The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

The Situation of Penn State Bystanders

Posted by JH on November 14, 2011

Many blame-laden fingers have been pointed at those who didn’t act immediately and decisively to stop the sexual atrocities that took place at Penn State.  We all know what the right thing to do was, and we are all confident that we would have done it.

But should we be?

To state the obvious, what transpired within the Penn State football system was wrong on many levels.  We know that rape is wrong, that rape should never happen, that if a rape does occur, it should be stopped from happening again.   We know that pedophilia is wrong, that using power to exploit the vulnerable is wrong, that turning a blind eye to misdeeds is wrong. Still, wrong happens.

Perhaps going forward many of us may be more likely to “do the right thing” after this media frenzy than we would have been had we never been confronted with this story.  But I’m interested in a slightly different question:  would we ourselves, in the precise situation of those we are judging, really have acted so differently?  Would we have immediately, vocally, and publicly intervened, protested, and contacted the police?

As this blog routinely highlights, for more than a half century, social psychology has been dismantling the notion that we can accurately predict our own behavior in strange situations.   The names of Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, and Phil Zimbardo are all familiar because of what their research reveals: We often fail where we expect we would succeed.

And yet that lesson doesn’t stick; the illusion of our own imagined heroism remains robust.  Even many of us familiar with the countless experiments illustrating the power of situation and the illusion of disposition manage to exempt ourselves from those lessons and assign blame to those who did not measure up to our standards.

We easily assign blame when they found ways to diffuse responsibility.  We see with clarity where they saw ambiguity.   We wonder how could they be so blind and so immoral and conclude that they are not like us.

To reach such a conclusion, we  place more faith in our rage than we do in the lessons of social science.  A mountain of research shows that we  have much more in common with those we judge harshly than we want to believe.  Among those similarities is the motive to see ourselves, our groups, our systems, and our world in affirming ways.  The tendency to see “them” as different and ourselves as superior is a symptom of the same nonconscious motivational force that allowed “them” to see themselves as doing enough.

We should resolve to do the right thing both when we encounter wrongdoing and when we judge others who encounter wrongdoing.  That is not only the honest and empathetic approach, it is our best hope to gird ourselves against the strong currents of our own situation.

* * *

The following 37-minute video was assembled hastily to introduce a small group of my students to the events unfolding at Penn State.  It contains video clips that depict, among other things, the integral role that football has long played at Penn State, the legendary and iconic status of Joe Paterno at that university, the different perspectives taken of those events and of Joe Paterno, and the various ways in which public and private law and the media have shaped the coverage and the reaction to the unfolding events.  The video also includes several clips from ABC’s “What Would You Do?” series hosted by John Quiñones.  Those clips might help remind viewers of some of the ways in which we tend to overestimate our own propensity to speak up, to resist, to get involved, or to fight back and underestimate our readiness to sit on our hands, to turn away, to opt for rose-tinted spectacles, or to go with the flow.

The video, be warned, has many problems (e.g., quality, editing, organization, redundancies); it did, however, provide useful fodder for what I thought was an illuminating discussion.  Because of that, I decided to include it here in case others might find it useful.  Though credits are not included, the vast majority of the videos can be found on Youtube.

A Sample of related Situationist posts:

 

Posted in Conflict, Education, Emotions, Life, Morality, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Inequality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 2, 2011

From TEDTalks:

We feel instinctively that societies with huge income gaps are somehow going wrong. Richard Wilkinson charts the hard data on economic inequality, and shows what gets worse when rich and poor are too far apart: real effects on health, lifespan, even such basic values as trust.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Distribution, Life, Politics, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Friends on the Brain

Posted by Adam Benforado on October 27, 2011

Have a lot of friends on Facebook?

Think that makes you special?

Well, researchers at University College London suggest that you might just be right.

According to a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Facebook users with the largest number of pals had greater brain density in areas of the brain associated with social perception and associative memory.

For anyone who has been following the debate over whether technology has been changing our brains, it’s worth a read, although the research doesn’t answer the question of whether the brain differences in the sample were an effect or a cause of individuals having more online friends.

An abstract of the paper appears below:

The increasing ubiquity of web-based social networking services is a striking feature of modern human society. The degree to which individuals participate in these networks varies substantially for reasons that are unclear. Here, we show a biological basis for such variability by demonstrating that quantitative variation in the number of friends an individual declares on a web-based social networking service reliably predicted grey matter density in the right superior temporal sulcus, left middle temporal gyrus and entorhinal cortex. Such regions have been previously implicated in social perception and associative memory, respectively. We further show that variability in the size of such online friendship networks was significantly correlated with the size of more intimate real-world social groups. However, the brain regions we identified were specifically associated with online social network size, whereas the grey matter density of the amygdala was correlated both with online and real-world social network sizes. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that the size of an individual’s online social network is closely linked to focal brain structure implicated in social cognition.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Life | Leave a Comment »

Should Obese Airline Passengers Be Forced to Buy Two Seats?

Posted by Adam Benforado on October 18, 2011

Last week, I traveled to the University of Tulsa College of Law to give a talk on the psychology of retribution.  The faculty was extremely welcoming and I had a great time, but on the way back I found myself in a challenging situation.

Shortly after I settled into my seat, a woman asked me if I would mind switching rows with her so that she could sit with her partner.  I was happy to oblige, but when I made my way to seat 2B, I found that the arm rest was up and my seatmate in 2A was taking up half of my seat.

It wasn’t a matter of him being disrespectful.  He was just a very, very large man and he did not fit in a single seat on the small plane.  With no other seats available, I did my best to squeeze in, but it was an impossible situation and I ended up having half of my body in the aisle.

In a time when the number of obese individuals has reached a critical level, it made me wonder what Delta’s actual policy was with respect to obese passengers.

So, when I got home, I contacted the airline and was surprised to find that they actually do “not have a published policy to address this issue.”  Rather, they have a set of “guidelines” that are meant to help resolve such situations:

Based on availability, if a passenger has purchased accommodations in the main cabin, we will make every attempt to assign a large passenger a seat next to one that is vacant.  If there is not a vacant seat, we will ask a large passenger to purchase a second seat at the lowest fare class available, for their own comfort and safety.  Rule 35 (7) of our Contract of Carriage states “Delta reserves the right to refuse transport when the passenger is unable to sit in a seat with the seatbelt fastened.”

In my opinion, this is a terrible policy.  Among other things, it makes travel for the obese even more fraught with anxiety than it already is, given that obese individuals are always at risk of being refused transport if they cannot fit into a seat.   It leaves discretion in the hands of flight attendants who may or may not make optimal decisions.  And it dispositionalizes the problem of obesity by implicitly placing blame on the overweight for their condition (“You are solely responsible for making yourself fat and therefore you must literally pay the consequences in the form of buying two seats.”).  As chronicled in the situationist article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America, this last concern may be the most serious for society as a whole.

So what is to be done?

I think that any approach ought to (1) be clear, predictable, and not subject to discretion, (2) ensure that all passengers are comfortable and safe, (3) not further stigmatize or embarrass the obese, and (4) not force any individuals to bear an undue financial burden to fly.

To me, this means that our best bet may be to construct planes with bigger seats for economy travelers.  Flying may cost more for all of us as a result, but those of us who are slim can enjoy some extra space and those of us who are larger can move about the country without feeling like pariahs.  It’s not a perfect solution, by any means, but it gets us closer to where we want to be.

Think you have a better idea?  Let’s hear it!

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Life | 1 Comment »

Barry Schwartz Returns to Harvard Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 2, 2011


Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Events, Life, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Low-Status Situation of Corrupting Power

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 30, 2011

From Eureka Alert:

Ever wonder why that government clerk was so rude and condescending? Or why the mid-level manager at your company always doles out the most demeaning tasks? Or, on a more profound level, why the guards at Abu Ghraib tortured and humiliated their prisoners?

In a new study, researchers at USC, Stanford and the Kellogg School of Management have found that individuals in roles that possess power but lack status have a tendency to engage in activities that demean others. According to the study, “The Destructive Nature of Power without Status,” the combination of some authority and little perceived status can be a toxic combination.

The research, forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, is “based on the notions that a) low-status is threatening and aversive and b) power frees people to act on their internal states and feelings.” The study was conducted by Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business; Nir Halevy, acting assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; and Adam Galinsky, professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

To test their theses, the authors conducted an experiment with students who were told they would be interacting with a fellow student in a business exercise and were randomly assigned to either a high-status “Idea Producer” role or low-status “Worker” role. Then these individuals were asked to select activities from a list of 10 for the others to perform; some of the tasks were more demeaning than others.

The experiment demonstrated that “individuals in high-power/low-status roles chose more demeaning activities for their partners (e.g., bark like a dog three times) than did those in any other combination of power and status roles.”

According to the study, possessing power in the absence of status may have contributed to the acts committed by U.S. soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. That incident was reminiscent of behaviors exhibited during the famous Stanford Prison Experiment with undergraduate students that went awry in the early 1970s. In both cases the guards had power, but they lacked respect and admiration in the eyes of others and in both cases prisoners were treated in extremely demeaning ways.

Fast said that he and his colleagues focused on the relationship between power and status because “although a lot of work has looked at these two aspects of hierarchy, it has typically looked at the isolated effects of either power or status, not both. We wanted to understand how those two aspects of hierarchy interact. We predicted that when people have a role that gives them power but lacks status—and the respect that comes with that status—then it can lead to demeaning behaviors. Put simply, it feels bad to be in a low status position and the power that goes with that role gives them a way to take action on those negative feelings.”

Social hierarchy, the study says, does not on its own generate demeaning tendencies. In other words, the idea that power always corrupts may not be entirely true. Just because someone has power or, alternatively, is in a “low status” role does not mean they will mistreat others. Rather, “power and status interact to produce effects that cannot be fully explained by studying only one or the other basis of hierarchy.”

One way to overcome this dynamic, according to the authors, is to find ways for all individuals, regardless of the status of their roles, to feel respected and valued. The authors write: “…respect assuages negative feelings about their low-status roles and leads them to treat others positively.”

Opportunities for advancement may also help. “If an individual knows he or she may gain a higher status role in the future, or earn a bonus for treating others well, that may help ameliorate their negative feelings and behavior,” Fast said.

The researchers conclude, however, that, “Our findings indicate that the experience of having power without status, whether as a member of the military or a college student participating in an experiment, may be a catalyst for producing demeaning behaviors that can destroy relationships and impede goodwill.”

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Sheldon Solomon on Ernest Becker and Terror Management

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 17, 2011

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

 

Posted in Emotions, Ideology, Life, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Bad Apologies

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 16, 2011

Topman has withdrawn the t-shirt pictured above (and another that suggested that women are dogs).

The shirt is intended to be humorous.  It would appear that Topman is attempting to point out  how apologies offered by batterers to their victims are often  disingenuous.  By adumbrating the standard set of meaningless apologies on a handy checklist to be worn on a shirt, Topman seems to be saying

“Ha ha guys!  We’ve all been there, right?.  You get carried away and, next thing you know, you are pummeling your girlfriend.  Then, of course, your girlfriend wants you to be all sorry and everything.   Recognize any of these excuses fellas?  lol!”

Whatever the interpretation, it seems clear that the shirt is trivializing (even condoning) domestic violence.

Now comes Topman’s (Facebook) apology:

“We have received some negative feedback regarding two of our printed T-shirts. Whilst we would like to stress that these T-shirts were meant to be light-hearted and carried no serious meaning, we have made the decision to remove these from store and online as soon as possible. We would like to apologise to those who may have been offended by these designs.”

It seems that the public relations team behind that apology is engaging in the same sort of worthless apologizing depicted on the shirt itself.

In response, we have designed a t-shirt.

 

 

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Life, Marketing, Public Relations | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Happy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 7, 2011

From TEDTalks:

Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, challenges the idea that well be miserable if we dont get what we want. Our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things dont go as planned.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Illusions, Life, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Sarah Haskins on “Ladyfriend” Stereotypes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 21, 2011

From :

The best part about being a girl is your girlfriends. They keep you happy when you’re sad and make you laugh when you want to cry, and most importantly, tell you what to buy.

Related Situationist posts:

 

Posted in Entertainment, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Life, Marketing, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Breastfeeding Prejudice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 20, 2011

From Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

A study conducted at Montana State University finds that even though breastfeeding is healthy, cheap and beneficial to mother and child, there is a strong bias against nursing mothers among both men and women.

Jessi L. Smith, psychology professor at MSU, found that participants in three studies thought nursing mothers were not as mentally competent as other groups of women and said they’d be less likely to hire breastfeeding mothers for a job.

The results of Smith’s study were published this summer in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Smith and her co-authors questioned MSU students in three double-blind studies about how they perceived breastfeeding moms’ competence and hire-ability compared to non-breastfeeding people.

In all three studies, the students rated breastfeeding women as significantly less competent in general and particularly less competent in math.

Smith, who became a mother in 2007 after the study was under way, chose to breastfeed her child and said it’s not surprising that new mothers considering breastfeeding are often daunted just thinking about the task.

“It’s the 21st century,” she said. “We have come a long way today in educating ourselves about the health and economic benefits of nursing to both mother and child, but we have done nothing to talk about the fact that breast milk actually comes from the breast and not bottles.”

Promoting breastfeeding to increase the number of nursing mothers would help stem the bias by letting people see that it isn’t a rare thing, Smith said.

“Right now, it’s not surprising that nursing mothers feel isolated,” she said.

Employers could also do their part to encourage breastfeeding by providing a private place for mothers to nurse their children since many mothers are required to return to work just six weeks after the birth of their babies.

“You can’t establish a good breastfeeding bond in six weeks and make a good assessment if breastfeeding will work for you and your child,” she said.

She pointed out that health organizations, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health, stress the economic and health benefits of nursing and advise that breastfeeding protects babies, benefits mothers’ health and society.

Smith has taken her research a step further with an INBRE-funded grant to study actual social psychological barriers to breastfeeding mothers. She has collected data from new mothers in Billings, Bozeman, Kalispell, Miles City and Missoula. She is now analyzing the data and plans to publish the results early next year.

More.

Related Situationist posts:

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

Would You Obey?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 14, 2011

Here is another segment from John Quinones’s excellent ABC 20/20 series titled “What Would You Do?” — a series that, in essence, conducts situationist experiments through hidden-camera scenarios. This episode asks, “Would You Obey a Total Stranger”

* * *

* * *

To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Entertainment, Life, Morality, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Nicholas Christakis on the Situation of Epidemics

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 16, 2011

From TED Talks:

After mapping humans’ intricate social networks, Nicholas Christakis and colleague James Fowler began investigating how this information could better our lives. Now, he reveals his hot-off-the-press findings: These networks can be used to detect epidemics earlier than ever, from the spread of innovative ideas to risky behaviors to viruses (like H1N1).

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Distribution, Emotions, Food and Drug Law, Life, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Colorblind? Really?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 12, 2011

From Sister Blog, Law and Mind (by HLS student, Rachel Funk):

Aunt Vivian: Gee, when Janice described him she didn’t mention that he was…tall. Not that I have a problem with people who are…tall.
Uncle Lester: My cousin used to date a girl who was…tall.
Uncle Phil: Heck, the boy go to a predominantly…tall school.
Will: Now, am I alone on this or didn’t y’all notice he was white?

~ Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (Episode #2.6, Guess Who’s Coming to Marry)

In a short article in the February/March 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, Siri Carpenter discusses two studies done by psychologists at Tufts and Harvard indicating that people who avoid mentioning race may actually appear more prejudiced. In the experiment, one white participant was paired up with one black participant, and they were each given the same set of photographs of random people. The black participant would choose a photograph, and the white participant had to figure out as quickly as possible which photograph his/her partner had chosen by asking him/her questions about each one in succession. The study was designed so that the matching process would go much faster if the white participant asked about the race of the person in the photograph. Significantly, the study found that the “intrepid few” who asked about race were deemed less prejudiced by black observers than the vast majority of white participants who didn’t mention race at all.

If that finding is accurate and generally applicable, then we as a society have totally f***ed up in making it a taboo to mention someone’s race. We have conflated defining someone by their race with simply acknowledging their race.

In her fantastic book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race, Dr. Beverly Tatum confronts this issue head-on. In reading about the above experiment, I was reminded of the following anecdote from her book:

“A father reported that his eight-year-old daughter had been talking very enthusiastically about a friend she had made at school. One day when he picked his daughter up from school, he asked her to point out her new friend. Trying to point her out of a large group of children on the playground, his daughter elaborately described what the child was wearing. She never said she was the only Black girl in the group.”

Despite the white father’s being thrilled that his daughter was colorblind, Dr. Tatum suggests — and I think that this is probably right — that the girl’s avoidance of mentioning her friend’s race was not so much a sign that she was colorblind as it was that she had been trained not to make explicit reference to someone’s race. (Interestingly, in the two studies mentioned earlier, one was done with adults, but the other one was done with children as young as 10 — the results were consistent across the two studies.) As further evidence of this phenomenon, Dr. Tatum notes that “[m]y White college students sometimes refer to someone as Black in hushed tones, sometimes whispering the word as though it were a secret or a potentially scandalous identification.”

When I was taking the Trial Advocacy Workshop at Harvard Law School, I had to do a closing statement for a mock police brutality case, in which a white policeman in a predominately white, upper-class neighborhood had allegedly assaulted the plaintiff, a black man who had been waiting to pick his daughter up from her white friend’s house. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I began, “what do we know? We know that Robin Boyd was a black man in a white neighborhood.” As soon as I said “black”, the temperature in the room dropped by several degrees, I think because everyone stopped breathing.

For anyone who doesn’t know me, I am extremely white. Pasty, even. And as a member of the oppressor group (or, to dress it up in fancy psychspeak, the socially dominant ingroup), it is my responsibility to avoid drawing attention to this fact. But why? Why is it that we feel the need to go out of our way to avoid mentioning someone’s race, and often feel uncomfortable if someone else brings it up? Is it part of some elaborate construction of a fiction that we’re colorblind? Or does it stem from a fear that we might unintentionally offend somebody, so it’s safest to take the path of least resistance and avoid mentioning race altogether?

Dr. Tatum points out that many, if not most, white people simply never think about their race: “There is a lot of silence about race in White communities, and as a consequence, Whites tend to think of racial identity as something that other people have, not something that is salient for them.”

This insight reminded of a time when I was riding the Metro in southeast D.C., an area of D.C. that is predominantly black. I spent the entire time being acutely aware of the fact that I was the only white person on the train, wondering whether this was all everyone else was noticing too, and trying to act like I hadn’t noticed. In an uncomfortable moment of revelation, I wondered whether this is what the handful of black students at most higher ed institutions feel like all the time.

Most of the time, the default race position is white. For instance, in a novel, unless the author indicates otherwise (either by explicitly describing the character’s race, or by laying out a context in which most of the characters will be of a specific minority, like the burgeoning class of novels geared specifically towards African Americans), we generally assume any characters that pop up are white. In fact, I remember being struck by, while reading one of Robert Parker‘s Spenser novels, the fact that the (white) narrator mentioned that another character was white. While Mr. Parker delights in bringing racial issues up in oblique, peripheral ways — I should note that the Spenser books are easy-read mystery/crime novels, not the kind of deep, soul-searching, trying-to-make-a-statement books you’d expect to confront issues about race — it still caught me off-guard. It surprised me that it surprised me, so to speak.

Time for a politically incorrect anecdote: One day, when my friends and I were walking back to Harvard from the Square, a couple stopped and asked us for directions to a building on the undergraduate campus. As highly superior law students, we of course had no idea. As they walked away, my Chinese friend commented, “They should know better than to stop and ask a little Asian girl for directions.” To which my white friend joked, “Yeah, but at least you’re good at math.” (Followed by my Chinese friend yelling, “RACIST!” and chasing my white friend through Harvard Yard.)

There’s no point to that story, I just thought it was time for a little levity in the post. (Although John Jost does offer some fascinating insights into complementary stereotypes via system justification theory…)

Since this is a blog about mind sciences and the law, what implications does how we think about race have for law? The following is a series of anecdotes meant to offer some food for thought on the various ways that law and race intersect:

1) A white public defender that I met during the Trial Advocacy Workshop told us that she always made it a point to put her hands on her client’s shoulders (her client usually being a young black man) at some point during her opening statement, to communicate to the jury that she, as a white woman, trusted her client, and therefore they should too.

She also told us that she had to warn her clients that she was going to do that so that they wouldn’t flinch when she did it.

2) A scholar at Harvard was attempting to research whether the verdict in jury trials where the defendant was black had any statistical correlation to whether and how many African-Americans were on the jury. However, there weren’t enough black jury members in Massachusetts jury trials to provide a reliable sample.

3) The Vera Institute of Justice‘s Prosecution and Racial Justice project works with prosecutor’s offices across the country to study how prosecutorial discretion is exercised in relation to race, focusing on four key areas where prosecutors have the most discretion: initial case screening, charging, plea offers, and final disposition. Not surprisingly, the project found that prosecutors as a group often exercise their discretion in a way that has a disproportionate impact on minorities. However, as part of the demonstration project, many of these offices have implemented policies that have significantly reduced this disparity, even when these policies did not explicitly focus on race. You can find out more about Vera’s approach and findings here.

The popular image of Justice as blind seems to me to be exactly wrong. Justice is not blind because we are not blind, and it is through us that our justice system operates. Maybe if we saw Justice as mindful instead, we would have a better idea of how to go about achieving it.

Related Situationist posts:

 

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Life, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

David Brooks, the Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 9, 2011

From New York Times:

Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen a number of gigantic policies produce disappointing results — policies to reduce poverty, homelessness, dropout rates, single-parenting and drug addiction. Many of these policies failed because they were based on an overly simplistic view of human nature. They assumed that people responded in straightforward ways to incentives. Often, they assumed that money could cure behavior problems.

Fortunately, today we are in the middle of a golden age of behavioral research. Thousands of researchers are studying the way actual behavior differs from the way we assume people behave. They are coming up with more accurate theories of who we are, and scores of real-world applications.

* * *

Yet in the middle of this golden age of behavioral research, there is a bill working through Congress that would eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced — by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits.

Let’s say you want to reduce poverty. We have two traditional understandings of poverty. The first presumes people are rational. They are pursuing their goals effectively and don’t need much help in changing their behavior. The second presumes that the poor are afflicted by cultural or psychological dysfunctions that sometimes lead them to behave in shortsighted ways. Neither of these theories has produced much in the way of effective policies.

Eldar Shafir of Princeton and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard have recently, with federal help, been exploring a third theory, that scarcity produces its own cognitive traits.

A quick question: What is the starting taxi fare in your city? If you are like most upper-middle-class people, you don’t know. If you are like many struggling people, you do know. Poorer people have to think hard about a million things that affluent people don’t. They have to make complicated trade-offs when buying a carton of milk: If I buy milk, I can’t afford orange juice. They have to decide which utility not to pay.

These questions impose enormous cognitive demands. The brain has limited capacities. If you increase demands on one sort of question, it performs less well on other sorts of questions.

Shafir and Mullainathan gave batteries of tests to Indian sugar farmers. After they sell their harvest, they live in relative prosperity. During this season, the farmers do well on the I.Q. and other tests. But before the harvest, they live amid scarcity and have to think hard about a thousand daily decisions. During these seasons, these same farmers do much worse on the tests. They appear to have lower I.Q.’s. They have more trouble controlling their attention. They are more shortsighted. Scarcity creates its own psychology.

Princeton students don’t usually face extreme financial scarcity, but they do face time scarcity. In one game, they had to answer questions in a series of timed rounds, but they could borrow time from future rounds. When they were scrambling amid time scarcity, they were quick to borrow time, and they were nearly oblivious to the usurious interest rates the game organizers were charging. These brilliant Princeton kids were rushing to the equivalent of payday lenders, to their own long-term detriment.

Shafir and Mullainathan have a book coming out next year, exploring how scarcity — whether of time, money or calories (while dieting) — affects your psychology. They are also studying how poor people’s self-perceptions shape behavior. Many people don’t sign up for the welfare benefits because they are intimidated by the forms. Shafir and Mullainathan asked some people at a Trenton soup kitchen to relive a moment when they felt competent and others to recount a neutral experience. Nearly half of the self-affirming group picked up an available benefits package afterward. Only 16 percent of the neutral group did.

People are complicated. We each have multiple selves, which emerge or don’t depending on context. If we’re going to address problems, we need to understand the contexts and how these tendencies emerge or don’t emerge. We need to design policies around that knowledge. Cutting off financing for this sort of research now is like cutting off navigation financing just as Christopher Columbus hit the shoreline of the New World.

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Choice Myth, Distribution, Education, Life, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Heroism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 7, 2011

From NPR’s Morning Edition:

In 1971, at Stanford University, a young psychology professor created a simulated prison. Some of the young men playing the guards became sadistic, even violent, and the experiment had to be stopped.

The results of the Stanford Prison Experiment showed that people tend to conform — even when that means otherwise good people doing terrible things. Since then, the experiment has been used to help explain everything from Nazi Germany to Abu Ghraib.

Now, in a new project, [Situationist Contributor] Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who created the prison experiment, is trying to show that people can learn to bring out the best in themselves rather than the worst.

An Unwanted Legacy

Four decades after he created the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo says he’s still hearing about it.

“I hate the idea that the Stanford prison study is the main thing most people know me for,” he says.

Zimbardo has done many things. He was a professor of psychology at Stanford University for 40 years. He’s been president of the American Psychological Association. He’s written a book about the psychology of time and established a clinic for shy people. But he says his other achievements are often overlooked.

“Soon as people meet me, I go around the world, ‘Oh you’re the prison guy,'” he says.

Here’s how the experiment worked: Zimbardo recruited 24 male college students and paid them $15 a day to spend two weeks in a fake prison in a basement on the Stanford campus. Half the students were assigned to be guards, the others were prisoners.

As an educational video made about the experiment put it, “What happened surprised everyone, including Zimbardo. The illusion became reality. The boundary between the role each person was playing and his real personal identity was erased.” Some of guards in the experiment became abusive, and prisoners showed signs of mental breakdown. After six days, Zimbardo shut the experiment down and sent everyone home.

‘Here I Am, This Evil Scientist’

His reputation was sealed: He was the guy who had revealed that normal people can do very bad things — if you expose them to wrongdoing, even evil, they’ll join in.

“So here I am, this evil scientist, creating this situation where evil is dominating good,” he says.

The problem is, Zimbardo doesn’t see himself that way. He sees himself as a force of good in the world, not evil. And so now, retired from teaching at the age of 78, he has a new project, one that aims to change his legacy in a dramatic way: to turn regular people into heroes.

Not comic book heroes. But, rather, someone who would have helped Jews escape the Holocaust. Or even something more ordinary, like standing up for a classmate who’s being bullied.

“Heroes are not extraordinary people,” he says. “They’re ordinary people who do an extraordinary thing, step out of themselves, put their best self forward in service to humanity. And it starts with internalizing heroic imagination, namely — I could do it.”

So he’s calling it the Heroic Imagination Project. It’s a nonprofit training organization based in San Francisco. One of the first programs has been to teach heroism at a charter high school, called ARISE, in one of the tougher neighborhoods of Oakland, Calif.

Over the course of the year, Clint Wilkins been teaching students in the heroism course to recognize how their environment can shape their behavior. “As you can see,” he tells his students, “there are two kinds of ways of conforming, right? Do you guys remember which they are?”

Heroes Needed

Conformity is not an abstract concept to these students. Two years ago, the bystander effect happened not far from here. A 16-year-old girl was gang-raped by at least six men during a homecoming dance. Dozens of kids watched, some sent texts to their friends, telling them to come check it out. It took two hours before anyone called the police.

So this class is about training kids to break away from the pack, to be the person who defies conformity and does the right thing.

“They had to see the girl, you know?” says Phillip Johnson, a senior in the heroism class. “They had to see that girl go in the back with all those guys. Like if I see a group of guys in a circle, or something, I’m going to be like, what’s going on here? It’s like, oh. Woah. But that didn’t happen, apparently.”

The other students fall silent. Like Phillip, they’d like to think they would have been the one to call the cops. But if there’s one lesson to be learned from this class, it’s this: You aren’t always the person you think you’re going to be. Being able to imagine a different life for yourself is part of this school — and it’s the point of this heroism course.

It seems to be taking hold in Brandon Amaro. He’s a sweet-faced, 16-year-old kid who grew up in a farm town in southern California. Brandon says sometimes he feels like he could do something really exceptional with his life, something even his parents might not know he’s capable of. But then he starts having doubts.

He says it’s as if there are two Brandons. “The good one,” he says, “is like an over-energetic bee in my ear, always buzzing and buzzing, telling me, ‘You can do it, you can do it. Go for it.'” Then there’s the bad one, “who’s kind of like someone pressing down on your shoulders. He sees something good, he says, ‘No, you can’t try.'”

Brandon says when he imagines himself grown up, he’s just not so conflicted anymore. “The older me is going to be much more mature, more confident,” he says. “He’s going to walk and everybody’s going to just know it’s him. He’s going to know who he is.”

Can Courage Be Taught?

Zimbardo says he sees himself in these kids. After all, he grew up poor, too. “Growing up on welfare, in poverty, in the ghetto, in the south Bronx, amidst evil, drugs, prostitution and gangs and violence — I rose above that,” he says. “In some mystical way, I have always been the leader.”

But the question is, why did Zimbardo rise above? Why does anybody become a leader, or a hero, and someone else becomes a follower, or worse? And do we have a choice? Zimbardo’s class is teaching the students that they do.

But other social psychologists believe humans are more hard-wired than that. For example, they say criminal behavior comes from individual differences in personality, things like lack of self-control. These are differences we’re either born with or things we never learned as children.

Augustine Brannigan, who studies criminal behavior at the University of Calgary in Canada, is one of these people. When asked what he thinks of the idea of a heroism class, he replies, “Whether you can teach them to be heroes? No. What you can do is you can expose them to the narrative about heroes. If it takes, it takes. If it doesn’t, they still have the narrative, and they can respect it. But that doesn’t mean you’ve changed their behavior.”

Zimbardo aims to prove this thinking wrong. He’s betting that by studying heroic narratives, learning about human nature and taking on community service projects, the students will actually change the way they act.

A Practical Lesson

One afternoon, while the students are in heroism class, a fight breaks out in the hallway. Not students, but some neighborhood kids, possibly gang-affiliated, drift in from the street and start causing trouble. A teacher calls 911.

The students in the heroic imagination class cluster in the doorway, craning their necks to get a better look. And when they return to their seats, they begin to wonder: Maybe this was exactly one of those opportunities they’d been talking about, a chance to step up and be a hero. But it all happened so fast, and no one did anything.

“Students could have been, like, you know, someone come get this person,” remarks senior Phillip Johnson. “It shouldn’t have been a group of people watching.” On the other hand, other students argue, maybe having a teacher call the police was exactly the right thing to do.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell when it is the right time to do something extraordinary, they say, and when it’s better to just stay on the sidelines.

* * *

Listen to the story here.

Some related Situationist posts:

Posted in Altruism, Classic Experiments, Conflict, Education, Ideology, Life, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Susan Fiske on “Inclusive Leadership, Stereotyping and the Brain”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 28, 2011

From :

[Situationist Contributor] Susan Fiske of Princeton University discusses the psychology of stereotyping in her keynote address to Columbia Business School’s research symposium, “Inclusive Leadership, Stereotyping and the Brain,” co-sponsored by the Program on Social Intelligence and the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics. Professor Fiske is introduced by Professors Malia Mason and Bruce Kogut of Columbia Business School.

To learn more about this symposium, click here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Implicit Associations, Law, Life, Situationist Contributors, Video | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Susan Fiske’s New Book

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 26, 2011

Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske’s latest book, Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us, is a must read!  Here’s a description.

* * *

The United States was founded on the principle of equal opportunity for all, and this ethos continues to inform the nation’s collective identity. In reality, however, absolute equality is elusive. The gap between rich and poor has widened in recent decades, and the United States has the highest level of economic inequality of any developed country. Social class and other differences in status reverberate throughout American life, and prejudice based on another’s perceived status persists among individuals and groups. In Envy Up, Scorn Down, noted social psychologist Susan Fiske examines the psychological underpinnings of interpersonal and intergroup comparisons, exploring why we compare ourselves to those both above and below us and analyzing the social consequences of such comparisons in day-to-day life.

What motivates individuals, groups, and cultures to envy the status of some and scorn the status of others? Who experiences envy and scorn most? Envy Up, Scorn Down marshals a wealth of recent psychological studies as well as findings based on years of Fiske’s own research to address such questions. She shows that both envy and scorn have distinctive biological, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral characteristics. And though we are all “wired” for comparison, some individuals are more vulnerable to these motives than others. Dominant personalities, for example, express envy toward high-status groups such as the wealthy and well-educated, and insecurity can lead others to scorn those perceived to have lower status, such as women, minorities, or the disabled. Fiske shows that one’s race or ethnicity, gender, and education all correlate with perceived status. Regardless of whether one is accorded higher or lower status, however, all groups rank their members, and all societies rank the various groups within them. We rate each group as either friend or foe, able or unable, and accordingly assign them the traits of warmth or competence. The majority of groups in the United States are ranked either warm or competent but not both, with extreme exceptions: the homeless or the very poor are considered neither warm nor competent. Societies across the globe view older people as warm but incompetent. Conversely, the very rich are generally considered cold but highly competent. Envy Up, Scorn Down explores the nuances of status hierarchies and their consequences and shows that such prejudice in its most virulent form dehumanizes and can lead to devastating outcomes—from the scornful neglect of the homeless to the envious anger historically directed at Tutsis in Rwanda or Jews in Europe.

Individuals, groups, and even cultures will always make comparisons between and among themselves. Envy Up, Scorn Down is an accessible and insightful examination of drives we all share and the prejudice that can accompany comparison. The book deftly shows that understanding envy and scorn—and seeking to mitigate their effects—can prove invaluable to our lives, our relationships, and our society.

* * *

To read more about the book or order your copy, click here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Emotions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of the Vancouver Riot Kiss

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 20, 2011

From the Ottawa Citizen (article written by Sheril Kirshenbaum, a research scientist at the University of Texas and author of The Science of Kissing):

The man and woman appear oblivious of the chaos swirling around them. When anarchy erupted on the streets of Vancouver last week, the couple exchanged an ephemeral kiss that will last forever on our cultural landscape. Photographer Richard Lam inadvertently captured the embrace on his camera, and the image quickly made headlines around the world. It’s a striking contrast of furious energy and tender pause that will be analyzed, criticized, and admired for decades to come. Scott Jones and Alex Thomas were the calm in the eye of a storm.

Many wonder whether the scene has been photo-shopped or staged. Who are these people and what would inspire such seemingly inappropriate behaviour under dire circumstances? Yet a glimpse at some of the science behind why we kiss suggests that the lip lock was, in reality, a very natural response to being involved in an unfamiliar, frightening situation as emotions ran high.

There’s no doubt that being caught up in a riot would lead to increased levels of adrenalin, which boosts our heart rate and makes us sweat. Adrenalin causes our blood vessels to dilate, quickens the pulse, flushes our cheeks, and can even make breathing irregular. This important chemical is involved in readying our bodies to anticipate what might occur next. A passionate kiss can cause the same response because it also boosts adrenalin. And during an extremely tense situation, it’s easy to understand why sensations can be confused, blurring perceptions of passion and anxiety.

In the flurry of interviews that followed the photograph’s publication, Jones told reporters that he kissed his girlfriend in order to calm her down after police knocked them to the ground. Surely this was a split-second decision, but the odds are good that this strategy worked thanks to the cocktail of chemicals coursing through our bodies that regulate the way we feel and behave.

A kiss can be soothing for myriad reasons, and has been documented to reduce levels of the “stress hormone” known as cortisol. When we experience stress, cortisol is responsible for raising blood sugar and blood pressure while suppressing the immune system. It is part of the body’s regulatory system that amps us up to perform well under pressure. The right kiss from someone we love lowers levels of this hormone, thereby reducing the uneasiness we feel. In other words, whether he was consciously aware of it or not, Jones’s kiss likely served its intended purpose.

Of course, cortisol and adrenalin do not act alone. They are just two soldiers in an army of chemicals that guide our actions. Kissing also raises levels of the “love hormone” oxyto-cin, which reaffirms the special bond we share with those who matter most to us. And it is not all about romance either. When parents intuitively press their lips to a child’s scraped knee and say “all better,” it can actually decrease the perception of pain and discomfort.

Our brains are also primed to associate kissing with feelings of love and security. A newborn’s earliest feeding experiences involve similar movements and mouth pressure, laying down the neural pathways in his brain that will be continue to be important in other relationships throughout his life. On top of that, our lips are packed with sensitive nerve endings, so even the slightest brush sends a cascade of information to our brains that often feels very good.

It should be no surprise that kissing acts like a drug by stimulating the natural chemicals in our bodies because it has inspired poets, musicians, and lovers over millennia. And no matter what particular mix of neurotransmitters, hormones -and perhaps, bit of magic -led to that moment in Vancouver, it serves as an indelible reminder of the single most universal and humanizing practice we all share: The kiss.

More.

Here’s a video of Sheril Kirshenbaum discussing her book:

Related Situationist posts:

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

The Gendered Situation of Math, Humanities, and Romance

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 16, 2011

From the Boston Globe:

Psychologists have found that being stereotyped can subconsciously alter behavior. For example, subtle stereotypes of women being weaker in math and science can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, undermining women’s math and science aptitude. According to a new study, though, even supposedly innocent aspects of daily life can have a similar effect. Women who were briefly exposed to romantic images or a third-party conversation about a romantic relationship were subsequently less interested in math and science, and more interested in the humanities, than if they had been exposed to content related to intelligence or friendship. Men leaned in the opposite direction — towards math and science, and away from humanities — after being exposed to romantic content. Likewise, in a daily diary study, women who reported pursuing romantic goals on a given day were less engaged in math homework on that day or the next day.

Park, L. et al., “Effects of Everyday Romantic Goal Pursuit on Women’s Attitudes toward Math and Science,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Implicit Associations, Life, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 874 other followers

%d bloggers like this: