and Forgiveness,”The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers,” and “March Madness.”

Posted in Conflict, History, Ideology, Politics, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Racial Prejudice in Real Estate Markets

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 26, 2010

Here is another segment from John Quinones excellent ABC 20/20 series titled “What Would You Do?” — a series that, in essence, conducts situationist experiments through hidden-camera scenarios. This episode asks, “what would you do if you attended a real estate open house where only certain people were welcome?” (and includes analysis from social psychologist John Dovidio).

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It has been over 50 years since the Black, middle-class Myers family moved into all-White Levittown.  You can watch the landmark (32-minute) documentary depicting reactions to the Myers moving into Levittown below.

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Finally, here is a 1991 ABC Primetime story on the “nature of today’s prejudices.” The documentary follows “two men (equal in all measurable aspects, except skin color) as they participate in a variety of ‘everyday’ life interactions and situations to test levels of prejudice based on skin colors. Shows how two young men in St. Louis, one white, one black, but otherwise similar in background, appearance, etc., are treated differently in various situations as they go about shopping, applying for work, and looking for rental housing.

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To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Jane Elliot’s Situationist Pedagogy,” Leaving the Past,”Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” Black History is Now,”Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,” Inequality and the Unequal Situation of Mental and Physical Health,” The Toll of Discrimination on Black Women,” The Physical Pains of Discrimination,” The Depressing Effects of Racial Discrimination,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” The Situation of Prejudice: Us vs. Them? or Them Is Us?” and “The Racialized Situation of Vandalism and Crime,” each of which contains a sizable list of other related Situationist posts.

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, History | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Stop that Thief! (or not)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 20, 2010

Here is another segment from John Quinones excellent ABC 20/20 series titled “What Would You Do?” — a series that, in essence, conducts situationist experiments through hidden-camera scenarios.  This episode asks “what would you do if you witnessed a beach theif in action?” (and includes analysis from social psychologist Carrie Keating).

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To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Prejudice: Us vs. Them? or Them Is Us?” and “The Racialized Situation of Vandalism and Crime,” each of which contains a sizable list of other related Situationist posts. “

Posted in Conflict, Morality, Video | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Prejudice: Us vs. Them? or Them Is Us?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 15, 2010

Here is another segment from John Quinones excellent ABC 20/20 series titled “What Would You Do?” — a series that, in essence, conducts situationist experiments through hidden-camera scenarios (in consultation with renowned social psychologist John Dovidio).

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To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The ‘Turban Effect’,” “Journalists as Social Psychologists & Social Psychologists as Entertainers,” “The Situation of Racial Profiling,” “The Situation of Being ‘(un)American’,” Do We Miss Racial Stereotypes Today that Will Be Evident Tomorrow?,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and Perceptions of Racial Divide,The Psychology of Barack Obama as the Antichrist.”

Posted in Conflict, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

Obesity and Bullying

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 9, 2010

Christian Nordqvist wrote a nice summary of recent research for  Medical News Today on the relationship of obesity with bullying.  Here are a few excerpts.

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A new study published in the journal Pediatrics reports that obese children have a higher risk of being bullied, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, social skills, academic achievement or gender. The study, titled “Weight status as a predictor of being bullied in third through sixth grades” was carried out by Julie C. Lumeng, M.D., . . . and her colleagues.

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The aim of this study was to establish the link between childhood obesity and being the victim of bullying in 3rd, 5th, and 6th grades.

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Researchers studied 821 children who were . . . . recruited at birth in 10 study sites around the USA.

The researchers evaluated the relationship between the child’s weight status and the chances of being bullied as reported by the child, mother, and teacher. The study accounted for grade level in school, gender, race, family income-to-needs ratio, racial and socioeconomic composition of the school, and child social skills and academic achievement as reported by mothers and teachers.

They found that obese children had a higher risk of being bullied, regardless of gender, race, family socioeconomic status, school demographic profile, social skills or academic achievement.

The authors conclude that being obese – by itself – raises the probability of being a victim of bullying. Lumeng adds that interventions to address bullying in schools are badly needed.

Lumeng said “Physicians who care for obese children should consider the role that being bullied is playing in the child’s well-being. Because perceptions of children are connected to broader societal perceptions about body type, it is important to fashion messages aimed at reducing the premium placed on thinness and the negative stereotypes that are associated with being obese or overweight.”

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To read the entire summary, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts see “The Situation of Bullying,” The Cruelty of Children,”Examining the Bullying Situation,” The Situation of Bullying,” The Neuro-Situation of Violence and Empathy,” The Policy Situation of Obesity,” The Situation of Body Image,” Social Networks,” Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,”

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Conflict, Food and Drug Law | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Cooperation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 4, 2010

From The National Science Foundation:

Humans are incredibly cooperative, but why do people cooperate and how is cooperation maintained? A new research study by UCLA anthropology professor Robert Boyd and his colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico suggests cooperation in large groups is maintained by punishment.

The finding challenges previous cooperation/punishment models that argue punishment is uncoordinated and unconditional.

Boyd and his team report their research in the April 30 issue of the journal Science. . . .

To understand the study, let’s start with a small group of friends. In small groups, individuals often have personal connections with other group members and cooperation typically is maintained by a “you help me, I’ll help you” reciprocity system. Group members cooperate because they do not want to hurt their friends by not participating in group efforts, and also because they may want help in the future.

But in a larger group, like a tribe, those mechanisms for maintaining cooperation are lost. All group members experience the benefits of the large group, even those members who stop cooperating and become “free-riders.” Free-riders are people who benefit from the group in food sharing and protection from enemies, for example, without contributing to food collection or war. In these cases, the personal connection to the group’s members is often gone.

But it turns out that most members of large groups cooperate. Why? Boyd and his colleagues suggest cooperation is maintained by punishment, which reduces the benefits to free riding. There are tribes, for example, that punish free-riders who do not participate in warfare by not allowing them to take a bride. Thus, there is the threat of losing societal benefits if a member does not cooperate, which leads to increased group cooperation.

Previous models of cooperation assumed that punishment of free-riders was uncoordinated and unconditional. One problem with these models was that the costs associated with punishment were often higher than the gains of cooperation. Thus, the cost of one group member’s punishing a free-rider would be substantial and would not overweigh the gains achieved through increased cooperation.

Costs may be defined as loss of friendship or loss of relational closeness with other members of the group.

To address the problem, Boyd and his colleagues changed the assumptions built into previous cooperation/punishment models. First, they allowed for punishment to be coordinated among group members. In their model, group members could signal their willingness to punish someone who was not participating in the group, but punishment would only occur if it was coordinated. This meant the cost of punishing a free-rider would be distributed across members and would not be higher than the cost of gains achieved through increased cooperation.

Second, the researchers allowed for the cost of punishing a free-rider to decline as the number of punishers increased. Boyd explained that this new model was “catching up with common sense” because these two assumptions exist in reality.

Their model had three stages in which a large group of unrelated individuals interacted repeatedly. The first stage was a signaling stage where group members could signal their intent to punish. In the second stage, group members could choose to cooperate or not. The final stage was a punishment stage when group members could punish other group members.

The results of their model look a lot like what is seen in most human societies, where individuals meet and decide whether and how to punish group members who are not cooperating. This is coordinated punishment where group members signal their intent to punish, only punish when a threshold has been met and share the costs of punishing.

Boyd argues that even in societies without formal institutions for establishing rules and methods of punishment, group punishment appears to be effective at maintaining cooperation.

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To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Kindness,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “Monkey Fairness,” “The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” The Situation of Revenge,” “The Situation of Punishment,” and “Why We Punish.”

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Legal Theory | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Bullying

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 27, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Neuro-Situation of Violence and Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 11, 2010

From EurekaAlert:

“Just as our species could be considered the most violent, since we are capable of serial killings, genocide and other atrocities, we are also the most empathetic species, which would seem to be the other side of the coin”, Luis Moya Albiol, lead author of the study and a researcher at the UV, tells SINC.

This study, published in the most recent issue of the Revista de Neurología, concludes that the prefrontal and temporal cortex, the amygdala and other features of the limbic system (such as insular and cingular cortexcortex) play “a fundamental role in all situations in which empathy appears”.

Moya Albiol says these parts of the brain overlap “in a surprising way” with those that regulate aggression and violence. As a result, the scientific team argues that the cerebral circuits – for both empathy and violence – could be “partially similar”.

“We all know that encouraging empathy has an inhibiting effect on violence, but this may not only be a social question but also a biological one – stimulation of these neuronal circuits in one direction reduces their activity in the other”, the researcher adds.

This means it is difficult for a “more empathetic” brain to behave in a violent way, at least on a regular basis. “Educating people to be empathetic could be an education for peace, bringing about a reduction in conflict and belligerent acts”, the researcher concludes.

Techniques for measuring the human brain “in vivo”, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, are making it possible to find out more about the structures of the brain that regulate behaviour and psychological processes such as empathy.

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These findings were published in the latest issue of Revista de Neurología.

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

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Emotions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of an Airstrike

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 8, 2010

Benedict Carey wrote a great article, titled “Psychologists Explain Iraqi Airstrike Video” for the New York Times.  Here are some excerpts, with the addition of the videos to which the article refers.

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The sight of human beings, most of them unarmed, being gunned down from above is jarring enough.

But for many people who watched the video of a 2007 assault by an Army Apache helicopter in Baghdad, released Monday by WikiLeaks.org, the most disturbing detail was the cockpit chatter. The soldiers joked, chuckled and jeered as they shot people in the street, including a Reuters photographer and a driver, believing them to be insurgents.

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In recent days, many veterans have made the point that fighters cannot do their jobs without creating psychological distance from the enemy. One reason that the soldiers seemed as if they were playing a video game is that, in a morbid but necessary sense, they were.

“You don’t want combat soldiers to be foolish or to jump the gun, but their job is to destroy the enemy, and one way they’re able to do that is to see it as a game, so that the people don’t seem real,” said Bret A. Moore, a former Army psychologist and co-author of the forthcoming book “Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life After Deployment.”

Military training is fundamentally an exercise in overcoming a fear of killing another human, said Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of the book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” who is a former Army Ranger.

Combat training “is the only technique that will reliably influence the primitive, midbrain processing of a frightened human being” to take another life, the colonel writes. “Conditioning in flight simulators enables pilots to respond reflexively to emergency situations even when frightened.”

The men in the Apache helicopter in the video flew into an area that was being contested, during a broader conflict in which a number of helicopters had been shot down.

Several other factors are on display during the 38-minute video, said psychologists in and out of the military. . . .

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The fighters in the helicopter say over the radio that they are sure they see a “weapon,” even though the Reuters photographer, Namir Noor-Eldeen, is carrying a camera.

“It’s tragic that this all begins with the apparent mistaking of a camera” for a weapon, said David A. Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University. “But it’s perfectly understandable with what we know now about context and vision. Take the same image and put it in a bathroom, and you swear it’s a hair dryer; put it in a workshop, and you swear it’s a power drill.”

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After the helicopter guns down a group of men, the video shows a van stopping to pick up one of the wounded. The soldiers in the helicopter suspect it to be hostile and, after getting clearance from base, fire again. Two children in the van are wounded, and one of the soldiers remarks, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”

Here again, psychologists say, when people are intensely focused on observing some specific feature of the landscape, they may not even see what is obvious to another observer. The classic demonstration of this is a video in which people toss around a basketball; viewers told to count the number of passes rarely see a person in a gorilla suit who strolls into the picture, stops and faces the camera, and strolls out.

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The soldiers were looking for combatants; experts say it is not clear they would have seen children, even if they should have.

The video’s emotional impact on viewers is also partly rooted in the combination of intimacy and distance it gives them, some experts said. The viewer sees a wider tragedy unfolding, in hindsight, from the safety of a desk; the soldiers are reacting in real time, on high alert, exposed.

In recent studies, researchers have shown that such distance tempts people to script how they would act in the same place, and overestimate the force of their own professed moral principles.

“We don’t express our better angels as much as we’d like to think, especially when strong emotions are involved,” Dr. Dunning said. He added, “What another person does in that situation should stand as forewarning for what we would do ourselves.”

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Thanks to Situationist Fellow Goutam Jois for sending us this link.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Situation of Soldiers,” Our Soldiers, Their Children: The Lasting Impact of the War in Iraq,” “The Military Meets the Mind Sciences,” “The Situation of a “Volunteer” Army,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources of War – Part VII,” “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors,” The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers,” From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part I,” “Looking for the Evil Actor,” Neuroscience and Illusion,”

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Illusions, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Michael McCullough on the Situation of Revenge and Forgiveness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 6, 2010

From TempletonFoundation:

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

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

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

The Situation of the Health Care Debate

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 14, 2010

A Harvard Law student wrote a worthwhile post on Law & Mind a few weeks ago about some of the dynamics behind the health care debate.  Here is an excerpt.

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How should an institution inspire collective action?  What’s the best strategy?  The conventional wisdom is that to solve a collective problem, the institution should reward contributors and punish free-riders.  To prevent people from littering, fine them; to induce people to donate to charity, reward them; to move people to invent, lure them with intellectual property . . . .  The implicit reasoning is that the typical human agent is a rational wealth-optimizer who won’t contribute to a public good unless he or she is incentivized to do.  Yet, . . . the rational actor model isn’t an accurate depiction of human nature.  Just as the average person doesn’t make the “rational choice” in an ultimatum bargain, the average person doesn’t jump to contribute to a public good on account of a mere carrot or stick.  The conventional wisdom—that the optimal solution for the collective action dilemma is incentive-based—is a gross oversimplification; the almighty incentive is only one aspect of a rich, complex puzzle.  Nonetheless, the conventional solution is unquestioned in our popular discourse regarding collective action.

Enter [Situationist Contributor] Professor Dan M. Kahan of Yale Law SchoolAs he’s done for quite a while, Professor Kahan challenges the conventional wisdom.  In the “The Logic of Reciprocity: Trust, Collective Action, and Law,” Professor Kahan argues that the traditional solution for a collective problem is often counter-productive, and offers an alternative theory that is grounded in an ecologically valid appraisal of the human animal.

Before exploring Professor Kahan’s theory, though, consider a recent example of the conventional wisdom’s influence on public discourse from an article in Slate entitled, “The Senator’s Dilemma,” published last week.  There, Christopher Beam argues that the Democratic Party’s strategic stance with respect to health care reform can be viewed as a classic collective action problem.  Although Beam’s characterization of the problem is surely correct, his policy prescription is conventional.

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To read the rest of the post click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, “Rebecca Onie: Doing Something about the Situation of Medical Care,”  “How Ted Kennedy’s Passing Influences ‘Obamacare’,” The Situation of Racial Health Disparities,” “The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers,” “The Racial Situation of Pain Relief,” “The Situation of Medical Research,” and “Infant Death Rates in Mississippi.”  To read other Situationist posts discussing Dan Kahan’s work, click here.

Posted in Conflict, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Looting

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 4, 2010

Stephen Mulvey for BBC News had an illuminating article earlier this article, asking “Why Do People Loot?”  Here are some excerpts.

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Chile could be mistaken for being in the throes of a political uprising rather than the aftermath of a natural disaster.

“We understand your urgent suffering, but we also know that these are criminal acts that will not be tolerated,” President Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday, condemning the “pillage and criminality”.

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Social psychologists accept both that looting is criminal behaviour, and that it is natural when the forces of law and order disappear.

They distinguish different types of looting, including:

  • Looting of goods needed for survival
  • Opportunistic theft of good such as TV sets
  • Collective action, conditioned by the political environment

It’s the third category that is of most interest to psychologists.

Steve Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at St Andrews University in the UK, quotes approvingly Martin Luther King’s adage “a riot is the language of the unheard”.

In his view, a mass outbreak of looting can follow precise patterns, which express the community’s sense of right and wrong.

During the riots in the St Pauls area of Bristol in 1980, some shops were untouched because they were regarded as part of the community. A bank, on the other hand, came under heavy attack because it was perceived as a symbol of authority.

“People joined in spontaneously,” he says. “The number of people who told me they had attacked the bank in St Pauls was remarkable.”

During food riots in Britain at the turn of the 18th Century, there were cases where grain was seized from merchants and sold to the needy at a fair price – and then the money and the empty sacks were handed back to the merchant.

“In Chile, the questions I would want to ask are, ‘Let’s look closely at the patterns of behaviour, the grievances, the sense of right and wrong of those involved,'” he says.

“It’s not ‘What happened to me?’ but ‘What happened to us?’ How are ‘We’ as a group treated by ‘Them’? How much is this due to the fact that they ignored us?”

At the same time, he acknowledges that individuals do use the cover of the riot for straightforward cases of theft – and that distinguishing collective action from cases of individual opportunism is not always easy.

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To read the entire article, including a section discussing the role of anger, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “A System-Justification Primer,” “Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and “March Madness,”

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Morality, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Interior Situational Reaction to Inequality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 25, 2010

From EurekAlert:

The human brain is a big believer in equality—and a team of scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, has become the first to gather the images to prove it.

Specifically, the team found that the reward centers in the human brain respond more strongly when a poor person receives a financial reward than when a rich person does. The surprising thing? This activity pattern holds true even if the brain being looked at is in the rich person’s head, rather than the poor person’s.

These conclusions, and the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies that led to them, are described in the February 25 issue of the journal Nature.

“This is the latest picture in our gallery of human nature,” says Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech and one of the paper’s coauthors. “It’s an exciting area of research; we now have so many tools with which to study how the brain is reacting.”

It’s long been known that we humans don’t like inequality, especially when it comes to money. Tell two people working the same job that their salaries are different, and there’s going to be trouble, notes John O’Doherty, professor of psychology at Caltech, Thomas N. Mitchell Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, and the principal investigator on the Nature paper.

But what was unknown was just how hardwired that dislike really is. “In this study, we’re starting to get an idea of where this inequality aversion comes from,” he says. “It’s not just the application of a social rule or convention; there’s really something about the basic processing of rewards in the brain that reflects these considerations.”

The brain processes “rewards”—things like food, money, and even pleasant music, which create positive responses in the body—in areas such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and ventral striatum.

In a series of experiments, former Caltech postdoctoral scholar Elizabeth Tricomi (now an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University)—along with O’Doherty, Camerer, and Antonio Rangel, associate professor of economics at Caltech—watched how the VMPFC and ventral striatum reacted in 40 volunteers who were presented with a series of potential money-transfer scenarios while lying in an fMRI machine.

For instance, a participant might be told that he could be given $50 while another person could be given $20; in a second scenario, the student might have a potential gain of only $5 and the other person, $50. The fMRI images allowed the researchers to see how each volunteer’s brain responded to each proposed money allocation.

But there was a twist. Before the imaging began, each participant in a pair was randomly assigned to one of two conditions: One participant was given what the researchers called “a large monetary endowment” ($50) at the beginning of the experiment; the other participant started from scratch, with no money in his or her pocket.

As it turned out, the way the volunteers—or, to be more precise, the reward centers in the volunteers’ brains—reacted to the various scenarios depended strongly upon whether they started the experiment with a financial advantage over their peers.

“People who started out poor had a stronger brain reaction to things that gave them money, and essentially no reaction to money going to another person,” Camerer says. “By itself, that wasn’t too surprising.”

What was surprising was the other side of the coin. “In the experiment, people who started out rich had a stronger reaction to other people getting money than to themselves getting money,” Camerer explains. “In other words, their brains liked it when others got money more than they liked it when they themselves got money.”

“We now know that these areas are not just self-interested,” adds O’Doherty. “They don’t exclusively respond to the rewards that one gets as an individual, but also respond to the prospect of other individuals obtaining a reward.”

What was especially interesting about the finding, he says, is that the brain responds “very differently to rewards obtained by others under conditions of disadvantageous inequality versus advantageous inequality. It shows that the basic reward structures in the human brain are sensitive to even subtle differences in social context.”

This, O’Doherty notes, is somewhat contrary to the prevailing views about human nature. “As a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist who works on reward and motivation, I very much view the brain as a device designed to maximize one’s own self interest,” says O’Doherty. “The fact that these basic brain structures appear to be so readily modulated in response to rewards obtained by others highlights the idea that even the basic reward structures in the human brain are not purely self-oriented.”

Camerer, too, found the results thought provoking. “We economists have a widespread view that most people are basically self-interested, and won’t try to help other people,” he says. “But if that were true, you wouldn’t see these sort of reactions to other people getting money.”

Still, he says, it’s likely that the reactions of the “rich” participants were at least partly motivated by self-interest—or a reduction of their own discomfort. “We think that, for the people who start out rich, seeing another person get money reduces their guilt over having more than the others.”

Having watched the brain react to inequality, O’Doherty says, the next step is to “try to understand how these changes in valuation actually translate into changes in behavior. For example, the person who finds out they’re being paid less than someone else for doing the same job might end up working less hard and being less motivated as a consequence. It will be interesting to try to understand the brain mechanisms that underlie such changes.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Robin Hood Motives,” “Martha Fineman on the Situation of Gender and Equality,” “The Blame Frame – Abstract,” “The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” and “The Situation of Inequality – Guns, Germs, and Steel.”

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Distribution, Emotions, Neuroeconomics, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Morality and Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 21, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Pinker Speaks at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2009

From HLS in Focus (describing the new student group working with the Project on Law and Mind Sciences (PLMS) at Harvard Law School and the fascinating talk that Stephen Pinker recently gave there).

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“SALMS” is a recently formed group whose acronym stands for: Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences. They are interested keeping the law school community informed about research in the mind sciences that has profound implications for law and policy making. The group is currently in the process of creating a journal that touches on the same topic. If they are successful, it will be the first journal of its kind in the country.

The event that I attended was a lecture by Harvard College Professor, Steven Pinker. The title of the talk was: “A History of Violence: How We Became Less Violent” Professor Pinker explained that research indicates that although public perception is that we live in a dangerous and violent society, the facts back up a different theory. Society is becoming less violent. This statement is made based on data that span hundreds of years. Over this period of time, there have been less murders and overall violent crimes, fewer deaths from all kinds of war and much less capital punishment for non-violent crimes.

Professor Pinker also offered some reasons for why people might think that we live in a more violent period than ever before. The first is the availability heuristic. We think that society is more violent now because when asked, more recent examples are easier to remember and news of violent crimes spreads faster and farther than ever before. The second is a tendency to think that society is in a state of moral decay. We idealize the past and think that the present represents a departure from morals and values. The third is the fear that saying that violence is declining will make us too complacent rather than proactive about our own safety.

The evidence presented suggests that our inclinations toward violence have not changed over time but that societal constructions keep us from killing each other. For example, most of civilized society no longer approves of killing for revenge or honor. People still feel like they want to kill for these reasons but there is less incentive to go through with it and the consequences and probability of getting caught are just too high. We also have ample opportunity to live vicariously through the violence we get from the television, movies and videogames. The final reason for the decline in violence may be that people have become more valuable to us alive than dead. This is especially true on the national scale where countries depend on each other for different trade commodities.

Sitting in on this discussion made me realize that I was mistaken before when I thought that my undergraduate major in psychology would be irrelevant. Understanding the mind sciences can be a great help when it comes to understanding people’s behavior, the incentives they respond to and how we can shape law and policy in a way that helps enable the best outcomes. I really hope this group gets their journal off the ground. I can’t wait to attend their next event.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Steven Pinker at Harvard Law School,” “Law Students Flock to Situationism,” The Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences,” “Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” Another Century of Genocide?,” “Steven Pinker’s Ted Talks on ‘The Stuff of Thought’,” “The Situation of Violence,” and “Time Changes Mind.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Conflict, Events, History, Life | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

 
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