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Archive for the ‘Naive Cynicism’ Category

The Situation of Political Polarization

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 11, 2012

From This American Life:

Everyone knows that politics is now so divided in our country that not only do the 2 sides disagree on the solutions to the country’s problems, they don’t even agree on what the problems are. It’s 2 versions of the world in collision. This week we hear from people who’ve seen this infect their personal lives. They’ve lost friends. They’ve become estranged from family members. A special pre-election episode of our show.

Listen to the episode here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Podcasts, Politics | Leave a Comment »

The Exaggerated Situation of Polarization

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 14, 2012

Situationist friend Dave Nussbaum has more terrific posts over at, Random AssignmentsBelow, we have re-blogged portions of his timely piece about how “extremists exaggerate polarization.”

Why have American politics become so polarized? Maybe they haven’t – maybe it’s just you? New research reveals that partisans, especially those on the extremes, overestimate the amount of polarization that actually exists. The phenomenon, called polarization projection,helps us to understand how it is that people on both ends of the political spectrum mistakenly assume that there is a much wider gap between the two sides than there actually is.

Making the problem worse, people at the political extremes – those who have exaggerated views of how polarized the country is – are also the ones who are most politically active. This can end up translating extreme partisans’ mistaken views into the election of politicians who are more extreme than the people they represent, particularly in the context of intra-party primaries (Nate Silver recently documented this effect among Senate Republicans).

When the gap between the two parties appears to be enormous, compromise becomes difficult. We become less likely to see our political adversaries as having the same basic goals as us (like improving the country and the lives of its citizens) while having different opinions of how to achieve those goals. Instead, they become the enemy. And compromising with the enemy is not pragmatic, it’s disloyal.

Just ask Richard Mourdock who recently ousted six-term Republican senator Dick Lugar in the Indiana GOP primary. He told Brian Howey of the Evansville Courier and Press:

“I recognize there are times when our country is incredibly polarized in that political sense. Right now is one of those times. The leadership of the Republican Party and the leadership of the Democratic Party are not going to be able to reach compromise on big issues because they are so far apart in principle. My idea of bipartisanship going forward is to make sure that we have such a Republican majority in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and in the White House, that if there’s going to be bipartisanship, it’s going to be Democrats coming our way, instead of them trying to pull Republicans their way.”

Dick Lugar’s biggest sin, it seems, is that he was occasionally willing to side with Obama and the Democrats. He worked with then-Senator Obama on a bill that to secure nuclear material abroad, and voted to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. As Obama himself said in a statement released after Lugar’s defeat, “While Dick and I didn’t always agree on everything, I found during my time in the Senate that he was often willing to reach across the aisle and get things done.” A willingness to compromise meant the end of Senator Lugar, or, as Tea Partiers in Indiana liked to refer to him, “Obama’s favorite Republican.” Another moderate Republican Senator, Maine’s  Olympia Snowe, also decided not to seek re-election, saying that she does “not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term.”

But let’s get back to the research – what’s the evidence that suggests that it’s the extremists that overestimate the amount of political polarization? . . . [continued]

Read the entire post on Random Assignments.

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Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Political Situation of Support and Opposition to Gay Marriage

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 6, 2012

Situationist friend Dave Nussbaum continues to write terrific posts over at, Random AssignmentsBelow, we have re-blogged portions of his recent post about how President Obama’s support of gay marriage led Republicans to become more opposed to it.

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan posted a new Washington Post/ABC News poll tracking changes in approval for legalizing same sex marriage. Sullivan noted that following Obama’s announcement this month that his support of equal rights for same sex couples has “evolved” into support for marriage, there has been a rise in support for legalizing gay marriage among Democrats and Independents. Meanwhile, among Republicans the reverse is true:

“As the country as a whole grows more supportive of gay equality, the GOP is headed in the other direction. Republican support for marriage equality has declined a full ten points just this year – a pretty stunning result. Have they changed their mind simply because Obama supports something? In today’s polarized, partisan climate, I wouldn’t be surprised.

I wouldn’t be surprised either. This is how partisans often react to anything coming from the other side: whatever it is, they don’t like it. Partisans will argue that they are opposed to whatever it is the other side is proposing purely on its merits. We all like to believe that when we evaluate a policy we are responding to the policy’s content, but very often we’re far more influenced by who is proposing it.

For example, in a pair of studies published in 2002, Lee Ross and his colleagues asked Israeli participants to evaluate a peace proposal that was an actual proposal submitted by either the Israeli or the Palestinian side. The trick they played was that, for some participants, they showed them the Israeli proposal and told them it was the Palestinian one, or they showed them the Palestinian proposal and told them it came from the Israeli side (the other half of participants saw a correctly attributed proposal). What they found was that the actual content of the plan didn’t matter nearly as much as whose plan they thought it was. In fact, Israeli participants felt more positively toward the Palestinian plan when they thought came from the Israeli side than they did toward the Israeli plan when they thought it came from the Palestinians. Let me repeat that: when the plans’ authorship was switched, Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal better than the Israeli one.

The same is true when it comes to Democrats and Republicans. In a series of studies published by Geoffrey Cohen in 2003 (PDF), he asked liberals and conservatives to evaluate both a generous and a stringent proposed welfare policy. Although liberals tend to prefer a generous welfare policy and conservatives tend to prefer a more stringent one, the actual content of the policy mattered far less than who proposed it. Not only were liberal participants perfectly happy to support a stringent policy when it was proposed by their own party (while the reverse was true for conservative participants), neither side was aware of the influence of the source of the policy proposal. So even though their partisan affiliations were more important than the content of the policy, both liberal and conservative participants claimed that they were basing their evaluations of the welfare policy strictly on its content. New research by Colin Tucker Smith and colleagues, published in the current issue of the journal Social Cognition (4), suggests that the influence of the policy’s source on our evaluation of the policy’s content happens at an automatic level and can happen without our awareness.

So perhaps it should not be terribly surprising that President Obama’s support for marriage equality has led to increased support among Democrats and more opposition from Republicans. . . . [continued]

Read the entire post on Random Assignments.

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Posted in Classic Experiments, Conflict, Emotions, Ideology, Morality, Naive Cynicism, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

What Will Sports Look Like In 20 Years?

Posted by Adam Benforado on December 6, 2011

When it rains, it pours.

My last two posts (here and here) focused on the connection between heading the ball in soccer and an assortment of different brain trauma problems. It was a single event the prompted my initial thoughts on the matter (the suicide of soccer legend Gary Speed), but in the intervening few days, there have been several stories in other news outlets concerning head injuries and sports.

The most poignant has been the New York Times series on the hockey player Derek Boogaard—perhaps the NHL’s most feared enforcer who died of an alcohol and drug overdose at just 28.  I enjoyed the first part of the series the most, as it explored the culture of hockey in Canada and the making of a professional fighter (Boogaard, born big and tough, realized early on that his chance at making the big leagues was with his fists, not the accuracy of his shot).  But the third installment, investigating Boogaard’s brain is most relevant to the topic at hand:

Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as C.T.E., a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease. It is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. It can be diagnosed only posthumously, but scientists say it shows itself in symptoms like memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, even addiction.

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More than 20 dead former N.F.L. players and many boxers have had C.T.E. diagnosed. It generally hollowed out the final years of their lives into something unrecognizable to loved ones.

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And now, the fourth hockey player, of four examined, was found to have had it, too.

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But this was different. The others were not in their 20s, not in the prime of their careers.

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The scientists on the far end of the conference call told the Boogaard family that they were shocked to see so much damage in someone so young. It appeared to be spreading through his brain.  Had Derek Boogaard lived, they said, his condition likely would have worsened into middle-age dementia.

On November 29, The New York Times also covered a recent class-action lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Illinois asserting that “the N.C.A.A. has been negligent regarding awareness and treatment of brain injuries to athletes”:

The legal action comes after a five-year flurry of awareness of brain injuries in contact sports and follows lawsuits filed this year by dozens of former N.F.L. players who claim the league was negligent in its handling of brain trauma. The issue has moved from science labs to Congress and now to courtrooms, where the financial exposure of the sport’s governing bodies may be tested.

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The N.F.L. is subsidizing care for some of the most seriously damaged of its former players, after public and Congressional pressure forced the league to acknowledge the gravity of the issue. But the damage did not begin with the first hit in an N.F.L. training camp. Players have been absorbing blows to the brain since they were children.

This all leads to a tough question: Is it time to change our contact sports?

I am a very serious sports fan and I understand those who find the very notion of hockey without fighting, soccer without heading, and football without tackling laughable at best.  I’ll admit: I love watching LaRon Landry cream a receiver and Andy Carroll smack home a header.  But the fact of the matter is that hockey, soccer, football, lacrosse, and boxing are just games.  The rules are invented.  They have changed in the past and they can change again.

As prudent a move as it is, do I think removing dangerous contact from these sports is likely in the near term?

Unfortunately, my answer is no.

As the evidence continues to build that sports are seriously endangering athletes, I think we’ll see two things happen.  First, there will be changes at the margins that don’t get to the core of the problem but make leagues appear as if they are being responsive (e.g., fining NFL players more heavily who engage in helmet-on-helmet hits).  Second, we’ll see an increasing backlash from those who feel that this is just another example of how know-it-all “experts” and “nannies” are ruining the fun—indeed, attacking the very foundations of our way of life.  These folks will argue that everyone knows that sports are dangerous and that people should be allowed to exercise their free choice.  They may point out that athletes get paid lots of money to assume the risk of serious head injuries.  And, in all likelihood, they’ll trot out the slippery-slope argument to suggest that if we change the rules of football, we’ll be on the road to totalitarianism where all freedoms are removed under the false promise of “eliminating dangers.”

That’s silliness.  Rule changes made in the name of public health aren’t going to kill sports and they certainly aren’t going to destroy America.

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Review a collection of sports related Situationist posts here or posts related to naive cynicism and backlash here.

Posted in Entertainment, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Economist Responds to The Situationist

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 25, 2011

W.W. at The Economist takes issue with my 2007 post (reposted on Wednesday) about “Thanksgiving as System Justification.” Readers can judge for themselves the merits of the critique.

The purpose of this post is simply to point out that The Economist article and the comments that follow it exhibit the naive cynicism dynamic that we have written about several times on this blog.  Here’s one recent description:

Situationist Contributors Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson have written extensively about a dynamic they call “naive cynicism.”

Their work explores how dispositionism maintains its dominance despite the fact that it misses so much of what actually moves us. It argues that the answer lies in a subordinate dynamic and discourse, naive cynicism: the basic subconscious mechanism by which dispositionists discredit and dismiss situationist insights and their proponents. Without it, the dominant person schema – dispositionism – would be far more vulnerable to challenge and change, and the more accurate person schema – situationism – less easily and effectively attacked. Naive cynicism is thus critically important to explaining how and why certain legal policies manage to carry the day.

Naive cynicism often takes the form of a backlash against situationism that involves an affirmation of existing dispositionist notions and an assault on (1) the situationist attributions themselves; (2) the individuals, institutions, and groups from which the situationist attributions appear to emanate; and (3) the individuals whose conduct has been situationalized. If one were to boil down those factors to one simple naive-cynicism-promoting frame for minimizing situationist ideas, it would be something like this: Unreasonable outgroup members are attacking us, our beliefs, and the things we value.

With that dynamic in mind, consider the following excerpts from The Economist post and the comments that followed it:

NO HOLIDAY is safe from the scolds. Independence Day? A celebration of the American exceptionalism behind our bogus claims to legitimacy as a “benevolent” neo-imperialist global hegemon. Christmas? A sickening display of consumerism run amok and a case study in Christian mythology crowding out pagan good cheer. (Take your pick.) Memorial Day? An exercise in the elevation of those who kill and die for the state without asking too many questions about it. Veterans Day? Ditto. Labor Day is all right, I guess, if you’re red. Columbus Day? Ask a Seminole. Now here we are on the cusp of Thanksgiving. Other than lamenting the white man’s plundering, murdering, colonising ways (ask an Iroquois) what else is there to say to take the fun out of the national day of gluttony here in the home of the bravely obese? Plenty!

Before you stuff yourself to the gills with the flesh of innocent birds fattened in disgustingly inhumane conditions, please read this discourse on “Thanksgiving as ‘System Justification’“, by Jon Hanson, the Alfred Smart Professor of Law at Harvard. In a nutshell, “system justification” is the socio-psychological process by which turkeys come to welcome their impending slaughter. Every society is rife with injustice. System justification is how we convince ourselves it’s all for the best.

“Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions”, Mr Hanson says. For example, Harvard University might be said to make extremely privileged people comfortable in their mostly unearned wealth and prestige by helping them develop a super-classy shared vocabulary for expressing their mildly guilty feelings about it. Mr Hanson, demonstrating how this is done, worries that Thanksgiving, as Americans celebrate it, is but one more prop shoring up the corrupt current dispensation.

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*  * * If you think it’s only healthy to set aside politics now and then and bask wholeheartedly in the warm love of family, you’re probably part of the problem.

Economist commenters (of which there are many) piled on praise for, and agreement with, W.W.’s critique.  The shared sense seems to be that  W.W. is correct:  “Unreasonable outgroup members [namely, Jon Hanson and other scolds like him] are attacking us, our beliefs, and the things we value.”  Here’s a sample:

“Thanks for reminding us of how messed up our world is Economist.”

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I’m thankful that my tuition helps provide Professor Hanson with plenty of income to contribute important insights on law and policy while living in style.

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The big-brained ape is a jerk.

Sitting down to a feast with those dear to you is just fine by me. I guess I must be part of the problem.

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To say that this Hanson person gives idealists, liberals and academics a bad name is to be guilty of gross understatement.

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This article is from someone who sees the life extremely bitter, and wants everybody to see the same. OK, life has its problems, in the US and everywhere. But I think that to see the glass always half-empty is a very sad way to live.

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Some folks have no sense of humor, cannot ever lighten up, and consider every particle of existence to be a big political issue.

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the writer needs to lighten up and spend some with loved ones (if he has any…) . . . .

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I don’t think there is any need to throw guilt into something that promotes community and family life.

Related Situationist posts:

You can review all of the Situationist posts related to naive cynicism by clicking here.

Posted in Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Situationist Contributors, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Kennedy and Pronin on the Spiral of Conflict

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 16, 2011

A group of  Harvard Law students are blogging over at the Law & Mind Blog.  Here is one of their posts about a chapter by Situationist Contributor Emily Pronin and Kathleen Kennedy (forthcoming in from Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson’s  book, “Ideology, Psychology, and Law”).  The post is authored by HLS student Michael Lieberman.

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In their chapter, Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict, Kathleen Kennedy and Emily Pronin examine what they see as a major cause of breakdowns in negotiation, both small- and large-scale: a tendency of each side to view the other side’s position as biased and preference-driven (rather than based on objective facts). Kennedy and Pronin explain that we tend to see signs of bias all around us – some even posit that United States Supreme Court justices fall short of impartiality in their decisions. The only place, it seems, where the tendency to detect bias is weak is in ourselves: people have a tendency to perceive others as susceptible to the influence of biases while at the same time viewing themselves as relatively unaffected by those biases. That asymmetry has been referred to as a bias blind spot. One example of this bias blind spot with particular relevance to those of us in law school is the widespread disagreement over the validity of high-stakes standardized tests, such as the LSAT. High performers are inclined to resent the “obvious bias” of poor performers who claim that the test is invalid and should not be used; poor performers, by contrast, are inclined to resent the “obvious bias” of high performers who champion the tests’ use.

The first component of Kennedy and Pronin’s bias-perception conflict spiral is that disagreement leads to an even stronger perception that the other side is biased. That is, when people disagree, they view those with whom they disagree as biased or, more specifically, as unable or unwilling to view things as they are in “objective reality.” The reason is clear: “people generally have complete faith in the veridicality of their perceptions, and thus are suspicious of those who fail to share their perceptions.” Kennedy and Pronin offer support for this component with a review of several experimental and real-world cases of the tendency to perceive bias in action, including an experiment conducted among partisans involved in the struggle between Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland, in the wake of the “Good Friday Agreement” that established the conditions for peace in that region. Consistent with their hypothesis, partisans in the conflict tended to feel that those who led the opposing side were more prone to these biases than were those who led their own side.

The second component of the model is that the perception of the other side as biased leads to competitive and aggressive action, as opposed to cooperative and peaceful action. When dealing with an opponent whom one views as unable or unwilling to see things objectively, one may conclude that cooperative efforts (such as sitting down to talk things out, or providing relevant facts and arguments) are unlikely to be successful. The authors again cite several studies supporting the idea that people are likely to choose their responses to their opponents based at least in part on their assessment of the other side’s capacity for objectivity versus inclination towards bias.

Having outlined the framework of the bias-perception conflict spiral, Kennedy and Pronin proceed to apply their concept to the field of negotiation, both explaining when and how the spiral rears its ugly head and offering potential ways to stop it in its tracks. As the above outline would suggest, people seem to view their adversaries in negotiation as prone to bias, and that perception of bias leads them to act competitively in a way that interferes with efficient dispute resolution. After reviewing the weaknesses of strategies suggested by past research (perspective taking, epistemic motivation, and social grouping) Kennedy and Pronin suggest three strategies of their own to help achieve increased success in negotiations (strategies that may require bringing in a third-party mediator):

1. Non-counterarguing listening – Counterarguing listening, which the authors suggest most people engage in, involves thinking about ways in which one’s own position is superior and preparing counterarguments while an opponent is speaking. that can be leveled against the opposition when it is one’s chance to reply. An alternative to that listening approach would allow individuals to truly hear the other person by suppressing impulses to counterargue that content, so that individuals might reach a better understanding of their opponent’s actual position and of its underlying subtleties.

2. Introspective education – This strategy works to induce individuals to see themselves as less objective. By recognizing their own capacity for bias, individuals might be better equipped to resolve their conflicts peacefully once they realize that the other side, while biased, is no more biased than oneself and, therefore, likely has some rational reasons for believing what they believe. A mediator can implement this strategy by educating individuals on the psychology of implicit biases and providing them with concrete demonstrations of their own implicit attitudes (by administering the IAT, for example).

3. Temporal distance – Kennedy and Pronin explain: “Manipulating adversaries’ temporal distance from a conflict situation may also work to alleviate the bias-perception conflict spiral. Temporal distance (how far into the future an event is), as well as physical and social distance (how geographically distant or socially removed an event is), can increase the extent to which individuals see events in more global, indirect, or abstract terms,” which allows adversaries to adopt a cooler perspective toward the situation, including toward the disagreement itself and the opposing party. which might lead them to be more open to acknowledging both their own biases and their adversaries’ objectivity. Resulting reductions in individuals’ perceptions of either the size of their disagreement or the extent to which they are uniquely objective could interrupt or prevent the bias-perception conflict spiral.

In sum, Kennedy and Pronin’s framework focuses on the tendency of individuals to impute bias to others, especially others who disagree with them, and on the consequences of that tendency for conflictual behavior. Their examination of the psychological forces behind the conflict spiral, as well as their suggestions for overcoming it, offers valuable insight to the field of negotiation and mediation, which is particularly useful in a world that is so often divided into opposing interests and groups.

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Go to the Law and Mind Blog here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Conflict, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Paul Rosenberg Answers: Palin is a Naive Cynic

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 21, 2011

Last week The Situationist asked this question: Was Sarah Palin exhibiting the naive cynicism dynamic in her remarks about the shooting in Tucson (see video)?

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Several readers responded thoughtfully in brief comments, but Paul Rosenberg provided an outstanding, painstakingly thorough response over at Open Left. We highly recommend his post.

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For some related Situationist posts, see:

You can review all of the Situationist posts related to naive cynicism by clicking here.

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Sarah Palin a Naive Cynic?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2011

Situationist Contributors Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson have written extensively about a dynamic they call “naive cynicism.”

Their work explores how dispositionism maintains its dominance despite the fact that it misses so much of what actually moves us. It argues that the answer lies in a subordinate dynamic and discourse, naive cynicism: the basic subconscious mechanism by which dispositionists discredit and dismiss situationist insights and their proponents. Without it, the dominant person schema – dispositionism – would be far more vulnerable to challenge and change, and the more accurate person schema – situationism – less easily and effectively attacked. Naive cynicism is thus critically important to explaining how and why certain legal policies manage to carry the day.

Naive cynicism often takes the form of a backlash against situationism that involves an affirmation of existing dispositionist notions and an assault on (1) the situationist attributions themselves; (2) the individuals, institutions, and groups from which the situationist attributions appear to emanate; and (3) the individuals whose conduct has been situationalized. If one were to boil down those factors to one simple naive-cynicism-promoting frame for minimizing situationist ideas, it would be something like this: Unreasonable outgroup members are attacking us, our beliefs, and the things we value.

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Is Sarah Palin exhibiting that dynamic?  Below the video of her remarks you can read some excerpts from the transcript.

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It’s inexcusable and incomprehensible why a single evil man took the lives of peaceful citizens that day.

There is a bittersweet irony that the strength of the American spirit shines brightest in times of tragedy. We saw that in Arizona. We saw the tenacity of those clinging to life, the compassion of those who kept the victims alive, and the heroism of those who overpowered a deranged gunman.

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President Reagan said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.

The last election was all about taking responsibility for our country’s future.

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Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions.  And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

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As I said while campaigning for others last March in Arizona during a very heated primary race, “We know violence isn’t the answer. When we ‘take up our arms’, we’re talking about our vote.” Yes, our debates are full of passion, but we settle our political differences respectfully at the ballot box – as we did just two months ago, and as our Republic enables us to do again in the next election, and the next. That’s who we are as Americans and how we were meant to be. Public discourse and debate isn’t a sign of crisis, but of our enduring strength. It is part of why America is exceptional.

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No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent, and we certainly must not be deterred by those who embrace evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.

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America must be stronger than the evil we saw displayed last week. We are better than the mindless finger-pointing we endured in the wake of the tragedy.

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You can review a list of related Situationist links in the following post: “The Tragedy in Tucson: What Do You Think?.”

In addition, here are few more:

Finally, you can review all of the Situationist posts related to naive cynicism by clicking here.

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Video | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

The Tragedy in Tucson: What Do You Think?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 10, 2011

The unfolding news and debates about causes and consequences of yesterday’s tragic violence are raising many of the issues and themes common to this blog.  We hoped our readers would weigh in and share their thoughts and reactions to the events themselves and media discourse that has followed:  Bad Apple? Disposition? Context?  Situation? Spiraling conflict? Naive cynicism?

Below you’ll find some excerpts from today’s Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh programs.  What do you think?  Please comment.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics | 1 Comment »

Pushback from the Left

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 11, 2010

Situationist Contributor Jerry Kang recently posted his thoughtful essay, “Implicit Bias and the Pushback from the Left” (St. Louis University Law Journal, Vol. 54, p. 1139, 2010) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstrct.

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Over the past three decades, the mind sciences have provided remarkable insights about how our brains process social categories. For example, scientists have discovered that implicit biases – in the form of stereotypes and attitudes that we are unaware of, do not consciously intend, and might reject upon conscious self-reflection – exist and have wide-ranging behavioral consequences. Such findings destabilize our self-serving self-conceptions as bias-free. Not surprisingly, there has been backlash from the political Right. This Article examines some aspects of the more surprising pushback from the Left.

Part I briefly explains how new findings in the mind sciences, especially Implicit Social Cognition, are incorporated into the law, legal scholarship, and legal institutions, under the banner of “behavioral realism.” Part II describes the pushback from the Left. Part III responds by suggesting that our deepest understanding of social hierarchy and discrimination requires analysis at multiple layers of knowledge. Instead of trading off knowledge, for example, at the cognitive layer for the sociological layer (or vice versa), we should seek understanding at each layer, and then interpenetrate the entire stack.

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Download the essay for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Abstracts, Implicit Associations, Naive Cynicism, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Creating a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Posted by Adam Benforado on November 15, 2010

In the wake of the worst economic crisis in the United States since the Great Depression, there has been a drive to reconfigure the regulatory state and renegotiate the relationship between Americans, business, and government.

In a new article, just posted on SSRN, I argue that the ultimate formulation of that relationship turns, to a significant degree, on our basic attributional tendencies, particularly where we look to assign causal responsibility when things go wrong.

Who or what engendered the shanty town that appeared in Sacramento, California in 2008?  Who blackened the pelican and closed the beach of Pensacola?  What lies behind the rise in diabetes in elementary school students?

The answers that we give drive our remedial responses and our prophylactic measures—and in doing so, define the interactions between our regulatory institutions, business entities, and members of the public.

If you believe that business causes—or, at least, significantly contributes to—a lot of these types of harms in society, then you are likely to want a government that gets tough and restrains corporations to protect the public.  If you think that business is largely blameless, then you are likely to be in favor of free markets with little or no regulation.

The Article begins by summarizing evidence from the mind sciences concerning our basic attributional framework, before investigating its value to business as a ready means to (1) manipulate our environments to encourage profitable consumer behavior and (2) avoid regulation and liability.

As a case study of the ways in which corporations play on our basic attributional proclivities to manage negative outcomes, the Article focuses on the intense – and often nasty — recent battle over the creation of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

Download a free copy of the article here!

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For a sample of related Situationist posts see “Attributional Divide – Top 10,” Legal Academic Backlash - Abstract,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” “The Great Attributional Divide – Abstract,” “The Situation of ‘Common Sense’,” The Situation of Political Animals,” and Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Ideology, Legal Theory, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Situationist Contributors | 2 Comments »

Situationist Political Science and the Situation of Voters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 14, 2010

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

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

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Situation of ‘Common Sense’

Posted by Jerry Kang on July 6, 2010

On April 15, I had the pleasure of participating in a Collaborative training symposium on Implicit Bias and Eyewitness Identification, conducted for Connecticut prosecutors and public defenders.  I spoke on the topic of implicit bias, a core research interest.  It was an interesting conversation, and the engagement was intelligent, thoughtful, and public minded.

Afterwards, Chris Nolan, a journalist for the Connecticut Law Tribune, interviewed me over the phone for a long while, and I tried to give him more information about the relevant science and policy implications.  He wrote up an article, which spawned a strident response by Karen Lee Torre.

She was pretty darn angry.  She called me a “known left-winger,” “liberal political operative,” “an active Obama booster,” shoveling “crock,” “junk social science,” with “comical empirics.”  I assume that after looking at my vita, she concluded that I “never held a real job,” and worse predictably clerked for the “9th Circuit.”  She fantasized about having New Haven firefighters “tear [my] critical race theory to shreds and eat [me] for lunch.”

I thought this was just another example of tendentious blogosphere huffing.  But then I realized the Ms. Torre is an attorney and that this was printed in the Connecticut Law Tribune.  And I let out a heavy sigh.  When really smart people with loads of education turn immediately into name-calling, I can’t but help get pessimistic about the possibility of open-minded, good faith talk about how to make our country a better place, more consistent in practice with its noble ideals.

But I guess I’m at heart an optimist, so I thought this might be converted to a learning moment.

Implicit Bias

There’s loads of scholarly information on implicit bias, the subject I lectured about.  Accessible accounts as well as demonstrations can be found at Project Implicit (run by Harvard, U. of Washington, and Virginia).  There’s far more many papers than you’d want to read on my own research site.  But if you’re really curious about the “junk” I’m supposedly peddling, take a look at a primer I wrote for judges in conjunction with the National Center for State Courts.   Decide for yourself whether it sounds nuts.

Nolan Article on “Checking Biases”

Chris Nolan’s article (Checking Biases at the Courtroom Door, June 7, 2010, not online) — which sparked the outraged response from Karen Lee Torre — relayed various things I communicated to him.  It’s mostly right, but there’s always a danger of meaning getting lost in translation.   As an academic talking with the popular media, this is an unavoidable risk.  Let me highlight a few claims, provide references to the actual studies, and make clarifications and corrections along the way.  Again, the goal here is to be as transparent as possible.

Shooter Bias

Nolan described the findings of shooter bias.  It turns out that when we play a video game, where the rule is to hit one key “shoot” if we see a person holding a gun, and another key “holster” if we see a harmless object (e.g. phone or wallet), most of us show a bias in how we shoot depending on whether the person holding the object is Black or White.

*See Joshua Correll et al., The police officer’s dilemma: Using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals, 83 J. PERSON. & SOC. PSYCHOL. 1314 (2002). See also Anthony G. Greenwald et al. Targets of discrimination: Effects of race on responses to weapons holders, 39 J. EXPERIMENTAL SOC. PSYCHOL. 399 (finding similar results).

Nolan described this as having been demonstrated with police officers.   As a clarification, most of these studies have been done with non police officers, such as students and lay folks recruited to participate in psychology experiments. Some work has been done with actual officers. There, researchers have found mixed results–sometimes police officers show the same bias; sometimes less so.

*See E. Ashby Plant & B. Michelle Peruche, 16 PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE 180, 181 (2005).  In another paper, police officers showed a similar tendency to be faster to respond to armed Blacks (compared to armed Whites) and unarmed Whites (compared to unarmed Blacks), but did not exhibit racial bias on the arguably more important criterion of accuracy: unarmed Blacks were not more likely to be “shot” than unarmed Whites.  See Joshua Correll et al. Across the thin blue line: Police officers and racial bias in the decision to shoot., 92 J. PERSONALITY & SOC. PSYCHOL. 1006, 1010-1013, 1016-1017 (2007) (describing results from two studies).

Greater Punishment for those with Afro-Centric Facial Features

Nolan also reported some work that showed differential sentencing.   Although there are a few papers relevant, I was referring to this particular paper:

Irene V. Blair et al., The Influence of Afrocentric Facial Features in Criminal Sentencing, J. PSYCHOL. SCI. 674, 677 (2004) (finding no disparate sentencing on the basis of race in Florida data set, but finding that within each racial category, White or Black, those individuals with more Afrocentric facial features received harsher sentences).

Jennifer Eberhardt has also produced relevant work here, which found that among African American defendants convicted of murdering White victims, death sentences were given to 58% of those physically rated as more stereotypically Black.  For those who looked less “Black”, the rate was only 24%.

See Jennifer L. Eberhardt et al., Looking Deathworthy:Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes, 17 Psychol. Sci. 383 (2006).

Liberals and their Biases

Finally, Nolan pointed out that not only prosecutors but also public defenders have implicit biases.  Indeed, I regularly say “no one is immune.”  He added that “liberals tend to have fewer biases,” which is probably not exactly what I would have emphasized.   The more important point is that no one seems to be free from implicit biases–they are just the product of living in the world that exists.  One way to think about it is breathing in pollution, which leaves particulate matter in our lungs.  It’s not entirely novel or surprising that you might have some nasty stuff inside.  Capital punishment lawyers have implicit biases.  Judges have implicit biases.  Asian students at Yale showed implicit stereotypes about Asians, and so on.  Now, this doesn’t mean that there’s no differences among individuals or groups.  For instance, we tend to have better implicit attitudes about the groups we belong to.  Now, back to Nolan’s point.

In the most exhaustive statistical analysis of the implicit bias data collected at Project Implicit, Brian Nosek and colleagues cranked out all kinds of correlations.  Here’s a telling set of findings.  One implicit association test measured the implicit attitude (positive or negative) that participants showed to Arab-Muslims.  Those who self-described as strong liberals showed a bias of 0.34 (these are Cohen d units, but that doesn’t concern us now).  By contrast, those who described themselves as strong conservatives showed a bias of 1.13 (higher means more bias).  We see similar findings regarding, say, implicit attitudes toward African Americans (strong liberals at 0.08; strong conservatives at 0.74).

See Brian A. Nosek et al., Pervasiveness and Correlates of Implicit Attitudes and Stereotypes, 18 EURO. REV. SOCIAL PSYCH. 1 (2007) (Table 6).

There are two points worth making.  First, strong liberals are probably committed to having zero biases not only against Blacks but also against Arab-Muslims.  They want to be colorblind.  Yet they still registered a non-trivial attitudinal difference.  See, no one is immune.

Second, a part of me would like it if there were no such liberal versus conservative differences, if implicit biases were somehow randomly distributed regardless of self-described political leanings.  That would make the reform project easier since there would be less defensiveness on all sides.  But here’s the thing with science.  You just can’t make the data come out anyway you want. You can’t just invoke “common sense” and simply declare the state of the world.  We don’t do that with evidence-based medicine.  Why should we do that with social policy?

Ms. Torre’s Common Sense

It’s well within Karen Lee Torre’s First Amendment rights to shout out her opinion.  She doesn’t quite get to defamation, and no doubt I’ve become a limited public figure in this context.  But the great thing about the Internet is that counter-speech is relatively cheap.   And instead of getting into a fight with people being shredded into bits and eaten for lunch, I’m hoping for a genuine discussion–where facts matter.  There are skeptical scientists and lawyers who engage more on the merits.  That’s good, that’s what we should be doing.  And I don’t presume to have all the answers.  But ad hominem dismissals are fundamentally unhelpful.

In her closing, Ms. Torre writes:

“I know better than to judge any book by its cover. But I’ve also lived long enough and seen enough to know that if somebody, black or white, is walking toward me in a darkened parking lot, and he’s got pants below his butt and a cap on sideways, chances are he’s not fresh back from Oxford.

That’s my critical common sense theory. And it, in fact, saved me from an attempted mugging just last year.”

I’m glad that Ms. Torre avoided violence.  But, there’s too much social science for me to assume that race did not make any difference–that it was all about baggy pants.   A Black person is viewed as more threatening, less smiling, more aggressive than a White person even holding all other attributes constant — including attractiveness, clothing, etc.  But somehow Ms. Torre trusts her “common sense” and needs no data, no science, no research.  She seems not to recognize what Gordon Allport, a renowned 20th century psychologist, observed back in 1958:

“Prejudice is not ‘the invention of liberal intellectuals.’ It is simply an aspect of mental life that can be studied as objectively as any other.”

No doubt Allport could be attacked as a “Harvard” hack.  But what about this following quote:

“Common sense is sometimes another word for prejudice . . . .”

That comes from Judge Richard Posner….

See American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick (7th Cir. 2001).

…. although he has been sounding a little lefty re financial regulation recently.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” Perceptions of Racial Divide,” Black History is Now,” Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” - Video,” The Situation of Litigators,” “Tierney’s Skepticism at the New York Times,” Measuring Implicit Attitudes,” What Are the Legal Implications of Implicit Biases?,” Confronting the Backlash against Implicit Bias,” Legal Academic Backlash - Abstract,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,”  “Implicit Bias and Strawmen,”and “The Situation of Situation in Employment Discrimination Law – Abstract.”

Posted in Implicit Associations, Naive Cynicism, Situationist Contributors | 9 Comments »

Reporting Social Facts vs. Pining for Jim Crow: No Comparison Between Reid and Lott

Posted by Eric D. Knowles on January 13, 2010

Imagine a scenario. An African American lawyer, we can even call him “Barry,” has applied for a job at a prestigious firm—one that has never before hired a Black person. You eavesdrop on a couple of partners talking about the candidate. Question: Which, if either, of the these overheard comments is the more racist?

“I don’t know… Barry’s facing an uphill climb at an all-White firm like this. However, he just might have a shot given the fact that he’s fairly light-complected and doesn’t speak using African American Vernacular English.”

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“This firm’s going to hell if it hires a Black guy. I wish Strom Thurmond were the head of the hiring committee.”

The analogy may be a bit crude. But those paying attention to recent political news will recognize the partners as stand-ins for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Senator (and Majority Leader) Trent Lott, respectively. Senator Reid has found himself in hot water for comments he made in 2008 assessing Barack Obama’s chances of winning the presidency. Republicans, in particular, have decried Reid’s “racist” comments, demanding that he apologize to the American people and relinquish his leadership position in the Senate. They insist that this is exactly what happened to their own Trent Lott in 2002. Let’s take a look at what Reid and Lott said:

Reid told the authors of a new book about the 2008 campaign that “the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama—a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’”

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Lott toasted the late Strom Thurmond by saying, “When [Thurmond] ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”

Interestingly, I haven’t read or heard a single commentator dispute the accuracy of what Reid said. I’ve heard many say—and I agree—that his comments were indelicate and his use of the term “Negro” anachronistic. Politically stupid, yes. But also true. Anti-Black racism is alive and well in our country, and there is good evidence that it affected voting patterns in the 2008 election and continues to shape attitudes toward President Obama’s policies. It is entirely plausible that the ways in which Obama doesn’t fit most Americans’ stereotype of “Black person” (itself a media-perpetuated caricature) mitigated the high electoral hurdles he faced. More to the point, the social-psychological literature on “colorism”—the tendency of lighter-skinned Blacks to be viewed and treated more positively than those with darker skin—corroborates Reid’s prediction that Obama would have a relatively good shot at the presidency. There is no incompatibility between the content of Reid’s observation and having perfectly progressive racial views.

What about Lott’s comments? In waxing nostalgic over Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential run, Lott is endorsing the politics of a segregationist firebrand who, as Senator, filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes. One can’t read Lott’s comments without suspecting that the “problems” he believes President Thurmond would have prevented include things like racial integration and equality under the law. Now that strikes me as racist, and for Republicans to liken Reid’s comment to Lott’s—and to imply that they should suffer similar fates—is silly.

This episode says a great deal about how Americans talk (or fail to talk) about race. Most illustrative were comments made by Liz Cheney on ABC’s This Week. Ms. Cheney found herself sparring with, of all people, conservative commentator George Will over the Reid affair. Cheney contended that Reid’s comments were “outrageous” and “racist.” When Will countered that Reid’s comments contained “not a scintilla of racism,” Cheney responded—and this is telling—”George, give me a break. I mean, talking about the color of the president’s skin…” For Cheney, the mere mention of race is tantamount to racism. It’s worth pausing to appreciate how pernicious this extreme form of color-blindness is. If we can’t talk about race, we can’t talk about racial inequality—and if we can’t talk about racial inequality, we’re guaranteed not to do anything about it. Perhaps this is exactly what some people want.

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This post first appeared on Seeing in Color.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Wages Are Only Skin Deep – Abstract,”  Colorblinded Wages - Abstract,” Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice,”The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” “Racial Attitudes in the Presidential Race,” Black History is Now,” “The Racial Situation of Voting,” Why Are They So Biased?,” and I’m Objective, You’re Biased,”

Posted in Naive Cynicism, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Asymmetric Introspection and Extrospection

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 5, 2009

Pronin Image - by Marc ScheffSituationist Contributor Emily Pronin recently wrote a very helpful primer on her work on the difference between “How We See Ourselves and How We See Others,” which she published in Science.  Here’s the abstract.

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People see themselves differently from how they see others. They are immersed in their own sensations, emotions, and cognitions at the same time that their experience of others is dominated by what can be observed externally. This basic asymmetry has broad consequences. It leads people to judge themselves and their own behavior differently from how they judge others and those others behavior. Often, those differences produce disagreement and conflict. Understanding the psychological basis of those differences may help mitigate some of their negative effects.

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In case you’re not already familiar with Pronin’s work, we recommend it highly.  You can download the above article (as well as a many of her other publications) on her website (here).

For some related Situationist posts, see “Emily Pronin on the Situation of Bias,” The Situation of Biased Perceptions,” I’m Objective, You’re Biased,” and “Naive Cynicism – Abstract.”

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Illusions, Life, Naive Cynicism, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Emily Pronin on the Situation of Bias

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 11, 2009

In March of 2008, at the Second Harvard Conference on Law and Mind Sciences, Situationist Contributor Emily Pronin presented her fascinating and important work in a talk titled “Implications of Personal and Social Claims and Denials of Bias.”  Below we have pasted the abstract and the four video segments of her presentation.

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People’s efforts to make accurate, fair, and sound judgments and decisions often are compromised by various cognitive and motivational biases. Although this is clearly a problem, the solution is less clear due to the fact that people generally deny, and often are literally unaware of, their own commissions of bias – even while they readily impute bias to those around them. I will discuss evidence for this asymmetry in bias perception and for the sources that underlie it, and I will discuss its relevance to three policy concerns – i.e., corruption, discrimination, and conflict. Finally, I will discuss solutions, with a focus on potential pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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To read a Situationist post containing a summary of Pronin’s work and some related links, see “The Situation of Biased Perceptions.”

Posted in Ideology, Legal Theory, Life, Naive Cynicism, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Holier Than Thou

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 6, 2009

jesus-loves-youBenedict Carey had a great piece in the New York Times this week, “Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness.”  Here are some excerpts.

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Most people are adamant: They would never do it. Ever. Never deliberately inflict pain on another person, just to obtain information. Ever artificially inflate the value of some financial product, just to take advantage of others’ ignorance. Certainly never, ever become a deadbeat and accept a government bailout.

They speak only for themselves, of course. As for others, well, turn on the news: shady bankers, savage interrogators and deadbeats are everywhere.

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“Well, they gave me this award — the administration did — and I’d sworn I would never take anything from them. But of course there I was, up on stage accepting it.”

In recent years, social psychologists have begun to study what they call the holier-than-thou effect. They have long known that people tend to be overly optimistic about their own abilities and fortunes — to overestimate their standing in class, their discipline, their sincerity.

But this self-inflating bias may be even stronger when it comes to moral judgment, and it can greatly influence how people judge others’ actions, and ultimately their own. Culture, religious belief and experience all help shape a person’s sense of moral standing in relation to others, psychologists say, and new research is helping to clarify when such feelings of superiority are helpful and when they are self-defeating.

“The message in this work is not that you should rid yourself of moral indignation; sometimes that’s appropriate,” said David Dunning, a social psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “But the point is that many types of behavior are driven far more by the situation than by the force of personality. What someone else did in that situation is a very strong warning about what you yourself would do.”

One way to test whether people live up to their virtuous self-image is to set them up. In one study, for example, 251 Cornell students predicted how likely they would be to buy a daffodil at Daffodil Days, a four-day campus event to benefit the American Cancer Society. Sure enough, 83 percent predicted that they would buy at least one flower but that just 56 percent of their peers would.

Five weeks later, during the event, the researchers found that only 43 percent of the same students actually bought a daffodil. In other experiments, researchers have found that people similarly overestimate their willingness to do what’s morally right, whether to give to charity, vote or cooperate with a stranger. In the end, their less generous predictions about peers’ behavior tend to be dead-on accurate — for themselves as well as others in the study.

“The gap between how I think I’ll behave and how I actually behave is a function of how well I simulate the situation, and our simulations are guided by our intentions,” said Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and a co-author, with Dr. Dunning, in many of these experiments.

“The problem with these holier-than-thou assessments is not only that we overestimate how we would have behaved,” Dr. Epley said. “It’s also that we blame every crisis or scandal on failure of character — you know, if we just fire all the immoral Wall Street bankers and replace them with moral ones, we’ll solve the problem.”

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One practice that can potentially temper feelings of moral superiority is religion. All major faiths emphasize the value of being humble and the perils of hubris. “In humility count others as better than yourself,” St. Paul advises in his letter to the Philippians.

Yet for some people, religion appears to amplify the instinct to feel like a moral beacon. In a 2002 study, researchers at Baylor University in Texas and Simpson University in California evaluated the religious commitment of 249 students, 80 percent of whom were members of a church.

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You can read the entire article here.  To read a few related Situationist posts, see “Self-Serving Biases,” “Denial,”The Situation of Lying,” “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me),” “Um, I don’t make misteaks . . . ,” and “Predictably Irrational.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Morality, Naive Cynicism, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Situation in Employment Discrimination Law – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 18, 2009

Red Stapler - Codefin (flickr)Melissa Hart and Paul Secunda have posted their excellent paper, “A Matter of Context: Social Framework Evidence in Employment Discrimination Class Actions” (forthcoming 78 Fordham Law Review (2009)) on SSRN.  Here is the abstract.

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In litigation disputes over the certification of employment discrimination class actions, social scientists have come to play a central, yet controversial, role. Organizational behavioralists and social psychologists regularly testify for the plaintiffs, offering what is commonly referred to as social framework testimony. These experts explain the general social science research on the operation of stereotyping and bias in decisionmaking and examine the policies and practices operating in a challenged workplace to identify those that research has shown will tend to increase and those that will tend to limit the likely impact of these factors. Defendants fight hard against the admission of social framework experts, and some courts have agreed that the testimony should not be allowed. Because of the importance of this testimony to ferreting out large-scale discrimination in the workplace, the stakes in the debate over its admissibility are considerable.

The debate has moved recently from the courtroom to the pages of law reviews. In an essay published last fall, three academics argued that social framework testimony as it is commonly accepted by district courts should be categorically disallowed. The arguments for the exclusion of social framework testimony as it is currently presented in employment discrimination class action litigation are fundamentally flawed. A blanket exclusion of this evidence is inconsistent with the Federal Rules of Evidence and Supreme Court precedent on the district courts’ responsibility for assessing the admissibility of expert testimony more generally.

This article puts the debate over social framework expert testimony in context, explaining what the testimony is and the role it has played in employment discrimination litigation, with a particular focus on the way the testimony has been offered in class action suits like Dukes v. Wal-Mart. It explains how the normal rules of evidence law should apply to social framework expert testimony, and under the flexible and permissive standards of the Federal Rules of Evidence, framework testimony offered by a qualified expert should be admissible in many employment class actions. The argument that this kind of evidence should always be excluded is driven as much by a particular view of employment discrimination law as by the governing evidentiary rules. Ultimately, the arguments for blanket exclusion of social framework testimony in these cases can best be understood as part of a political debate and a litigation strategy.

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You can download the paper for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Litigating Unconscious Discrimination - Abstract” and “Implicit Bias and Strawmen.”

Posted in Abstracts, Implicit Associations, Law, Legal Theory, Naive Cynicism | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – October, Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 1, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tierney’s Skepticism at the New York Times

Posted by Jerry Kang on November 19, 2008

Recently, John Tierney who writes a Science column in the New York Times has shown great skepticism about the concept of implicit bias, how it might be measured (through the Implicit Association Test), and whether it predicts real-world behavior. See, e.g.,  Findings column (Nov. 17, 2008).    I write to make provide praise, critique, and cultural commentary.

First, praise.  I praise Tierney’s skepticism, which is fundamental to critical inquiry generally and good science especially.  Serious, critical inquiry is why most of us got into academics, and it’s why you the reader are reading this blog.

Second, critique.  But skepticism should not be one-sided.  Tierney’s columns suggest that one side is just asking for good, skeptical science, whereas the other side is pushing along a politically correct agenda recklessly.  That is hardly fair and balanced.  To take one example, Tierney gives prominent weight to Prof. Phil Tetlocks’ criticisms of the implicit bias research.   But let’s probe further.  In an article by Tetlock and Prof. Gregory Mitchell (UVA Law) attacking the science, the authors suggest that one of the reasons that Whites may perform worse on the Black-White IAT is because of a phenomenon called “stereotype threat”.  They write that Whites “react to the identity threat posed by the IAT by choking under stress–and performing even worse on the IAT, thus confirming the researchers’ original stereotype of them.” 67 Ohio St. L.J. 1023, 1079 (2006).

For this “choke under threat” explanation, Tetlock and Mitchell cite a single study.  Moreover, they do not turn their powerful skepticism against this body of work, launched by Prof. Claude Steele at Stanford, which explains why negative stereotypes can depress test performance.  This body of work, if taken as seriously as Tetlock and Mitchell do in a throw-away line, challenges the use of standardized examinations in university admissions.  But I doubt that that’s what Tetlock and Mitchell would call for, as a matter of policy.  So why not be methodologically pure and go after the stereotype threat work with equal vigor and skepticism?  Instead, they deploy “stereotype threat” science without raising an eyebrow, since it fits their arsenal of critique of the “implicit bias” science.

The general point is that it’s facile to think that one side has the scientific purists — just seeking good data and good science, and the other side has the political hacks.  And self-serving reasoning no doubt infects us all, on both sides.  This is why we should trust long-run scientific equilibrium and be skeptical of both aggressive claims and their backlashes.

Third, cultural commentary.  The readers’ comments to the Tierney articles are fascinating because they largely give no deference to scientific expertise.  From the large N of 1, those who have taken the IAT conclude that the test must be nonsense and raise myriad confounds (without bothering to read the FAQs that explain how stimuli are randomized, etc.)  If geneticists were debating the meaning of some expressed sequence tags or if astrophysicists were debating new evidence of dark matter, I wonder if readers would bother to chime in aggressively with their views.  “I have plenty of genes, and that view about inheritability is nonsense!”  “I’ve seen stars, and if I can’t see ‘em they must not exist!”

I suggest that we feel so personally connected to race and to gender (most of the comments focus on race) and are so personally invested in not being biased that we feel compelled toward such participation.  Again, if some “coffee increases likelihood of ulcers” study came out, would people write in:  “I drink coffee, and I don’t have an ulcer!!!”  I don’t think so.   What does that say about our current cultural moment?  Perhaps it reveals a sort of intellectual prejudice­-a proclivity not to take race research seriously, as nothing more than personal opinion, regardless of the scientific and statistical bona fides.

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Look, science always involves conflict.  And in the long run, there’s no reason to think that this controversy won’t be resolved through the traditional scientific method and reach a long-run equilibrium consensus.  But getting there has already been rocky and will continue to be.   Maybe the implicit bias work, which is far more extensive than just the implicit association test (IAT), will turn out to be nothing more than “intelligent design”–just ideology (in that case religious) wrapped up in pseudo-science.  Or, and I think this is far more likely, it will be another inconvenient truth that is established, as global warming ultimately was:  We are not as colorblind as we hope to be, and on the margins, implicit associations in our brain alter our behavior in ways that we would rather they not.  Certainly the balance of peer-reviewed studies in number and quality point in that direction.

In the end, time truly will tell.  The real question is which side will maintain its scientific integrity when the results come in.

Full disclosure:  I’m a co-author of Mahzarin Banaji, whose work is discussed in Tierney’s pieces.  You can read my implicit bias work at:

http://jerrykang.net/Research/Race

Posted in Implicit Associations, Law, Naive Cynicism, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

 
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