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Jon Hanson on Law and Mind Sciences

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 15, 2012

Harvard Law School just published an interview with Jon Hanson.  We’ve posted it in full below.

Director of the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School (PLMS), Professor Jon Hanson has long combined social psychology, economics, history, and law in his scholarship. After PLMS hosted several conferences featuring leading mind scientists and legal scholars, Hanson collected the work of many of the contributors in a book he edited, “Ideology, Psychology, and Law” (Oxford University Press). [Introductory chapter available, here].

In the following Q&A, he speaks about the new book, the connection between law and mind sciences, and his own work in a field that has grown rapidly over the past 20 years.

What sparked your interest in the study of mind sciences and the law?

My interest has evolved through several stages. Although I studied economics in college, I did so with special interest in health care policy, where the life-and-death decisions have little in common with the consumption choices imagined in neoclassical economics. Purchasing an appendectomy through insurance has little in common with buying a fruit at the market.

After college, I spent a year studying the provision of neonatal intensive care in Britain’s National Health Service, attending weekly rounds with neonatologists at London hospitals, meeting with pediatricians in rural English hospitals, interviewing nurses who were providing daily care for the infants, some of whom were not viable, and speaking with parents about the profound challenges they were confronting. Those experiences strengthened my doubts regarding the real-world relevance of basic economic models for certain types of decisions.

In law school, I studied law and economics, but tended to focus on informational problems and externalities that had been given short shrift by some legal economists at the time. After attending a talk by, and then meeting with, the late Amos Tversky, I became an early fan of the nascent behavioral economics movement.

It wasn’t, however, until I spent a couple of years immersed in cigarette-industry documents in the early and mid 1990s that I felt the need to make a clean break from the law’s implied psychological models and to turn the mind sciences for a more realistic alternative.

What was it about the cigarette documents that had that effect?

Well, they made clear that the tobacco industry articulated two views of their consumers – an inaccurate public portrayal, and a more accurate private view.

The first, which the industry conveyed to their consumers and to lawmakers, was of smokers who are independent, rational, and deliberate. Smokers smoke cigarettes because they choose to, because smoking makes them happier, even considering the risks. The industry thus gave consumers a flattering view of themselves as autonomous, liberated actors while assuring would-be regulators that there was no need to be concerned about the harmful consequences of smoking. Smokers were, after all, just getting what they wanted.

The second view of the consumer, which was evident in the industry’s internal documents, was of consumers as irrational, malleable, and manipulable. The industry’s confidential marketing strategy documents, for instance, made clear that the manufacturers theorized and experimented to discover how to target, persuade, lure, and chemically hook young consumers to take up and maintain the smoking habit. That internal understanding of consumers had nothing in common with the industry’s external portrayals.

I came to the realization that, unfortunately, the latter view of the human animal is far more accurate and, furthermore, that failure to understand the actual forces behind human behavior may be contributing to injustice.

How did that realization influence your research?

In the late 1990s, I put my writing down and devoted a couple of years to learning what I could about the mind sciences – social psychology, social cognition, cognitive neuroscience, and the like. Those fields, coincidentally, were blossoming with new theories, new methodologies, and new findings and insights, most of which created challenges to the fundamental assumptions in law and legal theory.

What were some of those insights?

To keep things simple, I’ll boil them down to two big ones.

First, mind scientists had learned that most people in western cultures operate with a naïve and commonsensical model of human psychology that presumes that an individual’s actions reflect a stable personality or disposition and little else. From that perspective, people are presumed to be in control of, and responsible for, their behavior and its consequences.

By the way, that’s the same model of human behavior that is employed in law and conventional legal theory. And it’s the same model that the tobacco industry actively promoted.

The second big insight was that that model of human behavior is fundamentally wrong. People are moved less by a stable disposition and more by internal and external forces that generally go unnoticed in our causal stories. The errors go beyond our causal assessments of other people’s behavior; we confuse and deceive even ourselves, believing our own reasons, when social science reveals those reasons often turn out to be mere confabulations.

What does that mean for the law?

Exactly. That’s the big question. My briefest answer is: a lot. The book is one place where the contributors and I begin to sketch some of the answers.

Given the large gap between what the law assumes and what the mind sciences have shown to be true, my initial goal has been to understand the breadth and contours of that gap and to develop a better understanding of the psychological and contextual forces behind human behavior. I have resisted the strong urge to focus on only those psychological tendencies that can lead to straightforward but narrow implications for law.

Having said that, abandoning the familiar, if wrong, conception of human behavior is daunting and unsettling; it calls for establishing new knowledge structures and being open to some humbling truths about ourselves and some uncomfortable truths about our justice system.

I expect that several generations of lawmakers, legal academics, and lawyers will be grappling with the implications of what mind scientists are discovering about human behavior. Indeed, they will have to do so, if we are ever going to find meaningful solutions to many of our thorniest policy challenges.

Is this entirely new terrain?

I shouldn’t give the impression that I am alone in the wilderness. The approach I’ve taken has its origins in the legal realism movement, and there is actually significant overlap with parts of more recent legal theoretic schools of thought, from law and economics to critical legal studies.

Furthermore, there are other scholars around the country exploring this terrain, and I have been extraordinarily lucky to work with a number of remarkable students over the years, including Melissa Hart, Doug Kysar, David Yosifon, Adam Benforado, Michael McCann, and Mark Yeboah.  Most of those students have gone on to make their own path-breaking contributions to law and mind sciences.

Can you say more about how the field has evolved and your involvement in it over the last 20 years?

Well, 20 years ago, only a small but important corner of psychology known as “decision theory” or “behavioral economics” was getting much attention among legal theorists. Roughly, the research and evidence in that field disputed the “rationality” assumption of the “rational actor” model. I co-authored several articles arguing that those insights suggested that market actors could, would, and do manipulate the risk perceptions of consumers.

A decade ago, I co-wrote a pair of law-review articles (“The Situation” and “The Situational Character”) introducing some of the broader insights of mind sciences and speculating on some of their implications for law. The articles were among the first of their kind, and contested even the “actor” portion of the “rational actor” model. At the time, many readers from legal academia found the research we reviewed to be foreign and hard to fathom.

Five years ago, I began the Project on Law and Mind Sciences. With then-Dean Kagan’s support, some technical know-how from Michael McCann, and the aid of many outstanding students, I set up a website and blog and began holding annual conferences intended to help bridge the gap between the law and the mind sciences. In the meantime, numerous books have popularized the mind sciences, and several new law school programs and projects have been established around the country reflecting and reinforcing this burgeoning interdisciplinary approach.

As of today, the mind sciences are, well, hot. There is now almost too much scholarship for me to keep up with, judges are beginning to cite such research in their opinions, and student groups are springing up in law schools, including the vibrant Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (or “SALMS”) at Harvard Law School. Every year, I hear from more 1Ls who tell me they chose Harvard Law School because of the exciting work that we’ve been doing.

Are other members of the HLS faculty now employing mind sciences in their work?

Absolutely. Alan Stone has been writing and teaching about the law and psychiatry since the 1960s.  Cass Sunstein and Christine Jolls, when here, were prominent leaders of the economic behavioralism movement. Several other members of the faculty employ mind sciences in elements of their scholarship and teaching. Lani Guinier, Bob Bordone, Martha Minow, Duncan Kennedy, Charles Ogletree, Bob Mnookin, Larry Lessig, Diana Feldman, Bruce Hay, Yochai Benkler, Glenn Cohen, and David Cope come to mind, and I’m surely forgetting some. Among our visitors this year, Dan Kahan and Martha Chamallas are prominent leaders in this interdisciplinary approach.

Many of us are interacting more often and more collaboratively with mind scientists in other departments of this University and beyond, and I would be surprised if we didn’t add a social psychologist to our faculty in the next decade, as other law schools have.

Your book has more than 20 contributors representing different disciplines. Does their work share a common theme?

First, let me emphasize that the book reflects the work of many students and my assistant, Carol Igoe, who helped organize the conferences on which much of the book is based and who helped in the initial editing stages as part of a seminar that I taught.

To your question, I need to be quite abstract to locate one common theme. If there is a single thread running throughout the book, it is that “how we think” affects “what we think” about law. Many of the contributors – social psychologists, political scientists, legal scholars among them – also consider the effects of “what we want to believe” on “how we think.”

More concretely, some authors examine the implications of the dispositionist conception of the person for the law. Others scrutinize and challenge the ideological premises of prominent legal goals, including utilitarianism and instrumentalism. Some consider the harmful effects of the “free market” ideology. Others look at the implicit motives underlying political ideologies – that is, left and right – while a few summarize evidence regarding the effects of political ideology on judicial decision-making. That’s a sample.

You write that the legal system is built on a dubious ideological framework. How so?

There are several ways in which that is true. Construing “ideology” broadly to refer to shared understandings of human behavior, I’ll answer by echoing what I’ve already highlighted. The legal system presumes that a person’s behavior is the manifestation of little more than a stable set of preferences, combined with a given supply of information, activated by the person’s will. Such perceived truths about what makes people behave as they do shape beliefs about why some groups are advantaged or disadvantaged or about how well certain systems or institutions operate. Unfortunately, those shared understandings are often incorrect.

How do ideology and psychology influence judicial decision making?

That’s another great question, which calls for a bigger answer than I can muster here. What I can say is that there seems to be little disagreement among observers of the legal system that judicial decision making is influenced by ideology. Although some point to Roe v. Wade while others point to Citizens United as their exemplar, the disagreement is over when and how judges are swayed by ideology.

Social psychology and social cognition help us see that there is no escaping the influence of ideology, any more than a person can speak without an accent.  Although we tend to hear the accents and perceive the ideologies of those who don’t share our own, we all have both.  So ideology is inescapable; pretending that we operate outside of ideology probably makes us more, not less, subject to its biasing influence.

More important, mind scientists have discovered some of the implicit motives and situational factors that push us toward one ideology or another, including political ideologies or legal-theoretic ideologies.

Will an awareness of mind sciences help an attorney in practicing the law?

I hope so.

Having an awareness of the power and effects of psychology and ideology on the law, a lawyer can better predict the outcomes of cases and more ably persuade jurors or judges to see a case their way.

An imperfect analogy is to a doctor who understands the underlying causes of a disease and not simply its symptoms. A lawyer who understands what is moving the law is like the doctor who understands the disease and its processes. Such a lawyer can be effective in taking on the tough, novel cases on the frontiers of the law.

Understanding the remarkable insights being generated by mind scientists similarly can help lawyers to understand and work with their clients or even to recognize and articulate injustices that might otherwise be missed.

My own teaching reflects my strong belief that law students will make better lawyers if they learn some psychology. At the very least, they will learn something about themselves.

A sample of related Situationist posts:

Posted in Choice Myth, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Looking for the Evil Actor – Reposted

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 10, 2012

Five years ago Jon Hanson and Michael McCann wrote and published the following post about Joseph Kony as part of a series on the the situational source of evil.  In light of the attention Kony is now getting (see Youtube video, “Kony 2012,” here or at bottom of this post), we thought it might be worth posting again.

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In Parts I, II, and III of his recent posts on the Situational Sources of Evil, Phil Zimbardo makes the case that we too readily attribute to an evil person or group what should be, at least in part, attributed to situation. This was a key lesson of Milgram’s obedience experiments as well as Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. And that lesson, unfortunately, seems similarly evident in far too many real-world atrocities.

Lords Resistance ArmyThere are numerous reasons, some of which those earlier posts highlighted, why the situationist lesson is an unpopular one. This post suggests another.

Think for a moment about the sort of evil that is so grotesquely apparent right now in The Sudan and Uganda, both of which are in the midst of civil wars–wars that have featured indescribably horrific acts, such as villages ravaged by soldiers who chop off limbs of children. Perhaps most harrowingly, the “evil-doers” are often children themselves, many of whom are kidnapped and then conscripted into bands of mutilating marauders.

Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army, for example, is comprised mainly of abducted children who roam northern Uganda, where “many families have lost a child through abduction, or their village . . . [have been] attacked and destroyed, families burned out and/or killed, and harvests destroyed by . . . . the Lord’s Resistance Army.”

The plight of Ochola John, pictured below, exemplifies an all-too-common story: his hands, lips, nose, and ears were cut off by members of the Lord Resistance Army. It is a difficult image to take in (note, we opted against many other more graphic photos).

Such atrocities have led many in Uganda toOchola John question how children could become evil incarnate:

We don’t understand how Kony could have a child soldier slash a fellow child abductee with a machete or make a group of children bite their agemate with their bare teeth till he bleeds to death.

In searching for answers, some have turned to situationist factors:

It is easy to assume that the person who commits such an atrocity is deranged or even inhuman. Sometimes it is the case. But not always. It is possible for a normal individual to commit an abnormal, sick act just because of the situation s/he finds him/herself in, and the training s/he is exposed to.

How could this happen? Zimbardo’s ten-factor list suggests some of situationist grease that no doubt lubricates the wheels of evil. Kony’s methods and ideology are extreme, to be sure, but they are familiar: saving his country from evil by building a theocracy.

In that way, dispositionism can give way to a weak form of situationism, but only up to a point — a tendency that has elsewhere been called selective situationism or naive situationism. Kony’s evil disposition is the “situation” influencing the impressionable young boys. In the end, we place evil almost exclusively in one or a small number of actors — usually human, but sometimes supernatural. No doubt, Kony is immensely blameworthy, so much so that we, the authors, can scarcely bring ourselves even to suggest that the horrors might have multiple origins, beyond the gruesome actions of the most salient actors involved.

By locating evil ultimately in a person or group, we avoid a disconcerting possibility that there is more to the situation beyond the bad individuals. When evil comes packaged within a few human bodies, it is rendered more tractable, identifiable, and perhaps, in a way, less threatening — very “them,” and very “other.” Such a conception undermines the unsettling possibility that, because of the situation, there may be more “evil actors” behind those that we currently face. Get rid of the bad apples, we imagine, and the rest of the batch will be fine. Perhaps more important, it permits us to ignore the possibility that the barrel may be contaminating. We need not confront any apprehensions that our systems are unjust, the groups we identify with are contributing to or benefitting from that injustice, or that we individually play some causal role in it.

Joseph Kony is said to have abducted 20,000 kids in the last 20Joseph Kony years. But he has done so with minimal resistance from Uganda’s government, and with virtually no intervention from foreign powers.

Is there any line at which we non-salient bystanders of the world, including Americans, begin to bear some share of responsibility for suffering such as that endured by Ochola John? Maybe the answer is “no,” as most of us apparetly presume. But maybe it is “yes,” and maybe that line has already been crossed.

We are not making a foreign policy recommendation here. We are simply highlighting a form of blindness that we suspect influences all policy. That is, dispositionism (and motivated attributions generally) helps us push that line of responsibility toward, if not all the way to, the vanishing point — even if it does little to reduce the atrocities themselves. Dispositionism helps us to see the apple, or perhaps the tree, and to miss the orchard and the liberty-trade-centers-911.jpgforest and, perhaps, ourselves.

There are other examples of that tendency of allowing our attributions toward salient (and often despicable) individuals to eclipse any possibility of a more complex, far-reaching causal story. Our criminal justice system is partially built upon it. Consider, also, the widespread response to Susan Sontag’s infamous New Yorker essay, in which she described the of 9/11 terrorism not as

a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions. . . . And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.

Regardless of the veracity of Sontag’s claims, many Americans did not want to hear such a non-affirming interpretation in the wake of the terror. She not only implicated American policies but suggested that perhaps the attackers were not as “beneath us” as many had portrayed.

As one of us summarized in another article (with Situationist contributors Adam Benforado and David Yosifon), many conservative commentators responded to Sontag and her claims with predictable rage and disgust (while most moderates and liberals took cover in the safety of silence).

Charles Krauthammer called Sontag “morally obtuse,” while Andrew Sullivan labeled her “deranged.”John Podhoretz claimed that she exemplified the “hate-America crowd,” that out-group of Americans who are “dripping with contempt for the nation’s politics, its leaders, its economic system and for their foolish fellow citizens.” And Rod Dreher really drove home the point saying that he wanted“to walk barefoot on broken glass across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to that despicable woman’s apartment, grab her by the neck, drag her down to ground zero and force her to say that to the firefighters.”

We see ourselves as “just,” and don’t like being “implicated” by clear injustice, a discomfort that is often assuaged by looking for the Evil Actor. But when evil continues, even after the evil individuals have been stopped, perhaps we glimpse one reason why, as George Santayana famously put it, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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Related Situationist posts:

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

To review a larger sample of posts on the causes and consequences of human conflict, click here.

Posted in Conflict, History, Ideology, Morality, Politics, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Nancy Gertner on the Situation of Feminism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 3, 2012

From Harvard Gazette:

Nancy Gertner is a former federal judge, the author of a recent memoir (“In Defense of Women”), a professor of practice at Harvard Law School, and an authority on sentencing, jury system discrimination, forensic evidence, and other legal areas.

But go back to June 1971, the month she had a loud argument with her mother in their kitchen in Flushing, Queens, N.Y. Gertner was about to graduate from Yale Law School and assume a prestigious clerkship in Chicago. But her mother wanted her to take the test to be a Triborough Bridge toll taker — just in case.

For a young woman lawyer at the time, “just in case” wasn’t a bad idea. The law was a man’s world. But just a decade later, the culture seemed to swing toward what feminists worked for: parity. By the late 1980s, first-rate law firms were hiring men and women in equal numbers. “We thought the numbers would do everything,” Gertner said during a lunchtime talk on Feb. 23 that was sponsored by the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. (Weekly talks there are part of the program’s mission to create gender equality.)

But faith in the raw numbers turned out to be “dramatically wrong,” said Gertner. “Advancement has stalled.” Half of all new lawyers are women, she said, but only 16 percent of equity partners in law firms are female. And of lawyers who leave the profession, most are women — and most do it because of family and social concerns.

Gertner used the lens of the legal profession to speculate why, after earlier rapid advances, feminism’s cultural agenda seems to have stalled. (Universities, she said, are in an analogous position, with plenty of women graduating as Ph.D.s, but few getting to the top of the academic game.)

During her years on the bench from 1994 to 2011, Gertner got used to being trotted out at events as an example of progress. “You’re supposed to say: ‘Things are fabulous,’ ” she told her audience at the Taubman Building’s Cason Seminar Room. But they are not. The women’s movement was not just about having more choices, she said, but about “revolutionary” changes in the workplace and at home that have not happened yet.

In today’s “imperfectly transformed world,” said Gertner, it is social expectations and an “unfriendly workforce” that mean a woman — if anyone — usually will stay home with the children. (She called this reality “the maternal wall.”)

Gertner cited one study that showed 30 percent of women leaving the law, including 15 percent of equity partners, those with a financial stake in a firm. Another study, she said, showed that 34 percent of female law graduates have worked part time, compared with only 9 percent of their male counterparts.

So without a corresponding transformation of family responsibilities, feminism is likely to stay stalled, she said. “We’ve hit a wall.”

It’s not a situation that discrimination lawsuits can correct, said Gertner, because so many women are “leaning out” of their professions — that is, anticipating future pressures and so choosing career paths that enable them to leave the workplace more readily. (She gave as an example the woman who chooses a small family-practice firm over a larger one that presents more challenges and opportunities.) “If women are leaning out” of their own volition, said Gertner, “then their failure to advance can’t be the subject of a lawsuit.”

Besides, she added, overt gender discrimination in the workplace has gone the way of discos and bell-bottoms, “a world that no longer exists.” What is left, said Gertner, is “implicit bias,” which has the same stalling effect on feminism as the maternal wall.

There is also an issue with executing the law itself — a denial of the power of context. The gender discrimination lawsuits that do make it to court are weakened by a tendency to “slice and dice” the circumstances of alleged discrimination, said Gertner. “You don’t look at them as a course of conduct,” but as separate events. “Discrimination in the real world does not fit into the legal models we have.”

One way to counteract this tendency in the law is to have judges on the bench who are aware of the way the world works. “I had an appreciation of context,” said Gertner of her time as a judge. “I never saw the law as legal rules on the page.” (That appreciation, in part, was biographical. Her judicial tenure was influenced by her early childhood in a tenement on Manhattan’s lower East Side, by championing unpopular clients as a young lawyer, and by becoming a mother at age 39.)

In the absence of overt gender discrimination, it is hard to get legal redress, said Gertner. For young women in the workplace today, “it’s the opacity of discrimination” that makes advancement difficult, she said, instead of the stark realities of discrimination in the 1970s. Gertner said, “It was easier for me.”

With feminism stalled by social pressures at home and the workplace, she offered a radical idea. “The government needs to step up to the plate,” Gertner said, beginning by providing incentives for day care that would make it easier for women to combine career and work.

After all, there is a “business case” to be made for gender equality in law firms and workplaces, “beyond the obvious need to tap a rich vein of talent,” said Gertner. In a diverse world, workplace diversity adds to “the texture and the richness of the dialogue,” she said.

In the end, feminism’s mission of workplace parity has been stalled by the three factors of the maternal wall, implicit bias, and the opacity of discrimination, Gertner said.

She said advocates have a list of things to do: parse workplace discrimination by collecting the right data; engage in collective action; and challenge the government to underwrite day care and other engines of cultural change.

But all this is not enough. “The most important thing is: We have to be unsatisfied,” Gertner told her largely female, professional audience. “We have to not believe that this was the accomplishment of the women’s movement — that I’m here and that you’re here is somehow all we can achieve.”

Reltated Situationist posts:

Image by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Law, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Ideology, Psychology, and Law – Introduction

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 29, 2012

On SSRN, you can now download the introductory chapter of Ideology, Psychology, and Law (published in 2012 by Oxford University Press and containing chapters from numerous Situationist Contributors and edited by Situationist Editor Jon Hanson).

Here’s a quick description.

Formally, the law is based solely on reasoned analysis, devoid of ideological biases or unconscious influences. Judges claim to act as umpires applying the rules, not making them. They frame their decisions as straightforward applications of an established set of legal doctrines, principles, and mandates to a given set of facts. As most legal scholars understand, however, the impression that the legal system projects is largely an illusion. As far back as 1881, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. made a similar claim, writing that “the felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed.”

More than a century later, we are now much closer to understanding the mechanisms responsible for the gap between the formal face of the law and the actual forces shaping it. Over the last decade or so, political scientists and legal academics have begun studying the linkages between ideologies, on one hand, and legal principles and policy outcomes on the other. During that same period, mind scientists have turned to understanding the psychological sources of ideology. This book is the first to bring many of the world’s experts on those topics together to examine the sometimes unsettling interactions between psychology, ideology, and law, and to better understand what, beyond and beneath the logic, animates the law.

This introductory chapter describes why this volume came together when it did and provides an overview of the general sections and the individual chapters and comments in the book. It begins with a brief, loose, and highly stylized history of the relationships between ideology, psychology, and law—a history premised on the oversimplifying assertion that something changed around the year 2000.

Download the chapter for free here.

Learn more about the book here.

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Pretense of Colorblindness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 24, 2012

From Working Knowledge:

In trying to prevent discrimination and prejudice, many companies adopt a strategy of “colorblindness”—actively trying to ignore racial differences when enacting policies and making organizational decisions. The logic is simple: if we don’t even notice race, then we can’t act in a racist manner.

The problem is that most of us naturally do notice each other’s racial differences, regardless of our employer’s policy.

“It’s so appealing on the surface to think that the best way to approach race is to pretend that it doesn’t exist,” says behavioral psychologist Michael I. Norton, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. “But research shows that it simply doesn’t work. We do notice race, and there’s no way of getting around this fact.”

Several studies by Norton and his colleagues show that attempting to overcome prejudice by ignoring race is an ineffective strategy that—in many cases—only serves to perpetuate bias. In short, bending over backward to ignore race can exacerbate rather than solve issues of race in the workplace.

“Umm, he has pants”

In efforts to be politically correct, people often avoid mentioning race when describing a person, even if that person’s race is the most obvious descriptor. (Comedian Stephen Colbert often pokes fun of this tendency on his TV show, The Colbert Report, claiming that he doesn’t “see color.”) If a manager, for example, is asked which guy Fred is, he or she may be loath to say, “Fred’s Asian,” even if Fred is the only Asian person in the company.

“Instead, it’s, ‘He’s that nice man who works in operations, and, umm, he has hair, and, umm, he has pants,’ ” Norton says. “And it keeps going on until finally someone comes out and asks, ‘Oh, is he Asian?'”

Norton and several colleagues documented this phenomenon in a study that they described in an article for the journal Psychological Science, Color Blindness and Interracial Interaction. The researchers conducted an experiment in which white participants engaged in a two-person guessing game designed—unbeknownst to them—to measure their tendencies toward attempted racial colorblindness.

Each participant was given a stack of photographs, which included 32 different faces. A partner sat across from the participant, looking at one picture that matched a picture from the participant’s stack. The participants were told that the goal of the game was to determine which photo the partner was holding by asking as few yes/no questions as possible—for example, “Is the person bald?”

Half the faces on the cards were black, and the other half white, so asking a yes/no question about skin color was a very efficient way to narrow down the identity of the photo on the partner’s card. But the researchers found that many of the participants completely avoided asking their partners about the skin color of the person in the photograph—especially when paired with a black partner. Some 93 percent of participants with white partners mentioned race during the guessing game, as opposed to just 64 percent who were playing the game with black partners.

Backfiring results

Two independent coders were hired to watch videos of the sessions on mute, rating the perceived friendliness of the white participants based on nonverbal cues. Alas, the participants who attempted colorblindness came across as especially unfriendly, often avoiding eye contact with their black partners. And when interviewed after the experiment, black partners reported perceiving the most racial bias among those participants who avoided mentioning race.

“The impression was that if you’re being so weird about not mentioning race, you probably have something to hide,” Norton says.

The researchers repeated the experiment on a group of elementary school children. The third graders often scored higher on the guessing game than grown-ups because, Norton says, they weren’t afraid to ask if the person in the photo was black or white. But many of the fourth and fifth graders avoided mentioning race during the game. As it turns out, racial colorblindness is a social convention that many Americans start to internalize by as young as age 10. “Very early on kids get the message that they are not supposed to acknowledge that they notice people’s race—often the result of a horrified reaction from a parent when they do,” Norton says.

A zero-sum game?

In addition to an ineffective strategy at managing interracial interactions, racial colorblindness has evolved into an argument against affirmative action policies, an issue Norton addresses in a recent working paper, Racial Colorblindness: Emergence, Practice, and Implications, cowritten with Evan P. Apfelbaum of MIT and Samuel R. Sommers of Tufts University.

“Though once emblematic of the fight for equal opportunity among racial minorities marginalized by openly discriminatory practices, contemporary legal arguments for colorblindness have become increasingly geared toward combating race-conscious policies,” they write. “If racial minority status confers an advantage in hiring and school admissions and in the selection of voting districts and government subcontractors—the argument goes—then Whites’ right for equal protection may be violated.”

In a related article, Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing, Norton and Sommers surveyed 100 white and 100 black respondents about their perceptions of racial bias in recent American history. They found that black respondents reported a large decrease in antiblack bias between the 1950s and the 2000s, but perceived virtually no antiwhite bias in that same period—ever. White respondents, on the other hand, perceived a large decrease in antiblack bias over time, but also a huge increase in antiwhite bias. In fact, on average, white respondents perceive more antiwhite bias than antiblack bias in the twenty-first century.

“It’s very hard to find a metric that suggests that white people actually have a worse time of it than black people,” Norton says. “But this perception is driving the current cultural discourse in race and affirmative action. It’s not just that whites think blacks are getting some unfair breaks, it’s that whites are thinking, ‘I’m actually the victim of discrimination now.'”

More.

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The Situation of Social Justice

Posted by John Jost on February 17, 2012

This book review appeared earlier this week in the American Scientist:

THE FAIR SOCIETY: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice. Peter Corning. xiv + 237 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2011. $27.50.

After decades of exclusion from meaningful social and political discourse, themes of social justice are making a serious comeback. One can point to several recent examples from the disciplines of political science, economics and philosophy, including, respectively, Larry M. Bartels’s Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton University Press, 2008), Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice (Harvard University Press, 2009) and Derek Parfit’s massive two-volume tome On What Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011). These books have arrived to coincide with the apparent awakening of the sense of injustice in popular movements from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street.

Peter Corning, who was trained as a biologist and is now the director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, joins the conversation at just the right time. His most recent book, The Fair Society, was published in early 2011, and—like Joseph Stiglitz’s Vanity Fair article “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”—it has turned out to be remarkably prescient. Several chapters read like an annotated list of complaints made by the most well-informed campers in Zuccotti Park last fall. Corning notes, for example, that in the United States, “since the 1980s, some 94 percent of the total increase in personal income has gone to the top 1 percent of the population”; at least 25 million Americans (17.2 percent of the workforce) are presently struggling with unemployment or drastic underemployment; “close to 50 million Americans experienced ‘food deprivation’ (hunger) at various times in 2009”; and as many as 75 million Americans (25 percent of the population) live in poverty. Adding insult to injury, the top 10 percent of income earners in the United States live 4.5 years longer on average than the bottom 10 percent.

In a nutshell, Corning’s thesis is that human nature has evolved in such a way as to create a natural revulsion to states of affairs like these. In the opening chapters, he recounts various evolutionary arguments for the notion that our hunter-gatherer ancestors possessed a deep sense of fairness and developed “a pattern of egalitarian sharing” in which “dominance behaviors were actively resisted by coalitions of other group members.” He draws eclectically on studies of baboons, descriptive anthropological accounts of hunter-gatherer societies and, in a few cases, the fossil record. With this biological framework in place, Corning endeavors to show that the capitalist system as currently practiced in the United States and elsewhere is manifestly unfair. His beef is not solely with laissez-faire capitalism, however; he claims that socialism is just as unfair, although in different ways, and that efforts to develop a “third way” that avoids the excesses of capitalism and socialism have been “anemic” and “unable to confront the status quo” of class-based inequality. In place of these failed institutions, he proposes a new type of society founded on a biosocial contract, which he describes as a “truly voluntary bargain among various (empowered) stakeholders over how the benefits and obligations in a society are to be apportioned among the members” that is “grounded in our growing understanding of human nature and the basic purpose of a human society.” Such a contract, he writes, must be focused on fairness and the obligation to address the “shared survival and reproductive needs” of our species.

Corning draws most heavily on evolutionary biology, behavioral economics and anthropology, but experimental social psychology would also back him up—and quite a bit more directly. Indeed, some of his ideas seem to have been inspired by the work of Morton Deutsch, who suggested, in a well-known 1975 article in the Journal of Social Issues, that human beings are finely attuned to three major principles of justice: equity, equality and need. Corning offers a slightly modified list. He defines fairness in terms of equality (in the satisfaction of basic needs, not necessarily in outcomes), equity (or merit) and reciprocity. The core thesis of The Fair Society was also anticipated by Melvin Lerner, who argued in 1977 that a universal “justice motive” compels individuals to pursue fairness goals to rectify unfairness and—only if these routes are blocked—to engage in victim-blaming and other defensive strategies to maintain the desired belief that we live in a just world (even if we do not). Although Lerner was perhaps more sensitive than Corning to the perverse consequences of caring passionately about the appearance of justice (for instance, blaming victims of rape, poverty or illness for their misfortune so as not to give up cherished illusions about personal deservingness), the two writers share the assumption that justice concerns are an essential part of human nature.

Anyone who is capable of critical perspicacity with regard to capitalist economic systems and practices is obliged to agree with Corning’s observation that the massive upswing in economic inequality over the past 30 years is at odds with nearly every conception of justice since Plato and, in that sense, is difficult (if not impossible) to justify on normative philosophical grounds (although some conservative libertarians have tried). Let us also grant that humans are prepared to experience moral outrage in the face of unjustified inequality (or gross inequity). Even capuchin monkeys show “inequity aversion,” refusing to participate in games in which other monkeys are given greater rewards for equal effort, as Sarah F. Brosnan and Frans de Waal showed in a 2003 article in Nature. Corning connects such observations to the present socioeconomic situation, writing, “Defection is the likely response to an exploitative, asymmetrical interaction,” and “No wonder there were protests and even riots at WTO [World Trade Organization] meetings.”

There is only one problem, and it is one that has given social scientists fits: What took so long? Why have U.S. citizens, for instance, put up with starkly increasing inequality and the kind of economic policies that only a dyslexic Robin Hood could embrace? There is a joke, often attributed to economist Paul A. Samuelson, which goes, “Economists have correctly predicted nine of the last five recessions.” I would say that sociologists, political scientists and others who study protest movements suffer from a similar problem, to wit: “Social scientists have correctly predicted nine of the last five revolutions.” The great political theorist Ted Robert Gurr, for instance, wrote in 1970 that “Men are quick to aspire beyond their social means and quick to anger when those means prove inadequate, but slow to accept their limitations.” If this were true in a deep psychological sense, rebellion would be far more common than acquiescence, but this is simply not the case.

My own, admittedly incomplete answer to the social scientists’ conundrum has emphasized a human motivation that is frequently on a collision course with Lerner’s justice motive and Corning’s biosocial contract, namely, system-justification motivation: the (typically nonconscious) desire to defend, justify and rationalize existing systems, institutions and widespread practices, even if (from a more objective point of view) they violate standards of justice, including equity, equality and need. Corning grants that our sense of fairness can be “easily subverted,” quotes Dr. Pangloss’s rosy rationalizations in Voltaire’s satire Candide, and touches—but only lightly—on beliefs and ideologies that blunt the sense of injustice. To my mind, the problem of system justification in U.S. public opinion about economic inequality (especially among political conservatives) is addressed far more satisfactorily in chapter 5 of Bartels’s Unequal Democracy.

Despite this conspicuous omission, much of what Corning has written is both important and accurate. The Fair Society is wide ranging and covers many areas of scholarship in a useful, integrative, insightful manner. It is an edifying book—not least because it offers a tremendous collection of memorable quotations from justice scholars over the centuries—more than a groundbreaking one. One could reasonably wonder whether his proposed biosocial model, which draws heavily on aspects of stakeholder capitalism and closely resembles that of Swedish society, is really enough of an improvement over the socialist and capitalist systems he so effectively lambastes in earlier chapters of the book. Even if one accepts Corning’s goal, there are huge obstacles standing in the way of its implementation. He recognizes, quite correctly, that “conservatives with vested interests in the status quo will no doubt dismiss the idea of a Fair Society as just another utopian scheme,” but it is far from clear how proponents of social and economic justice will ever overcome conservative skepticism. “There must be a broad political consensus that social justice is a core social value,” he writes, but this is precisely the problem; such a consensus does not exist. “How do the roughly 70 percent of us who support the principle of fairness and social justice overcome the formidable power of the 30 percent who largely control our politics and our wealth and who will fiercely defend the existing system, and their self-interest?” he asks. How, indeed? The difficulty, in my view, is that no one, including Corning himself, offers a convincing answer to this question.

At this moment in history, when our problems are so much clearer than their solutions, it is a genuine contribution to offer clearheaded analysis and moral encouragement to take much-needed steps in the direction of social and economic justice. I admire Corning’s attempt to develop a normative theory of justice that is “built on an empirical foundation”—that is, knowledge gleaned from the social and behavioral sciences, including aggregate sociological data from research on social indicators. Along very similar lines, psychologist Aaron Kay and I have advocated “naturalizing” the study of social justice, thereby integrating descriptive and normative insights gleaned from psychology, social science, philosophy, law and other disciplines.

Given the thick walls that separate academic scholarship from popular concern and policy outcomes, it is probably too much to expect rapid implementation of the specific recommendations made in The Fair Society, such as these, which address taxation: “Eliminate property tax deductions for second (vacation) homes, tax capital gains at the same graduated rate as earned income, and eliminate the expanded home equity line of credit loan provisions.” Nevertheless, one hopes that those who wish to occupy places of power on behalf of the 99 percent will heed Corning’s sage advice about what to do and—just as important—what not to do in planning for a better, more just society.

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20% off for Situationist Readers

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 31, 2012

Ideology, Psychology, and Law (the Situationist book edited by Jon Hanson and published by Oxford University Press) is now available.  Use the promotional code (30552) from the following flyer to save 20%.  Click here (or on the image below) to go to the book’s website for more information.

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The Imagined Ideological Divide

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 29, 2012

From Eureka Alert (regarding research co-authored by Situationist Contributor Peter Ditto):

Republicans and Democrats are less divided in their attitudes than popularly believed, according to new research. It is exactly those perceptions of polarization, however, that help drive political engagement, researchers say.

“American polarization is largely exaggerated,” says Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado Boulder, especially by people who adopt strong political stances. And when people perceive a large gap between political parties, they may be more motivated to vote. That message emerges from analyses of 40 years’ worth of voter data and could help predict voting behavior for the 2012 presidential election, according to social psychologists presenting their work today at a conference in San Diego, CA.

Polarization and political engagement

Much of the data comes from the American National Election Studies, a large survey of American’s political attitudes and voting behaviors from 1948 to 2008 funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and from a nationally representative sample of American adults from 2008. Using a subset of 26,000 respondents from this data, John Chambers of the University of Florida and colleagues studied the degree to which people estimate differences between Republicans’ and Democrats’ attitudes. They found that the actual gap between the parties’ political attitudes has not increased substantially over time and that members of both parties have consistently overestimated the size of that gap.

Moreover, Chambers’ team found that those who perceived the greatest political polarization were more politically engaged – for example, more likely to have voted in the last election, tried to influence the vote of other voters, attended political rallies, or donated money to a party or candidate. “These findings may have important implications for election outcomes,” Chambers says. “Particularly in close or hotly-contested elections, the balance may be tipped in favor of the party whose members perceive more polarization between the two parties.”

Indeed, in the 2008 Presidential election, people who strongly supported either Obama or McCain perceived Americans as more polarized than did people whose support for either of the two candidates was more moderate, according to work by Van Boven of the University of Colorado Boulder. His NSF-funded study likewise found that people who perceived Americans as more polarized were more inclined to vote in the presidential election compared with people who perceived less polarization – independent how strongly they supported Obama or McCain.

Morality drives people to the polls

In another analysis from the 2008 election, moral conviction also significantly predicted the likelihood to vote, even when statistically controlling for people’s ideology, says G. Scott Morgan of Drew University. His research team surveyed 827 US residents about their political orientation, intentions to vote, and degrees of moral conviction on several issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage, tax cuts, and healthcare reform. They found that no party holds a monopoly on moral conviction.

The study counters the notion that conservatives’ political views and behaviors might be more greatly shaped by morality than those of liberals, Morgan says. Indeed, during the 2012 political campaign, he says “liberals and conservatives seem similarly likely to feel moral conviction about the issues that are important to them.”

Moral convictions change factual beliefs

Other researchers are investigating how people view morally controversial political issues. They are finding that people’s moral sensibilities shape their perceptions of facts.

Brittany Liu and Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine, tested how people’s perceptions of the costs and benefits of capital punishment changed when they read essays advocating either its inherent morality or immorality. The essays changed not only participants’ perceptions of the inherent morality of capital punishment but also beliefs about whether capital punishment deterred future crime or led to miscarriages of justice. “Changing participants’ moral beliefs led to corresponding changes in factual beliefs,” Liu says.

Related survey work found a similar pattern of results across many different issues, including forceful interrogations, stem cell research, abstinence-only sexual education, and global warming. The results help explain some of the major impediments to bipartisan cooperation, Liu says. “For both liberals and conservatives, there is no clean separation between moral intuitions and factual beliefs,” she says. “This affects how politicians and partisans interpret scientific and economic data, making compromise difficult as both sides hold drastically different beliefs about the relevant facts and data.”

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Posted in Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Accept or Rebel?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 25, 2012

From Duke Today (a press release about research co-authored by Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay):

The political unrest in the Middle East, which continues today in Syria, raises some intriguing questions: How can we explain the contagion effect of rebellion when revolution spreads from nation to nation? Is it possible to predict whether people will respond to limits on freedom with submission or rebellion?

New research from Duke University and the University of Waterloo to be published in the February edition of the journal Psychological Science finds the certainty of a restriction is significant in determining how people will respond to enforced limitations on freedom.

Across several studies, participants responded to restrictions that were certain to come into effect more favorably and valuing the restricted freedoms less, a form of “rationalization.” Participants responded to identical restrictions that were described as having a small chance of not coming into effect with “reactance,” viewing restrictions less favorably and valuing the restricted freedoms more.

“There have traditionally been two schools of thought on how people react to restrictions on freedoms,” said Gavan Fitzsimons, professor of marketing at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and one of the study’s authors. “One school of thought says people are likely to react to restrictions with rationalization and a level of acceptance, while a second suggests people are motivated to restore restricted freedoms and will respond negatively on attempts to constrain them. Our research reconciles these two opposing views by considering the restrictions’ degree of absoluteness.”

The study cites several hypothetical situations to explain the varied responses to restrictions on freedom. In one survey, participants read that the government had decided to reduce speed limits after experts concluded lower speed limits in cities increase safety. Some participants were told the new limits would definitely come into effect (an absolute condition), while others were told the limits would come into effect only if a majority of government officials voted to enact it (a non-absolute condition).

Participants in the absolute group tended to rationalize the new restrictions; they reacted with more positive attitudes and lower levels of annoyance toward reduced speed limits. In contrast, participants in the non-absolute group reacted strongly against the limits.

“Our findings have a number of practical applications, potentially shedding some light on the recent string of uprisings in the Middle East,” said co-author Aaron Kay, an associate professor of management and of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

“To the extent a political regime feels absolute and permanent to its citizens, people will rationalize its actions and decisions, even minimizing the importance of freedoms. But once they learn similar regimes have been toppled and are therefore not as permanent as people once thought, they may become reactant and perhaps motivated to revolt,” he said.

The study is here.

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The Situation of Choice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 23, 2012

From the APS Monitor (excerpts from a terrific primer on “The Mechanics of Choice”):

* * *

The prediction of social behavior significantly involves the way people make decisions about resources and wealth, so the science of decision making historically was the province of economists. And the basic assumption of economists was always that, when it comes to money, people are essentially rational. It was largely inconceivable that people would make decisions that go against their own interests. Although successive refinements of expected-utility theory made room for individual differences in how probabilities were estimated, the on-the-surface irrational economic behavior of groups and individuals could always be forced to fit some rigid, rational calculation.The problem is — and everything from fluctuations in the stock market to decisions between saving for retirement or purchasing a lottery ticket or a shirt on the sale rack shows it — people just aren’t rational. They systematically make choices that go against what an economist would predict or advocate.Enter a pair of psychological scientists — Daniel Kahneman (currently a professor emeritus at Princeton) and Amos Tversky — who in the 1970s turned the economists’ rational theories on their heads. Kahneman and Tversky’s research on heuristics and biases and their Nobel Prize winning contribution, prospect theory, poured real, irrational, only-human behavior into the calculations, enabling much more powerful prediction of how individuals really choose between risky options.

* * *

Univ. of Toronto psychologist Keith E. Stanovich and James Madison Univ. psychologist Richard F. West refer to these experiential and analytical modes as “System 1” and “System 2,” respectively. Both systems may be involved in making any particular choice — the second system may monitor the quality of the snap, System-1 judgment and adjust a decision accordingly.7 But System 1 will win out when the decider is under time pressure or when his or her System-2 processes are already taxed.

This is not to entirely disparage System-1 thinking, however. Rules of thumb are handy, after all, and for experts in high-stakes domains, it may be the quicker form of risk processing that leads to better real-world choices. In a study by Cornell University psychologist Valerie Reyna and Mayo Clinic physician Farrell J. Lloyd, expert cardiologists took less relevant information into account than younger doctors and medical students did when making decisions to admit or not admit patients with chest pain to the hospital. Experts also tended to process that information in an all-or-none fashion (a patient was either at risk of a heart attack or not) rather than expending time and effort dealing with shades of gray. In other words, the more expertise a doctor has, the more that his or her intuitive sense of the gist of a situation was used as a guide.8

In Reyna’s variant of the dual-system account, fuzzy-trace theory, the quick-decision system focuses on the gist or overall meaning of a problem instead of rationally deliberating on facts and odds of alternative outcomes.9 Because it relies on the late-developing ventromedial and dorsolateral parts of the frontal lobe, this intuitive (but informed) system is the more mature of the two systems used to make decisions involving risks.

A 2004 study by Vassar biopsychologist Abigail A. Baird and Univ. of Waterloo cognitive psychologist Jonathan A. Fugelsang showed that this gist-based system matures later than do other systems. People of different ages were asked to respond quickly to easy, risk-related questions such as “Is it a good idea to set your hair on fire?”, “Is it a good idea to drink Drano?”, and “Is it a good idea to swim with sharks?” They found that young people took about a sixth of a second longer than adults to arrive at the obvious answers (it’s “no” in all three cases, in case you were having trouble deciding).10 The fact that our gist-processing centers don’t fully mature until the 20s in most people may help explain the poor, risky choices younger, less experienced decision makers commonly make.

Adolescents decide to drive fast, have unprotected sex, use drugs, drink, or smoke not simply on impulse but also because their young brains get bogged down in calculating odds. Youth are bombarded by warning statistics intended to set them straight, yet risks of undesirable outcomes from risky activities remain objectively small — smaller than teens may have initially estimated, even — and this may actually encourage young people to take those risks rather than avoid them. Adults, in contrast, make their choices more like expert doctors: going with their guts and making an immediate black/white judgment. They just say no to risky activities because, however objectively unlikely the risks are, there’s too much at stake to warrant even considering them.11

Making Better Choices

The gist of the matter is, though, that none of us, no matter how grown up our frontal lobes, make optimal decisions; if we did, the world would be a better place. So the future of decision science is to take what we’ve learned about heuristics, biases, and System-1 versus System-2 thinking and apply it to the problem of actually improving people’s real-world choices.

One obvious approach is to get people to increase their use of System 2 to temper their emotional, snap judgments. Giving people more time to make decisions and reducing taxing demands on deliberative processing are obvious ways of bringing System 2 more into the act. Katherine L. Milkman (U. Penn.), Dolly Chugh (NYU), and Max H. Bazerman (Harvard) identify several other ways of facilitating System-2 thinking.12 One example is encouraging decision makers to replace their intuitions with formal analysis — taking into account data on all known variables, providing weights to variables, and quantifying the different choices. This method has been shown to significantly improve decisions in contexts like school admissions and hiring.

Having decision makers take an outsider’s perspective on a decision can reduce overconfidence in their knowledge, in their odds of success, and in their time to complete tasks. Encouraging decision makers to consider the opposite of their preferred choice can reduce judgment errors and biases, as can training them in statistical reasoning. Considering multiple options simultaneously rather than separately can optimize outcomes and increase an individual’s willpower in carrying out a choice. Analogical reasoning can reduce System-1 errors by highlighting how a particular task shares underlying principles with another unrelated one, thereby helping people to see past distracting surface details to more fully understand a problem. And decision making by committee rather than individually can improve decisions in group contexts, as can making individuals more accountable for their decisions.13

In some domains, however, a better approach may be to work with, rather than against, our tendency to make decisions based on visceral reactions. In the health arena, this may involve appealing to people’s gist-based thinking. Doctors and the media bombard health consumers with numerical facts and data, yet according to Reyna, patients — like teenagers — tend initially to overestimate their risks; when they learn their risk for a particular disease is actually objectively lower than they thought, they become more complacent — for instance by forgoing screening. Instead, communicating the gist, “You’re at (some) risk, you should get screened because it detects disease early” may be a more powerful motivator to make the right decision than the raw numbers. And when statistics are presented, doing so in easy-to-grasp graphic formats rather than numerically can help patients (as well as physicians, who can be as statistically challenged as most laypeople) extract their own gists from the facts.14

Complacency is a problem when decisions involve issues that feel more remote from our daily lives — problems like global warming. The biggest obstacle to changing people’s individual behavior and collectively changing environmental policy, according to Columbia University decision scientist Elke Weber, is that people just aren’t scared of climate change. Being bombarded by facts and data about perils to come is not the same as having it affect us directly and immediately; in the absence of direct personal experience, our visceral decision system does not kick in to spur us to make better environmental choices such as buying more fuel-efficient vehicles.15

How should scientists and policymakers make climate change more immediate to people? Partly, it involves shifting from facts and data to experiential button-pressing. Powerful images of global warming and its effects can help. Unfortunately, according to research conducted by Yale environmental scientist Anthony A. Leisurowitz, the dominant images of global warming in Americans’ current consciousness are of melting ice and effects on nonhuman nature, not consequences that hit closer to home; as a result, people still think of global warming as only a moderate concern.16

Reframing options in terms that connect tangibly with people’s more immediate priorities, such as the social rules and norms they want to follow, is a way to encourage environmentally sound choices even in the absence of fear.17 For example, a study by Noah J. Goldstein (Univ. of Chicago), Robert B. Cialdini (Arizona State), and Vladas Griskevicius (Univ. of Minnesota) compared the effectiveness of different types of messages in getting hotel guests to reuse their towels rather than send them to the laundry. Messages framed in terms of social norms — “the majority of guests in this room reuse their towels” — were more effective than messages simply emphasizing the environmental benefits of reuse.18

Yet another approach to getting us to make the most beneficial decisions is to appeal to our natural laziness. If there is a default option, most people will accept it because it is easiest to do so — and because they may assume that the default is the best. University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler suggests using policy changes to shift default choices in areas like retirement planning. Because it is expressed as normal, most people begin claiming their Social Security benefits as soon as they are eligible, in their early to mid 60s — a symbolic retirement age but not the age at which most people these days are actually retiring. Moving up the “normal” retirement age to 70 — a higher anchor — would encourage people to let their money grow longer untouched.19

* * *

Making Decisions About the Environment

APS Fellow Elke Weber recently had the opportunity to discuss her research with others who share her concern about climate change, including scientists, activists, and the Dalai Lama. Weber . . . shared her research on why people fail to act on environmental problems. According to her, both cognitive and emotional barriers prevent us from acting on environmental problems. Cognitively, for example, a person’s attention is naturally focused on the present to allow for their immediate survival in dangerous surroundings. This present-focused attitude can discourage someone from taking action on long-term challenges such as climate change. Similarly, emotions such as fear can motivate people to act, but fear is more effective for responding to immediate threats. In spite of these challenges, Weber said that there are ways to encourage people to change their behavior. Because people often fail to act when they feel powerless, it’s important to share good as well as bad environmental news and to set measurable goals for the public to pursue. Also, said Weber, simply portraying reduced consumption as a gain rather than a loss in pleasure could inspire people to act.

References and Further Reading:

  • 7. Stanovich, K.E., & West, R.F. (2000). Individual differences in reasoning: Implications for the rationality debate.
  • Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 23, 645–665.
  • 8. Reyna, V.F., & Lloyd, F. (2006). Physician decision making and cardiac risk: Effects of knowledge, risk perception, risk
  • tolerance, and fuzzy processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 12, 179–195.
  • 9. Reyna, V.F. (2004). How people make decisions that involve risk: A dual-processes approach. Current Directions in
  • Psychological Science, 13, 60–66.
  • 10. Baird, A.A., & Fugelsang, J.A. (2004). The emergence of consequential thought: Evidence from neuroscience.
  • Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 359, 1797–1804.
  • 11. Reyna, VF., & Farley, F. (2006). Risk and rationality in adolescent decision making. Psychological Science in the Public
  • Interest, 7, 1–44.
  • 12. Milkman, K.L., Chugh, D., & Bazerman, M.H. (2009). How can decision making be improved? Perspectives on
  • Psychological Science, 4, 379–383.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. See Wargo, E. (2007). More than just the facts: Helping patients make informed choices. Cornell University Department
  • of Human Development: Outreach & Extension. Downloaded from http://www.human.cornell.edu/hd/outreach-extension/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=43508
  • 15. Weber, E.U. (2006). Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: Why global warming does
  • not scare us (yet). Climatic Change, 77, 103–120.
  • 16. Leisurowitz, A. (2006). Climate change risk perception and policy preferences: The role of affect, imagery, and values.
  • Climatic Change, 77, 45–72.
  • 17. Weber, E.U. (2010). What shapes perceptions of climate change? Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1,
  • 332–342.
  • 18. Goldstein, N.J., Cialdini, R.B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate
  • environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35. Downloaded from http://www.csom.umn.edu/assets/118359.pdf
  • 19. Thaler, R.H. (2011, July 16). Getting the Most Out of Social Security. The New York Times. Downloaded from
  • http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/business/economy/when-the-wait-for-social-security-checks-is-worth-it.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1322835490-9f6qOJ9Sp2jSw4LKDjmYgw

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Posted in Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, History, Ideology, Neuroscience, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 15, 2012

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

* * *

Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

mlk5.jpg

So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person's] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Ideology, Psychology, and Law – Available Now!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2012

Edited by Situationist Editor Jon Hanson, Ideology, Psychology, and Law examines the sometimes unsettling interactions between psychology, ideology, and law and elucidates the forces, beyond and beneath the logic, that animate the law.

Here is some of the glowing praise for the volume from, among others, several Situationist Contributors:

“Ideology, Psychology, and Law is a revolution in the making. Encyclopedic in its breadth, this volume captures a moment – like the early heady days of the law and economics movement – when bold, new inquiries are suddenly possible.  For those who still cling to the centrality of preferences and incentives, thisbook will be usefully threatening.”

~ Ian Ayres, William K. Townsend Professor, Yale Law School, and author of Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done

“This volume is the first of its kind, employing the latest mind science research to illuminate the motivated and unconscious inspirations for ideology, law, and policy. The superbly edited and timely volume is a highly accessible, interdisciplinary collection, bringing together the perspectives and insights of many of the world’s most thoughtful and influential social psychologists, political scientists, and legal scholars. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand the psychological winds buffeting our institutions of collective governance.”

~ Philip G. Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University

“With this collection, Jon Hanson and the contributors to this volume have gone a long way towards breaking the iron grip that Law and Economics have held on serious legal policy analysis. By incorporating insights from psychology and other behavioral and mind sciences, this volume maps animportant and inspiring interdisciplinarity that will guide path breaking work in the future.”

~ Gerald Torres and Lani Guinier, co-authors of The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy

“This volume shows what ideology is and does. The chapters written by psychologists demonstrate that there is little about the mind’s work that can be called ‘neutral.’ The legal scholars who contribute to this volume push forward to ask how the law must itself bend toward justice, if such is the case. This compendium contains facts and ideas that, if heeded, may bring the law closer to the aspiration that everybody be equal before the law.”

~ Mahzarin R. Banaji, Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Department of Psychology, Harvard University

“Insightful, comprehensive, boundary-spanning. Hanson pulls together research and ideas from multiple disciplines to create a new way of looking at the most important legal questions of our time.”

~ Sheena S. Iyengar, S.T. Lee Professor of Business, Columbia Business School and author of The Art of Choosing

Purchase information here.

Posted in Book, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Interior Situation of Atrocities

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 10, 2012

From People’s World (an article summarizing recent research by Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske):

Why do people commit atrocities? What is responsible for brutality and the cold blooded murder of innocents carried out by Nazis, the Hutu in Rwanda, or the United States against the Vietnamese people and more recently much of the civilian population of Iraq? Some scientists believe they have found the answer.

ScienceDaily reports (“Brain’s Failure to Appreciate Others May Permit Human Atrocities,” 12-14-2011) that the part of the brain responsible for social interaction with others may malfunction resulting in callousness leading to inhumane actions towards others. Scientists at Duke and Princeton have hypothesized, in a recent study, that this brain area can “disengage” when people encounter others they think are “disgusting” and the resulting violence perpetrated against them is due to thinking these objectified others have no “thoughts and feelings.”

The study, according to ScienceDaily, considers this a “shortcoming” which could account for the genocide and torture of other peoples. Examples of this kind of objectification can be seen in the calling of Jews “vermin” by the Nazis, the Tutsi “cockroaches” by the Hutu, and the American habit of calling others “gooks” (as well as other unflattering terms).

Lasana Harris (Duke) says, “When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds [do they have more than one?] Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human.” I wonder about this? What is meant by fully human? Surely the Hutu, for example, who had lived with the Tutsi for centuries, did not really fail to infer that they had “minds.”

Practicing something called “social neuroscience” which seems to consist of showing different people pictures while they are undergoing an MRI and then drawing conclusions from which areas of the brain do or do not “light up” when asked questions about these pictures, the scientists conducting this study discovered that an area of the brain dealing with “social cognition”– i.e., feelings, thoughts, empathy, etc., “failed to engage” when pictures of homeless people, drug addicts, and others “low on the social ladder” were shown.

Susan Fiske (Princeton) remarked, “We need to think about other people’s experience. It’s what makes them fully human to us.” ScienceDaily adds the researchers were struck by the fact 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.”

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr.

Posted in Altruism, Conflict, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Neuroscience, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Motivated Ignorance

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 20, 2011

From EENews:

For many people, ignorance is bliss when it comes to vexing issues like climate change, according to a new study.

Published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the report shows that people who know very little about an issue — say the economic downturn, changes in the climate or dwindling fossil fuel reserves — tend to avoid learning more about it. This insulates them in their ignorance — a pattern described by researchers as “motivated avoidance.”

Faced with complicated or troubling situations, these people often defer to authorities like the government or scientists, hoping they have the situation under control.

“Our research suggests that this kind of overwhelmed feeling, and feeling that an issue is ‘above one’s head’ leads people to feel dependent on the government, and this dependence is managed by trusting the government more to deal with an issue, and this is managed by avoiding the issue,” explained Steven Shepherd, a social psychology doctoral student at the University of Waterloo in Canada and an author of the report, in an email.

“This is psychologically easier than taking a significant amount of time to learn about an issue, all the while confronting unpleasant information about it,” he added.

The report used survey data from 511 participants between 2010 and 2011. “In four studies we manipulated how we framed a domain like the economy or energy (e.g., simple or complex), and in the one study, we manipulated whether or not a future oil shortage was said to be an immediate problem, or a distant future problem,” Shepherd said.

The researchers found that people who received complex information on an issue felt more helpless and more trusting in government compared to those who received relatively simple explanations. In addition, people who felt ignorant on a certain topic — especially issues with dire consequences like fuel shortages or climate change — would reject negative information.

But researchers say there’s more to it than just plugging your ears and saying “la la la.”

The trust-and-avoid ploy

Motivated avoidance stems from a phenomenon known as system justification. “It refers to a motivation that most people hold to believe that the systems that they function with are legitimate,” explained [Situationist Contributor] Aaron Kay, another author. Kay, who is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, explained that people working within a government agency or large institution can’t really influence the collective group on their own.

So they are inclined to conclude the group largely knows what it’s doing. “It doesn’t always imply that people think this is good, but they think it’s better than the government not being in control,” he said. To maintain this view, he noted, people will deliberately avoid information that contradicts it.

“Climate change is a global issue that, seemingly, is beyond the efforts of any one individual. … I think a lot of people feel unable to do anything about it,” said Shepherd. “The next best thing is to either deny it, or defer the issue to governments to deal with it. … In our research we find that one easy way to maintain that psychologically comforting trust that an issue is being dealt with is to simply avoid the issue.”

The authors also speculate that political leanings play into whether people want to trust politicians handle climate change. “I think we see this in the recent ‘Occupy’ movements, and among those pushing for governments to do more about climate change,” Shepherd said.

“People who simply distrust the government to begin with, or libertarians who prefer to have as little government involvement in their lives as possible, are also unlikely to respond to feeling dependent on the government by trusting in them more.”

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Education, Environment, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Atheism-ism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 12, 2011

From USA Today:

A new study finds that atheists are among society’s most distrusted group, comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances.

Psychologists at the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon say that their study demonstrates that anti-atheist prejudice stems from moral distrust, not dislike, of nonbelievers.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” said Azim Shariff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a co-author of the study, which appears in the current issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study, conducted among 350 Americans adults and 420 Canadian college students, asked participants to decide if a fictional driver damaged a parked car and left the scene, then found a wallet and took the money, was the driver more likely to be a teacher, an atheist teacher, or a rapist teacher?

The participants, who were from religious and nonreligious backgrounds, most often chose the atheist teacher.

The study is part of an attempt to understand what needs religion fulfills in people. Among the conclusions is a sense of trust in others.

“People find atheists very suspect,” Shariff said. “They don’t fear God so we should distrust them; they do not have the same moral obligations of others. This is a common refrain against atheists. People fear them as a group.”

Shariff, who studies atheism and religion, said the findings provide a clue to combating anti-atheism prejudice.

“If you manage to offer credible counteroffers of these stereotypes, this can do a lot to undermine people’s existing prejudice,” he said. “If you realize there are all these atheists you’ve been interacting with all your life and they haven’t raped your children that is going to do a lot do dispel these stereotypes.”

Image from Flickr.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Ideology, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

What Will Sports Look Like In 20 Years?

Posted by Adam Benforado on December 6, 2011

When it rains, it pours.

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, my answer is no.

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

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

* * *

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

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

The Fundamental(ist) Attribution Error

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 4, 2011

Situationist Contributor Eric Knowles and his co-authors (Yexin Jessica Li, Kathryn Johnson, Adam Cohen, Melissa Williams, and Zhansheng) recently published a terrific situationist article, “Fundamental(ist) attribution error: Protestants are dispositionally focused, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Nov 14, 2011.  Here’s the abstract:

Attribution theory has long enjoyed a prominent role in social psychological research, yet religious influences on attribution have not been well studied. We theorized and tested the hypothesis that Protestants would endorse internal attributions to a greater extent than would Catholics, because Protestantism focuses on the inward condition of the soul. In Study 1, Protestants made more internal, but not external, attributions than did Catholics. This effect survived controlling for Protestant work ethic, need for structure, and intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity. Study 2 showed that the Protestant–Catholic difference in internal attributions was significantly mediated by Protestants’ greater belief in a soul. In Study 3, priming religion increased belief in a soul for Protestants but not for Catholics. Finally, Study 4 found that experimentally strengthening belief in a soul increased dispositional attributions among Protestants but did not change situational attributions. These studies expand the understanding of cultural differences in attributions by demonstrating a distinct effect of religion on dispositional attributions.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Deep Capture, Ideology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Tofurkey or Turkey?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 26, 2011


From University of Queensland News:

New research by Dr Brock Bastian from UQ’s School of Psychology highlights the psychological processes that people engage in to reduce their discomfort over eating meat.

This paper will be published in an upcoming edition of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, where Dr Bastian and his co-authors show that people deny mental qualities to animals they eat.

“Many people like eating meat, but most are reluctant to harm things that have minds. Our studies show that this motivates people to deny minds to animals,” Dr Bastian said.

The research demonstrates when people are confronted with the harm that their meat-eating brings to food animals they view those animals as possessing fewer mental capacities compared to when they are not reminded.

The findings also reveal that this denial of mind to food animals is especially evident when people expect to eat meat in the near future.

Dr Bastian said it shows that denying mind to animals that are used for food makes it less troublesome for people to eat them.

“Meat is central to most people’s diets and a focus of culinary enjoyment, yet most people also like animals and are disturbed by harm done to them; therefore creating a ‘meat paradox’ – people’s concern for animal welfare conflicts with their culinary behavior.

“For this reason, people rarely enjoy thinking about where meat comes from, the processes it goes through to get to their tables, or the living qualities of the animals from which it is extracted,” he said.

Dr Bastian’s research argues that meat eaters go to great lengths to overcome these inconsistencies between their beliefs and behaviours.

“In our current research we focus on the processes by which people facilitate their practice of eating meat. People often mentally separate meat from animals so they can eat pork or beef without thinking about pigs or cows.

“Denying minds to animals reduces concern for their welfare, justifying the harm caused to them in the process of meat production,” he added.

Meat is pleasing to the palate for many, and although the vegetarian lifestyle is increasingly popular, most people continue to make meat a central component of their diet.

“In short, our work highlights the fact that although most people do not mind eating meat, they do not like thinking of animals they eat as having possessed minds,” Dr Bastian said.

* * *

Image from Flickr.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Ideology, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

The Economist Responds to The Situationist

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

The big-brained ape is a jerk.

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

Related Situationist posts:

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

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

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 23, 2011

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Bush - Times OnlineExisting levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

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No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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