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Looking for the Evil Actor – Reposted

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Related Situationist posts:

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

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

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

The Imagined Ideological Divide

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 29, 2012

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

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

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

Polarization and political engagement

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

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

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

Morality drives people to the polls

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

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

Moral convictions change factual beliefs

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

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

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

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

The Deep Capture of Financial Institutions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 31, 2011

Lawrence G. Baxter, at Duke Law School, recently wrote an excellent situationist article, titled “Capture in Financial Regulation: Can We Redirect It Toward the Common Good?” (forthcoming in 21 Cornell Journal of Law & Public Policy).  Here’s the abstract.

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“Regulatory capture” is central to regulatory analysis yet is a troublesome concept. It is difficult to prove and sometimes seems refuted by outcomes unfavorable to powerful interests. Nevertheless, the process of bank regulation and supervision fosters a closeness between regulator and regulated that would seem to be conducive to “capture” or at least to fostering undue sympathy by regulators for the companies they oversee. The influence of very large financial institutions has also become so great that financial regulation appears to have become excessively distorted in favor of these entities and to the detriment of many other legitimate interests, including those of taxpayers, smaller financial institutions, and the promotion of general economic growth. So “deep capture” by the larger elements of the financial industry of the regulatory process might well have become a very significant problem. At the same time, it is unrealistic to assume that participants in the policy making and policy implementation process will not be trying to exert influence on the outcome of any regulation that impacts them. Attempts to maximize influence are surely an inevitable element of the ongoing regulatory process. And it is unrealistic to try to avoid extensive industry input altogether. Regulators and regulations depend on frequent and sometimes intense interaction with various sectors of the industry. To promote sound regulatory policy, we should renew efforts to shape the environmental conditions in which the competition for regulatory outcomes takes place, so that policy more favorable to the general public interest becomes more likely. This involves a combination of measures, many of which are quite traditional but some of which are too often neglected. Such measures might include: strengthening “tripartism,” advocated by Ayres and Braithwaite, by facilitating broader interest group participation in the regulatory process; limiting the influence of dominant participants by reducing their scale; properly structuring, resourcing and supporting regulatory agencies and regulators; “rotating” regulators so that they are less likely to develop unduly empathic relationships with the institutions they regulate; tightening the rules governing the “revolving door;” and making greater use of independent consultative and review bodies.

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Download the paper here.

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Motivated Ignorance

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 20, 2011

From EENews:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trust-and-avoid ploy

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

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

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

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

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

More.

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

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Why Threats to Social Identity Lead to Conflict

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 13, 2011

From Psychological Science:

Be it at school, office, the neighborhood or the community people live in, conflicting situations amongst various groups might arise on an almost day to day basis. Today, the prevalence of these intergroup conflicts is on the rise and has resulted in minor disagreements amongst friends to waging full scale wars between countries.

Social psychology research has always maintained that individuals often identify themselves with the social group they belong to and will bond together to defend their identity at all cost. Now, a new study published in the latest issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, explains how motivation drives certain groups to behave in a particular manner.

“As a researcher in motivational processes, one thing I have learned is that people’s attitudes and behavior are more often than not driven by latent motivations that they themselves are often not aware of,” says Lile Jia who co-wrote the study along with his colleagues Samuel Karpen and Edward Hirt at Indiana University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. In this particular case study, Jia and his colleagues decided to examine if the motivation to regain a strong American group identity was partly behind the powerful opposition to building the Ground Zero Mosque in New York.

Jia and his co-authors believe that contemporary events and controversies evoke strong reactions in people because of the latent motivations that may be present due to current economic concerns and worries. According to Jia, “our case study shows that a threat to the American identity brought about by changes in the political and economic environment influences how Americans respond to the symbolic building on sacred lands by other groups.”

When conducting their research, Jia and his co-authors used a clever cover story developed by social psychologist Alison Ledgerwood. Participants, who were American citizens, read either an article describing a thriving American economy and rising international status or an article depicting a bleak picture of the American economy and a declining international status. The participants who read the article that showcased a downward spiraling American economy and international status considered this piece of information as a threat to their usually positive group identity as an American, as opposed to those who read the article that highlighted America’s positive economic trend. The results go on to demonstrate that the participants who read the article about the decline of the U.S. subsequently reported a greater opposition toward the building plan, were angrier with it, and were more likely to sign a petition against it. This is especially so for Americans who identify strongly with the country.

In the study, Jia and his co-authors state that people typically identify with their social groups along different dimensions; importance, commitment, superiority and deference. “In the context of Ground Zero Mosque, Americans who are loyal to the country on the deference dimension are especially responsive to the threat manipulation,” says Jia who explains that Americans wanted to protect the Ground Zero area from any use that might be construed as disrespectful or inappropriate.

Jia and his colleagues believe this study reemphasizes, following the footsteps of many social psychologists, the importance of motivation in understanding or explaining the reasons behind intergroup conflict. ”Future research can aim at discovering the host of common personal and group level motivations people bring to intergroup conflict. Knowing these various motivations will help us to develop intervention programs to resolve or prevent conflicts from emerging,” concludes Jia.

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More.

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To review a collection of posts discussing the situational sources of war:

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

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The Cause of Rioting? That’s Easy: Rioters!

Posted by JH on August 16, 2011

British Prime Minister David Cameron attributed the recent riots in his to “the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations.”   The message may seem vaguely situationist at first blush, as Cameron emphasizes the problem of a “broken society.”

But what he really seems to care about are the bad “choices” made by selfish, irresponsible individuals.

Cameron’s comments resemble remarks he’s made in the past.  In 2008, according to one account, he declared that “people who are fat, poor or addicted to drugs could only have themselves to blame.”

It’s a one-size-fits-all ideology:  If you have problems, look in the mirror!

To be fair, Cameron does acknowledge one situational force that has played a significant role in encouraging the moral decay behind the looting and lawlessness.  According to Cameron, “[s]ome of the worst aspects of human nature [have been] tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies.”

Such has been the conservative mantra at least since Reagan and Thatcher:  The problem with the poor is their disposition and the government policies and programs that encourage that disposition. Prime Minister Cameron explains:

“For years we’ve had a system that encourages the worst in people — that incites laziness, that excuses bad behavior, that erodes self-discipline, that discourages hard work… well this is moral hazard in our welfare system — people thinking they can be as irresponsible as they like because the state will always bail them out.”

When a “society is broken,” by this view, the government needs to do less for the people and thus do more to encourage personal responsbility.  Less is more.

Yesterday, U.S. conservative Arthur Herman wrote a piece for the National Review, that purported to identify the person behind our problems.  According to Herman, the blame for the riots and many of our country’s problems should ultimately fall on one American man: John Dollard.

Not heard of him? He’s been deceased for 30 years, and his primary work was published in 1939.  Still, according to Herman, Dollard was “one of the most influential social thinkers of the past century.”  He was:

“a Yale social psychologist . . . who triggered a major and disastrous shift in the way we look at crime and urban violence, which we’ve been living with ever since, and which has left us, like the British today, largely disarmed in dealing with our own worst enemies.”

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“Dollard and his colleagues in effect infantilized human motives — and threw out the notion of individual moral responsibility. If people turn violent and smash windows or someone’s face, Dollard was saying, it’s not really their fault. They can’t help it; they’re feeling frustrated. Punishing people for their aggression in hopes they will learn a lesson, is doomed to fail. The best way to prevent violence is to give them what they want from the start.”

Really?  Dollard is to “the man behind the riots,” and his was the argument that won the day and profoundly contaminated policy in the U.S. and England?

As someone who has been teaching at a law school for twenty years, who went to Yale, who devotes the bulk of his professional energy to studying the implications of social psychology for law, I should confess that I had never heard of Professor Dollard, and I have no reason to believe that his research has been particularly influential.  And one doesn’t need to sit where I sit to question Herman’s assertion that our society (or England’s) has somehow given to the impoverished underclasses “what they want from the start” or that such an argument has held much sway among policymakers or the public.

Herman’s point, like Cameron’s, seems to be that the best way to understand social turmoil and intergroup conflict is to look at the individuals behind it.  Where there is trouble, find the troublemakers.  To Herman, the rioters rioted because of their own character, nothing more.  In his words, “[t]he rioters were criminals pure and simple.”  Like Cameron, Herman believes that the appropriate solution is more criminal punishment, pure and simple.  It is time to get tough!

Many who have looked closely at the U.S. criminal system and it’s bulging prison population would reject the claim that we have been light on criminals (or that our punitive actions have been just or yielded positive results).

Social psychology suggests that there may be more to the riots than just the rioters.  Indeed, there is a strong human tendency (as social psychologists since Dollard have shown) to blame the poor for being poor and to assure ourselves that little is owed to those who have less than we ourselves do.  Our world, we like to believe, is just.  We achieve that affirming feat of rationalization in part by ignoring the many situational forces that contribute to the underlying inequalities and injustices.

That tendency is in evidence this week in the remarks of Prime Minister Cameron and editorial by Arthur Herman.  As reported this week in The Guardian, much of the public also blames the riots and looting on the disposition (that is, the “criminality” and “disrespect”) of the rioters:

“Asked to pick from a list of possible reasons, 45% blame criminality on the part of the rioters. Older voters and richer ones are most likely to lay the blame on this.

“Of other possible reasons, 28% cite lack of respect within families and communities. Only 8% think a lack of jobs for young people is the main reason. A further 5% say the shooting by the police of Mark Duggan, which led to the initial disorder in Tottenham, was the main cause, while 4% blame the coalition government, 2% the police and 2% the state of the economy.  At the bottom of the list only 1% blame racial tension. . . .”

It is completely predictable and understandable that leaders, commentators, and much of the public would speak up against the individuals who have been lighting the flames, breaking the windows, and making off with the DVD players.  That’s the easy part.

It doesn’t take insight to propose a greater police presence or harsher penalties or an increased incarceration rate.  Anger or fear will suffice.  Providing a cartoon rendering of a social psychologist’s 1939 thesis and dubbing it the “formula for social disaster” seems equally facile.  Simplistic causal stories that affirm the status quo and the system are typically more the consequence of raw reflex than of thoughtful reflection.

Professor Dollard’s theories, however flawed, at least represented a social scientific attempt to better understand the underlying causes of violence and resist the system-affirming impulse to attribute “criminal conduct” to the fact that the people who engage in it are “criminals, pure and simple.”  Dollard offered a testable theory, while Herman offers a tautology: criminals engage in crime because they are criminals.

Still, Herman is satisfied with his causal claims because they permit him to place all the moral responsibility and blame for the events on the rioters. According to Herman, the problem with Dollard’s approach, is that it shifts “the moral responsibility for crime and violence . . . from the rioter to his or her victims.”

But Herman has it wrong.  One need not excuse the perpetrators of violence to care about deeper, underlying causes.  One can quash a riot and punish the rioters and still ask questions about what may have led the individuals to engage in behavior beyond simply their riotous propensities.

When rioting broke out in Egypt some months back, the rioters were not said to be the cause (except by Egyptian leaders and their apologists); instead, the riots were seen as the consequence of inept leaders, oppressive systems, hopelessness, and desperation.  Jim Geraghty, from  The National Review, put it this way:

“a large number of previously apolitical Egyptians . . . are fed up with three decades of governance that were not merely oppressive, but incompetent.  The Egyptian economy has never thrived; you know the usual figures – 40 percent get by on less than $2 per day. But when you pile rising wheat prices on an impoverished country, ordinary folks find the usual poor governance untenable. They have to eat, and have to believe there’s some small possibility of their lives getting better someday. Hosni Mubarak and his regime have worn out a decades-long benefit of the doubt from a people who historically were inclined to have tea, complain, and shrug rather than burn cars and take on riot police.”

As similar as sipping tea in Cairo and London may be, burning cars is another story.  There are, to be sure, significant differences between the riots and their causes in Egypt and those and theirs in England.  Nonetheless, the tendency to ignore the underlying economic, social, historical, and cultural situation in one setting and to focus on it in another reveals the motivated nature of our attributions.  We like to believe “our” systems are just — and that “their” systems are unjust.  In the former, rioting is the result of gangs, hoodlums, and criminals.  In the latter, rioting is the only way to topple an oppressive regime.  In the former, the dictator has been too callous and stingy toward the plight of the poor; in the latter, the government has been too sensitive and generous.

To take the situation in our own society seriously, however, is to raise the possibility that our system is unjust — that the (growing) disparities between the haves and have-nots lack normative legitimacy.  A thorough causal analysis is not only complex, it also risks implicating all of us and our system.

When the powerful and wealthy  members of society focus primarily on the disposition of  the poor (or of, say, the forgotten arguments of a dead Yalie), it may be because they prefer not to consider seriously the role of the situation from which they benefit.

They are, in a way, doing what they claim to despise: shifting moral responsibility from themselves to their victims.

We should all take seriously our “moral responsibility for the crime and violence.”  We should all, as they say, look in the mirror.

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A reader sent me the following video of a fascinating BBC debate on whether we “should punish or try to understand” the rioters.  It reflects many of the themes of this post.

 

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Perceptions of Income Distribution and Preferences for Redistribution

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 10, 2011

Guillermo Cruces, Truglia Perez, Nicolas Ricardo, and Martin Tetaz, recently posted their paper “Biased Perceptions of Income Distribution and Preferences for Redistribution: Evidence from a Survey Experiment” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

Individual perceptions of income distribution play a vital role in political economy and public finance models, yet there is little evidence regarding their origins or accuracy. This study examines how individuals form these perceptions and posits that systematic biases arise from the extrapolation of information extracted from reference groups. A tailored household survey provides original evidence on the significant biases in individuals’ evaluations of their own relative position in the distribution. Furthermore, the data supports the hypothesis that the selection process into the reference groups is the source of those biases. Finally, this study also assesses the practical relevance of these biases by examining their impact on attitudes towards redistributive policies. An experimental design incorporated into the survey provides consistent information on the own ranking within the income distribution to a randomly selected group of respondents. Confronting agents’ biased perceptions with this information has a significant effect on their stated preferences for redistribution. Those who had overestimated their relative position and thought of themselves relatively richer than they were demand higher levels of redistribution when informed of their true ranking. This relationship between biased perceptions and political attitudes provides an alternative explanation for the relatively low degree of redistribution observed in modern democracies.

You can download the paper for free here.

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

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

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

Here is the original Vitter story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The Regulatory Situation of Smoking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 1, 2011

From The Independent:

More than half a century after scientists uncovered the link between smoking and cancer – triggering a war between health campaigners and the cigarette industry – big tobacco is thriving.

Despite the known catastrophic effects on health of smoking, profits from tobacco continue to soar and sales of cigarettes have increased: they have risen from 5,000 billion sticks a year in the 1990s to 5,900 billion a year in 2009. They now kill more people annually than alcohol, Aids, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined.

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The West now consumes fewer and fewer of the world’s cigarettes: richer countries have changed – from smoking 38 per cent of the world total in 1990, they cut down to 24 per cent in 2009. Meanwhile, the developing world’s share in global cigarette sales has increased sharply, rising to 76 per cent in 2009.

An investigation by The Independent on Sunday reveals that tobacco firms have taken advantage of lax marketing rules in developing countries by aggressively promoting cigarettes to new, young consumers, while using lawyers, lobby groups and carefully selected statistics to bully governments that attempt to quash the industry in the West.

In 2010, the big four tobacco companies – Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco – made more than £27bn profit, up from £26bn in 2009.

The price of their profits will be measured in human lives. In the 20th century, some 100 million people were killed by tobacco use. If current trends continue, tobacco will kill a billion people in the 21st century.

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Anna Gilmore, professor of public health at the University of Bath, said: “What most people don’t realise is that, although sales are falling in the West, industry profits are increasing. These companies remain some of the most profitable in the world. This is thanks in part to their endless inventive ways of undermining and circumventing regulation. They’re trying to reinvent their image to ingratiate themselves with governments, but behind the scenes it’s business as usual.”

* * *

In Indonesia alone there are 21 million child smokers. There is little to stop companies promoting cigarettes to young people. In countries such as Nigeria, Ukraine and Brazil, tobacco companies have sponsored club nights or parties aimed at attracting new young users. In Russia, attempts to entice women smokers have included packaging made to look like jewel-encrusted perfume bottles and even selling cigarettes branded by the fashion house Yves Saint Laurent.

Dr Armando Peruga, programme manager for the WHO’s tobacco free initiative, said: “We need to do more. We need to stop the tobacco industry promoting themselves as normal corporate citizens when they are killing people every day. We are lagging behind in establishing comprehensive bans on advertising, marketing, promotion and sponsorship.”

* * *

Laurent Huber, director of the Framework Convention Alliance on tobacco control, said: “In countries like Uruguay, the tobacco industry uses its vast wealth to tie up public health measures in court battles. Win or lose, this has a chilling effect on other governments.”

These tricks are by no means confined to the less-regulated emerging countries. In Australia, which will become the first country to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes by law, the industry has been accused of scaremongering against the measures by threatening to flood the market with cheap fags.

In Britain, the industry is also prone to taking any measures necessary to keep regulation at bay. This autumn a group of tobacco companies is taking the Government to court over its proposals to ban cigarette displays in all shops.

More often in the UK, though, Big Tobacco’s attempts to alter public opinion are more subtle. A study from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), out this week, scrutinises the credibility of economic arguments used by the industry to fight back against legislation. For example, when Christopher Ogden, chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, said in 2010 that the smoking ban had severely threatened the pub and bingo industry because of lost jobs and livelihoods, the reality was a little different. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows a net increase in the number of people visiting pubs since the smoking ban. When England went smoke-free in 2007, the number of premises licensed for alcohol increased by 5 per cent, and it has continued to grow every year since.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, said: “In line with our international treaty obligations, the UK government has not only banned advertising and put health warnings on packs, but also committed to protect public health policies from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry. To get round this, the industry uses front groups to covertly lobby politicians, arguing that smoke-free legislation has destroyed the pub trade, and that putting tobacco out of sight in shops will both be ineffective and put corner shops out of business.

More.

Related Situationist posts.

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Unconscious Racial Attitudes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 22, 2011


David Kairys posted his article, titled “Unconscious Racism” (forthcoming Temple Law Review, Vol. 83, 2011) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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This article is the introduction to a law review symposium on unconscious racism and social science and statistical evidence of bias as bases for race discrimination claims, focusing concretely on discrimination in employment and housing. The article starts with an example of unconscious racism in the bail-setting court in Philadelphia. Two drunk-driving cases about a week apart were identical in all respects except the races of the defendants, but the judge, who was not an overt or self-perceived racist, showed empathy to the white drunk driver while his reaction to the black one was dominated by fear.

Unconscious racism specifically, and the biases and motivations of alleged discriminators in general, were not of much interest in civil rights law or litigation until the Supreme Court began, in the mid-1970s, to require specific proof of purposeful discrimination to make out a constitutional violation (less-demanding proof is required for certain statutory violations). The article presents a historical perspective on the development of perceptions of racial wrongdoing in law and in society generally, starting with the relatively recently accepted understanding that racism is wrong. About 50 or 60 year ago, racism on the part of government, private institutions and individuals became socially, morally and culturally wrong. Before that, racism in words and deeds was acceptable and not unusual, if not something like the norm.

However, deep-seated notions about race from slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation were still very much alive and persist today – notions of inferiority and superiority and racially attributed, stereotyped characteristics, like intelligence, perseverance, morality, tendencies to violence and sexual promiscuity. But in the legal realm and in society generally, we wound up focusing our attention almost exclusively on overt, explicit and formal inequality. Once they were banished, we declared a pre-mature victory in the struggle for racial equality. Explicitly racist and overtly segregationist measures were banned, and racial epithets became taboo. But we left in place the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and segregation, and the remaining racism – the deep-seated, unconscious parts that do not just go away because a court declares explicit racism wrong. Progress was hindered further by a multi-faceted retrenchment by the courts. The adoption of the purposeful discrimination rule in the mid-1970s, which requires specific proof of a racial purpose or motive to establish a discrimination case, made it near impossible for minorities to win. The Supreme Court embraced a formal insensitivity to minority claims, even in circumstances that resemble the worst forms of the discrimination, segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans that characterized the pre-civil rights past. Then a hypersensitive version of the purposeful discrimination rule was applied to invalidate good-faith affirmative and remedial action, by taking any consideration of race – even if done in good faith to open opportunities and eliminate discrimination – as sufficient proof of purposeful discrimination. Alongside and not unrelated to these legal developments, non-explicit forms of discrimination against African Americans and other minorities grew in number and significance, and became more easily non-explicit.

The use of social science and statistics to prove unconscious racism presents a possibility of dealing with at least some of these problems in the current context.

Download the article for free here.

Related Situationist posts:

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The Informational Situation of Voters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 19, 2011

Michele Margolis and Anthony Fowler, have posted their paper, “The Bias of Uninformed Voters,” on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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Survey researchers and political pundits bemoan the lack of political information within the American electorate. Not only do Americans fail to meet the democratic ideals of an informed electorate, but this lack of knowledge also has political consequences. An empirical analysis of survey data finds that informed voters are more likely to vote for Republican candidates; however, these correlational findings may be plagued by reverse causation and omitted variable bias. We present a model of an election with uninformed voters and experimentally test the effect of political information. Our results suggest that the lack of information in the American electorate typically biases election results toward the Republican Party. When uninformed citizens receive political information, they systematically shift away from the Republican Party.

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Download the paper for free here.

Related Situationist posts:

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If It’s Evitable, I Don’t Like It!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 24, 2011

Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay as well as Peter A. Ubel and Gavan Fitzsimons wrote the following editorial for the Detroit Free Press.:

This week it will be one year since President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law. Despite all the controversy that preceded the bill’s passage, most health policy experts confidently predicted that the public would soon embrace the legislation.

To back up these predictions, they pointed out that Medicare was quite controversial when it was established in the 1960s, but rapidly grew in popularity. Much the same happened more recently with Medicare Part D, the law championed by President George W. Bush to extend Medicare coverage to medications.

Recent polls belie these predictions, however, as support for health care reform has hit an all-time low. Why has the ACA failed to capture public support? Our research provides a novel explanation, one that pundits have failed to recognize to date.

Obama’s health reform bill is unpopular not simply because it is complicated, nor simply because it costs government money at a time when people are in a mood to balance the budget. Instead, it is unpopular in large part because it no longer feels inevitable.

And the key to gaining widespread support for Obama’s signature piece of domestic legislation is not to help the public better understand the intricacies of the bill, but instead to convince the public that the bill is here to stay.

Uncertainty can play a large role in reducing support for legislative actions. Consider a study we conducted, in which we asked people to imagine their local government had recently passed a bill to lower the speed limit, legislation spurred on by new evidence that such a law would save lives. The people we surveyed embraced the new rule, feeling thankful that legislators were paying attention to public safety.

However, in assessing public attitudes toward this bill, we conducted an experiment in which we told some of the people we surveyed that the legislature was about to pass the law but hadn’t yet voted on it – that is, it wasn’t officially a law yet. These people, in contrast to the first group, felt strongly that such legislation would be heavy-handed and paternalistic.

The same bill, when passed into law, was viewed more favorably than when it was merely pending legislation.

What about health care reform then? It has passed into law. Shouldn’t it be gaining in popularity?

Not if people don’t believe the bill is the law of the land. When the Republican-led House voted to repeal the bill, Washington insiders recognized the action as a symbolic gesture with no legislative consequence.

But many Americans thought this vote had actual legal implications. In fact, recent polls show that a fifth of the American public currently believe the ACA has been repealed, and another fifth is unsure if the bill still stands as law. This misperceived state of affairs provides no reason for these Americans to embrace a law they believe no longer stands.

Recent court rulings have created even greater uncertainty about the legal standing of the ACA. While most rulings have focused solely on the constitutionality of the health insurance mandate, one judge went as far as to opine that the entire law should be voided. This has left even more people wondering where the bill stands: as current law, pending law or past law?

Behavioral science has shown us that most people find uncertainty to be a very difficult pill to swallow, especially when it surrounds a proposed change to their lives. Half-hearted attempts at change often produce knee-jerk, negative reactions; people are not inclined to adapt to a change that may never occur or seems unlikely to stick. These are the types of situations most likely to breed backlash.

But when the uncertainty is removed, backlash reactions tend to dissipate and sometimes even reverse. When people know what cards they have been dealt – when they feel confident about what to expect in the future – people tend to begin the process of rationalizing the change and adapting to it.

The real battle over health care reform in the next few months will extend beyond the specifics of budget debates and regulatory wranglings. Instead the fate of health care reforms stands mainly on how soon, if ever, the public comes to feel that the legislation is enduring. If the permanence of the Affordable Care Act continues to feel unsettled, that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Law, Life, Politics, Situationist Contributors, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Paul Bloom on Disgust

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 19, 2011

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Related Situationist posts:

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Kennedy and Pronin on the Spiral of Conflict

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 16, 2011

A group of  Harvard Law students are blogging over at the Law & Mind Blog.  Here is one of their posts about a chapter by Situationist Contributor Emily Pronin and Kathleen Kennedy (forthcoming in from Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson’s  book, “Ideology, Psychology, and Law”).  The post is authored by HLS student Michael Lieberman.

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In their chapter, Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict, Kathleen Kennedy and Emily Pronin examine what they see as a major cause of breakdowns in negotiation, both small- and large-scale: a tendency of each side to view the other side’s position as biased and preference-driven (rather than based on objective facts). Kennedy and Pronin explain that we tend to see signs of bias all around us – some even posit that United States Supreme Court justices fall short of impartiality in their decisions. The only place, it seems, where the tendency to detect bias is weak is in ourselves: people have a tendency to perceive others as susceptible to the influence of biases while at the same time viewing themselves as relatively unaffected by those biases. That asymmetry has been referred to as a bias blind spot. One example of this bias blind spot with particular relevance to those of us in law school is the widespread disagreement over the validity of high-stakes standardized tests, such as the LSAT. High performers are inclined to resent the “obvious bias” of poor performers who claim that the test is invalid and should not be used; poor performers, by contrast, are inclined to resent the “obvious bias” of high performers who champion the tests’ use.

The first component of Kennedy and Pronin’s bias-perception conflict spiral is that disagreement leads to an even stronger perception that the other side is biased. That is, when people disagree, they view those with whom they disagree as biased or, more specifically, as unable or unwilling to view things as they are in “objective reality.” The reason is clear: “people generally have complete faith in the veridicality of their perceptions, and thus are suspicious of those who fail to share their perceptions.” Kennedy and Pronin offer support for this component with a review of several experimental and real-world cases of the tendency to perceive bias in action, including an experiment conducted among partisans involved in the struggle between Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland, in the wake of the “Good Friday Agreement” that established the conditions for peace in that region. Consistent with their hypothesis, partisans in the conflict tended to feel that those who led the opposing side were more prone to these biases than were those who led their own side.

The second component of the model is that the perception of the other side as biased leads to competitive and aggressive action, as opposed to cooperative and peaceful action. When dealing with an opponent whom one views as unable or unwilling to see things objectively, one may conclude that cooperative efforts (such as sitting down to talk things out, or providing relevant facts and arguments) are unlikely to be successful. The authors again cite several studies supporting the idea that people are likely to choose their responses to their opponents based at least in part on their assessment of the other side’s capacity for objectivity versus inclination towards bias.

Having outlined the framework of the bias-perception conflict spiral, Kennedy and Pronin proceed to apply their concept to the field of negotiation, both explaining when and how the spiral rears its ugly head and offering potential ways to stop it in its tracks. As the above outline would suggest, people seem to view their adversaries in negotiation as prone to bias, and that perception of bias leads them to act competitively in a way that interferes with efficient dispute resolution. After reviewing the weaknesses of strategies suggested by past research (perspective taking, epistemic motivation, and social grouping) Kennedy and Pronin suggest three strategies of their own to help achieve increased success in negotiations (strategies that may require bringing in a third-party mediator):

1. Non-counterarguing listening – Counterarguing listening, which the authors suggest most people engage in, involves thinking about ways in which one’s own position is superior and preparing counterarguments while an opponent is speaking. that can be leveled against the opposition when it is one’s chance to reply. An alternative to that listening approach would allow individuals to truly hear the other person by suppressing impulses to counterargue that content, so that individuals might reach a better understanding of their opponent’s actual position and of its underlying subtleties.

2. Introspective education – This strategy works to induce individuals to see themselves as less objective. By recognizing their own capacity for bias, individuals might be better equipped to resolve their conflicts peacefully once they realize that the other side, while biased, is no more biased than oneself and, therefore, likely has some rational reasons for believing what they believe. A mediator can implement this strategy by educating individuals on the psychology of implicit biases and providing them with concrete demonstrations of their own implicit attitudes (by administering the IAT, for example).

3. Temporal distance – Kennedy and Pronin explain: “Manipulating adversaries’ temporal distance from a conflict situation may also work to alleviate the bias-perception conflict spiral. Temporal distance (how far into the future an event is), as well as physical and social distance (how geographically distant or socially removed an event is), can increase the extent to which individuals see events in more global, indirect, or abstract terms,” which allows adversaries to adopt a cooler perspective toward the situation, including toward the disagreement itself and the opposing party. which might lead them to be more open to acknowledging both their own biases and their adversaries’ objectivity. Resulting reductions in individuals’ perceptions of either the size of their disagreement or the extent to which they are uniquely objective could interrupt or prevent the bias-perception conflict spiral.

In sum, Kennedy and Pronin’s framework focuses on the tendency of individuals to impute bias to others, especially others who disagree with them, and on the consequences of that tendency for conflictual behavior. Their examination of the psychological forces behind the conflict spiral, as well as their suggestions for overcoming it, offers valuable insight to the field of negotiation and mediation, which is particularly useful in a world that is so often divided into opposing interests and groups.

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Go to the Law and Mind Blog here.

Related Situationist posts:

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Capture (Animated)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 5, 2011

From :

The Story of Citizens United v. FEC, an exploration of the inordinate power that corporations exercise in our democracy.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

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SALMS Liveblogs PLMS Conference

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 27, 2011

Read James Wang’s excellent notes from yesterday’s terrific conference here.

Posted in Distribution, Events, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Law, Legal Theory, Politics | 1 Comment »

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

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

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

Here is the original Vitter story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

clinton-cartoon.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill O’Reilly and Homelessness

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions to the Repeal of DADT

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 8, 2011

Over at the new Law & Mind Blog, several Harvard Law students have been blogging about about System Justification Theory.  Here is one of those posts, written by first-year student Michael Lieberman.

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In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proudly proclaimed: “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.” Referencing the recent repeal of the U.S. Military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Policy (DADT), Obama expressed confidence in a relatively swift timeline for the repeal of the longstanding policy. In the days that followed Obama’s address, multiple government officials have echoed this sentiment, eliciting praise from long-time critics of the policy. Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, the nation’s largest organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans, commented: “Generally we are pleased with how swiftly this is moving forward.”

The rate at which repeal is ostensibly progressing is somewhat of a surprise given the strong objections to repeal voiced by members of Congress and the Military throughout the policy’s history. The insights of system justification theory (SJT), as described by Blasi & Jost, can help explain the apparent mismatch between the vehement opposition to repeal and the complicity (and perhaps even vigor) with which it is being implemented. By examining the public comments of one particularly strong critic of repeal, Senator John McCain, I will explain this apparent mismatch by invoking the insights of SJT and other mind science theories.

McCain has been a longtime supporter of DADT, often buttressing his stance by noting that several military leaders had also professed support for the policy. In a 1999 interview that typifies McCain’s historical stance on DADT, McCain told the Boston Globe that he supports the policy because “Gen. Colin Powell, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, all of the military leaders that I respect and admire came up with this policy … They thought it was the best way to address a very difficult problem within our military.” However, recent insights from the mind sciences suggest that McCain’s cited rationale for his policy stance may not be the true source of his policy attitude. As Jon Hanson and Mark Yeboah note: “our reasons, far more often than we can perceive, are not connected to our behavior as much as they are rationalizations or confabulations to help make sense of that behavior.” Sure enough, even when Powell changed his own stance on DADT, Senator McCain continued with his opposition.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ideology, Morality, Politics, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Paul Rosenberg Answers: Palin is a Naive Cynic

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 21, 2011

Last week The Situationist asked this question: Was Sarah Palin exhibiting the naive cynicism dynamic in her remarks about the shooting in Tucson (see video)?

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Several readers responded thoughtfully in brief comments, but Paul Rosenberg provided an outstanding, painstakingly thorough response over at Open Left. We highly recommend his post.

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For some related Situationist posts, see:

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

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

 
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