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Archive for the ‘Entertainment’ Category

The Situation of the 2008 Economic Crisis

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 14, 2010

Charles Furgeson has produced a powerful documentary, “Inside Job,” about the deep capture of financial (de)regulation.  Here’s the trailer.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Deeply Captured Situation of the Economic Crisis,” Our Stake in Corporate Behavior,” Larry Lessig’s Situationism,” The Situation of Policy Research and Policy Outcomes,” Industry-Funded Research,” “De-Capturing the FDA,” “The Situation of Talk Radio,” Deep Capture – Part X,” and “The company ‘had no control or influence over the research’.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Distribution, Entertainment, Ideology, Law, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Nalini Ambady at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 8, 2010

On Tuesday the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Tufts psychology professor Nalini Ambady entitled “Nonverbal Behavior: Accuracy and Contagion.”

Professor Ambady is a Neubauer Faculty Fellow and professor at Tufts University.  Her research focuses on interpersonal perception and communication, particularly in relation to the accuracy of judgments, the influence of personal and social identities on cognition and performance, and the mechanisms of nonverbal and cross-cultural communication.  She has received accolades for her research into the ways that people can perceive others’ sexual identity and political affiliation from photos of their faces.

Professor Ambady will be speaking in Pound 107 from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.

Free bagels will be provided! For more information, e-mail salms@law.harvard.edu.

Posted in Entertainment, Events, Implicit Associations, Life, Marketing, Social Psychology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Situationist Phil Zimbardo Takes Over the Dr. Phil Show

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 25, 2010

Here is a brief promotional piece to highlight the Heroic Imagination Project and Situationist Contributor Phil Zimbardo’s upcoming appearances on Dr. Phil.

Visit www.heroicimagination.org to learn more. www.drphil.com for show times.

You can watch video clips from today’s show here.

Posted in Classic Experiments, Entertainment, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Recovery Within Us: The Human and Legal Situation of “Wall Street 2″

Posted by David Yosifon on October 12, 2010

The financial markets may fail, and personal lives may be wrecked, but as Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) says in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps: “nobody likes a cry-baby.” Oliver Stone’s new film is a rally for the old American strategy of overcoming calamity through love, capital, and labor productively employed.

As the film opens in 2008 the world is on the edge of economic meltdown, but the kids are alright.  In the first Wall Street we watched a young stockbroker, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), back-slide from the straight path of his union-leader father, into a reckless life of corporate raiding and insider trading.  The sequel’s up-and-comer, Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf), has a more serious name and a truer purpose.  This twenty-something is smart, energetic, and idealistic.  From his post at a prestigious investment house he seeks out capital for an under-funded alternative-energy firm that maybe can change the world.  In the 1980’s Bud Fox was all too eager to snort cocaine with the first stranger he finds removing her blouse in a limo made available to him under uncertain terms.  Jacob Moore enjoys the nightclub scene, and likes his whiskey, but he loves Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), has marriage on his mind, and faces down the temptations of money and flesh.

This is not to say that Jacob does not falter.  He meets secretly with the infamous Gordon Gekko, the estranged father of his fiancé, because he believes they need to repair their relationship before she can be fully happy.  This well meant scheme puts an unforeseen and potentially catastrophic strain on the lives of all involved.  Stone’s movie thus takes humanity in all its comprehensive frailty.  In life, as well as in economics, even where corruption does not get us, we are still vulnerable to stupidity (limited cognitive capacity) and over-confidence (motivated reasoning).

In the first film the social stakes in the wheeling-and-dealing balance were the jobs of the men and women who worked with Bud Fox’s father (played by Martin Sheen) at Blue Star Airlines.   After Bud helped Gekko acquire Blue Star, Gekko wanted to break it up and sell off its parts at a profit.  The heart-attack that Bud’s father suffers when he hears the news symbolized the devastation that the 1980’s take-over and bust-up market brought to the lives of American workers.  Gekko and Fox both end up in prison at the end of the first movie, convicted of insider trading.  But insider trading had little to do with the corporate dynamics behind the bust-up of companies like Blue Star.  In the real world nothing was done in the 1980’s or since to change state corporate law or federal securities laws to ensure greater protections for workers or consumers in corporate decision-making.  The failure to make such reforms is in part what made the more recent financial devastation chronicled in Wall Street 2 possible.

After eight lonely years in prison, Gekko emerges in the second film with profound insights about both himself and the market.  Having finally understood that it was greed that cost him everything — money, family, and freedom — it becomes easy for Gekko to see from the sidelines the madness going on in the debt markets all around him.  Everyone from the investment banks to Jacob’s real estate agent mom (Susan Sarandon) got swept up in the fantasy that investments in housing – through securitized sub-prime mortgages or just a couple of “spec” houses – could never go wrong.  Diagnosing this madness, Gekko knows that he can make billions by shorting the debt market (if he “only had the first million.”).

While some of Stone’s characters echo popular political sentiment and sneer at the idea of “making money on losses,” most scholars are agreed that short-selling (betting that a stock will go down) can aid the healthy functioning of the market.  After all, if the world knew that someone as savvy as a Gordan Gekko was betting against the housing market, they might begin to doubt their own certainty that housing will only go up.  For that matter, active short-trading might give us a better sense of just how confident we should be in the viability of Jacob Moore’s favored alternative-energy start-up.  As Gekko himself puts it in this film, “Bulls win, Bears win.  Pigs get slaughtered.”  It turns out that there were some savvy investors who were short on housing prior to the recent meltdown, but the short positions were structured in such a way as to avoid the federal securities laws, and were thus hidden from public scrutiny.  The signaling value of such short-positions was thus lost, as investors and consumers kept on marching towards the slaughter.  Some of the most important reforms to come out of the recent crisis are aimed at ensuring that sophisticated shorting is publicly visible so that it can serve this crucial informational function.

The human stakes of the recent economic collapse are said in the film to be dire.  But Stone’s picture is more interested in showing our capacity for renewal than dwelling on our failure. The film is an ode to human resiliency.  At the heart of the meltdown Stone’s camera follows Jacob to the ruins of the World Trade Center, but only for a reflective moment.  Far more screen-time here is given to the Empire State Building, proudly standing in for the Twin Towers, whose grandeur visually anchored the first film.  Confidence and hard honest work will never be enough if our laws and institutions are out of whack.  But Stone’s film seems to argue that if we can stay on this side of corruption, our other frailties will not do us in.

At one point in Wall Street 2 Gekko and Jacob find themselves in the back of a cab careening recklessly through mid-day traffic.  Gekko tells the cabbie that he will pay more if the driver will go slower.  This may be the best lesson we can take from the bursting of the housing bubble and the subsequent economic crisis.  We all might consider ourselves better off, and we might be willing to pay for it in forgone speed, if our rides up and down Wall Street were a bit more cautious.

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David Yosifon is a Situationist Contributor and Assistant Professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Our Stake in Corporate Behavior,” “The Problem of Old Fears and New Dangers,”The Illusion of Wall Street Reform,” “The Situation of Mortgage Defaults,” “Posner on Keynes and the Economic Depression,”The Situation of the American Middle Class,” “The Situation of the Mortgage Crisis,” and “The Financial Squeeze: Bad Choices or Bad Situations?.”

Posted in Entertainment, Life, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Terror Babies

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 17, 2010

Over the past few days, allegations of a frightening new terrorist plot have emerged.  Indeed, at the end of last week, Texas State Representative Debbie Riddle and Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert appeared on different editions of “Anderson Cooper 360” to sound the alarm that the Obama administration has been ignoring a critical threat to the United States.

What is this ominous menace?  Iranian nuclear missile silos?  North Korea transporting dirty bomb material into the United States?  The Chinese government developing technology to disable the U.S. power grid over the Internet?

Nope.  The answer is “terror babies.”

According to Riddle and Gohmert, terrorist organizations are sending pregnant women into our country so that the children that they bear will have American citizenship and, thus, be able to come and go into the United States as they receive terrorist training overseas.

If that seems fairly far-fetched and unnecessary, given that al Qaeda and other groups have no problem recruiting foreign terrorists willing to carry out attacks on America and Americans in the present, you would be correct.  As became clear during the interviews, neither Riddle nor Gohmert have any evidence whatsoever that this threat exists.

So if the claim is utterly baseless—as a former FBI agent explained to Anderson Cooper—why would Riddle and Gohmert be asserting it on national television and, in Gohmert’s case, on the floor of the House?

My guess is that these “scare stories,” in Cooper’s words, are linked to recent efforts to repeal the 14th Amendment, a move championed by the likes of former Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo—and current Republican leaders, John McCain, Jeff Sessions, and John Boehner, among others.

With anti-immigrant sentiment riding high and certain to be an issue in the fall elections, the notion of getting rid of birthright citizenship by overturning the Amendment has been gaining significant steam, with various politicians sounding the alarm.  As Sessions explained to Politico.com, “I’m not sure exactly what the drafters of the [14th] Amendment had in mind, but I doubt it was that somebody could fly in from Brazil and have a child and fly back home with that child, and that child is forever an American citizen.”  In an effort to properly frame the discussion, many supporters of repeal have employed the term “anchor babies” to reflect the perception that illegal immigrants use the babies to try and anchor themselves to the United States.

However, those who want to prevent the children of illegal immigrants from gaining automatic citizenship simply by being born on U.S. soil have a little problem—quite literally.

The target of their attack on the Constitution is the most innocent and blameless of parties: tiny new born babies.  It seems extremely harsh—and downright un-American—to penalize a baby for the decision of her parents.  After all, the baby didn’t have any say at all over her parents’ immigration choices or citizenship status.  And, in fact, many people who would readily come down hard on adult illegal immigrants, balk at the idea of punishing newborns.

Thus, supporters of overturning the Amendment have desperately needed to change the way Americans feel about these children.  Getting people to think of them as inanimate objects—“anchors”—rather than innocent victims has not been strong enough.  Americans need to be encouraged to view immigrant babies negatively, just like their immigrant parents.

Enter the idea of “terror babies.”

The awful brilliance of the strategy is not only that it effectively casts immigrant babies as hated outgroup members, but that it requires no actual factual support.  Riddle, Gohmert, and others can simply make the inflammatory allegation and then sit back as media forces turn it into a debate, carefully making sure that they allow both sides to present their opinions and giving plenty of air time to the crazy claims.

In his ten minute spot with Cooper, Gohmert offered nothing that came close to evidence as Cooper repeatedly pressed him for the basis for his claims.  To anyone watching, this was not so much a debate, as one person asking reasonable questions in a calm tone of voice and another person ranting gibberish at the top of his lungs.  However, when the interview was finished, CNN labeled the video “Cooper, Gohmert debate ‘terror babies’” with a description that read “Rep. Louie Gohmert and CNN’s Anderson Cooper engage in a spirited debate over the lawmaker’s ‘terror babies’ claims.”

The description might as well have been “Gohmert coasts to victory in CNN appearance.”

The goal for the champions of repeal is not to win the argument—something that they surely cannot do—but to plant the seeds of fear in the minds of the public and to get us all familiar with that oddest of juxtapositions: terror babies.

It gives a whole new meaning to original sin.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Fear,” “The ‘Turban Effect’,” “The Bush Frame: Us vs. Them; Good vs. Evil; Intentions vs. Consequences,”  “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” A Convenient Fiction,” “The Law and Situation of Military Propaganda,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part VI,” and “With God on Our Side . . ..”

Posted in Emotions, Entertainment, Illusions, Politics, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Sarah Jones on Stereotypes and Stereotyping

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 26, 2010

We highly recommend a 13-minute podcast in which Sarah Jones (a Tony Award winning playwright and performer) reflects on morals, racial stereotyping, and the perils of West Coast jaywalking.  You can listen to the podcast (recorded  live at The Moth Main Stage) here.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas,” The ‘Turban Effect’,” “Journalists as Social Psychologists & Social Psychologists as Entertainers,” “The Situation of Racial Profiling,” The Situation of Prejudice: Us vs. Them? or Them Is Us?,” “Do We Miss Racial Stereotypes Today that Will Be Evident Tomorrow?,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and The Psychology of Barack Obama as the Antichrist.”

Posted in Entertainment, Implicit Associations, Podcasts | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Pinker and the Brain

Posted by Adam Benforado on June 12, 2010

Steven Pinker had a provocative op-ed in the New York Times on Thursday taking on all those Luddites out there who bemoan the technological marvels of the Google search engine, PowerPoint presentation, and Twitter account as sure harbingers of the death of the brain.

Pinker places the latest panic in context and points out that earlier fear-mongering over the impact of comic books and video games on crime and the effects of television, radio, and rock videos on I.Q. scores turned out to be baseless.

As he concludes:

The effects of consuming electronic media are [] likely to be far more limited than the panic implies. Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.” As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.

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Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

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And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

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The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.

I agree with most of Pinker’s analysis, but a couple of sentences in the middle of the op-ed struck me as highly questionable and I wonder what other Situationist readers think:

Accomplished people don’t bulk up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.

Pinker’s point is that “the effects of experience are highly specific to the experiences themselves.  If you train people to do one thing (recognize shapes, solve math puzzles, find hidden words), they get better at doing that thing, but almost nothing else.”

Fair enough as a general statement, but what about the novelist example?  Are the best novelists those who “immerse themselves in their field[]?  Does “read[ing] lots of novels” make you a better novelist?  Or are the best novelists—the truly creative and groundbreaking writers—those who read widely, ponder issues in various fields, and have broad life experience.

Consider the great British writer, Iris Murdoch.  Prior to writing her first novel, Under the Net, published when she was only 25, Murdoch studied ancient history, classics, and philosophy at Oxford, and then worked for the Treasury and the United Nations.  Over the years, reading and writing lots of novels did not seem to make her a better writer.  Under the Net is considered by most critics to be Murdoch’s best work (and one of the finest English-language novels of the 20th century), though she went on to write 25 more novels.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Banning Laptops in the Classroom – AbstractThe Situation of I.Q.,” “The Perils of “Being Smart” (or Not So Much),” “Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids.”and “Just Me and My Friend, Sony.”

Posted in Education, Entertainment | 3 Comments »

Milgram Replicated on French TV – “The Game of Death”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 24, 2010

From NPR:

France is reeling from a documentary about a psychological experiment disguised as a game show. Researchers staged a fictitious reality show to see how far people would go in obeying authority, especially if television reinforces that authority.

The disturbing results have alarmed the French.

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From the BBC, “Row over ‘torture’ on French TV“:

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The hugely controversial Game of Death was broadcast in prime-time on a major terrestrial channel, France 2, on Wednesday.

It showed 80 people taking part in what they thought was a game show pilot.

As it was only a trial, they were told they wouldn’t win anything, but they were given a nominal 40 euro fee.

Before the show, they signed contracts agreeing to inflict electric shocks on other contestants.

One by one, they were put in a studio resembling the sets of popular game shows.

They were then asked to zap a man they believed was another contestant whenever he failed to answer a question correctly – with increasingly powerful shocks of up to 460 volts.

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Egged on by a glamorous presenter, cries of “punishment” from a studio audience and dramatic music, the overwhelming majority of the participants obeyed orders to continue delivering the shocks – despite the man’s screams of agony and pleas for them to stop.

Eventually he fell silent, presumably because he had died or lost consciousness.

The contestants didn’t know that the man, strapped in a chair inside a cubicle so they couldn’t see him, was really an actor. There were no shocks and it was all an experiment to see how far they would go.

Only 16 of the 80 participants stopped before the ultimate, potentially lethal shock.

“No one expected this result,” intoned a commentary. “Eighty per cent of the candidates went to the very end.”

The show was billed as a warning against blindly obeying authority – and a critique of reality TV shows in which participants are humiliated or hurt.

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The claim that “no one expected this result” must be incorrect.  Those who designed this experiment were simply remaking the classic Milgram experiment in which compliance levels were substantial; in this version, however, the pressures to comply may well have been far more significant  than in the original rendition, as this involved group (audience) pressure to continue shocking in a context (game shows) where extreme behavior is now part of the script.

To see why we say that, see the following Situationist posts: “Solomon Asch’s Famous Compliance Experiment,” “Journalists as Social Psychologists & Social Psychologists as Entertainers,” “The Situation of Violence,” Replicating Milgram’s Obedience Experiment – Yet Again,” “Jonestown (The Situation of Evil) Revisited,” Milgram Remake,” The Milgram Experiment Today?.” Gender Conformity,”The Case for Obedience,” A Shocking Situation,” “Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience – Part I,”  “The Case for Obedience,” Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment . . . Today,” “Gender Conformity,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” and Virtual Worlds, Learning, and Virtual Milgram.”

Posted in Classic Experiments, Entertainment, Morality, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Neuroscience and Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 7, 2009

Laura Sanders wrote an interesting article, titled “SPECIALIS REVELIO!  It’s not magic, it’s neuroscience,” in ScienceNews. Here are some excerpts.

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Skill in manipulating people’s perceptions has earned magicians a new group of spellbound fans: Scientists seeking to learn how the eyes and brain perceive — or don’t perceive — reality.

“The interest for magic has been there for a long time,” says Gustav Kuhn, a neuroscientist at Durham University in England and former performing magician. “What is new is that we have all these techniques to get a better idea of the inner workings of these principles.”

A recent brain imaging study by Kuhn and his colleagues revealed which regions of the brain are active when people watch a magician do something impossible, such as make a coin disappear. Another research group’s work on monkeys suggests that two separate kinds of brain cells are critical to visual attention. One group of cells enhances focus on what a person is paying attention to, and the other actively represses interest in everything else. A magician’s real trick, then, may lie in coaxing the suppressing brain cells so that a spectator ignores the performer’s actions precisely when and where required.

Using magic to understand attention and consciousness could have applications in education and medicine, including work on attention impairments.

Imaging the impossible

Kuhn and his collaborators performed brain scans while subjects watched videos of real magicians performing tricks, including coins that disappear and cigarettes that are torn and miraculously put back together.  Volunteers in a control group watched videos in which no magic happened (the cigarette remained torn), or in which something surprising, but not magical, took place (the magician used the cigarette to comb his hair). Including the surprise condition allows researchers to separate the effects of witnessing a magic trick from those of the unexpected.

In terms of brain activity patterns, watching a magic trick was clearly different from watching a surprising event. Researchers saw a “striking” level of activity solely in the left hemisphere only when participants watched a magic trick, Kuhn says. Such a clear hemisphere separation is unusual, he adds, and may represent the brain’s attempt to reconcile the conflict between what is witnessed and what is thought possible. The two brain regions activated in the left hemisphere — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex — are thought to be important for both detecting and resolving these types of conflicts.

Masters of suppression

Exactly how the brain attends to one thing and ignores another has been mysterious.  Jose-Manuel Alonso of the SUNY State College of Optometry in New York City thinks that the answer may lie in brain cells that actively suppress information deemed irrelevant by the brain. These cells are just as important, if not more so, than cells that enhance attention on a particular thing, says Alonso. “And that is a very new idea . . . . When you focus your attention very hard at a certain point to detect something, two things happen: Your attention to that thing increases, and your attention to everything else decreases.”

Alonso and his colleagues recently identified a select group of brain cells in monkeys that cause the brain to “freeze the world” by blocking out all irrelevant signals and allowing the brain to focus on one paramount task. Counter to what others had predicted, the team found that the brain cells that enhance attention are distinct from those that suppress attention. Published in the August 2008 Nature Neuroscience, the study showed that these brain cells can’t switch jobs depending on where the focus is — a finding Alonso calls “a total surprise.”

The work also shows that as a task gets more difficult, both the enhancement of essential information and suppression of nonessential information intensify. As a monkey tried to detect quicker, more subtle changes in the color of an object, both types of cells grew more active.

Alonso says magicians can “attract your attention with something very powerful, and create a huge suppression in regions to make you blind.” In the magic world, “the more interest [magicians] manage to draw, the stronger the suppression that they will get.”

Looking but not seeing

In the French Drop trick [see video below], a magician holds a coin in the left hand and pretends to pass the coin to the right hand, which remains empty. “What’s critical is that the magician looks at the empty hand. He pays riveted attention to the hand that is empty,” researcher Stephen Macknik says.

Several experiments have now shown that people can stare directly at something and not see it.  For a study published in Current Biology in 2006, Kuhn and his colleagues tracked where people gazed as they watched a magician throw a ball into the air several times. On the last throw, the magician only pretended to toss the ball. Still, spectators claimed to have seen the ball launch and then miraculously disappear in midair. But here’s the trick: In most cases, subjects kept their eyes on the magician’s face. Only when the ball was actually at the top part of the screen did participants look there. Yet the brain perceived the ball in the air, overriding the actual visual information.

Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues asked whether more perceptive people succumb less easily to inattentional blindness, which is when a person doesn’t perceive something because the mind, not the eyes, wanders. In a paper in the April Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the researchers report that people who are very good at paying attention had no advantage in performing a visual task that required noticing something unexpected. Task difficulty was what mattered. Few participants could spot a more subtle change, while most could spot an easy one. The results suggest that magicians may be tapping in to some universal property of the human brain.

“We’re good at focusing attention,” says Simons. “It’s what the visual system was built to do.” Inattentional blindness, he says, is a by-product, a necessary consequence, of our visual system allowing us to focus intently on a scene.

Magical experiments

Martinez-Conde and Macknik plan to study the effects of laughter on attention. Magicians have the audience in stitches throughout a performance.  When the audience is laughing, the magician has the opportunity to act unnoticed.  Understanding how emotional states can affect perception and attention may lead to more effective ways to treat people who have attention problems.  “Scientifically, that can tell us a lot about the interaction between emotion and attention, of both the normally functioning brain and what happens in a diseased state,” says Martinez-Conde.

He expects that the study of consciousness and the mind will benefit enormously from teaming up with magicians. “We’re just at the beginning,” Macknik says. “It’s been very gratifying so far, but it’s only going to get better.”

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You can read the entire article here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “Brain Magic,” Magic is in the Mind,” and “The Situation of Illusion” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Social Status Situation of Online Networks

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 16, 2009

Facebook ImageBreeanna Hare of CNN.com has an interesting piece on how membership in online networks may signal social status.  We excerpt the piece below.

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Is there a class divide online? Research suggests yes. A recent study by market research firm Nielsen Claritas found that people in more affluent demographics are 25 percent more likely to be found friending on Facebook, while the less affluent are 37 percent more likely to connect on MySpace.

More specifically, almost 23 percent of Facebook users earn more than $100,000 a year, compared to slightly more than 16 percent of MySpace users. On the other end of the spectrum, 37 percent of MySpace members earn less than $50,000 annually, compared with about 28 percent of Facebook users.

MySpace users tend to be “in middle-class, blue-collar neighborhoods,” said Mike Mancini, vice president of data product management for Nielsen, which used an online panel of more than 200,000 social media users in the United States in August. “They’re on their way up, or perhaps not college educated.”

By contrast, Mancini said, “Facebook [use] goes off the charts in the upscale suburbs,” driven by a demographic that for Nielsen is represented by white or Asian married couples between the ages of 45-64 with kids and high levels of education.

Even more affluent are users of Twitter, the microblogging site, and LinkedIn, a networking site geared to white-collar professionals. Almost 38 percent of LinkedIn users earn more than $100,000 a year.

Nielsen also found a strong overlap between those who use Facebook and those who use LinkedIn, Mancini said.

Nielsen isn’t the first to find this trend. Ethnographer danah boyd, who does not capitalize her name, said she watched the class divide emerge while conducting research of American teens’ use of social networks in 2006.

When she began, she noticed the high school students all used MySpace, but by the end of the school year, they were switching to Facebook.

When boyd asked why, the students replied with reasons similar to Owens: “the features were better; MySpace is dangerous and Facebook is safe; my friends are here,” boyd recalled.

And then, boyd said, “a young woman, living in a small historical town in Massachussetts said to me, ‘I don’t mean to be a racist or anything, but MySpace is like, ghetto.'” For boyd, that’s when it clicked.

“It’s not a matter of choice between Facebook and MySpace, it was a movement to Facebook from MySpace,” she said, a movement that largely included the educated and the upper-class.

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To read the rest click, here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Situation of Facebook Jealousy, The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing, Virtual Bias, and Internet Disinhibition.

Posted in Choice Myth, Entertainment | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The Surprising Situation of Video Game Players

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 2, 2009

Videogame PlayersTor Thorsen of GameSpot has an interesting piece on surprising new findings from the Centers for Disease Control on video game players, who tend to be older than you might expect, and also more depressed.  Below is an excerpt.

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Often, games are dismissed as a youthful pastime. However, a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the average US gamer doesn’t even fall into the 18-34-year-old demographic advertisers and MTV programmers so highly prize. According to the study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and provided to MSNBC, the average adult American gamer is 35, the age when the ostensibly retirement-age organization AARP starts sending out invitation letters.

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It gets worse. The study, which was conducted in conjunction with Emory University and Andrews University, also found the majority of adult gamers had “a greater number of poor mental health days” compared to non-gamers. They also were more often overweight and antisocial than teetotalers of computer entertainment, according to researchers.

“Video game players also reported lower extraversion, consistent with research on adolescents that linked video game playing to a sedentary lifestyle and overweight status, and to mental-health concerns,” the study authors wrote. Female gamers were particularly likely to be hit by depression and “lower health status.” It also found that women are more like to use games as a “digital self-medication.” Male players spent “more time using the Internet and rely more on Internet-community social support.”

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To read the rest, click here.  For related posts, see Are Video Games Addictive?, Resident Evil 5 and Racism in Video Games,” “Encourage Your Daughters To Play Violent Video Games?,” “The Situation of First-Person Shooters,” “Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson,” and Michael McCann’s “The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Video Games.”

Posted in Entertainment, Life | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Facebook Jealousy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 15, 2009

JealousyMarc Beja of the Chronicles of Higher Education has an interesting piece on jealousy driving people to spend inordinate amounts of time on Facebook.  We excerpt this piece below.

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Having relationship troubles? Is your significant other interrogating you, asking about your communication with people you used to date, or even with acquaintances you speak with infrequently?

Blame Facebook, say three researchers at the University of Guelph, in Ontario.

The reason? Jealousy. And not just any jealousy—”Facebook-specific jealousy,” say two Ph.D. candidates in psychology and their advisor. They add that such jealousy may increase the amount of time that you—or your significant other—spend on the social networking site.

The researchers—Amy Muise and Emily Christofides, both Ph.D. candidates, and Serge Desmarais, an associate professor of applied social psychology—wondered whether spying on their significant others would make people question the partners’ honesty and fidelity, and if time spent on the Web site would increase as a result. More than 300 undergraduate students completed an anonymous online survey about their Facebook habits. Of those, a little more than half said they were seriously dating one person.

The study relied on 27 items that were meant to assess Facebook-related jealousy, and a scale was created for each item. Results of the survey were published in the August edition of the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior in an article titled “More Information than You Even Wanted: Does Facebook Bring Out the Green-Eyed Monster of Jealousy?

The undergraduates were asked questions like “How likely are you to become jealous after your partner has added an unknown member of the opposite sex?” and “How likely are you to monitor your partner’s activities on Facebook?” The answer to both of those questions was “very likely” for a substantial number of participants. The respondents said they spent an average of nearly 40 minutes on the Web site each day, with women spending more time than men.

More than three-quarters of the participants said they knew their partners had added as “friends” people with whom they had previously had flings. And more than 92 percent said their partners were at least somewhat likely to have “friends” they did not themselves know.

Rising jealousy can be attributed to the social-networking site, which makes speaking with not-so-close friends easier than before, the researchers say. Many people add as friends people they have met in passing, rather than adding only acquaintances they see regularly. Men in the study reported having 100 more friends, on average, than women did. Women outscored men on the jealousy scale, averaging a score of 3.29 out of 7, while men scored 2.81. Three-quarters of those who completed the survey were women.

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To read the rest, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing, Virtual Bias, “Internet Disinhibition,” and The Situational Effect of Groups.

Posted in Emotions, Entertainment | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Homogeneity

Posted by Adam Benforado on July 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

Segregating markets – and people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To review previous Situationis posts discussing marketing, click here.

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

Bruno and the Situation of “Humor” in Films

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 18, 2009

BrunoLarry Muhammad of the Courier Journal has an interesting piece on the response tactics of groups that have been the target of jokes in recent films, including in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno.”  We excerpt it below.

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Has comedian Sacha Baron Cohen gone too far with his new movie, “Bruno”?

Scan the cable news shows and the talk-radio dial and — between all the Michael Jackson talk — you’ll hear howls of outrage from some gay groups, angry that Cohen’s gay Austrian fashionista character reinforces stereotypes about homosexuals.

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Last summer, demonstrators picketed outside showings of the Ben Stiller comedy “Tropic Thunder,” angry that a character named Simple Jack was repeatedly referred to as a “retard.”

Of course, the dust has barely settled from David Letterman tussling with — and apologizing to — Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin over a joke he made about her daughter and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. And that dust-up closely followed the tempest over a controversial joke about Rush Limbaugh told by Wanda Sykes at the White House Correspondents Association dinner.

What’s happening here? Movie makers, after all, keep pushing the envelope when it comes to sex and violence, since it is harder and harder to shock and surprise. But that thick skin turns thin — on both sides of the political aisle — when it comes to humor. Are we no longer able to laugh at ourselves? Or, has protesting a movie or a joke simply become an easy way to get one’s own political agenda into the media?

In protesting “Bruno,” Rashad Robinson of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation told the Boston Globe: “My fear is that in parts of the country where gay men and lesbians are still unable to adopt children or can lose their jobs for being gay, ‘Bruno’ is going to make things worse for people.”

But here in Kentucky, Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, noted, “It’s not something that anyone has brought up to us, or something that we have looked into.”

Robinson, however, has gotten his concerns into the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, E! and newspapers around the world.

“I don’t think that any group that’s been made fun of has enjoyed the experience,” said Michael Cunningham, a University of Louisville social psychologist. “The difference is that now that some groups have a platform, they sometimes look for ways to be offended so they can get additional attention. The classic example would be Sarah Palin, because it wasn’t Letterman’s intention to defame her daughter.”

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To read the rest, click here.   For related Situationist posts, see Being Smart About “Dumb Blonde” Jokes and Situation Comedy.

Posted in Entertainment, Life | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Situational Branding Effects

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 14, 2009

Situationist contributor Grainne Fitzsimons conducted a fascinating study in collaboration with Gavan Fitzsimons and Tanya Chartrand on the effects of popular company logos on human behavior.  In the following video Gavan and Tanya describe the study.

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Unseen Behavioral Influence of Company Logos,” “The Situation of Repackaging,” and “The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain.” To read other Situationist posts on marketing, click here; for those on priming, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Entertainment, Implicit Associations, Marketing, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Biased? I know you are but what am I?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 5, 2009

Randy Dotinga, writing for the North County Times, quotes Situationist Contributor Peter Ditto on the bias of our media choices.

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If you’re a conservative, you’re more likely to listen to Rush Limbaugh than turn to National Public Radio. And if you’re liberal, you’re probably don’t spend your time tuned to Roger Hedgecock, Sean Hannity and Rick Roberts.

Pretty obvious, right? Yes, but now researchers have gone and confirmed what we think we know: People like to hear opinions that back up what they already think. In a study published this week in a journal called Psychological Bulletin, researchers say we do indeed turn to sources of information that confirm our biases, especially when it comes to things like politics and religion.

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Peter Ditto, a professor of psychology at UC Irvine, said there’s a bit more to it. We listen to, say, a conservative host because we believe he —- or in rare cases, she —- looks at the world through the correct prism.

“Republicans turn to Fox News not because they think it will confirm their beliefs, but because they believe they are the unbiased keepers of the truth —- and that MSNBC and CNN are biased toward the left,” Ditto said. “Liberals do exactly the opposite.”

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Read the entire article, including comments on social scientists’ tendency to find bias in conservatives, here.  For related Situationist The Maverickiness Paradox,” “Deep Capture – Part VII,” “The Situation of Biased Perceptions,” and posts, see “I’m Objective, You’re Biased.”

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Entertainment, Ideology, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Food: The Movie

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 3, 2009

Food Inc

From Michael Phillips’ Chicago Tribune review: Several things — too many, probably — are going on in “Food, Inc.,” all connected. Kenner begins by tracing the impact of 20th Century American fast food on industrialized food production, and notes that when McDonald’s brought factory assembly-line strategies into practice, everything changed. McDonald’s became a universe of beef-purchasing power unto itself. Their cows, like so many millions of other feedlot residents, consume corn instead of grass; the humans in our increasingly obese nation eat a ton of corn as well, courtesy of high-fructose, heavily subsidized corn syrup found in everything from ketchup to Twinkies to Coke. As a Brooklyn, N.Y., doctor in another food doc, “King Corn,” put it: American food policy ensures that “we subsidize the Happy Meals — but we don’t subsidize the healthy ones.”

Are the federal regulatory and protection agencies doing enough to keep us safe from E. coli outbreaks and the like? The film answers that one with a firm “no.” Does eating organic food lead to a healthier diet and a healthier environment? What do you think?

The film got virtually no cooperation from representatives of the dominant players in industrial food production, including Tyson (we see a chicken processing factory in full swing), Monsanto (whose strong-arm business practices come off very, very badly) and others. As a result, “Food, Inc.” is a rangy, well-articulated essay rather than a compelling point-counterpoint.

Official Web Site.  Here is the trailer.

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For related Situationist posts, go to Our Situation Is What We Eat,” Big Calories Come in Small Packages,” “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,”The Situation of our Food – Part I,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,” The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” and “The Situation of our Food – Part IV.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Entertainment, Food and Drug Law, Politics, Public Policy, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Fortuitous Situation of News Cycles: From Mark Sanford to Michael Jackson

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 29, 2009

Mark Sanford Michael JacksonSteve Singiser of Daily Kos raises an interesting point: South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford may have been an unintended beneficiary of Michael Jackson’s death last week, as the public’s outrage and bewilderment over Sanford’s affair and possible dereliction of gubernatorial duties suddenly waned upon news of Jackson’s death.  Could Sanford’s political future tangibly benefit by the completely unrelated death of a pop music legend?  We excerpt Singiser’s piece below.

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The conventional wisdom (which, as the inimitable Molly Ivins was fond to point out, is often wrong) says that South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s political career can now be described in the past tense.

There is some reason to believe that this is not necessarily true.

An obvious political “break” for Sanford was the nature of this week’s news cycle. Within 28 hours of Sanford’s extraordinary news conference explaining the nature of his disappearance and the details of his bizarre case of infidelity, Michael Jackson passed away.

Sanford, on the verge of being the sole topic of conversation for days on end in the midst of a slow early-summer news cycle, instead was relegated to a spot far down the depth chart, along with every other news story NOT about the Jackson death. Indeed, yesterday afternoon, five of the top six stories on the CNN.com list of most viewed stories were about Jackson. Sanford was not in the top ten.

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Of course, anyone reading the news this weekend might presume that [Jenny Sanford] no longer cares about the status of her husband’s political career. That said, it is worth noting that her comment comes less than 48 hours before she was humiliated in front of the national (heck, global) media. Time might function to heal those wounds. If he pushed the political issue two years from now, when GOP politicos were getting set for 2012, she may well sing a different tune.

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To read the rest of the piece, which raises a number of other interesting points, click here.  For related Situationist posts, see David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Jon Ensign, and Now Mark Sanford: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation and The Undesirable Situation of “Weirdness” and Presidential Aspirations

Posted in Entertainment, Life | Leave a Comment »

The Selective Morality of Video Games

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 7, 2009

rapelawModern day video games regularly feature violence and murder, sometimes with graphic details, such as blood or dismemberment.  Gamers are often rewarded for the most number of kills.

While there has been some controversy about those games, talk of banning them has gone nowhere.  For the most part, in fact, people seem to be okay with them.

So if killing people in video games is socially-acceptable, why would raping someone not be okay?  This is a question asked by IGN in a piece we excerpt below.

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A month before Six Days in Fallujah, an obscure Japanese game briefly caught a gust of media controversy when Amazon refused to sell RapeLay. In contrast to Six Days in Fallujah, RapeLay is a hentai game that offers players a platform to literally molest and rape women in public places. The visuals are hand drawn anime and belie the crude fantasy at the heart of the game. You control a pair of disembodied hands with your mouse and choose which parts of a woman you should grope. After the train arrives, you stalk the woman into a park and rape her. There are three different women that must be raped, the last of which is a ten year-old girl.

The game sounds immediately more repulsive than Six Days in Fallujah, or most any other shooter you might imagine. Is killing dozens of anonymous combatants really any less offensive than the idea of rape? Killing and rape are both reprehensible acts in real life, but killing is so much more acceptable as a gameplay mechanic rather than a literal simulation. In Japan, rape games are not the execrable anomaly that they are in the west. They may not be popular or part of mainstream culture, but neither are they fodder for pot boiling controversy.A big part of this is the fear that many have about how audiences relate to videogames. Christine Quinn, New York City Council Speaker called for a total ban of RapeLay in America, labeling it a “rape simulator.” For many, videogames are nothing but simulators. They are literal replications, and, as such, should be cause for the same kind of alarm the real life equivalents would inspire.

It’s this same thinking that makes Six Days in Fallujah seem abhorrent to some. If games are simulators, then a game about the Iraq Occupation that takes so many liberties with truth is indeed a vulgarization. Likewise, if RapeLay is a simulator for rape, its focus on fetishistic detail, lack of consequence and absence of victim empathy are unforgivable omissions. If it was created to engender discomfort, to enter into all those lurking areas of apprehension and fear of what we might be capable of, it becomes something else entirely.

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For the rest of the piece, click here. For other Situationist posts on the subject of virtual worlds and situationism, see “Virtual Worlds, Learning, and Virtual Milgram,” Virtual Bias,” “Are Video Games Addictive?,” “Resident Evil 5 and Racism in Video Games,” Encourage Your Daughters To Play Violent Video Games?,” “The Situation of First-Person Shooters,” “Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson,” andThe Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Video Games.”

Posted in Entertainment, Life | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Neuroscience and Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 4, 2009

magicLaura Sanders recently wrote an interesting article, titled “SPECIALIS REVELIO!  It’s not magic, it’s neuroscience,” in ScienceNews. Here are some excerpts.

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Skill in manipulating people’s perceptions has earned magicians a new group of spellbound fans: Scientists seeking to learn how the eyes and brain perceive — or don’t perceive — reality.

“The interest for magic has been there for a long time,” says Gustav Kuhn, a neuroscientist at Durham University in England and former performing magician. “What is new is that we have all these techniques to get a better idea of the inner workings of these principles.”

A recent brain imaging study by Kuhn and his colleagues revealed which regions of the brain are active when people watch a magician do something impossible, such as make a coin disappear. Another research group’s work on monkeys suggests that two separate kinds of brain cells are critical to visual attention. One group of cells enhances focus on what a person is paying attention to, and the other actively represses interest in everything else. A magician’s real trick, then, may lie in coaxing the suppressing brain cells so that a spectator ignores the performer’s actions precisely when and where required.

Using magic to understand attention and consciousness could have applications in education and medicine, including work on attention impairments.

Imaging the impossible

Kuhn and his collaborators performed brain scans while subjects watched videos of real magicians performing tricks, including coins that disappear and cigarettes that are torn and miraculously put back together.  Volunteers in a control group watched videos in which no magic happened (the cigarette remained torn), or in which something surprising, but not magical, took place (the magician used the cigarette to comb his hair). Including the surprise condition allows researchers to separate the effects of witnessing a magic trick from those of the unexpected.

In terms of brain activity patterns, watching a magic trick was clearly different from watching a surprising event. Researchers saw a “striking” level of activity solely in the left hemisphere only when participants watched a magic trick, Kuhn says. Such a clear hemisphere separation is unusual, he adds, and may represent the brain’s attempt to reconcile the conflict between what is witnessed and what is thought possible. The two brain regions activated in the left hemisphere — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex — are thought to be important for both detecting and resolving these types of conflicts.

Masters of suppression

Exactly how the brain attends to one thing and ignores another has been mysterious.  Jose-Manuel Alonso of the SUNY State College of Optometry in New York City thinks that the answer may lie in brain cells that actively suppress information deemed irrelevant by the brain. These cells are just as important, if not more so, than cells that enhance attention on a particular thing, says Alonso. “And that is a very new idea . . . . When you focus your attention very hard at a certain point to detect something, two things happen: Your attention to that thing increases, and your attention to everything else decreases.”

Alonso and his colleagues recently identified a select group of brain cells in monkeys that cause the brain to “freeze the world” by blocking out all irrelevant signals and allowing the brain to focus on one paramount task. Counter to what others had predicted, the team found that the brain cells that enhance attention are distinct from those that suppress attention. Published in the August 2008 Nature Neuroscience, the study showed that these brain cells can’t switch jobs depending on where the focus is — a finding Alonso calls “a total surprise.”

The work also shows that as a task gets more difficult, both the enhancement of essential information and suppression of nonessential information intensify. As a monkey tried to detect quicker, more subtle changes in the color of an object, both types of cells grew more active.

Alonso says magicians can “attract your attention with something very powerful, and create a huge suppression in regions to make you blind.” In the magic world, “the more interest [magicians] manage to draw, the stronger the suppression that they will get.”

Looking but not seeing

In the French Drop trick [see video below], a magician holds a coin in the left hand and pretends to pass the coin to the right hand, which remains empty. “What’s critical is that the magician looks at the empty hand. He pays riveted attention to the hand that is empty,” researcher Stephen Macknik says.

Several experiments have now shown that people can stare directly at something and not see it.  For a study published in Current Biology in 2006, Kuhn and his colleagues tracked where people gazed as they watched a magician throw a ball into the air several times. On the last throw, the magician only pretended to toss the ball. Still, spectators claimed to have seen the ball launch and then miraculously disappear in midair. But here’s the trick: In most cases, subjects kept their eyes on the magician’s face. Only when the ball was actually at the top part of the screen did participants look there. Yet the brain perceived the ball in the air, overriding the actual visual information.

Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues asked whether more perceptive people succumb less easily to inattentional blindness, which is when a person doesn’t perceive something because the mind, not the eyes, wanders. In a paper in the April Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the researchers report that people who are very good at paying attention had no advantage in performing a visual task that required noticing something unexpected. Task difficulty was what mattered. Few participants could spot a more subtle change, while most could spot an easy one. The results suggest that magicians may be tapping in to some universal property of the human brain.

“We’re good at focusing attention,” says Simons. “It’s what the visual system was built to do.” Inattentional blindness, he says, is a by-product, a necessary consequence, of our visual system allowing us to focus intently on a scene.

Magical experiments

Martinez-Conde and Macknik plan to study the effects of laughter on attention. Magicians have the audience in stitches throughout a performance.  When the audience is laughing, the magician has the opportunity to act unnoticed.  Understanding how emotional states can affect perception and attention may lead to more effective ways to treat people who have attention problems.  “Scientifically, that can tell us a lot about the interaction between emotion and attention, of both the normally functioning brain and what happens in a diseased state,” says Martinez-Conde.

He expects that the study of consciousness and the mind will benefit enormously from teaming up with magicians. “We’re just at the beginning,” Macknik says. “It’s been very gratifying so far, but it’s only going to get better.”

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You can read the entire article here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “Brain Magic,” Magic is in the Mind,” and “The Situation of Illusion” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

 
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