The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Racism is Still on the Table

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 28, 2012

From CBS Charlotte:

A study conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University found that approximately 40 percent of wait staff decide how they are going to treat patrons based on their race.

The official study, “‘Because They Tip for S***!’: The Social Psychology of Everyday Racism in Restaurants,” and its controversial findings garnered national attention when they were published recently in the Journal of Black Studies.

Their collected data showed that 38.5 percent of servers said that race influenced their approach to waiting on patrons, and that 52.8 percent of servers saw co-workers engaging in discriminatory behavior through poor service.

Researchers were motivated by the potential to further discourse about a form of racism not frequently discussed, especially in a society described by some as “post-racial.”

“[We] were interested in studying tableside racism, or ‘dining while black,’ because of the continuing prevalence of subtle discrimination against African-Americans in everyday situations,” PhD candidate Sarah Nell Rusche told CBS Charlotte via e-mail. “Other forms of racial profiling … have been well documented and we wanted to further understandings of these forms of discrimination.”

 Surveys were administered by Rusche and the study’s co-author, Zachary W. Brewster, to 200 servers working at 18 full-service chain restaurants throughout the state during the summer and fall of 2004.

The study also chronicled the races waiters’ and waitresses’ sentiments regarding the most and least ideal races to serve, in addition to noting how a patron’s race may influence their behavior.

Those findings were consistent with the overall reported bias against black patrons – a reported 64.7 percent of waiters asked named whites as the most ideal race to serve, while 54.6 percent said African-Americans were the least ideal.

Rusche added that a significant contributing factor to such behavior was the stigma against African-Americans labeling them as bad tippers – a gesture sometimes meant to be indicative of inferior service, and what the study calls a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“[T]here is widespread belief among restaurant waitstaff that African-American customers are poor tippers,” she explained of the findings. “Since the bulk of servers’ income is from tips, many servers feel that prejudicial service based on perceived tip (which is also a race-based perception) is economically justifiable.”

Rusche suggested that restaurants looking to create an environment free of racial prejudices should take care to curb any speech or activity that may foster such sentiments.

“One thing our research shows is that workplace discourse frequently involves racist comments and discussions of customers’ race, including the use of code words meant to avoid overt bigotry,” Rusche observed. “So instead of recommending how establishments can avoid hiring racist individuals, I would recommend that they work to minimize the prevalence of racist workplace discourse that fosters these sentiments.”

More.

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Posted in Implicit Associations, Life | Comments Off

Humility and Helpfulness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 22, 2012

From the University of Maine Press Office:

Helping one another in times of need is a cornerstone of quality human relationships, according to a University of Maine psychology researcher who has determined that humility trumps arrogance when it comes to offering assistance.

In a three-part research project involving 310 students at Baylor University in Texas, UMaine psychology lecturer Jordan LaBouff and colleagues found that people determined to be humble were more willing to donate time and resources to a hypothetical student in need. The results held true even when researchers controlled the study for potential influencers like empathy, agreeableness and other personality traits.

“The finding is particularly surprising since nearly 30 years of research on helping have demonstrated that the situation, not the person, tends to predict whether someone in need will receive help,” says LaBouff, who also is a UMaine Honors College preceptor.

“This research builds upon a growing body of evidence that humility is an important trait that results in a variety of pro-social and positive outcomes,” says LaBouff, the lead author of an article on the study with Baylor researchers Wade Rowatt, Megan Johnson and Jo-Ann Tsang in Texas. “It also suggests that if we can encourage humility in our communities, people may be more helpful to those in need.”

The researchers believe the study is one of the first laboratory studies to document a correlation between a personality dimension like humility or narcissism with willingness to help others. Humility could be a personality trait that is linked with altruistically motivated acts of helping, according to LaBouff.

Researchers reached their conclusions by measuring participant humility through self-reporting, or answering questions about their perceived sense of humility, in addition to gauging reaction time on tasks designed to measure implicit humility, LaBouff says. Participants were then introduced to a fictitious classmate who had suffered a personal tragedy and was requesting help to overcome the tragedy with time and resources from each participant.

“Participants who were more humble were most likely to help their peers, even when social pressure to do so was lowest,” says LaBouff. “That is, humble people were most likely to help even when they had the fewest external pressures to do so.”

The study results are reported in the January 2012 issue of The Journal of Positive Psychology.

More.

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Posted in Altruism, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | Comments Off

The Situation of Good Ideas

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 18, 2012

From

One of our most innovative, popular thinkers takes on-in exhilarating style-one of our key questions: Where do good ideas come from?

With Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson pairs the insight of his bestselling Everything Bad Is Good for You and the dazzling erudition of The Ghost Map and The Invention of Air to address an urgent and universal question: What sparks the flash of brilliance? How does groundbreaking innovation happen? Answering in his infectious, culturally omnivorous style, using his fluency in fields from neurobiology to popular culture, Johnson provides the complete, exciting, and encouraging story of how we generate the ideas that push our careers, our lives, our society, and our culture forward.

Beginning with Charles Darwin’s first encounter with the teeming ecosystem of the coral reef and drawing connections to the intellectual hyperproductivity of modern megacities and to the instant success of YouTube, Johnson shows us that the question we need to ask is, What kind of environment fosters the development of good ideas? His answers are never less than revelatory, convincing, and inspiring as Johnson identifies the seven key principles to the genesis of such ideas, and traces them across time and disciplines.

Most exhilarating is Johnson’s conclusion that with today’s tools and environment, radical innovation is extraordinarily accessible to those who know how to cultivate it. Where Good Ideas Come From is essential reading for anyone who wants to know how to come up with tomorrow’s great ideas.

Sample of related Situationist posts:

Posted in Life, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | Comments Off

Resisting Materialism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 15, 2012

From the Center for a New American Dream () at http://www.newdream.org:

Psychologist Tim Kasser discusses how America’s culture of consumerism undermines our well-being. When people buy into the ever-present marketing messages that “the good life” is “the goods life,” they not only use up Earth’s limited resources, but they are less happy and less inclined toward helping others. The animation both lays out the problems of excess materialism and points toward solutions that promise a healthier, more just, and more sustainable life.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Altruism, Deep Capture, Distribution, Ideology, Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , | Comments Off

The Evolutionary Biology of Obesity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 13, 2012

Harvard’s Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, speaks about the evolutionary origins of today’s obesity epidemic.

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

Posted in Choice Myth, Evolutionary Psychology, Food and Drug Law, History, Life, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Optimism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 12, 2012

From

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot visits the RSA to explain the biological bias of optimism, and its effect on our lives and societies.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Illusions, Life, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Self-Regulation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 9, 2012

From :

Roy F Baumeister visits the RSA to explain why willpower and self-control is one of the most important aspects of individual and societal wellbeing.

Related Situationist posts:

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

Phil Zimbardo at HLS “We Need Heroes”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 6, 2012

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Altruism, Classic Experiments, Events, Life, Morality, Positive Psychology, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Dan Gilbert at HLS on The Situation of Good Decisions – Another Version

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 26, 2012

From the Harvard Law Website (Jill Greenfield):

There is a simple method for making decisions, from trivial to life changing, that most people find easy to understand but impossible to follow. In a talk entitled “How To Do Precisely the Right Thing At All Possible Times,” Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” and host of the PBS television series “This Emotional Life,” discussed research in psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics that explains why it is indeed possible, yet incredibly difficult, to do the right thing at all possible times.

Gilbert’s talk was sponsored by the Living Well in the Law program at Harvard Law School, which endeavors to complement the teaching of the skills and substance of the law with attention to and development of each student’s sense of purpose as both a professional and a person.

Gilbert explained that our own minds thwart our attempts to make good decisions because our brains evolved to function in a world very different from the one we live in today, one in which decisions were limited to finding a mate and living in small communities, not purchasing long-term care insurance or making other complex decisions.

“We’re on an ancient vessel and can’t evolve quickly enough, but we’re not stupid,” Gilbert said. “The way we got to the moon wasn’t through intuition—we used science and disciplined rational thinking. We can use the same approach to make any kind of personal decision. The question isn’t whether we know how to do precisely the right thing at all the right times. The question is whether we will actually use what we know.”

He said that it should be simple to make a decision—all we need to do is multiply the odds of getting what we want by the value of getting it. But people make two classes of errors when trying to make decisions: errors in odds and errors in value.

Gilbert discussed the psychological phenomena leading to errors in odds, including the imaginability error and the optimism bias. We miscalculate the odds of a particular outcome because the imaginability error causes us to calculate odds based on how easy it is to bring something to mind. For example, people overestimate the odds of dying in a tornado or from using fireworks because those deaths make headlines, while they underestimate the odds of dying by drowning or from asthma, which are in reality far more common. The optimism bias, on the other hand, is simply attributed to the fact that we’re wildly optimistic about the odds of getting what we want, he said. Together, the imaginability error and the optimism bias distort our ability to anticipate odds of a particular outcome.

“The optimism bias occurs because, when you practice doing things, they become easier to do,” Gilbert said. “Motivational speakers tell you to practice thinking about success and not even let thoughts of failure cross your mind. If you just keep thinking about how your plans will work without being willing to entertain equally how they’re not going to work, success becomes easier and easier for you to imagine, and thus the imagineability error is at play. We practice thinking about success so much that it’s inevitable that we’ll overestimate the likelihood that it’s going to happen.”

Calculating how happy we’ll be if we actually achieve the outcome we want—the value of that outcome—is even more difficult. Anticipating value is so difficult because every form of judgment works by comparison, Gilbert explained. To illustrate that point, he used a decision very familiar to law students—deciding between two job offers. Job 1 offers a salary of $100,000, but everyone else at that firm will earn $105,000. The salary for Job 2 is $90,000, but everyone else will earn $85,000. Gilbert said that most study participants respond that Job 2 will make them happier because, although they’ll make less money, they won’t feel underpaid. But for that to be the right decision, one who chooses Job 2 must then walk around all day in that new job thinking about how wonderful that extra $5,000 is. In reality, people will not spend time making that comparison once they dive in and start the job.

“You forget about the setup. The comparison you make when determining the value of getting what you want is no longer the comparison you make once you get it, so it bedevils your attempt to make a good decision,” Gilbert said.

He warned that there is really nothing we can do to ensure that we make the right decisions—there’s no pill we can swallow, class we can take, or book we can read that will prevent us from making these errors in odds and value because they’re simply so natural to us.

“How can you do the right thing at all possible times? You probably can’t,” he said. “The best thing you can do is to catch yourself making these errors and know to watch out for them. Ask if yesterday’s price really matters today, or if today’s comparison will really matter tomorrow. We can stop ourselves not from making errors, but from completing errors.”

Related Situationist posts.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Evolutionary Psychology, Life, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Dan Gilbert at HLS on The Situation of Good Decisions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 23, 2012

From the Harvard Gazette:

To take a gratifying, low-paying job or a well-paid corporate position, to get married or play the field, to move across the country or stay put: The fact that most people face such choices at some point in their lives doesn’t make them any easier. No one knows the dilemma better than law students, who are poised to enter a competitive job market after staking years of study on their chosen field.

When faced with a tough choice, we already have the cognitive tools we need to make the right decision, Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard and host of the PBS series “This Emotional Life,” told a Harvard Law School (HLS) audience on Feb. 16. The hard part is overcoming the tricks our minds play on us that render rational decision-making nearly impossible.

Gilbert’s talk, titled “How To Do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times,” was part of Living Well in the Law, a new program sponsored by the HLS Dean of Students Office that aims to help law students consider their personal and professional development beyond the fast track of summer associate positions and big-law job offers.

There is a relatively simple equation for figuring out the best course of action in any situation, Gilbert explained: What are the odds of a particular action getting you what you want, and how much do you value getting what you want? If you really want something, and you identify an action that will make it likely, then taking that action is a good move.

Unfortunately, Gilbert said, “these are also the two ways human beings screw up.”

First, he said, humans have a hard time estimating how likely we are to get what we want. “We know how to calculate odds [mathematically], but it’s not how we actually calculate odds,” he said.

We buy lottery tickets, because we “never see interviews with lottery losers.” If every one of the 170 million losing ticket holders were interviewed on television for 10 seconds apiece, we’d be having the image of losing drilled into our brains for 65 straight years, he said.

“When something’s easy to imagine, you think it’s more likely to happen,” he said.

For example, if asked to guess the number of annual deaths in the United States by firework accidents and storms versus asthma and drowning, most people will vastly overestimate the former and underestimate the latter. That’s because we don’t see headlines when someone dies of an asthma attack or drowns, Gilbert said. “It’s less available in your memory, but it is in fact more frequent.”

Then there’s the fact that we’re prone to irrational levels of optimism, a pattern that has been documented across all areas of life. Sports fans in every city believe their team has better-than-average odds of winning; the vast majority of people believe they’ll live to be 100.

A study of Harvard seniors, Gilbert gleefully reported, showed they on average believed they’d finish their theses within 28 to 48 days, but most likely within 33 — “a number virtually indistinguishable from their best-case scenario.” In reality, they complete their theses within 56 days on average.

Still, he said, calculating our odds of success is actually the easy part. “What’s really hard in life is knowing how much you’re going to value the thing you’re striving so hard to get,” he said.

When we consider buying a $2 cup of coffee at Starbucks, for example, we don’t compare the satisfaction of a morning caffeine jolt against the millions of other things we could purchase for $2. Rather, we compare the value of that cup of coffee against our own past experiences. If the same coffee only cost $1.50 yesterday, we might balk at paying $2 for it today.

“One of the problems with this bias, this tendency to pay attention to change, is that it’s hard to know if things really did change,” he said. “Whether things changed is often in the eye of the beholder.

“It turns out that every form of judgment works by comparison,” he said. “People shop by comparison.” Unfortunately, our comparisons are easily manipulated, and comparing one option with all other possible options is an impossible task.

Real estate companies, for example, show potential buyers “set-up properties,” rundown fixer-uppers that they actually own, to lower their clients’ expectations for houses that are actually for sale.

In his own lab, Gilbert’s research team had two groups of college students predict how much they would enjoy eating a bag of potato chips. The group that sat in a room with chocolates on display predicted they’d enjoy the chips less, while the second group — stuck in a room with the chips and a variety of canned meats — predicted much higher enjoyment of the salty snack.

But when the students rated their enjoyment of the chips while they were eating them, those differences disappeared. While their previous visual judgment was tainted by comparison, their judgment of the actual taste was not.

“The comparisons you make when you’re shopping are not the ones you’ll make after you’ve bought,” Gilbert said.

The human mind evolved to deal with different dilemmas than the ones we face today, Gilbert explained. Our ancestors weighed short-term consequences to ensure their survival, evolving a snap-judgment process that often serves us poorly when making long-term decisions such as buying a home, investing in the stock market, or making a cross-country move.

The brain “thinks like the old machine it is,” Gilbert said. “We are in some sense on a very ancient vessel, and we are sailing a very ancient sea.”

Still, he told his audience, we have the ability to overcome these evolutionary roadblocks to self-aware, smart decision-making, as long as we acknowledge our biases.

“We’ve been given that gift,” Gilbert said. “The question is, will we use it?”

Related Situationist posts.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Evolutionary Psychology, Life, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Dan Gilbert Returns to Harvard Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 15, 2012

Tomorrow (2/16) Daniel Gilbert, Situationist friend, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, author of Stumbling on Happiness, and host of the PBS television series This Emotional Life, returns to Harvard Law to deliver a talk entitled

“How To Do Precisely the Right Thing At All Possible Times.”

Most experts tell us what to decide but they don’t tell us how. So the moment we face a novel decision—should I move to Cleveland or Anchorage? Marry Jennifer or Joanne? Become an architect or a pastry chef?—we’re lost. Is it possible to do the right thing at all possible times? In fact, there is a simple method for making decisions that most people find easy to understand but impossible to follow. New research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics explains why.

February 16 – 4pm WCC – 2036 Milstein East C.

Posted in Education, Events, Life, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Situationist Valentine

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 13, 2012

Here are some previous Situationist posts on situation of love – Happy Valentines Day:

Posted in Evolutionary Psychology, Life, Neuroscience, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Comparing Distractions – Beer versus Facebook

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 8, 2012

From PsychCentral:

Getting your work done and even just chatting with your friends on Facebook or Twitter are harder desires for Germans to resist than drinking or smoking, according to a paper presented at Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s annual meeting in San Diego last week.

Researchers found the hardest desires to resist were either technology-driven — such as checking in with our friends on Facebook or surfing the web for specific information — or goal-directed activities, such as finishing up a project for work or school.

“Desires for media like watching television, surfing the Internet, using your iPhone, and our desire to work — that is, the intrinsic desire to get your work done —these are the hardest to resist,” said Wilhelm Hofmann, Ph.D., a behavioral science professor at the University of the Chicago.

The researchers studied the willpower of 205 adults ages 18 to 55 in the new study, checking in with them through a study-provided smartphone seven times a day to see if they were currently experiencing or recently experienced a desire or urge. Researchers assessed the kind of desire experience as well as its severity, and asked if the subject resisted or submitted to their desire. The study was conducted in and around the German city of Würtzburg, so it’s unclear whether the findings generalize to other countries or Americans.

Researchers collected 10,558 responses and 7,827 episodes where an urge or desire were reported.

It turns out that while sleep was a powerful desire for many subjects, it was easy to resist because there are few opportunities to sleep outside of the house. Other easy desires to resist include sexual urges, and spending impulses.

The hardest desires to control were ones dealing with our interactions with technology. It is especially hard for people to resist the desire to work even when it conflict with other goals such as socializing or leisure activities because “work can define people’s identities, dictate many aspects of daily life, and invoke penalties if important duties are shirked.”

Hofmann suggested that the desires for media may be harder to resist because of its high availability and also because it “feels like it does not ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist,” he told one media outlet.

Drinking and smoking, on the other hand, are not readily available to most people throughout the day, and they come with higher costs, both financially and socially.

“With cigarettes and alcohol there are more costs — long-term as well as monetary — and the opportunity may not always be the right one. Even though giving in to media desires is certainly less consequential, the frequent use may still ‘steal’ a lot of people’s time.”

The best ways to resist undesirable urges said Hofmann is to not overindulge while drinking alcoholic beverages, and avoid being with or watching others participate in tempting activities.

The study also found that that as the day wore on, willpower lessened. This suggests it would be wiser not to make any big purchases later in the day, and to avoid behaviors which may lessen one’s willpower or inhibitions further.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Entertainment, Life, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 5, 2012

This post was originally published on February 4, 2007.

Superbowl XLI

As I stake out my position on the couch this evening – close enough to reach the pretzels and my beer, but with an optimal view of the TV – it will be nice to imagine that the spectacle about to unfold is a sporting event.It shouldn’t be too hard: after all, there on the screen will be the field, Brian Urlacher stretching out his quads, Peyton Manning tossing a football, referees in their freshly-starched zebra uniforms milling about.Yes, I’ll think to myself, this has all the makings of a football game.

How foolish.

The Super Bowl isn’t about sports; it’s about making money.And with 90 million or so viewers, there is a lot of money to be made.

With CBS charging an estimated $2.6 million for each 30-second advertising spot, it’s no surprise that corporations don’t mess around with guessing what the most effective approach will be for selling their products.They call in the scientists.brain-on-advertising.jpg

For the second year in a row, FKF Applied Research has partnered with the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, to “measure the effect of many of the Super Bowl ads by using fMRI technology.”The research involves “track[ing] the ads on a host of dimensions by looking for activity in key parts of the brain areas that are known to be involved in wanting, choosing, sexual arousal, fear, indecision and reward.”As the FKF website explains, why this research is useful to Fortune 100 companies is that it

shows clearly that what people say in focus groups and in response to poll questions is not what they actually think, feel and do. fMRI scans using our analytical methods allow us to see beyond self report and to understand the emotions and thoughts that are driving (or impeding) behavior.

Looking beyond the spoken word provides immense and actionable insights into a brand, a competitive framework, advertising and visual images and cues.

As it turns out, “brand” lives in a particular place in the human brain:

[W]hen [FKF] did an academic study on the impact of iconic brands, such as Pepsi and Coke and McDonalds, [they] found that the same part of the brain lit up over images of sports logos – say, for the NBA or NFL. There is a clear connection in the human brain between the anticipation of eating that you get from, say, the Coke logo and with the NBA logo.

nfl-coke-logos.jpg

For someone like me, who has always wondered why I feel so hungry reading the sports page, this is interesting stuff.For a corporate CEO, this is extremely interesting – and actionable – stuff.For everyone else . . . this is a reason to be concerned.

Corporations are using science to figure out how our brains work so they can sell more products and what they are finding is that our brains don’t work the way we think they do.

Anticipating this worry, FKF has an Ethics tab on its website:

We are committed to the highest level of ethical behavior in conducting our work. We are determined to be diligent in carving out a new field, and being a leader and advocate in ensuring the best interests of our subjects, the public, and our clients are protected. . . . We believe that wide dissemination about how people make decisions will empower all concerned – both consumers and purveyors of information. Such information, freely discussed in a democracy, will allow us to understand better how marketing is affecting us, discredit manipulation, promote communication, and help illuminate a process that fundamentally shapes the lives of human beings.

Sounds good – in fact, it sounds like situationism, and I have no reason to think that the founders of FKF, or the university scientists with whom they work, aren’t upstanding citizens with good moral compasses.It’s just that I’m still uneasy.

Corporations don’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to learning counterintuitive information about human decision making and then using it responsibly.Rather, the best approach for maximizing shareholder profit is to discover some seemingly-illogical detail about the human brain, use that knowledge to sell more widgets, and then convince the public that their naïve (and incorrect) beliefs about how they make choices are, in fact, correct.

Take big tobacco: as Jon Hanson and others have documented, after figuring out that nicotine was addictive and could compel people to buy marlboro-sm.jpgMarlboros, cigarette companies made a concerted effort to both up nicotine concentrations in their products and convince people, through advertising, that they were rational actors who were not easily manipulated.From the perspective of an entity that is charged, through our legal rules, with making money (and not with doing social good), it makes little sense to alter peoples’ situations to get them to be better consumers and then tell them that you are doing it and that it matters.

Why, that would be as silly as announcing a weak-side blitz to the quarterback before the play.Sure, it would be the nice, ethical thing to warn decent gentlemen like Manning and Rex Grossman of the imminent threat, but it’s not part of the game we’ve developed.Football is a game where you can get blind-sided.

As corporations and our brains make certain, so is watching football.

* * *

(To read about the results of a brain-scan study of men and women watching the 2006 Super Bowl by UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacobini, click here. To listen to a recent one-hour NPR (On Point) program on “The Changing World of Advertising,” click here.)

Posted in Emotions, Entertainment, Food and Drug Law, Implicit Associations, Life, Marketing, Situationist Sports | 4 Comments »

God’s Situational Effects

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 8, 2012

This is the fourth in our series of posts intended to help our readers with their New Year’s resolutions.  From USA Today, here is a brief description of research recently co-authored by Kristin Laurin and Situationist Contributors Aaron Kay and Gráinne Fitzsimons .  

God references slipped into tests decreased student’s belief that they controlled their own destiny, researchers report, but made them more resistant to junk food temptation.

In the current Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study, six experiments on engineering students, researchers led by Kristin Laurin of Canada’s University of Waterlooo reported that just mentioning the Supreme Being in tests affected student self-perceptions and self-control, regardless of their fundamental religious views.

In the first set of tests, the research team gave half the students word-game type-tasks, telling them the tests were indicators of future achievement. Half the tests included references to religion in the sentences read by the students, while the rest contained reference to merely pleasant things, such as the sun, instead.

The result? Religion references dropped student views significantly on how much they felt in control of their careers.

However, in the last three experiments the team slipped religious references into similar tasks tests, but then checked student ability to resist junk food and sweets.

The result? Religion references increased the student’s ability to resist temptation. Most remarkable, the effect seemed independent of the depth of the engineers’ piety.

Given how often religious references crop up in daily life, the study authors suggest that they may play a role in even the most godless person’s psychology, and call for more research to confirm their finding.

More.

(Citation: Laurin, K., Kay., A. C., & Fitzsimons, G. M. (in press). Divergent effects of activating thoughts of god on self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – pdf available here.)

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

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Life, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Good Habits

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 6, 2012

This is the third in our series of posts intended to help our readers with their New Year’s resolutions.  From The Sun Herald, here is a brief description of recent research on the benefits of retraining your brain.

What does it really take to change a habit? It may have less to do with willpower and more to do with consistency and a person’s environment, researchers have found.

A 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology had 96 people adopt a new healthful habit over 12 weeks – things like running for 15 minutes at the same time each day or eating a piece of fruit with lunch. The average number of days it took for participants to pick up the habit was 66, but the range was huge, from 18 to 254 days.

Those who chose simple habits, such as drinking a glass of water, did better overall than those who had more involved tasks, such as running.

Skipping a day here and there didn’t seem to derail things, but greater levels of inconsistency did. Erratic performers tended not to form habits.

The same study also found that having a cue for when or where you performed the habit acted as a reminder and helped to make the habit stick. By always exercising in the morning you’re reminded that when you get up, it’s time to head to the gym. Consistently eating meals at the dining table takes away the urge to eat while sitting on the sofa with the television on.

Contrary to popular belief, adopting more healthful routines may have little to do with how much resolve someone has, says Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California.

“We tell ourselves that if only we had willpower we’d be able to exercise every day and avoid eating bags of chips,” she says. “But those behaviors are difficult to control because we have patterns that are cued by the environment” – patterns that we’ve learned from past bad habits.

We’ve learned to associate being in the car with eating from fast-food restaurant drive-throughs, so that when we’re out running errands we find ourselves wanting a burger and fries, perhaps when we’re not even hungry.

We’ve learned to associate arriving home with collapsing in front of the TV, and arriving at work with taking the elevator.

We go to the movies and automatically purchase a giant drum of buttery popcorn – and once the habit is formed, we’ll eat the popcorn even if it tastes bad, Wood has found.

In a study she coauthored that was published in 2011 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, moviegoers were given fresh or stale popcorn to snack on while watching trailers.

People who were avid popcorn-eaters ate the same amount of stale popcorn as fresh: They evidently were snacking mindlessly. In contrast, those who didn’t have a movie-popcorn habit ate less stale popcorn than fresh.

“Once these habits become cued by the environment,” Wood says, “they tend to continue whether people are enjoying them or not.”

Wood suggests devising new activities to link to our environmental cues.

At the movie theater, instead of getting a large popcorn, get a small one or drink water instead. Soon you’ll associate movies with those new choices. Take the stairs the minute you walk into the building where you work – soon you’ll associate arriving at work with stair-climbing.

Instead of succumbing to the habit of snacking while sitting on the sofa and watching TV, use the time instead to do some simple exercises. After a while … you get the idea.

It takes some thought in the beginning, Wood says, “but once you’ve figured it out, it runs on its own. You’ve outsourced your behavior to the environment.”

More.

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

Posted in Choice Myth, Environment, Life, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Willpower

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 4, 2012

With New Year’s resolutions still reasonably fresh in mind, we thought we’d add another post or two on what the mind sciences teach about how better to achieve those elusive goals.

The current APA Monitor includes an excellent interview (by Kirsten Weir) of Roy Baumeister, social psychology’s guru on willpower.  We highly recommend his new book (with John Tierney); this interview highlights a few of the insights and discoveries that are the focus of that book.

Willpower touches on nearly all aspects of healthy living: eating right, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, studying more, working harder, spending less. Unsurprisingly, self-control has become a hot topic, both for scientists interested in understanding the roots of human behavior and for practitioners who want to help people live healthier lives. Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, a social psychologist at Florida State University, is one of the field’s leading researchers. His new book, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” co-authored with journalist John Tierney and released in September, describes surprising evidence that willpower is a limited resource subject to being used up.

Baumeister spoke to the Monitor about his research on self-control — where it comes from, how to get more of it and what psychologists still need to learn.

What drives you to better understand willpower?

The practical significance is enormous. Most of the problems that plague modern individuals in our society — addiction, overeating, crime, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, prejudice, debt, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, underperformance at school and work, lack of savings, failure to exercise — have some degree of self-control failure as a central aspect.

Psychology has identified two main traits that seem to produce an immensely broad range of benefits: intelligence and self-control. Despite many decades of trying, psychology has not found much one can do to produce lasting increases in intelligence. But self-control can be strengthened. Therefore, self-control is a rare and powerful opportunity for psychology to make a palpable and highly beneficial difference in the lives of ordinary people.

You’ve found that willpower is a limited resource. Can you explain that?

Many studies have found that people perform relatively poorly on tests of self-control when they have engaged in a previous, seemingly unrelated act of self-control. For instance, in a study in my lab, we invited some students to eat fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and asked others to resist the cookies and munch on radishes instead. Then we gave them impossible geometry puzzles to solve. The students who ate the cookies worked on the puzzles for 20 minutes, on average. But the students who had resisted the tempting cookies gave up after an average of eight minutes.

Such studies suggest that some willpower was used up by the first task, leaving less for the second. The pattern is opposite to what one would expect based on priming or activating a response mode. So we began to think that some kind of limited resource is at work: It gets depleted as people perform various acts of self-control. Over time, we have begun to link this resource to the folk notion of willpower. “Willpower” itself is a folk term, and the idea that we have some strength of character is a staple of folk psychology. Until recently, these folk notions had little resemblance to much in psychological theory — but our findings suggest that these notions are at least partly correct. However, in some respects, willpower depletion differs from traditional and folk ideas about willpower.

How so?

For example, we found that making decisions also seems to deplete one’s willpower. We found the same energy that is used for self-control is also used for making decisions. After making decisions, people perform worse at self-control. Conversely, after exerting selfcontrol, decision-making shifts toward simpler and easier processes. That can lead people to make poorer decisions, or to avoid making choices at all. I was a bit surprised that decisionmaking depleted the same resource as self-control. Intuitively it did not seem right, but on paper the hypothesis was a plausible extension. So we tested it, and have now demonstrated the effect repeatedly. Once we realized that the same resource is used for both self-regulation and decision-making, it became necessary to look for a broader framework. I think this common process is the psychological reality behind the folk notion of free will.

Can you walk us through a typical example of willpower depletion?

A dieter may easily avoid a doughnut for breakfast, but after a long day of making difficult decisions at work, he has a much harder time resisting that piece of cake for dessert. Another example might be losing your temper. Normally, you refrain from responding negatively to unpleasant things your romantic partner says. But if one day you’re especially depleted — maybe you’re trying to meet a stressful work deadline — and the person says precisely the wrong thing, you erupt and say the words you would have stifled if your self-control strength was at full capacity. What do you call this process? My collaborators and I use the term “ego depletion” to refer to the state of depleted willpower. Initially, we called it “regulatory depletion” because the first findings focused purely on acts of self-regulation. When it emerged that the same resource was also used for decision-making, we wanted a broader term that would suggest some core aspect of the self was depleted. We borrowed the term “ego” from Freudian theory because Freud had spoken about the self as being partly composed of energy and of processes involving energy.

How common are ego-depleting events?

Some people imagine that self-control or willpower is something you only use once in a while, such as when you are tempted to do something wrong. The opposite is true. Research indicates that the average person spends three to four hours a day resisting desires. Plus, self-control is used for other things as well, such as controlling thoughts and emotions, regulating task performance and making decisions. So most people use their willpower many times a day, all day.

You’ve found a physical basis for ego depletion?

Yes. My former student Matthew Gailliot, PhD, and I discovered the role of glucose in self-control, more or less by accident. While testing a different theory, we stumbled on the finding that people who got some food showed improvements in self-control afterward — regardless of whether they had enjoyed the food. This led us into several years of work aimed at finding out how glucose is related to self-control.

Glucose is the chemical in the bloodstream that carries energy to the brain, muscles and other organs and systems. In simple terms, glucose is fuel for the brain. Acts of self-control reduce blood glucose levels. Low levels of glucose predict poor performance on self-control tasks and tests. Replenishing glucose, even just with a glass of lemonade, improves self-control performance.

Aside from sipping lemonade, how can willpower be strengthened?

Quite a few studies in multiple labs have now shown that people can improve their self-control even as adults. As with a muscle, it gets stronger from regular exercise. So engaging in some extra self-control activities for a couple weeks produces improvement in self-control, even on tasks that have no relation to the exercise activities. The exercises can be arbitrary, such as using your left hand instead of your right hand to open doors and brush your teeth. Or they can be meaningful, such as working to manage money better and save more. The important thing is to practice overriding habitual ways of doing things and exerting deliberate control over your actions. Over time, that practice improves self-control.

Is there a lot left to learn about ego depletion?

I am constantly surprised and delighted to see how many different researchers are coming up with creative extensions, refinements and applications of these basic ideas about willpower. Within the last year, there have been studies on how willpower processes can help explain the troubles of students who worry about fitting in at college, how leaders may burn out, whether dogs get into fights, whether people keep their promises to romantic partners and more.

Our own work has recently found evidence for ego depletion outside the lab, which is a very important step. In an experience sampling study I worked on with Wilhelm Hofmann, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, participants wore beepers and reported their desires and relevant actions throughout their daily lives over the course of a week. We found that as people depleted their willpower, they became increasingly likely to give in to desires they might otherwise have resisted. This was true for all manner of desires: desires to sleep, to eat, to have sex, to play games, to spend money, to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, and on and on.

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr.

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Want To Lose Weight?: Consider the Situational Values of Values

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 3, 2012

The outstanding Wray Herbert has a terrific piece on The Huffington Post about research done by Situationist Contributor, Geoffrey Cohen.

Dieting and weight control are really pretty simple. We gain weight and have trouble losing it because we eat too much and move too little. If we can switch that around, most of us should be able to maintain a sensible weight without resorting to unhealthy gimmicks.

But that’s just the biology of weight control. What about the psychology? Why do we habitually take in too many calories, even when we know those calories are a ticket to obesity and all sorts of chronic diseases?

There are two major reasons for unhealthy weight, according to experts. One is a simple lack of self-control. We live in a society where every day we confront an abundance of high-calorie foods. Not overeating in this environment requires extraordinary discipline. The second is an inability to cope with stress. Struggling with ordinary but constant life stresses can drain the cognitive energy needed for discipline, weakening our resolve. Stress-related eating packs on unhealthy calories, contributing to weight gain — and over time to obesity.

What if there were a simple psychological intervention that addressed both of these issues at once — bolstering self-control and buffering against everyday stress?

I know. It sounds like one more gimmick, too good to be true. Perhaps, but in a new study, two psychological scientists propose just such an intervention — along with some preliminary evidence to back it up. Christine Logel of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford University describe a brief and simple way to give people the tools for resisting temptation and coping with life’s pressures.

It’s called “values affirmation,” and it’s done with a simple writing exercise. The theory is that focusing on one’s core values triggers a cascade of psychological processes: It bolsters a sense of self-worth and personal integrity. It underscores our higher values rather than our impulses, and by reminding us what’s really important in life, it buffers against mundane stresses. Since stress saps our limited cognitive resources, such an affirmation frees up these resources for willpower and self-discipline.

At least that’s the theory, which Logel and Cohen tested in a simple experiment. They recruited a group of young women (apparently, women are more prone to stress-related overeating), recording their baseline weight and body mass index, or BMI. The women were representative of North American women in general. That is, nearly 60 percent were overweight or obese, the rest normal. Notably, all were dissatisfied with their current weight.

Then half of the women wrote an essay about their most cherished values — religious beliefs, relationships, whatever they considered most important to them. The remainder, the controls, wrote about something they did not prize particularly, and why it might be important to someone else. Importantly, none of the values in the exercise had to do with weight or health.

That’s it. That’s the entire intervention. Then the scientists waited for about 2.5 months, at which point they called all the volunteers back into the lab. They again measured their weight and BMI, and also their waistlines. They also gave the volunteers a test of working memory, which is one of the cognitive processes crucial to self-control. Reducing stress should theoretically boost working memory capacity, and consequently discipline.

The results, reported online in the journal Psychological Science, were clear and quite dramatic. The control subjects gained 2.76 pounds on average, and this gain boosted average BMI as well. Anyone who has ever struggled with weight knows that this is a huge weight gain in just 2.5 months. It’s the equivalent of more than 13 pounds in a year — for no particular reason. By contrast, those who had completed the values affirmation lost an average of 3.4 pounds — also huge — and trimmed their BMI in the process. Women in the values intervention also had smaller waistlines, independent of BMI. And these women also had better working memory, suggesting that it was indeed their enhanced cognitive function that bolstered their self control. Even the most seriously overweight women experienced these dramatic results after the brief writing exercise.

Losing even a few pounds and keeping them off can be maddeningly difficult. So how could one brief intervention like this have such long-term results? The scientists believe that people can get stuck in repeating cycles, in which failure to lose weight impairs psychological functioning, which in turn increases the risk of more failure. Even a quick and simple intervention has the power to disrupt this destructive cycle.

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr.

Posted in Life, Positive Psychology, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

Robert Sampson on the Situational Effects of Neighborhoods

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 5, 2011

From

Karen Sternheimer (USC) conducts an interview with Robert Sampson (Harvard) about neighborhood effects and his latest book, GREAT AMERICAN CITY (Chicago 2011).

From University of Chicago Press:

For over fifty years numerous public intellectuals and social theorists have insisted that community is dead. Some would have us believe that we act solely as individuals choosing our own fates regardless of our surroundings, while other theories place us at the mercy of global forces beyond our control. These two perspectives dominate contemporary views of society, but by rejecting the importance of place they are both deeply flawed. Based on one of the most ambitious studies in the history of social science, Great American City argues that communities still matter because life is decisively shaped by where you live.

To demonstrate the powerfully enduring impact of place, Robert J. Sampson presents here the fruits of over a decade’s research in Chicago combined with his own unique personal observations about life in the city, from Cabrini Green to Trump Tower and Millennium Park to the Robert Taylor Homes. He discovers that neighborhoods influence a remarkably wide variety of social phenomena, including crime, health, civic engagement, home foreclosures, teen births, altruism, leadership networks, and immigration. Even national crises cannot halt the impact of place, Sampson finds, as he analyzes the consequences of the Great Recession and its aftermath, bringing his magisterial study up to the fall of 2010.

Following in the influential tradition of the Chicago School of urban studies but updated for the twenty-first century, Great American City is at once a landmark research project, a commanding argument for a new theory of social life, and the story of an iconic city.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Life, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Rationalize or Rebel?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 19, 2011

From APS:

Psychological studies have found two contradictory results about how people respond to rules. Some research has found that, when there are new restrictions, you rationalize them; your brain comes up with a way to believe the restriction is a good idea. But other research has found that people react negatively against new restrictions, wanting the restricted thing more than ever.

Kristin Laurin of the University of Waterloo thought the difference might be absoluteness — how much the restriction is set in stone. “If it’s a restriction that I can’t really do anything about, then there’s really no point in hitting my head against the wall and trying to fight against it,” she says. “I’m better off if I just give up. But if there’s a chance I can beat it, then it makes sense for my brain to make me want the restricted thing even more, to motivate me to fight” Laurin wrote the new paper with [Situationist Contributor] Aaron Kay and Gavan Fitzsimons of Duke University.

In an experiment in the new study, participants read that lowering speed limits in cities would make people safer. Some read that government leaders had decided to reduce speed limits. Of those people, some were told that this legislation would definitely come into effect, and others read that it would probably happen, but that there was still a small chance government officials could vote it down.

People who thought the speed limit was definitely being lowered supported the change more than control subjects, but people who thought there was still a chance it wouldn’t happen supported it less than these control subjects. Laurin says this confirms what she suspected about absoluteness; if a restriction is definite, people find a way to live with it.

This could help explain how uprisings spread across the Arab world earlier this year. When people were living under dictatorships with power that appeared to be absolute, Laurin says, they may have been comfortable with it. But once Tunisia’s president fled, citizens of neighboring countries realized that their governments weren’t as absolute as they seemed — and they could have dropped whatever rationalizations they were using to make it possible to live under an authoritarian regime. Even more, the now non-absolute restriction their governments represented could have exacerbated their reaction, fueling their anger and motivating them to take action.

And how does this relate to unrequited love? It confirms people’s intuitive sense that leading someone can just make them fall for you more deeply, Laurin says. “If this person is telling me no, but I perceive that as not totally absolute, if I still think I have a shot, that’s just going to strengthen my desire and my feeling, that’s going to make me think I need to fight to win the person over,” she says. “If instead I believe no, I definitely don’t have a shot with this person, then I might rationalize it and decide that I don’t like them that much anyway.”

Click here for PDF.

Image from Flickr.

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Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

 
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