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Archive for the ‘Evolutionary Psychology’ Category

Bird Brains

Posted by Adam Benforado on December 27, 2011

As regular readers of the Situationist are aware, I went on a cephalopod kick a few months back and while I continue to be mesmarized by the cuttlefish, squid, and octupus, I dare say that the real action in comparative psychology for 2012 may be in class Aves.

Yes, birds, it turns out, are not actually so “bird brained” after all.

In their new Science article, Pigeons on Par with Primates in Numerical Competence, Damian Scarf, Harlene Hayne, and Michael Colombo offer some startling findings:

Although many animals are able to discriminate stimuli differing in numerosity, only primates are thought to share our ability to employ abstract numerical rules. Here, we show that this ability is present in pigeons and that their performance is indistinguishable from that displayed by monkeys.

The New York Times (James Gorman) had a nice write-up of the work on December 22nd:

The pigeons had learned an abstract rule — peck images on a screen in order, lower numbers to higher. It may have taken a year of training, with different shapes, sizes and colors of items, always in groups of one, two or three, but all that work paid off when it was time for higher math.

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Given groups of six and nine, they could pick, or peck, the images in the right order. This is one more bit of evidence of how smart birds really are, and it is intriguing because the pigeons’ performance was so similar to the monkeys’. “I was surprised,” Dr. Scarf said. He and his colleagues wrote that the common ability to learn rules about numbers is an example either of different groups — birds and primates, in this case — evolving these abilities separately, or of both pigeons and primates using an ability that was already present in their last common ancestor.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr.

Posted in Evolutionary Psychology, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Dehumanized Situation of Atrocities

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2011

From Duke Today, a story about recent research by Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske:

A father in Louisiana bludgeoned and beheaded his disabled 7-year-old son last August because he no longer wanted to care for the boy.

For most people, such a heinous act is unconscionable.

But it may be that a person can become callous enough to commit human atrocities because of a failure in the part of the brain that’s critical for social interaction. A new study by researchers at Duke University and Princeton University suggests this function may disengage when people encounter others they consider disgusting, thus “dehumanizing” their victims by failing to acknowledge they have thoughts and feelings.

This shortcoming also may help explain how propaganda depicting Tutsi in Rwanda as cockroaches and Hitler’s classification of Jews in Nazi Germany as vermin contributed to torture and genocide, the study said.

“When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds. Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human,” said lead author Lasana Harris, an assistant professor in Duke University’s Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Harris co-authored the study with Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Social neuroscience has shown through MRI studies that people normally activate a network in the brain related to social cognition — thoughts, feelings, empathy, for example — when viewing pictures of others or thinking about their thoughts.  But when participants in this study were asked to consider images of people they considered drug addicts, homeless people, and others they deemed low on the social ladder, parts of this network failed to engage.

What’s especially striking, the researchers said, is that people will easily ascribe social cognition — a belief in an internal life such as emotions — to animals and cars, but will avoid making eye contact with the homeless panhandler in the subway.

“We need to think about other people’s experience,” Fiske said. “It’s what makes them fully human to us.”

The duo’s previous research suggested that a lack of social cognition can be linked to not acknowledging the mind of other people when imagining a day in their life, and rating them differently on traits that we think differentiate humans from everything else.

This latest study expands on that earlier work to show that these traits correlate with activation in brain regions beyond the social cognition network. These areas include those brain areas involved in disgust, attention and cognitive control.

The result is what the researchers call “dehumanized perception,” or failing to consider someone else’s mind. Such a lack of empathy toward others can also help explain why some members of society are sometimes dehumanized, they said.

For this latest study, 119 undergraduates from Princeton completed judgment and decision-making surveys as they viewed images of people. The researchers sought to examine the students’ responses to common emotions triggered by images such as:

– a female college student and male American firefighter (pride);
— a business woman and rich man (envy);
— an elderly man and disabled woman (pity);
— a female homeless person and male drug addict (disgust).

After imagining a day in the life of the people in the images, participants next rated the same person on various dimensions. They rated characteristics including the warmth, competence, similarity, familiarity, responsibility of the person for his/her situation, control of the person over their situation, intelligence, complex emotionality, self-awareness, ups-and-downs in life, and typical humanity.

Participants then went into the MRI scanner and simply looked at pictures of people.

The study found that the neural network involved in social interaction failed to respond to images of drug addicts, the homeless, immigrants and poor people, replicating earlier results.

“These results suggest multiple roots to dehumanization,” Harris said. “This suggests that dehumanization is a complex phenomenon, and future research is necessary to more accurately specify this complexity.”

The sample’s mean age was 20, with 62 female participants. The ethnic composition of the Princeton students who participated in the study was 68 white, 19 Asian, 12 of mixed descent, and 6 black, with the remainder not reporting.

The study, “Dehumanized Perception: A Psychological Means to Facilitate Atrocities, Torture, and Genocide?” appears in a recent issue of the Journal of Psychology.

Image from Flickr.

Related Situationist posts:

Susan Fiske’s New Book

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality, Neuroeconomics, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Diane Rosenfeld Speaks Today at HLS

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 30, 2011

Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) Speakers Series:

Diane Rosenfeld: “Penn State, Intervention, and a Theory of Patriarchal Violence” 11/30/201

Join SALMS for the final event of our Fall Speakers Series, when HLS’s Diane Rosenfeld will present on “Penn State, Intervention, and a Theory of Patriarchal Violence” on Wednesday, November 30, 2011, at noon in Austin West.

Rosenfeld will respond to Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham’s October 12 SALMS talk on “Sexual Disparities and the Evolution of Patriarchy,” drawing out the legal implications of Professor Wrangham’s scientific findings. The child sexual abuse scandal swirling around the Penn State football program will serve as a point of departure for these deeper conclusions.

As always, SALMS will serve free burritos – come enjoy SALMS food and company before finals season begins in earnest!

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Related Situationist posts:

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The Situation of Skin

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 14, 2011

From Psych Central (an article about the recent work of Situationist friend, Kurt Gray):

A new study finds that when men or women look at someone wearing revealing attire they perceive the individual as being more sensitive, yet not as smart.

University of Maryland psychologist Kurt Gray and colleagues from Yale and Northeastern University have published their study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In the article the researchers acknowledge the obvious — that it would be absurd to think people’s mental capacities fundamentally change when they remove clothing.

“In six studies, however, we show that taking off a sweater, or otherwise revealing flesh, can significantly change the way a mind is perceived.”

The study is unique as past research, feminist theory and parental admonishments all have long suggested that when men see a woman wearing little or nothing, they focus on her body and think less of her mind.

In the new study, the researchers show that paying attention to someone’s body can alter how both men and women view both women and men.

“An important thing about our study is that, unlike much previous research, ours applies to both sexes. It also calls into question the nature of objectification because people without clothes are not seen as mindless objects, but they are instead attributed a different kind of mind,” says UMD’s Gray.

“We also show that this effect can happen even without the removal of clothes. Simply focusing on someone’s attractiveness, in essence concentrating on their body rather than their mind, makes you see her or him as less of an agent [someone who acts and plans], more of an experiencer.”

Traditional psychological theory suggests that we see the mind of others on a continuum between the full mind of a normal human and the mindlessness of an inanimate object.

This paradigm, termed objectification, suggests that looking at someone in a sexual context — such as in pornography — leads people to focus on physical characteristics, turning them into an object without a mind or moral status.

However, recent findings indicate that rather than looking at others on a continuum from object to human, we see others as having two aspects of mind: agency and experience.

Agency is the capacity to act, plan and exert self-control, whereas experience is the capacity to feel pain, pleasure and emotions. Various factors – including the amount of skin shown – can shift which type of mind we see in another person.

During the study multiple experiments provided support for the two kinds of mind view. When men and women in the study focused on someone’s body, perceptions of agency (self-control and action) were reduced, and perceptions of experience (emotion and sensation) were increased.

Gray and colleagues suggest that this effect occurs because people unconsciously think of minds and bodies as distinct, or even opposite, with the capacity to act and plan tied to the “mind” and the ability to experience or feel tied to the body.

According to Gray, their findings indicate that the change in perception that results from showing skin is not all bad.

“A focus on the body, and the increased perception of sensitivity and emotion it elicits might be good for lovers in the bedroom,” he says.

Researchers also found that a body focus can actually increase moral standing. Although those wearing little or no clothes –or otherwise represented as a body – were seen to be less morally responsible, they also were seen to be more sensitive to harm and hence deserving of more protection.

“Others appear to be less inclined to harm people with bare skin and more inclined to protect them. In one experiment, for example, people viewing male subjects with their shirts off were less inclined to give those subjects uncomfortable electric shocks than when the men had their shirts on,” Gray says.

Practically, the researchers note that in settings where people are primarily evaluated on their capacity to plan and act, a body focus clearly has negative effects.

Seeing someone as a body strips him or her of competence and leadership, potentially impacting job evaluations.

More.

Image from Flickr.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Embodied Cognition, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Dr. Robert Trivers at Harvard Law – Thursday

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 2, 2011

Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) Speakers Series:

Robert Trivers, Rutgers Biologist and Anthropologist: “Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling others the better to fool ourselves.” 

Thursday, 11/3, 12-1 pm, Austin West; 

SALMS serves lunch: Free Burritos!

Why do we deceive ourselves so often in our daily lives?  Robert Trivers, Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, argues that  self-deception evolved in the service of deceit—the better to fool others. We do it for biological reasons—in order to help us survive and procreate. From viruses mimicking host behavior to humans misremembering (sometimes intentionally) the details of a quarrel, science has proven that the deceptive one can always outwit the masses. But we undertake this deception at our own peril.  Trivers will present findings from his new book, “The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life.”

Trivers won the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences in 2007 for his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict, and cooperation. Harvard’s Steven Pinker has described Trivers as an “under-appreciated genius”: “In an astonishing burst of creative brilliance, Trivers wrote a series of papers in the early 1970s that explained each of the five major kinds of human relationships: male with female, parent with child, sibling with sibling, acquaintance with acquaintance, and a person with himself or herself. . . . Trivers’ ideas are, if such a thing is possible, even more important than the countless experiments and field studies they kicked off. They belong in the category of ideas that are obvious once they are explained, yet eluded great minds for ages; simple enough to be stated in a few words, yet with implications we are only beginning to work out.”

Read more at the SALMS website.

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Related Situationist posts:

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The Roots of Racism in Rhesus Monkeys

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 19, 2011

From Big Think:

Laura Santos on why our prejudices may be deeply ingrained in our evolutionary development.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Evolutionary Psychology, Implicit Associations, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dr. Richard Wrangham at Harvard Law Tomorrow

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 11, 2011

Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) Speakers Series:
Richard Wrangham, Harvard Primatologist: “Sexual Disparities and the Evolution of Patriarchy”
Wednesday, 10/12, 12-1 pm, Austin West
SALMS serves lunch: Free Burritos!

What can primates teach us about the evolutionary bases of rape, murder, and patriarchy? For several decades, Richard Wrangham, the Ruth Moore Professor of Anthropology and Chair of Biological Anthropology at Harvard, has studied primates in the wild. His work on the ecological and behavior comparisons of chimpanzees and humans has been his greatest contribution to the animal behavior literature. His insights into the cultural similarities between humans and chimpanzees–including our unique tendencies to form murderous alliances and engage in recreational sexual activity–has had profound affects on how scientists analyze primate behavior, non-human and human alike.

In addition to his exhaustive peer-reviewed journal publications, as author of Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Chimpanzee Cultures, and as co-editor of Primate Societies, Professor Wrangham’s important observations and theoretical contributions to the field of primate socio-behavior are covered in a variety of works, which range from the textbook to popular science manual. In recent years, Professor Wrangham has been named as a trustee to several important primatological research organizations, including the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the Jane Goodall Institute and is Chair of the Great Ape World Heritage Species Project.

Read more at the SALMS website..

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Related Situationist posts:

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

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

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

Here is the original Vitter story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The Situation of Altruism – Part 2

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 24, 2011

From :

Christopher Boehm, Steve Frank, and Christophe Boesch explore the biological basis of the evolution of cooperation, how and why societies organize to suppress the “free-rider” and how the ecology of societies influence the evolution of cooperation and altruism Series: “CARTA – Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny”

Posted in Altruism, Distribution, Evolutionary Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Psychological Situation of Climate Change

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2011

Situationist friend, Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, describes the psychological impulses that make it difficult for humans to confront the threat of global warming.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Environment, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

25 Mil­lion Years of Us vs. Them

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 21, 2011

From World News:

Like peo­ple, some of our mon­key cousins tend to take an “us ver­sus them” view of the world, a study has found. This sug­gests that the ten­den­cy for hu­man groups to clash may stem from a dis­tant ev­o­lu­tion­ary past, sci­en­tists say.

Yale Un­ivers­ity re­search­ers led by psy­chol­o­gist Lau­rie San­tos found in a se­ries of ex­pe­ri­ments that mon­keys treat mon­keys from out­side their groups with the same sus­pi­cion and dis­like as their hu­man cousins tend to treat out­siders. The find­ings are re­ported in the March is­sue of the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

“One of the more trou­bling as­pects of hu­man na­ture is that we eval­u­ate peo­ple dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on wheth­er they’re a mem­ber of our ‘in­group’ or ‘out­group,’” San­tos said. “Pretty much eve­ry con­flict in hu­man his­to­ry has in­volved peo­ple mak­ing dis­tinc­tions on the ba­sis of who is a mem­ber of their own race, re­li­gion, so­cial class, and so on. The ques­tion we were in­ter­est­ed in is: Where do these types of group dis­tinc­tions come from?”

The an­swer, she adds, is that such bi­ases have ap­par­ently been shaped by 25 mil­lion years of ev­o­lu­tion and not just by hu­man cul­ture.

“The bad news is that the ten­den­cy to dis­like out­group mem­bers ap­pears to be ev­o­lu­tion­arily quite old, and there­fore may be less sim­ple to elim­i­nate than we’d like to think,” San­tos said. “The good news, though, is that even mon­keys seem to be flex­i­ble about who counts as a group mem­ber. If we hu­mans can find ways to har­ness this evolved flex­i­bil­ity, it might al­low us to be­come an even more tol­er­ant species.”

San­tos and mem­bers of her lab stud­ied rhe­sus ma­caque mon­keys liv­ing on an is­land off the coast of Puerto Rico. Mon­keys in this popula­t­ion nat­u­rally form dif­fer­ent so­cial groups based on family his­to­ry.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors ex­ploited a well-known ten­den­cy of an­i­mals to stare long­er at new or fright­en­ing things than at fa­mil­iar or friendly things. They showed mon­keys pic­tures of oth­er mon­keys who were ei­ther in their so­cial group or mem­bers of a dif­fer­ent group. They found that mon­keys stared long­er at pic­tures of oth­er mon­keys who were out­side their group, sug­gest­ing the crea­tures spon­ta­ne­ously de­tect who is a strang­er and who is a group mem­ber.

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The Yale team’s re­sults sug­gest that the dis­tinc­tions hu­mans make be­tween “us” and “them”— and there­fore the roots of hu­man prej­u­dice—may date back at least 25 mil­lion years, when hu­mans and rhe­sus ma­caques shared a com­mon an­ces­tor.

“So­cial psy­chol­o­gists in­tro­duced the world to the idea that the im­me­di­ate situa­t­ion is hugely pow­er­ful in de­ter­min­ing be­hav­ior, even in­ter­group feel­ings,” said [Situationist Contributor] Mahza­rin Ba­naji of Har­vard Un­ivers­ity, a co-author of the pa­per. “Evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­rists have made us aware of our an­ces­tral past. In this work, we weave the two to­geth­er to show the im­por­tance of both of these in­flu­ences at work.”

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More here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Conflict, Evolutionary Psychology, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Felix Warneken at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 28, 2011

Today, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk, “The Roots of Altruism – Evidence from Children and Chimpanzees,” by Harvard University professor Felix Warneken in Pound 100 from 12:00 – 1:00.

In addition to teaching psychology at Harvard, Professor Warneken studies the roots of altruism by conducting experiments with chimps and infants.  Free burritos will be provided!

For more information, e-mail salms@law.harvard.edu.

Posted in Distribution, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on February 14, 2011

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

Here is the original Vitter story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

clinton-cartoon.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill O’Reilly and Homelessness

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

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

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

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

Posted in Emotions, Evolutionary Psychology, Ideology, Life, Morality, Politics, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Ray Jackendoff at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 29, 2011

On Monday, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Tufts psychology professor Ray Jackendoff entitled “The Natural Logic of Morals and Laws.”

Ray Jackendoff received his Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT in 1969.  His research centers around the system of meaning in natural language, how it is related to the human conceptual system, and how it is expressed linguistically.  This has led him to a cognitive approach to traditional philosophical issues of inference and reference, embodied in his theory of Conceptual Semantics.  In developing this approach, he has worked on the conceptualization of space, on the relationship between language, perception, and consciousness, and, most recently, on the conceptualization of such socially grounded concepts as value, morality, fairness, and obligations.  In addition, in exploring how concepts are expressed in language, he has developed new models of the architecture of the human language faculty and its evolution.

Professor Jackendoff will be speaking in Pound 10o from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.

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

Posted in Events, Evolutionary Psychology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Even monkeys know when they’re being treated unfairly

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 2, 2010

In the video below the jump, primate expert Frans de Waal explores the effect of unequal rewards on behavior.


Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Distribution, Evolutionary Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Daniel Dennett To Speak at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 27, 2010

On Tuesday, September 28th, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Tufts professor Daniel Dennett entitled Free Will, Responsibility, and the Brain.

Professor Dennett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, as well as the co-director for the school’s Center for Cognitive Studies.  His work examines the intersection of philosophy and cognitive science in relation to religion, biology, science, and the human mind.  Professor Dennett has also contributed greatly to the fields of evolutionary theory and psychology.

Professor Dennett will turn a critical eye on the recent influx of work regarding the impact of neuroscience on scholarly concepts of moral and legal responsibility.

He will be speaking in Pound 101 from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Free burritos will be provided!

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For more information, e-mail salms@law.harvard.edu.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Daniel Dennett on the Situation of our Brain,” Dan Dennett on our Interior Situation,” Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II,” “The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating,” Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV and “Coalition of the Will-less.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Evolutionary Psychology, Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Neuroscience, Philosophy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Laurie Santos on the Evolutionary Situation of Cognitive Biases

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 25, 2010

From BigThink:

Dr. Laurie Santos is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Yale University. Her research provides an interface between evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, and cognitive neuroscience, exploring the evolutionary origins of the human mind by comparing the cognitive abilities of human and non-human primates. Her experiments focus on non-human primates (in captivity and in the field), incorporating methodologies from cognitive development, animal learning psychology, and cognitive neuroscience.

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From TedTalks:

Laurie Santos looks for the roots of human irrationality by watching the way our primate relatives make decisions. A clever series of experiments in “monkeynomics” shows that some of the silly choices we make, monkeys make too.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Michael McCullough on the Situation of Revenge and Forgiveness,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “The Endowment Effect in Chimpanzees – Abstract,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Monkey Fairness.”

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Evolutionary Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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