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Archive for the ‘Distribution’ Category

The Financial Situation of Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 24, 2011

From UC Berkeley News Center:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More.

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

Choice and Inequality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2011

Since the early 2000s, much of Jon Hanson’s (and other Situationist Contributor’s) research, writing, teaching, and speaking has focused on the role of “choice,” “the choice myth,” and “choicism” in rationalizing injustice and inequality, particularly in the U.S.  (e.g., The Blame Frame: Justifying (Racial) Injustice in America).  That work has helped to inspire a significant amount of fascinating experimental research (and, unfortunately, one derivative book) on the topic.   Over the next couple of months, we will highlight some of that intriguing new research on The Situationist. 

Here is an abstract and excerpts from a fascinating article (forthcoming, Psychological Science – pdf of draft here) co-authored by Situationist friend Krishna Savani (Columbia) and Aneeta Rattan (Stanford).  Their article examines how “a choice mindset increases the acceptance and maintenance of wealth inequality.”

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Abstract: Wealth inequality has significant psychological, physiological, societal, and economic costs. We investigate how seemingly innocuous, culturally pervasive ideas can help maintain and further wealth inequality. Specifically, we test whether the concept of choice, which is deeply valued in American society, leads people to act in ways that maintain and perpetuate wealth inequality. Choice, we argue, activates the belief that life outcomes stem from personal agency, not from societal factors, leading people to justify wealth inequality. Six experiments show that when choice is highlighted, people are less disturbed by facts about the existing wealth inequality in the U.S., more likely to underestimate the role of societal factors in individuals’ successes, less likely to support the redistribution of educational resources, and less likely to tax the rich even to resolve a government budget deficit crisis. The findings indicate that the culturally valued concept of choice contributes to the maintenance of wealth inequality.

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Wealth inequality has substantial negative consequences for societies, including reduced well-being (Napier & Jost, 2008), fewer public goods (Frank, 2011; Kluegel & Smith, 1986), and even lower economic growth (Alesina & Rodrik, 1994). Despite these well-known negative consequences, high levels of wealth inequality persist in many nations. For example, the U.S. has the greatest degree of wealth inequality among all the industrialized countries in terms of the Gini Coefficient (93rd out of 134 countries; CIA Factbook, 2010). Moreover, wealth inequality in the U.S. substantially worsened in the first decade of the 21st century, with median household income in 2010 equal to that in 1997 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011), although per-capita GDP increased by 33% over the same period (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2011), indicating that all of the gain in wealth was concentrated at the top end of the wealth distribution.

A large majority of Americans disapprove of a high degree of wealth inequality (Norton & Ariely, 2011), for example, when the top 1% of people on the wealth distribution possess 35% of the nation’s wealth, as was the case in the U.S. in 2007 (Wolff, 2010). Instead, people prefer a more equal distribution of wealth that includes a strong middle class, such as when the middle 60% of people own approximately 60% of the nation’s wealth, rather than only the 15% that they owned in the U.S. in 2007. If people are unhappy with wealth inequality, then policies that reduce this inequality should be widely supported, particularly in times of increasing wealth inequality. However, Americans often oppose specific policies that would remedy wealth inequality (Bartels, 2005). For example, taxation and redistribution—taxing the rich and using the proceeds to provide public goods, public insurance, and a minimum standard of living for the poor—is probably the most effective means for reducing wealth inequality from an economic perspective (Frank, 2011; Korpi & Palme, 1998). However, most Americans, including working class and middle class citizens, have supported tax cuts even for the very rich and oppose government spending on social services that would mitigate inequality (Bartels, 2005; Fong, 2001). What factors explain thisinconsistency between a general preference for greater wealth equality and opposition to specific policies that would produce it? We investigate whether people’s attitudes toward wealth inequality and support for policies that reduce wealth inequality are influenced by the concept of choice.

Choice is a core concept in U.S. American culture . . . .

Recent research suggests that the concept of choice decreases support for societally beneficial policies (e.g., a tax on highly polluting cars) but increases support for policies furthering individual rights (e.g., legalizing drugs; Savani, Stephens, & Markus, 2011). Historical analyses also suggest that Americans often use the concept of choice to justify inequality, arguing that the poor are poor because they made bad choices (Hanson & Hanson, 2006; see also Stephens & Levine, 2011). Building upon this work, we theorized that the assumption that people make free choices, when combined with the fact that some people turned out rich and others poor, leads people to believe that inequality in life outcomes is justified and reasonable. Therefore, when people think in terms of choice, we hypothesized that they would be less disturbed by wealth inequality and less supportive of policies aimed at reducing this inequality. . . .

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You can download a pdf of the draft here.

Related Situationst posts:

You can review hundreds of Situationist posts related to the topic of “choice myth” here or to the topic of inequality here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Distribution, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

A Call for More Research on the Psychology of Inequality

Posted by Adam Benforado on December 9, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Related Situationist posts:

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The Situation of Inequality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 2, 2011

From TEDTalks:

We feel instinctively that societies with huge income gaps are somehow going wrong. Richard Wilkinson charts the hard data on economic inequality, and shows what gets worse when rich and poor are too far apart: real effects on health, lifespan, even such basic values as trust.

Related Situationist posts:

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Selfishness versus Altruism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 21, 2011

From the Stanford Daily:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More.

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Psychic Numbing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 8, 2011

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

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

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

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Download the chapter for free.

Related Situationist posts:

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

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9/11 Remembered

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 11, 2011

A number of Situationist posts have discussed the causes an consequences of the 9/11 attacks or have been related, sometimes only implicitly, to the war on terror.  Here is a sample:

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

To review a larger sample of posts on the causes and consequences of human conflict, click here. For a list of posts discussing how people attribute causation, responsibility, and blame, click here.

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The Situation of the Inequality Getting Inequalitier

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 1, 2011

From

Financial gains over the last decade in the United States have been mostly made at the “tippy-top” of the economic food chain as more people fall out of the middle class. The top 20 percent of Americans now holds 84 percent of U.S. wealth, as Paul Solman found out as part of a Making Sen$e series on economic inequality.

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The Cause of Rioting? That’s Easy: Rioters!

Posted by Jon Hanson on August 16, 2011

British Prime Minister David Cameron attributed the recent riots in his to “the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations.”   The message may seem vaguely situationist at first blush, as Cameron emphasizes the problem of a “broken society.”

But what he really seems to care about are the bad “choices” made by selfish, irresponsible individuals.

Cameron’s comments resemble remarks he’s made in the past.  In 2008, according to one account, he declared that “people who are fat, poor or addicted to drugs could only have themselves to blame.”

It’s a one-size-fits-all ideology:  If you have problems, look in the mirror!

To be fair, Cameron does acknowledge one situational force that has played a significant role in encouraging the moral decay behind the looting and lawlessness.  According to Cameron, “[s]ome of the worst aspects of human nature [have been] tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies.”

Such has been the conservative mantra at least since Reagan and Thatcher:  The problem with the poor is their disposition and the government policies and programs that encourage that disposition. Prime Minister Cameron explains:

“For years we’ve had a system that encourages the worst in people — that incites laziness, that excuses bad behavior, that erodes self-discipline, that discourages hard work… well this is moral hazard in our welfare system — people thinking they can be as irresponsible as they like because the state will always bail them out.”

When a “society is broken,” by this view, the government needs to do less for the people and thus do more to encourage personal responsbility.  Less is more.

Yesterday, U.S. conservative Arthur Herman wrote a piece for the National Review, that purported to identify the person behind our problems.  According to Herman, the blame for the riots and many of our country’s problems should ultimately fall on one American man: John Dollard.

Not heard of him? He’s been deceased for 30 years, and his primary work was published in 1939.  Still, according to Herman, Dollard was “one of the most influential social thinkers of the past century.”  He was:

“a Yale social psychologist . . . who triggered a major and disastrous shift in the way we look at crime and urban violence, which we’ve been living with ever since, and which has left us, like the British today, largely disarmed in dealing with our own worst enemies.”

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“Dollard and his colleagues in effect infantilized human motives — and threw out the notion of individual moral responsibility. If people turn violent and smash windows or someone’s face, Dollard was saying, it’s not really their fault. They can’t help it; they’re feeling frustrated. Punishing people for their aggression in hopes they will learn a lesson, is doomed to fail. The best way to prevent violence is to give them what they want from the start.”

Really?  Dollard is to “the man behind the riots,” and his was the argument that won the day and profoundly contaminated policy in the U.S. and England?

As someone who has been teaching at a law school for twenty years, who went to Yale, who devotes the bulk of his professional energy to studying the implications of social psychology for law, I should confess that I had never heard of Professor Dollard, and I have no reason to believe that his research has been particularly influential.  And one doesn’t need to sit where I sit to question Herman’s assertion that our society (or England’s) has somehow given to the impoverished underclasses “what they want from the start” or that such an argument has held much sway among policymakers or the public.

Herman’s point, like Cameron’s, seems to be that the best way to understand social turmoil and intergroup conflict is to look at the individuals behind it.  Where there is trouble, find the troublemakers.  To Herman, the rioters rioted because of their own character, nothing more.  In his words, “[t]he rioters were criminals pure and simple.”  Like Cameron, Herman believes that the appropriate solution is more criminal punishment, pure and simple.  It is time to get tough!

Many who have looked closely at the U.S. criminal system and it’s bulging prison population would reject the claim that we have been light on criminals (or that our punitive actions have been just or yielded positive results).

Social psychology suggests that there may be more to the riots than just the rioters.  Indeed, there is a strong human tendency (as social psychologists since Dollard have shown) to blame the poor for being poor and to assure ourselves that little is owed to those who have less than we ourselves do.  Our world, we like to believe, is just.  We achieve that affirming feat of rationalization in part by ignoring the many situational forces that contribute to the underlying inequalities and injustices.

That tendency is in evidence this week in the remarks of Prime Minister Cameron and editorial by Arthur Herman.  As reported this week in The Guardian, much of the public also blames the riots and looting on the disposition (that is, the “criminality” and “disrespect”) of the rioters:

“Asked to pick from a list of possible reasons, 45% blame criminality on the part of the rioters. Older voters and richer ones are most likely to lay the blame on this.

“Of other possible reasons, 28% cite lack of respect within families and communities. Only 8% think a lack of jobs for young people is the main reason. A further 5% say the shooting by the police of Mark Duggan, which led to the initial disorder in Tottenham, was the main cause, while 4% blame the coalition government, 2% the police and 2% the state of the economy.  At the bottom of the list only 1% blame racial tension. . . .”

It is completely predictable and understandable that leaders, commentators, and much of the public would speak up against the individuals who have been lighting the flames, breaking the windows, and making off with the DVD players.  That’s the easy part.

It doesn’t take insight to propose a greater police presence or harsher penalties or an increased incarceration rate.  Anger or fear will suffice.  Providing a cartoon rendering of a social psychologist’s 1939 thesis and dubbing it the “formula for social disaster” seems equally facile.  Simplistic causal stories that affirm the status quo and the system are typically more the consequence of raw reflex than of thoughtful reflection.

Professor Dollard’s theories, however flawed, at least represented a social scientific attempt to better understand the underlying causes of violence and resist the system-affirming impulse to attribute “criminal conduct” to the fact that the people who engage in it are “criminals, pure and simple.”  Dollard offered a testable theory, while Herman offers a tautology: criminals engage in crime because they are criminals.

Still, Herman is satisfied with his causal claims because they permit him to place all the moral responsibility and blame for the events on the rioters. According to Herman, the problem with Dollard’s approach, is that it shifts “the moral responsibility for crime and violence . . . from the rioter to his or her victims.”

But Herman has it wrong.  One need not excuse the perpetrators of violence to care about deeper, underlying causes.  One can quash a riot and punish the rioters and still ask questions about what may have led the individuals to engage in behavior beyond simply their riotous propensities.

When rioting broke out in Egypt some months back, the rioters were not said to be the cause (except by Egyptian leaders and their apologists); instead, the riots were seen as the consequence of inept leaders, oppressive systems, hopelessness, and desperation.  Jim Geraghty, from  The National Review, put it this way:

“a large number of previously apolitical Egyptians . . . are fed up with three decades of governance that were not merely oppressive, but incompetent.  The Egyptian economy has never thrived; you know the usual figures – 40 percent get by on less than $2 per day. But when you pile rising wheat prices on an impoverished country, ordinary folks find the usual poor governance untenable. They have to eat, and have to believe there’s some small possibility of their lives getting better someday. Hosni Mubarak and his regime have worn out a decades-long benefit of the doubt from a people who historically were inclined to have tea, complain, and shrug rather than burn cars and take on riot police.”

As similar as sipping tea in Cairo and London may be, burning cars is another story.  There are, to be sure, significant differences between the riots and their causes in Egypt and those and theirs in England.  Nonetheless, the tendency to ignore the underlying economic, social, historical, and cultural situation in one setting and to focus on it in another reveals the motivated nature of our attributions.  We like to believe “our” systems are just — and that “their” systems are unjust.  In the former, rioting is the result of gangs, hoodlums, and criminals.  In the latter, rioting is the only way to topple an oppressive regime.  In the former, the dictator has been too callous and stingy toward the plight of the poor; in the latter, the government has been too sensitive and generous.

To take the situation in our own society seriously, however, is to raise the possibility that our system is unjust — that the (growing) disparities between the haves and have-nots lack normative legitimacy.  A thorough causal analysis is not only complex, it also risks implicating all of us and our system.

When the powerful and wealthy  members of society focus primarily on the disposition of  the poor (or of, say, the forgotten arguments of a dead Yalie), it may be because they prefer not to consider seriously the role of the situation from which they benefit.

They are, in a way, doing what they claim to despise: shifting moral responsibility from themselves to their victims.

We should all take seriously our “moral responsibility for the crime and violence.”  We should all, as they say, look in the mirror.

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Related Situationist posts:

A reader sent me the following video of a fascinating BBC debate on whether we “should punish or try to understand” the rioters.  It reflects many of the themes of this post.

 

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The Situation of Antitrust Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 9, 2011

Maurice E. Stucke recently posted his thoughtful paper, “Reconsidering Antitrust’s Goals” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Antitrust policy today is an anomaly. On the one hand, antitrust is thriving internationally. On the other hand, antitrust’s influence has diminished domestically. Over the past thirty years, there have been fewer antitrust investigations and private actions. Today the Supreme Court complains about antitrust suits, and places greater faith in the antitrust function being subsumed in a regulatory framework. So what happened to the antitrust movement in the United States?

Two import factors contributed to antitrust policy’s domestic decline. The first is salience, especially the salience of the U.S. antitrust goals. In the past thirty years, enforcers and courts abandoned antitrust’s political, social, and moral goals, in their quest for a single economic goal. Second antitrust policy increasingly relied on an incomplete, distorted conception of competition. Adopting the Chicago School’s simplifying assumptions of self-correcting markets composed of rational, self-interested market participants, the courts and enforcers sacrificed important political, social, and moral values to promote certain economic beliefs.

With the anger over taxpayer bailouts for firms deemed too-big-and-integral-to-fail, the wealth inequality that accelerated over the past thirty years, and the current budget cuts and austerity measures, the United States is ripe for a new antitrust policy cycle.

This Article first summarizes the quest during the past 30 years for a single economic goal. It discusses why this quest failed. Four oft-cited economic goals (ensuring an effective competitive process, promoting consumer welfare, maximizing efficiency, and ensuring economic freedom) never unified antitrust analysis. After discussing why it is unrealistic to believe that a single well-defined antitrust objective exists, the Article proposes how to account antitrust’s multiple policy objectives into the legal framework. It outlines a blended goal approach, and the benefits of this approach in providing better legal standards and reviving antitrust’s relevance.

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Download the paper for free here.

Sample of related Situationist posts.

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The Scalability of Cities

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 29, 2011

From TedTalks:

Physicist Geoffrey West has found that simple, mathematical laws govern the properties of cities — that wealth, crime rate, walking speed and many other aspects of a city can be deduced from a single number: the city’s population. In this mind-bending talk from TEDGlobal he shows how it works and how similar laws hold for organisms and corporations.

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The Situation of Fairness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 22, 2011

Carlos Alós-Ferrer, Anja Achtziger, and Alexander Wagner, recently posted their paper “Social Preferences and Self-Control” on SSRN.

We study the interaction of different motives and decision processes in determining behavior in the ultimatum game. We rely on an experimental manipulation called ego depletion which consumes self-control resources, thereby enhancing the influence of default reactions or, in psychological terms, automatic processes. We find that proposers make lower offers under ego depletion, i.e. self-centered monetary concerns are the default mode and not other-regarding considerations (fairness towards others). Responders are more likely to reject low offers under ego depletion, i.e. the affect-influenced reaction to reject unfair offers (reaction to unfairness towards oneself) is more automatic than unconditional monetary concerns.

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You can download the paper for free here.

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Nicholas Christakis on the Situation of Epidemics

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 16, 2011

From TED Talks:

After mapping humans’ intricate social networks, Nicholas Christakis and colleague James Fowler began investigating how this information could better our lives. Now, he reveals his hot-off-the-press findings: These networks can be used to detect epidemics earlier than ever, from the spread of innovative ideas to risky behaviors to viruses (like H1N1).

Related Situationist posts:

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David Brooks, the Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 9, 2011

From New York Times:

Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen a number of gigantic policies produce disappointing results — policies to reduce poverty, homelessness, dropout rates, single-parenting and drug addiction. Many of these policies failed because they were based on an overly simplistic view of human nature. They assumed that people responded in straightforward ways to incentives. Often, they assumed that money could cure behavior problems.

Fortunately, today we are in the middle of a golden age of behavioral research. Thousands of researchers are studying the way actual behavior differs from the way we assume people behave. They are coming up with more accurate theories of who we are, and scores of real-world applications.

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Yet in the middle of this golden age of behavioral research, there is a bill working through Congress that would eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced — by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits.

Let’s say you want to reduce poverty. We have two traditional understandings of poverty. The first presumes people are rational. They are pursuing their goals effectively and don’t need much help in changing their behavior. The second presumes that the poor are afflicted by cultural or psychological dysfunctions that sometimes lead them to behave in shortsighted ways. Neither of these theories has produced much in the way of effective policies.

Eldar Shafir of Princeton and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard have recently, with federal help, been exploring a third theory, that scarcity produces its own cognitive traits.

A quick question: What is the starting taxi fare in your city? If you are like most upper-middle-class people, you don’t know. If you are like many struggling people, you do know. Poorer people have to think hard about a million things that affluent people don’t. They have to make complicated trade-offs when buying a carton of milk: If I buy milk, I can’t afford orange juice. They have to decide which utility not to pay.

These questions impose enormous cognitive demands. The brain has limited capacities. If you increase demands on one sort of question, it performs less well on other sorts of questions.

Shafir and Mullainathan gave batteries of tests to Indian sugar farmers. After they sell their harvest, they live in relative prosperity. During this season, the farmers do well on the I.Q. and other tests. But before the harvest, they live amid scarcity and have to think hard about a thousand daily decisions. During these seasons, these same farmers do much worse on the tests. They appear to have lower I.Q.’s. They have more trouble controlling their attention. They are more shortsighted. Scarcity creates its own psychology.

Princeton students don’t usually face extreme financial scarcity, but they do face time scarcity. In one game, they had to answer questions in a series of timed rounds, but they could borrow time from future rounds. When they were scrambling amid time scarcity, they were quick to borrow time, and they were nearly oblivious to the usurious interest rates the game organizers were charging. These brilliant Princeton kids were rushing to the equivalent of payday lenders, to their own long-term detriment.

Shafir and Mullainathan have a book coming out next year, exploring how scarcity — whether of time, money or calories (while dieting) — affects your psychology. They are also studying how poor people’s self-perceptions shape behavior. Many people don’t sign up for the welfare benefits because they are intimidated by the forms. Shafir and Mullainathan asked some people at a Trenton soup kitchen to relive a moment when they felt competent and others to recount a neutral experience. Nearly half of the self-affirming group picked up an available benefits package afterward. Only 16 percent of the neutral group did.

People are complicated. We each have multiple selves, which emerge or don’t depending on context. If we’re going to address problems, we need to understand the contexts and how these tendencies emerge or don’t emerge. We need to design policies around that knowledge. Cutting off financing for this sort of research now is like cutting off navigation financing just as Christopher Columbus hit the shoreline of the New World.

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Posted in Choice Myth, Distribution, Education, Life, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

Susan Fiske’s New Book

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 26, 2011

Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske’s latest book, Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us, is a must read!  Here’s a description.

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The United States was founded on the principle of equal opportunity for all, and this ethos continues to inform the nation’s collective identity. In reality, however, absolute equality is elusive. The gap between rich and poor has widened in recent decades, and the United States has the highest level of economic inequality of any developed country. Social class and other differences in status reverberate throughout American life, and prejudice based on another’s perceived status persists among individuals and groups. In Envy Up, Scorn Down, noted social psychologist Susan Fiske examines the psychological underpinnings of interpersonal and intergroup comparisons, exploring why we compare ourselves to those both above and below us and analyzing the social consequences of such comparisons in day-to-day life.

What motivates individuals, groups, and cultures to envy the status of some and scorn the status of others? Who experiences envy and scorn most? Envy Up, Scorn Down marshals a wealth of recent psychological studies as well as findings based on years of Fiske’s own research to address such questions. She shows that both envy and scorn have distinctive biological, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral characteristics. And though we are all “wired” for comparison, some individuals are more vulnerable to these motives than others. Dominant personalities, for example, express envy toward high-status groups such as the wealthy and well-educated, and insecurity can lead others to scorn those perceived to have lower status, such as women, minorities, or the disabled. Fiske shows that one’s race or ethnicity, gender, and education all correlate with perceived status. Regardless of whether one is accorded higher or lower status, however, all groups rank their members, and all societies rank the various groups within them. We rate each group as either friend or foe, able or unable, and accordingly assign them the traits of warmth or competence. The majority of groups in the United States are ranked either warm or competent but not both, with extreme exceptions: the homeless or the very poor are considered neither warm nor competent. Societies across the globe view older people as warm but incompetent. Conversely, the very rich are generally considered cold but highly competent. Envy Up, Scorn Down explores the nuances of status hierarchies and their consequences and shows that such prejudice in its most virulent form dehumanizes and can lead to devastating outcomes—from the scornful neglect of the homeless to the envious anger historically directed at Tutsis in Rwanda or Jews in Europe.

Individuals, groups, and even cultures will always make comparisons between and among themselves. Envy Up, Scorn Down is an accessible and insightful examination of drives we all share and the prejudice that can accompany comparison. The book deftly shows that understanding envy and scorn—and seeking to mitigate their effects—can prove invaluable to our lives, our relationships, and our society.

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To read more about the book or order your copy, click here.

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Unequal Juries

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 24, 2011

Wendy Parker posted her article, “Juries, Race, and Gender: A Story of Today’s Inequality” (Wake Forest Law Review, Vol. 46, pp. 209-240, 2011), on SSRN.  Here’s the abstracst.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 was supposed to be a victory for employment discrimination plaintiffs – a dramatic expansion of their rights. Twenty years later, however, we are told that the news for employment discrimination plaintiffs has gone “from bad to worse.” This essay, a reflection on the twenty-year history of the 1991 Act, explores how just how bad it is. In doing so, this essay discovers some optimistic news (but not much): Plaintiffs today are more likely to win at trial than before the 1991 Act. This is likely because of the 1991 Act’s expanded right to a jury trial. Yet, this is not a story of optimism – or equality – for all plaintiffs. The essay’s original study of 102 jury trials reveals that some plaintiffs do much worse than other plaintiffs. African Americans and Latinos claiming race discrimination, for example, have the lowest jury win rates. Many who study jury behavior would have predicted this outcome. From this, the essay argues that the evidence is strong that the status quo is not race neutral, and neither are juries.

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Perceptions of Income Distribution and Preferences for Redistribution

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 10, 2011

Guillermo Cruces, Truglia Perez, Nicolas Ricardo, and Martin Tetaz, recently posted their paper “Biased Perceptions of Income Distribution and Preferences for Redistribution: Evidence from a Survey Experiment” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

Individual perceptions of income distribution play a vital role in political economy and public finance models, yet there is little evidence regarding their origins or accuracy. This study examines how individuals form these perceptions and posits that systematic biases arise from the extrapolation of information extracted from reference groups. A tailored household survey provides original evidence on the significant biases in individuals’ evaluations of their own relative position in the distribution. Furthermore, the data supports the hypothesis that the selection process into the reference groups is the source of those biases. Finally, this study also assesses the practical relevance of these biases by examining their impact on attitudes towards redistributive policies. An experimental design incorporated into the survey provides consistent information on the own ranking within the income distribution to a randomly selected group of respondents. Confronting agents’ biased perceptions with this information has a significant effect on their stated preferences for redistribution. Those who had overestimated their relative position and thought of themselves relatively richer than they were demand higher levels of redistribution when informed of their true ranking. This relationship between biased perceptions and political attitudes provides an alternative explanation for the relatively low degree of redistribution observed in modern democracies.

You can download the paper for free here.

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Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Ideology and Grading

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 22, 2011

From Inside Higher Ed:

Republican professors and Democratic professors presumably produce different outcomes when they enter the ballot box, but what about when they record grades?

A forthcoming study finds that there may be notable differences. Democratic professors appear to be “more egalitarian” than their Republican counterparts when it comes to grading, meaning that more of the Democratic grades are in the middle. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to award very high grades and very low grades.

While the study documents those differences, the work will not satisfy political partisans hoping to demonstrate that Republicans are trying to encourage Darwinian competition with grading or that Democrats are Lake Wobegon graders afraid to suggest anyone did poorly. That’s because the study makes clear that the researchers lacked the information to determine whether the Democratic or Republican grades were better reflections of student performance. The only thing the researchers could vouch for was the politically linked pattern in grading.

The study — forthcoming in Applied Economics — is by Talia Bar, an assistant professor at Cornell University, and Asaf Zussman, assistant professor of economics at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They examined thousands of grades in a dataset covering the grades awarded at an unnamed elite American university between 2000 and 2004. Party registrations were used to identify professors’ political inclinations, and the faculty at this university leaned Democratic, especially among humanities professors. Using SAT scores as a proxy for the preparedness of students, the researchers were able to rule out patterns in which Republican or Democratic professors had better students.

On grade distribution, Republicans were more likely to give very high and very low grades. Among grades given by Republicans, 6.2 percent were C- or lower, compared to only 4.0 percent of the Democratic grades. But Republicans were also more likely to give out A+ grades (8 percent of their grades, compared to only 3.5 percent from Democrats).

Another key difference is that black students tend to fare better with Democrats than with Republicans.

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Holder on the Situation of Violence

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 11, 2011

In 2010, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the launch of the “Defending Childhood” initiative to help prevent children’s and young people’s exposure to violence, mitigate its effects and put an end to cycles of violence that undermine the public’s health. During this webcast, he described his vision for this initiative and its progress so far.

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Richard Hackman on “What Makes for a Great Team”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 26, 2011


Harvard University professor Richard Hackman spoke in March at Harvard Law School.Professor Hackman has studied the secrets of effective teams ranging from airplane cockpit crews to musical ensembles. In his talk, sponsored by the Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences, Professor Hackman summarized the conditions that increase the likelihood of creating teamwork “magic.” For a brief introduction to Professor Hackman’s recent research on teamwork, check out this Harvard Business Review article on “sand dune teams.”

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Education, Positive Psychology, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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