The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Emotions’ Category

The Situation of Penn State Bystanders

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 14, 2011

Many blame-laden fingers have been pointed at those who didn’t act immediately and decisively to stop the sexual atrocities that took place at Penn State.  We all know what the right thing to do was, and we are all confident that we would have done it.

But should we be?

To state the obvious, what transpired within the Penn State football system was wrong on many levels.  We know that rape is wrong, that rape should never happen, that if a rape does occur, it should be stopped from happening again.   We know that pedophilia is wrong, that using power to exploit the vulnerable is wrong, that turning a blind eye to misdeeds is wrong. Still, wrong happens.

Perhaps going forward many of us may be more likely to “do the right thing” after this media frenzy than we would have been had we never been confronted with this story.  But I’m interested in a slightly different question:  would we ourselves, in the precise situation of those we are judging, really have acted so differently?  Would we have immediately, vocally, and publicly intervened, protested, and contacted the police?

As this blog routinely highlights, for more than a half century, social psychology has been dismantling the notion that we can accurately predict our own behavior in strange situations.   The names of Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, and Phil Zimbardo are all familiar because of what their research reveals: We often fail where we expect we would succeed.

And yet that lesson doesn’t stick; the illusion of our own imagined heroism remains robust.  Even many of us familiar with the countless experiments illustrating the power of situation and the illusion of disposition manage to exempt ourselves from those lessons and assign blame to those who did not measure up to our standards.

We easily assign blame when they found ways to diffuse responsibility.  We see with clarity where they saw ambiguity.   We wonder how could they be so blind and so immoral and conclude that they are not like us.

To reach such a conclusion, we  place more faith in our rage than we do in the lessons of social science.  A mountain of research shows that we  have much more in common with those we judge harshly than we want to believe.  Among those similarities is the motive to see ourselves, our groups, our systems, and our world in affirming ways.  The tendency to see “them” as different and ourselves as superior is a symptom of the same nonconscious motivational force that allowed “them” to see themselves as doing enough.

We should resolve to do the right thing both when we encounter wrongdoing and when we judge others who encounter wrongdoing.  That is not only the honest and empathetic approach, it is our best hope to gird ourselves against the strong currents of our own situation.

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The following 37-minute video was assembled hastily to introduce a small group of my students to the events unfolding at Penn State.  It contains video clips that depict, among other things, the integral role that football has long played at Penn State, the legendary and iconic status of Joe Paterno at that university, the different perspectives taken of those events and of Joe Paterno, and the various ways in which public and private law and the media have shaped the coverage and the reaction to the unfolding events.  The video also includes several clips from ABC’s “What Would You Do?” series hosted by John Quiñones.  Those clips might help remind viewers of some of the ways in which we tend to overestimate our own propensity to speak up, to resist, to get involved, or to fight back and underestimate our readiness to sit on our hands, to turn away, to opt for rose-tinted spectacles, or to go with the flow.

The video, be warned, has many problems (e.g., quality, editing, organization, redundancies); it did, however, provide useful fodder for what I thought was an illuminating discussion.  Because of that, I decided to include it here in case others might find it useful.  Though credits are not included, the vast majority of the videos can be found on Youtube.

A Sample of related Situationist posts:

 

Posted in Conflict, Education, Emotions, Life, Morality, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

A Neuroscience Perspective on the Financial Crises

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 28, 2011

Andrew Lo recently posted his paper “Fear, Greed, and Financial Crises: A Cognitive Neurosciences Perspective” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Historical accounts of financial crises suggest that fear and greed are the common denominators of these disruptive events: periods of unchecked greed eventually lead to excessive leverage and unsustainable asset-price levels, and the inevitable collapse results in unbridled fear, which must subside before any recovery is possible. The cognitive neurosciences may provide some new insights into this boom/bust pattern through a deeper understanding of the dynamics of emotion and human behavior. In this chapter, I describe some recent research from the neurosciences literature on fear and reward learning, mirror neurons, theory of mind, and the link between emotion and rational behavior. By exploring the neuroscientific basis of cognition and behavior, we may be able to identify more fundamental drivers of financial crises, and improve our models and methods for dealing with them.

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Download the paper for free here.

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Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Emotions, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Marketing Situation of Doritos (FTC Complaint)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 19, 2011

NPLAN filed a complaint today with the FTC today alleging that Frito-Lay has engaged in deceptive marketing to teens by disguising Doritos ads as entertainment; by collecting and using kids’ personal information in violation of its own privacy policy and without adequate disclosure about the extent and purpose of the data collection; and by engaging in viral marketing in violation of the FTC’s endorsement guidelines. Learn more about the complaint here.

These videos, which detail the advertising strategies and goals, speak for themselves.

Related Situationist posts:

For more on the situation of eating, see Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion’s law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in AmericaFor a listing of numerous Situaitonist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Emotions, Entertainment, Food and Drug Law, Marketing, Video | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Fear and Threat in the Media

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 3, 2011

Related Situationist posts.

Posted in Deep Capture, Emotions, Ideology, System Legitimacy, Video | Leave a Comment »

Sheldon Solomon on Ernest Becker and Terror Management

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 17, 2011

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Posted in Emotions, Ideology, Life, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The High of Dying

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 10, 2011

On my way back from North Carolina yesterday afternoon, I read several articles on the central role of mortality concerns in human social behavior.

What did I learn?

Thinking about death and personal vulnerability is a stupid thing to do on a turbulent flight right before the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Luckily, this morning, Jaime Napier (via Facebook) provided the perfect tonic to my existential malaise:

A new article by Alexander Wutzler, Paraskevi Mavrogiorgou, Christine Winter, and Georg Juckel entitled, quite promisingly, Elevation of Brain Serotonin During Dying.

As the abstract of the article explains,

Death and dying are central events in the life of an organism, but neurobiological changes during this process are still rarely understood. Extracellular levels of serotonin, one of the phylogenetically oldest neurotransmitters, were measured continuously during dying. Serotonin levels increased threefold, while the EEG recorded simultaneously went down to a zero-line of no activity. This could be caused by the neuroprotective activity of brain serotonergic system, which subjectively makes dying easier due to the mood enhancing function of this neurotransmitter.

Posted in Emotions | Leave a Comment »

Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Happy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 7, 2011

From TEDTalks:

Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, challenges the idea that well be miserable if we dont get what we want. Our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things dont go as planned.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Illusions, Life, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Christakis Speaks to Harvard Freshmen about Social Networks

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 3, 2011

From the Harvard Gazette:

Harvard College freshmen got their first taste Aug. 26 of the world of ideas awaiting them over the next four years in a talk by Professor Nicholas Christakis, who argued that human social networks have the power to spread obesity — or happiness — like contagion.

Christakis, who teaches at Harvard Medical School as well as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, delivered the 2011 Opening Days Lecture, “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.” He told students at the outset that his work is not primarily concerned with online social networks, but instead focuses on “old-fashioned, face-to-face” relationships and their construction and meaning in people’s lives. A “bucket brigade,” for example, is a network of individuals optimized to perform a task in pursuit of a goal: the transport of water to extinguish a fire. Take the same network and organize it in a different way, and it will be optimized for a different purpose: a telephone tree to disseminate information; a Ponzi scheme for the profit of grifters.

Christakis, who is a medical doctor as well as a Ph.D., discussed his interest in the impact of human social networks on public health. In 2002, he and some colleagues studied the problem of obesity, often called an “epidemic” in Western society. Christakis said he wanted to examine social networks to see whether or not obesity actually spreads from person to person, like a virus. He showed students graphs of data from the 30-year Framingham Heart Study, and explained how he and his colleagues analyzed clusters to see if someone were more likely to become obese if a friend were overweight.

“We found that, if your friend is obese, there is a 45 percent greater likelihood that you will become obese,” he said. “If your friend’s friend is obese, the likelihood is 25 percent higher. In fact, only at four degrees of separation — your friend’s friend’s friend’s friend— is there no longer a relationship between that person’s body size and yours.”

Christakis said that he and his colleagues found that human social networks could also move public health in a positive direction. For example, since 1971, the proportion of the U.S. population that smokes tobacco went from 40 percent to 20. Christakis again displayed data from the Framingham study that showed people typically quit smoking in clusters. A person was more likely to stop using tobacco if his or her friend — or even a friend’s friend — stopped.

The study of networks and happiness gave Christakis his greatest personal satisfaction, he said, and allowed him to settle an old debate.

“In high school, [my friends and I] would tell our mothers, ‘If I could just be more popular, then I would be more happy,’ ’’ he said. “Our mothers would say, ‘Actually, if you become more happy, then you’d be more popular.’ It turns out that we were right, and our mothers were wrong! Being in the middle of a network enhances your happiness. If you become more popular, that contributes to being happy more than being happy contributes to being more popular.”

Toward the end of his talk, Christakis did turn to the differences between online and traditional networks. In a study of Harvard undergraduates on Facebook, he found that students had an average of about 110 “friends.” To see how many of these relationships were close and how many tenuous, he had some students look at Facebook profiles to see how often classmates uploaded and tagged photographs of people they were connected to online. The findings reinforced the value of relationships based on traditional face-to-face contact.

“You might have 1,000 friends on Facebook, but only for a subset of them do you appear in a photograph that gets uploaded and tagged with your name,” Christakis explained. “Based on this, we found that people typically had over 100 Facebook friends, but only six real friends [who uploaded and tagged their photo].”

In light of these results, Christakis expressed concern about the way that Facebook had changed the meaning of the word “friend.”

“It’s very interesting to me that Facebook has managed to co-opt a very old word in our language — friend — and apply it where it has no business,” he said. “All those people, they’re not your friends. At best, they’re your acquaintances.”

More.

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

Do Doctors Lack Empathy?

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 29, 2011

Shortly after I finished Simon Baron-Cohen’s new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, I spoke to one of my friends who had just had an extremely bad interaction with a doctor.  The friend had just received a frightening diagnosis and when she went to ask more questions, the doctor was blunt and emotionally-disengaged.  As I spoke to the friend, it occurred to me that, while there were some very important exceptions, I’d actually had a lot of similar experiences with doctors.  Might it be true that doctors have less empathy than other people?

Coincidentally, with the help of the gnomes of the World Wide Web, I found an interesting recent article by Omar Sultan Haque and Adam Waytz in Scientific American, which describes two experiments by Jean Decety and his collaborators at the University of Chicago that shed a bit of light on the answer:

In one experiment, physicians who practice acupuncture (as well as matched non-physician controls) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching videos of needles being inserted into another person’s hands, feet and areas around their mouth as well as videos of the same areas being touched by a cotton bud. Compared to controls, the physicians showed significantly less response in brain regions involved in empathy for pain. In addition, the physicians showed significantly greater activation of areas involved in executive control, self-regulation and thinking about the mental states of others.  The physicians appeared to show less empathy and more of a higher-level cognitive response.

This finding raised a further question. Perceiving pain in others typically involves two steps. First people engage in the emotional sharing of pain with another person, and then they make a cognitive appraisal of the emotion. Do physicians automatically feel empathy for the pain of others, but then quickly suppress it? Or is the cognitive suppression of empathy even deeper; has it become more automatic? Is it possible that the physicians no longer even experience the first step of empathy for pain that regular people show on their brain scans?

The investigators repeated the same experiment but rather than looking for changes in brain blood-flow by using fMRI, they assessed the brain’s event-related potentials (ERP). Results showed that when viewing the painful needle sticking, the physicians did not even show the early empathy response. The physicians had apparently become so good at empathy suppression that there was no early response to worry about.

Why might these effects exist? It could be that, compared to other professions, the people that gravitate to healthcare tend to be less empathic. This seems unlikely. Furthermore, studies of physicians show that they are often the most empathic and caring towards the beginning of medical school, and that they become steadily less empathetic with more clinical training. The more likely culprits are therefore the nature of medical training and the intrinsic demands of the profession.

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Posted in Abstracts, Altruism, Book, Emotions | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Brain and Blame

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 11, 2011

From The Atlantic (by David Eagleman):

On the steamy first day of August 1966, Charles Whitman took an elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The 25-year-old climbed the stairs to the observation deck, lugging with him a footlocker full of guns and ammunition. At the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them.

The evening before, Whitman had sat at his typewriter and composed a suicide note:

I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

By the time the police shot him dead, Whitman had killed 13 people and wounded 32 more. The story of his rampage dominated national headlines the next day. And when police went to investigate his home for clues, the story became even stranger: in the early hours of the morning on the day of the shooting, he had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep.

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight … I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationa[l]ly pinpoint any specific reason for doing this …

Along with the shock of the murders lay another, more hidden, surprise: the juxtaposition of his aberrant actions with his unremarkable personal life. Whitman was an Eagle Scout and a former marine, studied architectural engineering at the University of Texas, and briefly worked as a bank teller and volunteered as a scoutmaster for Austin’s Boy Scout Troop 5. As a child, he’d scored 138 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, placing in the 99th percentile. So after his shooting spree from the University of Texas Tower, everyone wanted answers.

For that matter, so did Whitman. He requested in his suicide note that an autopsy be performed to determine if something had changed in his brain—because he suspected it had.

I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.

Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction. Female monkeys with amygdala damage often neglected or physically abused their infants. In humans, activity in the amygdala increases when people are shown threatening faces, are put into frightening situations, or experience social phobias. Whitman’s intuition about himself—that something in his brain was changing his behavior—was spot-on.

Stories like Whitman’s are not uncommon: legal cases involving brain damage crop up increasingly often. As we develop better technologies for probing the brain, we detect more problems, and link them more easily to aberrant behavior. Take the 2000 case of a 40-year-old man we’ll call Alex, whose sexual preferences suddenly began to transform. He developed an interest in child pornography—and not just a little interest, but an overwhelming one. He poured his time into child-pornography Web sites and magazines. He also solicited prostitution at a massage parlor, something he said he had never previously done. He reported later that he’d wanted to stop, but “the pleasure principle overrode” his restraint. He worked to hide his acts, but subtle sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter alarmed his wife, who soon discovered his collection of child pornography. He was removed from his house, found guilty of child molestation, and sentenced to rehabilitation in lieu of prison. In the rehabilitation program, he made inappropriate sexual advances toward the staff and other clients, and was expelled and routed toward prison.

At the same time, Alex was complaining of worsening headaches. The night before he was to report for prison sentencing, he couldn’t stand the pain anymore, and took himself to the emergency room. He underwent a brain scan, which revealed a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex. Neurosurgeons removed the tumor. Alex’s sexual appetite returned to normal.

The year after the brain surgery, his pedophilic behavior began to return. The neuroradiologist discovered that a portion of the tumor had been missed in the surgery and was regrowing—and Alex went back under the knife. After the removal of the remaining tumor, his behavior again returned to normal.

When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted (“I’m a heterosexual/homosexual,” “I’m attracted to children/adults,” “I’m aggressive/not aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption.

Alex’s sudden pedophilia illustrates that hidden drives and desires can lurk undetected behind the neural machinery of socialization. When the frontal lobes are compromised, people become disinhibited, and startling behaviors can emerge. Disinhibition is commonly seen in patients with frontotemporal dementia, a tragic disease in which the frontal and temporal lobes degenerate. With the loss of that brain tissue, patients lose the ability to control their hidden impulses. To the frustration of their loved ones, these patients violate social norms in endless ways: shoplifting in front of store managers, removing their clothes in public, running stop signs, breaking out in song at inappropriate times, eating food scraps found in public trash cans, being physically aggressive or sexually transgressive. Patients with frontotemporal dementia commonly end up in courtrooms, where their lawyers, doctors, and embarrassed adult children must explain to the judge that the violation was not the perpetrator’s fault, exactly: much of the brain has degenerated, and medicine offers no remedy. Fifty-seven percent of frontotemporal-dementia patients violate social norms, as compared with only 27 percent of Alzheimer’s patients.

Changes in the balance of brain chemistry, even small ones, can also cause large and unexpected changes in behavior. Victims of Parkinson’s disease offer an example. In 2001, families and caretakers of Parkinson’s patients began to notice something strange. When patients were given a drug called pramipexole, some of them turned into gamblers. And not just casual gamblers, but pathological gamblers. These were people who had never gambled much before, and now they were flying off to Vegas. One 68-year-old man amassed losses of more than $200,000 in six months at a series of casinos. Some patients became consumed with Internet poker, racking up unpayable credit-card bills. For several, the new addiction reached beyond gambling, to compulsive eating, excessive alcohol consumption, and hypersexuality.

What was going on? Parkinson’s involves the loss of brain cells that produce a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Pramipexole works by impersonating dopamine. But it turns out that dopamine is a chemical doing double duty in the brain. Along with its role in motor commands, it also mediates the reward systems, guiding a person toward food, drink, mates, and other things useful for survival. Because of dopamine’s role in weighing the costs and benefits of decisions, imbalances in its levels can trigger gambling, overeating, and drug addiction—behaviors that result from a reward system gone awry. Physicians now watch for these behavioral changes as a possible side effect of drugs like pramipexole. Luckily, the negative effects of the drug are reversible—the physician simply lowers the dosage, and the compulsive gambling goes away.

The lesson from all these stories is the same: human behavior cannot be separated from human biology. If we like to believe that people make free choices about their behavior (as in, “I don’t gamble, because I’m strong-willed”), cases like Alex the pedophile, the frontotemporal shoplifters, and the gambling Parkinson’s patients may encourage us to examine our views more carefully. Perhaps not everyone is equally “free” to make socially appropriate choices.

Does the discovery of Charles Whitman’s brain tumor modify your feelings about the senseless murders he committed? Does it affect the sentence you would find appropriate for him, had he survived that day? Does the tumor change the degree to which you consider the killings “his fault”? Couldn’t you just as easily be unlucky enough to develop a tumor and lose control of your behavior?

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be dangerous to conclude that people with a tumor are free of guilt, and that they should be let off the hook for their crimes?

More.

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Posted in Emotions, Law, Morality, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Paul Bloom on the Situation of Pleasure

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 2, 2011

From TedTalks:

Why do we like an original painting better than a forgery? Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that human beings are essentialists — that our beliefs about the history of an object change how we experience it, not simply as an illusion, but as a deep feature of what pleasure (and pain) is.

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Heat of the Moment

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 23, 2011

From Wired Science:

The link between violence and hot weather is so intuitive that it’s embedded in our language: Hotheads lose tempers that flare, anger simmers and comes to a boil, and eventually we cool down.

So what does science have to say? Do tempers truly soar with temperature? The answer, appropriately enough for these triple-digit days, is hazy and hotly contested.

To be sure, extensive literature exists on hot weather and violence, stretching from poorly controlled regional studies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — oh, those hot-blooded southerners! — to more sophisticated modern analyses. This doesn’t just apply to the United States, but countries like England and Wales and New Zealand.

But whether weather is cause or coincidence is difficult to determine.

Perhaps the most detailed studies, led by psychologists Ellen Cohn and James Rotton of Florida State University, involved violent crime over a two-year period in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Cohn and Rotton classified assaults according to time of day, day of week, and month and temperature. They ultimately concluded that violence rose with temperature, but only to a point.

Around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, assault rates started to fall, a trend that dovetailed with a hypothetical explanation for heat-induced violence in which being uncomfortable provokes competing tendencies of both aggression and escape. At low to moderate levels of discomfort, people lash out, but at high levels they just want to flee.

But the results also fit with a sociological rather than psychological explanation. According to so-called Routine Activities Theory, many forms of violent crime are functions of social opportunity, and increase when more people spend more time outside. When it becomes so hot that people retreat inside, crime falls. Cohn and Rotton supported this explanation.

Cohn and Rotton’s interpretations of the numbers, however, were contested by Iowa State University psychologist Craig Anderson, who felt they hadn’t fully accounted for time-of-day effects. His own take on the data (.pdf) produced a linear relationship between heat and violence, with assault rates peaking at the highest temperatures.

A straight-line relationship supports various psychological and physiological processes.

In hot weather, the body exhibits changes — increased heart rate, blood circulation and sweating, and metabolic changes — associated with sympathetic nervous system activity, which in turn is linked to fight-or-flight responses. Hot weather also increases testosterone production, tilting that equation towards fight.

More.

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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).

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Whitey Bulger’s Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 5, 2011

From Northeastern News:

Notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger — who eluded authorities for more than 16 years — is accused of murdering 19 people. Here, David DeSteno, associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University, who studies the role of emotion in social cognition and social behavior, assesses the mind of crime figures like Bulger and those who exalt them as heroes.

What drives immoral behavior?

We cannot assume that Whitey Bulger, Anthony Weiner, or other “fallen” individuals were flawed from the start. After all, Whitey’s brother, William Bulger, was raised in the same environment but followed a different trajectory; he ended up becoming the president of the University of Massachusetts. 
The answer, then, to what makes someone “bad?” is found in understanding how character really works. Character, as it turns out, isn’t established early in life and fixed thereafter. It’s always in flux. Our moral behaviors are determined moment to moment by situational influences on the competing mechanisms in our mind. One class of mechanisms focuses on what’s good in the short term. The other class is focused on the long term — what actions, even if they sacrifice short-term benefits, will lead to long-term gain. Cheating or lying, for example, may offer a short-term gain. Cheating or lying too much, however, could lead to getting caught and ostracized, which carries long-term losses.

The more power that an individual possesses, the greater the disconnect between short-term and long-term impulses. With increased power, politicians, corporate CEOs, or mob bosses, for example, tend to view themselves as invulnerable and begin to favor short-term, expedient actions like cheating or aggression. Such power, then, allows the scale of character to tip toward self-serving, and possibly criminal, actions. The potential for vice and virtue resides in each of us. If we forget that, we’re much more likely to act immorally as well.

Some South Boston residents appear to be rooting for Bulger. Why do so many still look at him as a local hero and turn a blind eye to his criminal record?

How we judge a person’s character often has to do with how he “related” to us. Work in my lab shows that whether we’re willing to condemn someone for committing a transgression doesn’t depend solely on the objective facts. For one study, we asked participants to put on one of two different colored wristbands and then watch a staged interaction between two actors, which participants thought was real. In the scenario, one actor cheated on a task that left the other with more work to complete. We then asked our research participants to judge how fairly the cheater acted. What we found was quite astonishing: If the actor who cheated was wearing the same color wristband as a participant, then the participant viewed his actions as much less objectionable than did participants wearing a different color wristband. Feeling some level of similarity with the perpetrator leads one to excuse his behavior.

This simple example shows how deeply social bonds can alter moral judgments. The people in Southie who still look at Whitey as a hero would probably condemn another individual from New York who committed the same crimes.

For 16 years, Bulger lived life on the lam with his partner Catherine Greig, whom he must have trusted not to turn him in to the authorities. What role may trust have played in their relationship?

Trust is a fundamental part of the human condition. We have to trust people because we need others to survive. Trusting another person presents an interesting dynamic because it offers the potential for joint gain, or asymmetric loss. If both individuals are trustworthy, both can benefit. If, on the other hand, one “sells out,” then he or she can gain at the other’s expense. How much we’re willing to trust another person depends on several factors, but a primary one is the extent to which outcomes are joined.

In the case of Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig, both faced prison sentences if the other broke ranks. Each knew enough of the other’s secrets, habits and finances that if one didn’t support the other, he or she would have a lot to loose. Having said that, work in our lab shows that trustworthiness is changeable. We can be very trustworthy with one person in one situation, but completely untrustworthy with another. Just because Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig appear to have acted in a trustworthy manner with each other, does not indicate how they might deal with someone else.

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Posted in Emotions, Morality | Tagged: , , , | 1 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.

* * *

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

Related Situationist posts:

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The Situation of the Vancouver Riot Kiss

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 20, 2011

From the Ottawa Citizen (article written by Sheril Kirshenbaum, a research scientist at the University of Texas and author of The Science of Kissing):

The man and woman appear oblivious of the chaos swirling around them. When anarchy erupted on the streets of Vancouver last week, the couple exchanged an ephemeral kiss that will last forever on our cultural landscape. Photographer Richard Lam inadvertently captured the embrace on his camera, and the image quickly made headlines around the world. It’s a striking contrast of furious energy and tender pause that will be analyzed, criticized, and admired for decades to come. Scott Jones and Alex Thomas were the calm in the eye of a storm.

Many wonder whether the scene has been photo-shopped or staged. Who are these people and what would inspire such seemingly inappropriate behaviour under dire circumstances? Yet a glimpse at some of the science behind why we kiss suggests that the lip lock was, in reality, a very natural response to being involved in an unfamiliar, frightening situation as emotions ran high.

There’s no doubt that being caught up in a riot would lead to increased levels of adrenalin, which boosts our heart rate and makes us sweat. Adrenalin causes our blood vessels to dilate, quickens the pulse, flushes our cheeks, and can even make breathing irregular. This important chemical is involved in readying our bodies to anticipate what might occur next. A passionate kiss can cause the same response because it also boosts adrenalin. And during an extremely tense situation, it’s easy to understand why sensations can be confused, blurring perceptions of passion and anxiety.

In the flurry of interviews that followed the photograph’s publication, Jones told reporters that he kissed his girlfriend in order to calm her down after police knocked them to the ground. Surely this was a split-second decision, but the odds are good that this strategy worked thanks to the cocktail of chemicals coursing through our bodies that regulate the way we feel and behave.

A kiss can be soothing for myriad reasons, and has been documented to reduce levels of the “stress hormone” known as cortisol. When we experience stress, cortisol is responsible for raising blood sugar and blood pressure while suppressing the immune system. It is part of the body’s regulatory system that amps us up to perform well under pressure. The right kiss from someone we love lowers levels of this hormone, thereby reducing the uneasiness we feel. In other words, whether he was consciously aware of it or not, Jones’s kiss likely served its intended purpose.

Of course, cortisol and adrenalin do not act alone. They are just two soldiers in an army of chemicals that guide our actions. Kissing also raises levels of the “love hormone” oxyto-cin, which reaffirms the special bond we share with those who matter most to us. And it is not all about romance either. When parents intuitively press their lips to a child’s scraped knee and say “all better,” it can actually decrease the perception of pain and discomfort.

Our brains are also primed to associate kissing with feelings of love and security. A newborn’s earliest feeding experiences involve similar movements and mouth pressure, laying down the neural pathways in his brain that will be continue to be important in other relationships throughout his life. On top of that, our lips are packed with sensitive nerve endings, so even the slightest brush sends a cascade of information to our brains that often feels very good.

It should be no surprise that kissing acts like a drug by stimulating the natural chemicals in our bodies because it has inspired poets, musicians, and lovers over millennia. And no matter what particular mix of neurotransmitters, hormones -and perhaps, bit of magic -led to that moment in Vancouver, it serves as an indelible reminder of the single most universal and humanizing practice we all share: The kiss.

More.

Here’s a video of Sheril Kirshenbaum discussing her book:

Related Situationist posts:

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David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Jon Ensign, Mark Sanford, Chris Lee, and Now Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Weiner: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on June 8, 2011

During the summer of 2007, we published the post below in response to the sex scandal du jour involving U.S. Senator David Vitter (R-LA). We republished it in the wake of former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s (D) “indiscretions.”  Former U.S. Senator and Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee John Edwards’ confession had us dusting off this post yet again.  We published it again when Senator Jon Ensign (R-NV)–who in 1998 urged President Clinton to resign following the Monica Lewinsky scandal–was added to the list and then again in response to the Mark Sanford scandal and for Chris Lee’s Craig’s List shenanigans.  We’ve decided to republish the post yet again in recognition of the recent revelations regarding Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Weiner.  (We have omitted many smaller scandals from our list, and we have little doubt that we’ll be posting it again, which is part of our point.)

Here is the original Vitter story.

* * *

Senator David Vitter achieved much of his success by professing steadfast allegiance to “traditional family values” and punitive intolerance for those who violate them. Consider, for instance, his campaign statement on protecting the “sanctity of marriage”:

This is a real outrage. The Hollywood left is redefining the most basic institution in human history, and our two U.S. Senators won’t do anything about it. We need a U.S. Senator who will stand up for Louisiana values, not Massachusetts’s values. I am the only Senate Candidate to coauthor the Federal Marriage Amendment; the only one fighting for its passage. I am the only candidate proposing changes to the senate rules to stop liberal obstructionists from preventing an up or down vote on issues like this, judges, energy, and on and on.

Similarly, Vitter once told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that “infidelity, divorce, and deadbeat dads contribute to the breakdown of traditional families.” That’s extraordinarily serious, says Vitter, because “marriage is truly the most fundamental social institution in human history.”

In part because of his squeaky-clean, straight-arrow, red-state-values image, Rudolph Giuliani selected Vitter as his Southern campaign chairperson. Vitter was to be the personifying proof that social conservatives could trust Giuliani. Vitter was even seen by some Republicans as a future presidential candidate himself.

As recent revelations make clear, Vitter was more committed to family values in his preaching than in his practicing. According to CBS News:

On Monday, Vitter acknowledged being involved with the so-called D.C. Madam [Deborah Palfrey], hours after Hustler magazine told him his telephone number was among those she disclosed. A day later, new revelations linked him to a former madam in New Orleans [Jeanette Maier] and old allegations that he frequented a former prostitute resurfaced, further clouding his political future.

Vitter’s apology read as follows: “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling.”

With his public admission coming only after the his dirty laundry was about to be aired publicly, Vitter comes off looking like quite the scoundrel. Many commentators see him, not simply as unfaithful to his family but, worse, hypocritical regarding his purported family values.

We Americans like to see people in terms of their dispositions, and we despise those who pretend to have one disposition when in fact they have another. We can’t stand hypocrites! And Vitter is nothing if not a hypocrite.

Although we share the indignation, there are two related problems with this reaction. First off, it misses the fact that, in important ways, most of us are hypocrites.

Surely many of our leaders are. Prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to preach fidelity while practicing “philandery.” Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich are good examples of the political balance. Moreover, “sinning against God” seems all too common even among the anointed — from Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker to untold numbers of Catholic Priests.

In all cases, the critics relish the opportunity to point to the flaws of their opponents. And, true to form, it seems that no one in this case is eager to attribute blame or responsibility to anyone other than Vitter — and everyone sees his use of “escorts” as a reflection of nothing other than his true disposition. As we’ve suggested, most commentators, and particularly those who are not close to him politically, portray him as a hypocrite. But even politicians closer to him are noticeably dispositionist in their reactions.

Rudolph Giuliani, for instance, responded to questions about his Southern campaign chairperson by emphasizing that the revelations reflected something about Vitter, but nothing about Giuliani: “Some people are flawed.” “I think you look at all the people I appointed — a thousand or so – sure, some of them had issues, some of them had problems, the vast majority of them were outstanding people.” The implication is that Vitter is among the minority of Giuliani appointees who are flawed and are not “outstanding people.”

It’s a strange distinction coming from Giuliani, who, if the measure is adultery, seems similarly “flawed” and less than “outstanding.” There is, in other words, hypocrisy among those who seek to distance themselves from this hypocrite.

Many of us, upon close examination might discover a similar tension. American attitudes toward adultery are sort of like American attitudes toward unhealthy, highly-caloric food. We claim to not want that “junk,” and sometimes manage to avoid it; still, most of us find ourselves eating something we wish we hadn’t from time to time — perhaps most of the time. In America, we curse our cake and eat it too. And also in America, we blame the obesity epidemic on the bad choices and dispositions of the obese.

Poll Americans and you’re likely to find that roughly 90 percent believe adultery is morally wrong. Meanwhile, ask Americas about whether they have engaged in an extramarital affair, and you’ll discover that many more than 10 percent have. In fact, according to one study, 25 percent of wives and 44 percent of husbands have extramarital intercourse. In other words, there seems to be a gap between what many people say is morally wrong and what many people do.

There’s another way of illustrating how we overestimate our own sexual righteousness. Numerous studies have shown that people are far less able to act according to their own explicit attitudes, goals, and standards when confronted with fairly intense drive states such as hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, moods, emotions, physical pain and sexual desire. According to George Loewenstein, such “visceral factors” tend to “crowd out” all goals other than that of mitigating the visceral factors themselves. As summarized elsewhere:

If you find that difficult to understand, try holding your breath for two minutes or dropping an anvil on your toe, and see what significance your other goals and attitudes have in your behavior before the pain subsides.

Of course, responding to such intense bodily reactions makes perfect sense and is not, in itself, problematic. People should prioritize the acquisition of oxygen when it is scarce. And people should attend to their acute injuries before checking to make sure the anvil is ok. The problem stems from the fact that people often behave, in response to visceral cues, in ways that contradict their view of how they should behave, and sometimes even their own volition. And that problem occurs, according to Loewenstein, because of the second key feature of visceral factors, which is that “people underestimate the impact on their own behavior of visceral factors they will experience in the future”: “Unlike currently experienced visceral factors which have a disproportionate impact on behavior, delayed visceral factors tend to be ignored or to be severely underweighted in decision making. Today’s pain, hunger, anger, and so on are palpable, but the same sensations anticipated in the future receive little weight.”

In one experiment, for example, two groups of male subjects were shown photographs and then asked to imagine how they would behave in the context of a date-rape scenario. The group that had been shown sexually arousing photographs reported a much greater likelihood of behaving aggressively than the group that had been shown non-arousing photos. Without being aroused by the photographs, the second group seemed less able to imagine what they would do when aroused on a date.

There is plenty more evidence we could offer to make this point, but more details are unnecessary. Our goal is not to excuse Vitter’s behavior or justify Vitter’s policy positions (at least some of which, frankly, make us proud to be from Massachusetts). Instead, we hope simply to suggest that few of us are without similar “flaws” — or put differently, none of us are moved solely by disposition, much less our professed values.

And that brings us to a larger point. The human tendency to see hypocrisy will often reflect the fundamental attribution error — the tendency to overestimate the influence of a person’s disposition and to underestimate the influence of his situation — as well as our own motivations to see hypocrisy in the “others” that we would not be motivated to see in ourselves or in our in-groups.

Situations commonly lead us to behave in ways that are inconsistent with our expectations, ambitions, attitudes, principles, and self-image. A basic lesson of social psychology and related fields is that, just as the spirit is often weaker than the flesh, the disposition is often weaker than the situation.

By attacking Vitter’s disposition, many of his critics may be missing an opportunity to make a bigger point to the sorts of conservative politicians who Vitter typifies. It is the hard-core conservatives who too much of the time are attributing solely to people’s disposition what should be attributed significantly to the their situation. “Tough on crime,” for instance, means “tough on criminals,” not tough on the situations that tend to produce criminal behavior. “Personal responsibility” means attributing personal bankruptcies to the flawed choices of those declaring bankruptcy and disregarding, say, the unexpected medical costs or layoffs experienced by families trying to make ends meet. “Common sense” means blaming the obesity epidemic on the laziness and bad food choices on the part of the obese and dismissing any role that situational forces might have played. And so on.

We want to see sinister motives and evil intent in our enemies, just as we are subconsciously eager to see deficient character or lack of merit in those who are worse of than ourselves. Too often, though, the distinctions between “us” and “them” are more or less group- and system-affirming fabrications.

Instead of leaping at the opportunity to paint politician after politician after politician with the brush of hypocrisy, perhaps these instances might be used as teaching tools — examples to the Vitters of the world that although the disposition may be strong, the situation is often stronger. If we could stop pretending that people’s behavior and their condition in life is a product solely of their character or preferences, then perhaps we could begin to have more meaningful debates about topics that really matter.

Put differently, the dispositionist search for bad apples and hypocrites harmfully eclipses a deeper discussion that we could be having if we were to acknowledge the extent to which we are all situational characters rather than dispositional actors. With a different mindset, perhaps citizens and politicians would begin to take seriously ways of examining and altering the situation that is otherwise altering us.

* * *

Some Situationist posts on the power, causes, and consequences of sexual attraction and love:

 

 

Posted in Emotions, Evolutionary Psychology, Ideology, Life, Morality, Politics, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Introduction to Social Psychology and Social Cognition

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 27, 2011

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

Self-Fulfilling Doomsday Prophecies

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 13, 2011

In a world experiencing global climate change and massive environmental degradation, could it be that doomsday prophecies are a cause and consequence of the seeming indifference and recalcitrance of so many Americans?

From NPR’s Here and Now:

* * *

Margaret Pease stands on a corner in downtown Pittsburgh, handing out doomsday pamphlets.

“JUDGMENT DAY FOLKS!” she yells with a volume that would make a drill sergeant proud. “May 21, 2011!”

For the past seven months, Pease has been crisscrossing the country in a caravan with eight others, warning anyone who will listen that God’s wrath is near.

“I might be a little loud, but I want people to get the message,” she says. “I don’t want anybody’s blood on my hands. … JUDGMENT DAY FOLKS!”

Nearby, David Liquori is telling passerby Thomas Sayers what he thinks will happen in just a few days.

“On May 21 at about 6 p.m., an earthquake of proportions which have never been known since man was on the Earth will occur,” Liquori says.

“This coming 21?” Sayers asks.

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, this is going to be awesome!” Sayers says. “Where’s it going to happen?”

“It’s going to happen everywhere,” Liquori says. “Everywhere.”

Sayers doesn’t buy it.

“I kind of feel bad for them because they do believe the world will end the 21st,” he says. “As a Christian, I also believe there’s a certain date that nobody knows. I’m on the same journey they are — they just think it ends the 21st and I don’t think it does.”

But like many people interviewed for this story, Liquori has bet everything on this date.

“I’m separated as a result of a difference of belief,” he says. “My wife got sick of me.”

He used to have a job and owned a house on Long Island.

“I have sold everything off,” Liquori says. “I have no more personal ambitions but to get the Gospel out to warn the world.”

Liquori and others believe that a very small fraction of Christian believers will fly up to heaven on that fateful day. Then on Oct. 21, the Earth and the universe will be destroyed.

But what about those who are left on Earth for those five months?

“Oh, it will be a horror story beyond measure,” says Harold Camping, the man who calculated the May 21 date.

Decoding The Bible

He has long been predicting the end on his international Christian radio network, Family Radio — which in 2009 was worth more than $100 million. Camping says the Bible is written in a code, and for those who are able to decipher it, it’s clear as daylight.

“With all the proofs that God has given us, and all the signs, I am absolutely certain [that Judgment Day will arrive on May 21]. It is going to happen. There is no Plan B.”

Of course, even Jesus said he didn’t know when Judgment Day would come. But Camping is not bothered by that, nor by the fact that he wrongly predicted Judgment Day once before, in 1994.

“It was based on incomplete research and I was quite aware that the research was incomplete,” he says. “So it was just like a first announcement that we’re almost there.”

So far, end time predictors have batted zero. The most famous was William Miller, a Baptist minister who believed that Jesus would return in the early 1840s. According to Catherine Wessinger, a historian of religion at Loyola University, New Orleans, on the night of Oct. 22, 1844, believers gathered on hilltops to watch Jesus return.

“People stayed up all night, they waited,” Wessinger says. “Some people allegedly put on white robes, waiting to go up to heaven, and were very disappointed when the sun rose the next morning and nothing had happened.”

It was deemed the Great Disappointment.

A Prophecy Upswing

“People have been predicting the end of the world in Christianity since the time of St. Paul,” says Cathy Gutierrez, a religion professor at Sweet Briar College.

She says usually end times prophets do not predict a specific date. That’s way too risky. But she says the predictions have come fast and thick in the past 60 years, largely because of one event in 1948: the creation of the state of Israel.

* * *

Some 41 percent of Americans believe Jesus will return by the year 2050, according to a poll by The Pew Research Center.

* * *

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Environment, History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Leave a Comment »

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.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Education, Emotions, Life, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
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