The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Morality’ Category

The Creative Situation of Cheating

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 2, 2011

From the American Psychological Association:

Creative people are more likely to cheat than less creative people, possibly because this talent increases their ability to rationalize their actions, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“Greater creativity helps individuals solve difficult tasks across many domains, but creative sparks may lead individuals to take unethical routes when searching for solutions to problems and tasks,” said lead researcher Francesca Gino, PhD, of Harvard University.

Gino and her co-author, Dan Ariely, PhD, of Duke University, conducted a series of five  experiments to test their thesis that more creative people would cheat under circumstances where they could justify their bad behavior. Their research was published online in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers used a series of recognized psychological tests and measures to gauge research subjects’ creativity. They also tested participants’ intelligence. In each of the five experiments, participants received a small sum for showing up. Then, they were presented with tasks or tests where they could be paid more if they cheated. For example, in one experiment, participants took a general knowledge quiz in which they circled their answers on the test paper. Afterward, the experimenter told them to transfer their answers to “bubble sheets” – but the experimenter told the group she had photocopied the wrong sheet and that the correct answers were lightly marked. The experimenters also told participants they would be paid more for more correct answers and led them to believe that they could cheat without detection when transferring their answers. However, all the papers had unique identifiers.

The results showed the more creative participants were significantly more likely to cheat, and that there was no link between intelligence and dishonesty – i.e., more intelligent but less creative people were not more inclined toward dishonesty.

In another experiment, test subjects were shown drawings with dots on two sides of a diagonal line and asked to indicate whether there were more dots on the left side or right side. In half of 200 trials, it was virtually impossible to tell whether there were more dots on one side or another. However, participants were told they’d be paid 10 times as much (5 cents vs. 0.5 cents) for each time they said there were more dots on the right side. As predicted, the more creative participants were significantly more likely to give the answer that paid more.

“Dishonesty and innovation are two of the topics most widely written about in the popular press,” the authors wrote. “Yet, to date, the relationship between creativity and dishonest behavior has not been studied empirically. … The results from the current article indicate that, in fact, people who are creative or work in environments that promote creative thinking may be the most at risk when they face ethical dilemmas.”

The authors concede some important limitations in their work, most notably that they created situations in which participants were tempted by money to cheat. They suggested that future research should investigate whether creativity would lead people to satisfy selfish, short-term goals rather than their higher aspirations when faced with self-control dilemmas, such as eating a slice of cake when trying to lose weight.

More.

The Dark Side of Creativity (PDF, 185KB)

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Morality | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

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 Skin

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 14, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More.

Image from Flickr.

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

The Bystander Effect at Penn State

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 12, 2011

From Time:

The grand jury investigation that resulted in 40 counts of child abuse against Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, has raised profoundly unsettling psychological and moral questions about the actions — or lack thereof — of others involved in the case.

Head football coach Joe Paterno was fired by the university on Wednesday for his failure to intervene upon learning about the alleged long-running abuse. But many more questions center on Mike McQueary, who is still employed by Penn State; he witnessed child rape firsthand in 2002, when he was a graduate assistant coach, but did not alert the police.

How is it that a powerfully built ex-quarterback could watch the rape of a 10-year-old boy and do nothing to stop it? Why did he neglect to report what he saw to legal authorities for nearly a decade, even knowing that the perpetrator spent much of his time with at-risk youth? And why did the team and the university fail to act at every possible step?

McQueary, who is now a wide receivers coach at Penn State, did tell his superior, Paterno, about the attack he witnessed eight years ago, but he did not call the police or get help for the boy at the time. (Now reportedly the focus of death threats, McQueary won’t be coaching Saturday’s game against Nebraska.) McQueary isn’t the only alleged witness to do nothing: a Penn State janitor witnessed a separate assault on a child two years earlier, and similarly failed to contact police.

The rest of us would like to believe that no matter how small or scared we were, if we saw a child being raped, we’d step in and stop it, or at the very least call 911 immediately. But social psychology research on “bystander” behavior suggests that many of us might actually turn away.

* * *

. . . Mark Levine, a social psychologist at Lancaster University in the U.K., * * * says that group dynamics do influence our actions, but not exactly the way we think. His own research has shown that being with others doesn’t always — or even typically — reduce altruistic behavior. However, the type of group we’re in and the relationships we have with its members, and with outsiders, do tend to influence how likely or unlikely we may be to help.

When the actions of a group are public and visible, insiders who behave in an unacceptable way — doing things that “contravene the norms of the group,” Levine says — may actually be punished by the group more harshly than an outsider would be for the same behavior. “It’s seen as a threat to the reputation of the group,” says Levine.

In contrast, when the workings of a group are secretive and hidden — like those of a major college football team, for instance, or a political party or the Catholic priesthood — the tendency is toward protecting the group’s reputation by covering up. Levine suggests that greater transparency in organizations promotes better behavior in these situations.

“It’s the norms and the values of the group that are important,” Levine says, noting that this fact doesn’t reflect very well on Penn State. Indeed, the riot that broke out after the firing of revered coach Paterno — who appears to have covered up for his former colleague, Sandusky, or at least looked the other way, rather than reporting him to the police — suggests that group solidarity with the football team still takes priority over support for abused children at the school.

Another factor that may have prevented action by McQueary and others is denial. Social psychologist Stanley Cohen identified several forms of denial that may cause people to ignore atrocities. There’s the denial that commonly occurs in response to difficult situations like receiving a cancer diagnosis or becoming addicted to drugs: the simple repressing of information and refusal to admit that the problem exists or has occurred.

In McQueary’s case, however, there seems to have been another type of denial at play, which Cohen labeled “interpretative.” “You don’t deny that something happened, but try to transform the meaning of it,” says Levine, explaining that a witness might minimize the significance of a crime or try to see it as something other than it was.

McQueary may well have been psychologically unable to accept that a man like Sandusky, someone he admired, had actually committed the abhorrent crime he witnessed. Research suggests that when people are faced with situations that threaten their view of the world as relatively fair and decent, rather than revising their own perspective, they often create accounts that deny reality, blame the victim or otherwise rationalize the situation.

* * *

A third factor that influences the likelihood that people will intervene in violence is whether they feel their actions will be supported by others in the community around them. Levine studied the case of James Bulger, a 2-year-old who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by two older boys in 1990 in Liverpool. Many witnesses saw the boys with the bleeding toddler, but since the boys claimed to be the victim’s brothers, no one confronted them.

* * *

While it is not clear exactly how the norms or values of Penn State may have affected the lack of action by its leadership in response to such vile abuse, it is clear that something went very wrong. A pedophile should not have been allowed to operate with impunity, especially after having been caught in the act twice.

Understanding the psychology of these situations can help increase the chances that bystanders will step up when people need assistance, but it does not excuse the failures of those who do nothing.

More.

Posted in Education, Illusions, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Psychic Numbing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 8, 2011

Situationist Contributor, Paul Slovic and his co-authors (including Situationist friend, Andrew Woods) just posted their superb chapter, titled “Psychic Numbing and Mass Atrocity” (in  The Behavioral Foundations of Policy, E. Shafir, ed., Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press, 2011) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

The 20th Century is often said to be the bloodiest century in recorded history. In addition to its wars, the century witnessed many grave and widespread human rights abuses. But what stands out in historical accounts of those abuses, perhaps even more than the cruelty of their perpetration, is the inaction of bystanders. Why do people and their governments repeatedly fail to react to genocide and other mass scale human rights violations?

A chapter in Eldar Shafir’s edited volume, The Behavioral Foundations of Policy, forthcoming from the Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press. Posted on SSRN in advance of publication with kind permission from Princeton University Press.

* * *

Download the chapter for free.

Related Situationist posts:

For related scholarship, see Paul Slovic’s Book, The Construction of Preference.

Posted in Abstracts, Altruism, Book, Distribution, Morality, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

Barry Schwartz Returns to Harvard Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 2, 2011


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The Science of Evil

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 27, 2011

Following up on my review of Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, I just finished reading the other new offering in the world of “psychopath studies”: Simone Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.

Baron-Cohen’s central theory is that evil is critically tied to lack of empathy.  It’s a thought-provoking notion and I was very intrigued by the connections that he made between various “empathy deficient” conditions from psychopaths, to narcissists, to borderlines, to those on the autism spectrum.

At points, I think he gets so carried away considering the particular dispositions of his “zero negatives” (those, like psychopaths, whose lack of empathy brings about “unequivocally bad” results) and “zero positives” (those, like Asperger’s sufferers, whose lack of empathy is not inherently harmful) that he misses the power of our situations to inform “evil” behavior.  Indeed, at these moments Baron-Cohen would have done well to pan out and emphasize that many of us (even those of us testing high on the Empathy Quotient questionnaire in the book’s Appendix) can be influenced to be less empathetic, with disastrous results.

These criticisms aside, and despite not feeling totally convinced by his argument, it’s an interesting book and worth a read.  I found myself continuing to ponder Baron-Cohen’s insights long after I’d set the book back on shelf.

One of these musings, I’ll share in my next post . . .

Posted in Book, Morality | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

“Taxi to the Darkside”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 23, 2011

* * *

]

* * *

(BBC Broadcast, 2011)

From

This documentary murder mystery examines the death of an Afghan taxi driver at Bagram Air Base from injuries inflicted by U.S. soldiers. In an unflinching look at the Bush administration’s policy on torture, the filmmaker behind Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room takes us from a village in Afghanistan to Guantanamo and straight to the White House. In English and Pashtu.

Related Situationist posts:

 

 

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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”

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* * *

To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see

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

Brain and Blame

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 11, 2011

From The Atlantic (by David Eagleman):

On the steamy first day of August 1966, Charles Whitman took an elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The 25-year-old climbed the stairs to the observation deck, lugging with him a footlocker full of guns and ammunition. At the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them.

The evening before, Whitman had sat at his typewriter and composed a suicide note:

I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

By the time the police shot him dead, Whitman had killed 13 people and wounded 32 more. The story of his rampage dominated national headlines the next day. And when police went to investigate his home for clues, the story became even stranger: in the early hours of the morning on the day of the shooting, he had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep.

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight … I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationa[l]ly pinpoint any specific reason for doing this …

Along with the shock of the murders lay another, more hidden, surprise: the juxtaposition of his aberrant actions with his unremarkable personal life. Whitman was an Eagle Scout and a former marine, studied architectural engineering at the University of Texas, and briefly worked as a bank teller and volunteered as a scoutmaster for Austin’s Boy Scout Troop 5. As a child, he’d scored 138 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, placing in the 99th percentile. So after his shooting spree from the University of Texas Tower, everyone wanted answers.

For that matter, so did Whitman. He requested in his suicide note that an autopsy be performed to determine if something had changed in his brain—because he suspected it had.

I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.

Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction. Female monkeys with amygdala damage often neglected or physically abused their infants. In humans, activity in the amygdala increases when people are shown threatening faces, are put into frightening situations, or experience social phobias. Whitman’s intuition about himself—that something in his brain was changing his behavior—was spot-on.

Stories like Whitman’s are not uncommon: legal cases involving brain damage crop up increasingly often. As we develop better technologies for probing the brain, we detect more problems, and link them more easily to aberrant behavior. Take the 2000 case of a 40-year-old man we’ll call Alex, whose sexual preferences suddenly began to transform. He developed an interest in child pornography—and not just a little interest, but an overwhelming one. He poured his time into child-pornography Web sites and magazines. He also solicited prostitution at a massage parlor, something he said he had never previously done. He reported later that he’d wanted to stop, but “the pleasure principle overrode” his restraint. He worked to hide his acts, but subtle sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter alarmed his wife, who soon discovered his collection of child pornography. He was removed from his house, found guilty of child molestation, and sentenced to rehabilitation in lieu of prison. In the rehabilitation program, he made inappropriate sexual advances toward the staff and other clients, and was expelled and routed toward prison.

At the same time, Alex was complaining of worsening headaches. The night before he was to report for prison sentencing, he couldn’t stand the pain anymore, and took himself to the emergency room. He underwent a brain scan, which revealed a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex. Neurosurgeons removed the tumor. Alex’s sexual appetite returned to normal.

The year after the brain surgery, his pedophilic behavior began to return. The neuroradiologist discovered that a portion of the tumor had been missed in the surgery and was regrowing—and Alex went back under the knife. After the removal of the remaining tumor, his behavior again returned to normal.

When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted (“I’m a heterosexual/homosexual,” “I’m attracted to children/adults,” “I’m aggressive/not aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption.

Alex’s sudden pedophilia illustrates that hidden drives and desires can lurk undetected behind the neural machinery of socialization. When the frontal lobes are compromised, people become disinhibited, and startling behaviors can emerge. Disinhibition is commonly seen in patients with frontotemporal dementia, a tragic disease in which the frontal and temporal lobes degenerate. With the loss of that brain tissue, patients lose the ability to control their hidden impulses. To the frustration of their loved ones, these patients violate social norms in endless ways: shoplifting in front of store managers, removing their clothes in public, running stop signs, breaking out in song at inappropriate times, eating food scraps found in public trash cans, being physically aggressive or sexually transgressive. Patients with frontotemporal dementia commonly end up in courtrooms, where their lawyers, doctors, and embarrassed adult children must explain to the judge that the violation was not the perpetrator’s fault, exactly: much of the brain has degenerated, and medicine offers no remedy. Fifty-seven percent of frontotemporal-dementia patients violate social norms, as compared with only 27 percent of Alzheimer’s patients.

Changes in the balance of brain chemistry, even small ones, can also cause large and unexpected changes in behavior. Victims of Parkinson’s disease offer an example. In 2001, families and caretakers of Parkinson’s patients began to notice something strange. When patients were given a drug called pramipexole, some of them turned into gamblers. And not just casual gamblers, but pathological gamblers. These were people who had never gambled much before, and now they were flying off to Vegas. One 68-year-old man amassed losses of more than $200,000 in six months at a series of casinos. Some patients became consumed with Internet poker, racking up unpayable credit-card bills. For several, the new addiction reached beyond gambling, to compulsive eating, excessive alcohol consumption, and hypersexuality.

What was going on? Parkinson’s involves the loss of brain cells that produce a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Pramipexole works by impersonating dopamine. But it turns out that dopamine is a chemical doing double duty in the brain. Along with its role in motor commands, it also mediates the reward systems, guiding a person toward food, drink, mates, and other things useful for survival. Because of dopamine’s role in weighing the costs and benefits of decisions, imbalances in its levels can trigger gambling, overeating, and drug addiction—behaviors that result from a reward system gone awry. Physicians now watch for these behavioral changes as a possible side effect of drugs like pramipexole. Luckily, the negative effects of the drug are reversible—the physician simply lowers the dosage, and the compulsive gambling goes away.

The lesson from all these stories is the same: human behavior cannot be separated from human biology. If we like to believe that people make free choices about their behavior (as in, “I don’t gamble, because I’m strong-willed”), cases like Alex the pedophile, the frontotemporal shoplifters, and the gambling Parkinson’s patients may encourage us to examine our views more carefully. Perhaps not everyone is equally “free” to make socially appropriate choices.

Does the discovery of Charles Whitman’s brain tumor modify your feelings about the senseless murders he committed? Does it affect the sentence you would find appropriate for him, had he survived that day? Does the tumor change the degree to which you consider the killings “his fault”? Couldn’t you just as easily be unlucky enough to develop a tumor and lose control of your behavior?

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be dangerous to conclude that people with a tumor are free of guilt, and that they should be let off the hook for their crimes?

More.

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Posted in Emotions, Law, Morality, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Mark Hauser Resigns

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 27, 2011

From Harvard Magazine:

Professor of psychology Marc D. Hauser, who was found “solely responsible” for eight counts of scientific misconduct last year, is resigning effective August 1, according to a letter dated July 7 that was published in the Boston Globe yesterday.

Hauser’s letter (PDF) did not mention the misconduct findings; he wrote that he planned to tackle “new and interesting challenges” including “work focusing on the educational needs of at-risk teenagers” and “exciting opportunities in the private sector.”

“During my eighteen years at Harvard, it has been a great pleasure to teach so many bright and talented students and to work with so many dedicated colleagues,” Hauser wrote. “I will greatly miss them.”

Hauser studies animal cognition as a window into the evolution of the human mind. For the past year, he has been on a leave of absence that the University has still not confirmed was connected to the investigation of his research practices. He had planned to return this fall, but last spring the psychology faculty voted to bar him from teaching, and his scheduled courses were canceled. (At last report, Viking Penguin still planned to publish Hauser’s next book, Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad.)

Last August, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith said five of the eight misconduct counts related to studies that were not published, or in which problems were corrected prior to publication. Of the other three cases, one was retracted. Hauser and a colleague repeated parts of the other two experiments, producing results that replicated the originally published findings. Some viewed this as an exoneration, while others said the new findings did not put to rest the questions Harvard raised about research practices in Hauser’s lab; still others said Harvard released so few details that it was difficult to draw conclusions.

More details may still emerge; Smith said last year that Harvard was cooperating with investigations by federal research funding bodies, but those investigations (which the agencies have not officially confirmed) have not produced public findings.

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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 »

Whitey Bulger’s Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 5, 2011

From Northeastern News:

Notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger — who eluded authorities for more than 16 years — is accused of murdering 19 people. Here, David DeSteno, associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University, who studies the role of emotion in social cognition and social behavior, assesses the mind of crime figures like Bulger and those who exalt them as heroes.

What drives immoral behavior?

We cannot assume that Whitey Bulger, Anthony Weiner, or other “fallen” individuals were flawed from the start. After all, Whitey’s brother, William Bulger, was raised in the same environment but followed a different trajectory; he ended up becoming the president of the University of Massachusetts. 
The answer, then, to what makes someone “bad?” is found in understanding how character really works. Character, as it turns out, isn’t established early in life and fixed thereafter. It’s always in flux. Our moral behaviors are determined moment to moment by situational influences on the competing mechanisms in our mind. One class of mechanisms focuses on what’s good in the short term. The other class is focused on the long term — what actions, even if they sacrifice short-term benefits, will lead to long-term gain. Cheating or lying, for example, may offer a short-term gain. Cheating or lying too much, however, could lead to getting caught and ostracized, which carries long-term losses.

The more power that an individual possesses, the greater the disconnect between short-term and long-term impulses. With increased power, politicians, corporate CEOs, or mob bosses, for example, tend to view themselves as invulnerable and begin to favor short-term, expedient actions like cheating or aggression. Such power, then, allows the scale of character to tip toward self-serving, and possibly criminal, actions. The potential for vice and virtue resides in each of us. If we forget that, we’re much more likely to act immorally as well.

Some South Boston residents appear to be rooting for Bulger. Why do so many still look at him as a local hero and turn a blind eye to his criminal record?

How we judge a person’s character often has to do with how he “related” to us. Work in my lab shows that whether we’re willing to condemn someone for committing a transgression doesn’t depend solely on the objective facts. For one study, we asked participants to put on one of two different colored wristbands and then watch a staged interaction between two actors, which participants thought was real. In the scenario, one actor cheated on a task that left the other with more work to complete. We then asked our research participants to judge how fairly the cheater acted. What we found was quite astonishing: If the actor who cheated was wearing the same color wristband as a participant, then the participant viewed his actions as much less objectionable than did participants wearing a different color wristband. Feeling some level of similarity with the perpetrator leads one to excuse his behavior.

This simple example shows how deeply social bonds can alter moral judgments. The people in Southie who still look at Whitey as a hero would probably condemn another individual from New York who committed the same crimes.

For 16 years, Bulger lived life on the lam with his partner Catherine Greig, whom he must have trusted not to turn him in to the authorities. What role may trust have played in their relationship?

Trust is a fundamental part of the human condition. We have to trust people because we need others to survive. Trusting another person presents an interesting dynamic because it offers the potential for joint gain, or asymmetric loss. If both individuals are trustworthy, both can benefit. If, on the other hand, one “sells out,” then he or she can gain at the other’s expense. How much we’re willing to trust another person depends on several factors, but a primary one is the extent to which outcomes are joined.

In the case of Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig, both faced prison sentences if the other broke ranks. Each knew enough of the other’s secrets, habits and finances that if one didn’t support the other, he or she would have a lot to loose. Having said that, work in our lab shows that trustworthiness is changeable. We can be very trustworthy with one person in one situation, but completely untrustworthy with another. Just because Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig appear to have acted in a trustworthy manner with each other, does not indicate how they might deal with someone else.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Morality | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of the Vancouver Riots

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 19, 2011

From :

It was a recipe for riot according to UVIC Social Psychologist Danu Stinson. Stinson says the large crowd, many wearing jerseys were left feeling faceless, anonymous and inhibited — that lack of self-awareness and personal accountability sparked and fuelled the riots. While Vancouver Police say anarchists and criminals were behind the mob that destroyed vehicles and buildings — Stinson said even average joes were easily dragged into the madness.

Dr. Stinson suggests something as simple as urging attendees to wear name-tags would have reinforced individuals and dismissed the pack mentality.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Morality, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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

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

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

Here is the original Vitter story.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

 

 

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

Group Influence

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 2, 2011

From the instructional video series Psychology: The Human Experience:

Influence explains individuality, group behavior, and deindividuation.

Related Situationist posts:

 

 

 

Posted in Classic Experiments, Conflict, History, Ideology, Morality, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Criminal Blaming

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 20, 2011

Janice Nadler and  Mary-Hunter McDonnell recently posted their paper, “Moral Character, Motive, and the Psychology of Blame” (forthcoming Cornell Law Review) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

Blameworthiness, in the criminal law context, is conceived as the carefully calculated end product of discrete judgments about a transgressor’s intentionality, causal proximity to harm, and the harm’s foreseeability. Research in social psychology, on the other hand, suggests that blaming is often intuitive and automatic, driven by a natural impulsive desire to express and defend social values and expectations. The motivational processes that underlie psychological blame suggest that judgments of legal blame are influenced by factors the law does not always explicitly recognize or encourage. In this Article we focus on two highly related motivational processes – the desire to blame bad people and the desire to blame people whose motive for acting was bad. We report three original experiments that suggest that an actor’s bad motive and bad moral character can increase not only perceived blame and responsibility, but also perceived causal influence and intentionality. We show that people are motivated to think of an action as blameworthy, causal, and intentional when they are confronted with a person who they think has a bad character, even when the character information is totally unrelated to the action under scrutiny. We discuss implications for doctrines of mens rea definitions, felony murder, inchoate crimes, rules of evidence, and proximate cause.

* * *

Download the paper free here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Morality | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Situational Sources of the Holocaust

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 6, 2011

From the Harvard Gazette:

The table slab was cold and hard beneath 6-year-old Irene Hizme as doctors and nurses took measurements and blood samples. She didn’t know what was happening to her, and by the time it was all over, she wouldn’t care. She was found lying nearly comatose on the ground by a woman who brought her home to begin her recovery.

Though it’s routine for children to be examined by physicians, that was hardly the case here. Her doctor was Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi who conducted cruel experiments on inmates at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.

Hizme, who survived both her imprisonment and Mengele’s experiments, told her story to a rapt audience at Harvard Medical School’s Joseph Martin Conference Center in the New Research Building on April 14. Hizme was participating in a program to kick off the opening of an exhibit at Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library of Medicine, “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race.”

The exhibit, created by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in collaboration with a long list of institutional sponsors, addresses physicians’ roles in the evolution of what became the Holocaust through the early decades of the 1900s to the horror of its full execution during World War II.

The exhibit presents an eye-opening look at some of the lesser-known programs — many of which involved physicians — that established the Nazi philosophy of racial improvement and then implemented it through the 1930s. These programs began in 1933 with forced sterilization of the blind, deaf, alcoholics, physically deformed, and other groups judged inferior. In 1939, the murders began of thousands of children born with deformities, moving on to the killings of hundreds of thousands of adults institutionalized for mental illness and other causes. That program saw the development and use of gas chambers, later employed against Europe’s Jews and other groups in Nazi death camps.

When Hizme, who was born in Prague, arrived at Auschwitz, she remembered the stifling, stinking conditions in the cattle car she and others rode and how relieved everyone was when the doors opened at their destination and let in fresh air. The relief for the 6-year-old and others didn’t last long, as they were rousted from the car and sorted, a duty carried out by doctors, with some prisoners going to the camp and others to the gas chambers.

Because Mengele had an interest in twins for his heredity experiments, she and her brother were kept alive. She believes that she was experimented on while her brother was used as a control. She recalled X-rays and many injections whose contents she still doesn’t know, and of being sick in the camp hospital many times. During one of those times, all the patients were gassed, while she was saved by a nurse who hid her under her skirt.

“I was young, so I really did not understand what was going on,” Hizme said.

Julie Hock, New England regional director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, said the organization has had many exhibits over the years, but this is the first that begins to answer the question on people’s minds as they try to grasp the enormity of what happened: How was this humanly possible?

Susan Bachrach, the exhibit’s curator, and Boston University Professor Michael Grodin, who has written about Holocaust doctors, laid out how the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s genetics experiments led to the growth of the global eugenics movement in the early 1900s. Eugenics organizations, seeking human perfection, were active in many countries, including Germany and the United States. In America, many states had forced-sterilization programs, backed by the Supreme Court, which in 1927 upheld Virginia’s such program for the “feebleminded.”

Grodin said physicians played not just a bit part, but a central role in both the eugenics philosophy and in its eventual translation into Nazi programs to “disinfect” society. Doctors had a much greater representation in the Nazi Party than average Germans and played key roles throughout.

“Physicians were not victims; they were perpetrators,” Grodin said. “Nothing was inevitable; choices were made.”

In his research, Grodin sought to determine why physicians who pledge to improve human life wound up joining with the Nazis instead. He said there were some traits that might explain some physician participation — such as a willingness to dehumanize patients, an ability to compartmentalize their own lives, and a feeling of omnipotence — but added there was no way of predicting who would wind up embracing Nazi activities, just as there was no way of predicting who would wind up protecting the persecuted, risking their own lives.

Grodin cautioned against thinking that the Holocaust was an isolated event, and exhibit organizers said the displays are intended to provide food for thought for some of today’s ethical questions. After all, Grodin said, black soldiers who liberated the prison camps were fighting in segregated companies, interracial marriage was outlawed in many states, and medical experiments in the United States have been repeatedly carried out against unwilling participants.

Grodin cited the Willowbrook experiments, in which hepatitis was given to mentally retarded children in New York for 14 years in the 1950s and 1960s, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, carried out on unsuspecting black men between 1932 and 1972, and the injection of patients at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital with live cancer cells in 1962.

Grodin said the Holocaust reached the scale it did because it was state-sponsored instead of just supported by individuals. Still, he said, it is instructive to understand the smaller steps that ultimately led to the Nazi death camps.

“I think we have to be very concerned when we take small steps,” Grodin said.

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Education, History, Ideology, Morality, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Unconscious Situation of Date Rape

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 5, 2011

We recently encountered an intriguing 2005 article by Andrew Taslitz, “Willfully Blinded: On Date Rape and Self-Deception” (28 Harvard Journal of Law & Gender  381-446) on SSRN.  Here is the abstract.

* * *

This article takes seriously the proposition that many men are telling the truth when they say that they honestly believed that a woman in a date rape case had consented when she in fact did not do so. The article argues, however, that the men are generally truthful at a conscious level, while being aware unconsciously that the truth is otherwise. Furthermore, the absence of conscious awareness is the result of self-deception. Drawing on research in philosophy and cognitive psychology, this article defines the various forms of self-deception and explains how they work in date rape cases. Date rape liability often involves a negligence analysis: Should the man have known of the woman’s non-consent? Yet the penalties imposed for negligent date rape are often quite severe, more so than for most crimes of negligence. The article argues that self-deception is best understood as a form of negligent conduct but explains why it is morally far more reprehensible than other sorts of negligence. Next, the article responds to concerns about the morality of punishing men for unconscious thoughts and the problems posed for proving those thoughts and for free will. In particular, the article suggests a form of negligence liability in date rape cases that is meant to discourage male self-deception in sexual intercourse and that does not require proving what any individual male’s unconscious state was in a particular case. The article further responds to arguments about the wisdom of such an approach given that it will unquestionably catch some non-self-deceiving males. The law’s fear of imposing liability for unconscious desires is based upon a flawed conception of the nature of the conscious and unconscious minds that ignores the teachings of cognitive science. Those teachings establish that there are strategies for changing unconscious thoughts that motivate socially undesirable action even when we are not in the short run aware of the contents of our unconscious mind.

* * *

You can download the article for free here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Law, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Psychological Situation of Climate Change

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2011

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

Related Situationist posts:

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

 
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