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Archive for the ‘Public Policy’ Category

Increasing Role of Pscyhology in Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 24, 2014

From the latest edition of Observer, an article by David Halpern:Halpern_David

When governments want advice on the likely impact of their policies, they traditionally turn to economists. Psychologists have been less in demand. The reasons are understandable: Economists have seemed to offer relatively clear and well developed models for predicting behavior, notably “expected utility theory.”  In contrast, the lessons from psychology have often seemed less clear-cut, no matter how interesting or suggestive they may have been.

This situation is now changing. Officials are recognizing that their policies may stand or fall on social, cognitive, and emotional factors that economists have traditionally neglected. Given their position at the top table, it is perhaps unsurprising — if ironic — that economists themselves have communicated this point. Behavioral economics, essentially a combination of economics and psychology, has provided a new bridge between policymakers and psychological findings.

Read more here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Law, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

Ride to Hell and The Situation of Sexual Violence in Video Games

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 15, 2013

In late June, Deep Silver published a new video game called Ride to Hell: Retribution. The action game, which is available for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, has players taking on the role of a Vietnam War veteran who wages battles with a biker gang. In addition to receiving horrific reviews for its shoddy game play and pointless story — Ride to Hell: Retribution has one of the lowest scores of all video games on Metacritic — the game has attracted much scorn for “forced” sex scenes and its demeaning depiction of women.

For an example of the sexual content in Ride to Hell: Retribution, see from the 10:00 minute mark in this video:

Justin Alderman, a video game critic for We Got This Covered, explains the controversy:

* * *

The other thing to note about Ride to Hell: Retribution‘s missions is that each of them contain at least one impromptu, and very creepy, sex scene. At some point during each mission Jake will spot one or more male characters threatening (either physically or sexually) one or more female characters. After killing the hostile males, Jake is “rewarded” with a short cutscene of him having fully-clothed sex with the distressed damsel[s].

I’m not inherently against including sex in video games, but the circumstances surrounding the repeated sex scenes in Ride to Hell: Retribution are extremely offensive and troubling.

The most obvious issue is that almost all of the female characters in the game amount to nothing more than objects for Jake to eventually have sex with. What is far more disconcerting, in my opinion, is that the “sex reward” is basically forced upon players. You can either leave the distressed female to get beat up and/or raped, or you can stop the attack and then have sex with her yourself. There is never any option to be a decent human being and just stop the rape.

* * *

To read the rest, click here. For other Situationist posts on video games, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Marketing, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

Francesca Gino on the Situation of Being Sidetracked

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 3, 2013

Excerpts from an interview of Situationist friend Francesca Gino by Gareth Cook from Scientific American:

There is an area of self-help devoted to advice on completing tasks, and the focus is generally on the positive: How to get organized, how to choose good goals, how to stay motivated, etc. Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, also wants to help you achieve your goals, but she begins with the negative. What are the psychological forces that send people off the rails? In Sidetracked, she argues that to succeed we first need to know our enemy, the often-unconscious factors that stop us from getting things done. Then we can fight back. She answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

Why did you write this book?

Many of the ideas I study and write about are motivated by my personal experience and by what surrounds me –interesting patterns of behavior that often, at first glance, make little sense. Sidetracked focuses on situations where we set out to accomplish specific goals but ended up reaching different outcomes –outcomes we often regret. Think of a time when you had a clear plan of action—a new career path, a diet you intended to follow, an exciting regular workout plan, a new saving plan for retirement, a new hire in your team, or a new car you were planning to buy after much research and deliberation. What happened when it came time to make decisions in pursuit of your goal? You may have found yourself following a course of action that took you completely off track. I certainly found myself in this type of situations many times in the past. And when talking to friends and colleagues, I discovered that they shared similar experiences where they got sidetracked as they were implementing their well thought-out plans.

In Sidetracked, I explain how even simple and seemingly irrelevant factors have profound consequences on our decisions and behavior, diverting us from our original plans. Most of us care a good deal about being consistent—we care about following through on our goals and wishes. And we also aim to behave in ways that are consistent with our self-image as capable, competent, and honest individuals. But often, without our knowledge, subtle influences—often unexpected—steer us away from what we initially planned or wanted. As a result, our decisions fail to align with our best intentions.

I wrote Sidetracked to discuss the main set of forces that prevent us from following through on our plans, and to identify a set of principles we can apply to stay on track going forward. My book describes theses forces using examples and case studies from personal and professional domains, as well as research that I conducted with amazing colleagues over the last ten years.

You say that very small things can throw people off their plans. Can you give some examples of what you mean by this?

* * *

Some of my research examines the role of forces that sidetrack us in the context of morality. In general, once we identify a goal we want to reach, we develop plans that can help us reach that goal. For instance, in the case of our moral goals, we may decide to volunteer regularly or spend some time each week helping others. Yet, even if our moral goals and plans are clear, subtle forces can lead us astray. Here’s an example of how this may happen. Have you or a friend ever bought a knock-off product like pair of faux “designer” sunglasses or a fake watch? If so, would you believe they may have colored the way you viewed the world—not just literally, but more fundamentally? In fact, those cheap sunglasses might have degraded your moral behavior. In a series of experiments, my colleagues Mike Norton, Dan Ariely, and I found that people were more likely to act dishonestly when they were wearing fake products, such as designer copycats. In our studies, participants who thought they were wearing knock-off sunglasses (in fact, the $300 sunglasses were quite real) were more likely to cheat on various problem-solving tasks than participants who were told they were wearing designer lenses. It seems that what we wear influences how we feel (inauthentic) and behave (dishonestly), whether we realize it or not, even when our goal is to act honestly and follow our moral compass.

But getting things done is also a matter of motivation, right? You have to really want to finish what you started.

Yes, motivation is clearly an important ingredient in following through on our plans. But, as it turns out, the same set of forces that derail our decisions can also influence our motivation to get things done. Here’s how. My colleague Scott Wiltermuth and I conducted a series of studies to examine how we could boost individuals’ motivation and effort. In our research, Scott and I varied how we framed potential rewards to study participants so that they would perceive them as belonging to two categories or only one. The categories were pure fiction: in fact, in some of our studies we put potential rewards (which consisted in a variety of useful objects, such as pens or notebooks) in two separate containers rather than in just one. And yet, the completely arbitrary categories we created affected participants’ motivation. In one study, participants were over three times as likely to work on a task for the full amount of time they were given when the potential rewards were divided into two categories.

By creating meaningless categories, we triggered a feeling in participants that they would be missing out if they did not get a reward from the second category available to them. This type of fear seems to drive many of the decisions we make in our personal and professional lives. In the case of my research with Scott, participants felt a sense of fear that they would miss out on some of the available rewards (those belonging to a different category). But this fear can be more general –from the feeling of missing out on special deals to the fear of missing out on an event our friends are attending. It explains why I often spend endless hours waiting in line so that I can be the first to see a highly rated movie or to buy the latest iPhone. And have you ever signed up for store email lists so that you won’t miss out on the latest deals? I certainly have.

What are some of the concrete techniques that you’d suggest people use to not get sidetracked?

* * *

You can read Professor Gino’s answer  to that question (and the entire interview) here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Marketing, Positive Psychology, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Financial Situation of Think Tanks

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 23, 2013

think-tank-map from FAS Research

For The Nation, Ken Silverstein has a revealing article, titled “The Secret Donors Behind the Center for American Progress and Other Think Tanks.”  Paying special attention to the Center for American Progress, the article shows how ideas, policies, and people gain credibility, legitimacy, and influence through unseen corporate investments in think tanks. Here are a couple of excerpts:

Nowadays, many Washington think tanks effectively serve as unregistered lobbyists for corporate donors, and companies strategically contribute to them just as they hire a PR or lobby shop or make campaign donations. And unlike lobbyists and elected officials, think tanks are not subject to financial disclosure requirements, so they reveal their donors only if they choose to. That makes it impossible for the public and lawmakers to know if a think tank is putting out an impartial study or one that’s been shaped by a donor’s political agenda. “If you’re a lobbyist, whatever you say is heavily discounted,” says Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University and an expert on political ethics. “If a think tank is saying it, it obviously sounds a lot better. Maybe think tanks aren’t aware of how useful that makes them to private interests. On the other hand, maybe it’s part of their revenue model.”

* * *

[M]any [think tanks] lure big donors with a package of benefits, including personalized policy briefings, the right to directly underwrite and shape research projects, and general support for the donor’s political needs.

Most think tanks are nonprofit organizations, so a donor can even get a nice tax break for contributing. But it’s their reputation for impartiality and their web of contacts that makes them especially useful as policy advocates. “Think tanks can always draw a big audience to your event, including government folks,” a Washington lobbyist who has worked with several told me. “And people generally don’t think they would twist anything, or wonder about where they get their money.”

While think tanks portray themselves as altruistic scholarly institutions, they emphasize their political influence when courting donors. “If you have a particular area of policy interest, you can support a specific research effort under way,” the Brookings Institution says in one pitch for cash. Those interested in 
”a deeper engagement”—read: ready to fork over especially large sums of money—get personal briefings from resident experts and can work directly with senior Brookings officials to draw up a research agenda that will “maximize impact on policymaking.”

The Center for Strategic and International Studies advertises itself as being “in the unique position to bring together leaders of both the public and private sectors in small, often off-the-record meetings to build consensus around important policy issues.” It allows top-tier donors to directly sponsor reports, events and speaker series.

Read the entire article here.

Related Situationist posts:

Image Source.

Posted in Deep Capture, Ideology, Marketing, Politics, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Interior Situation of the Climate Change Skeptic

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 23, 2013

global warming from davidllorito.blogspot.com/search/label/governanceFrom the APS Observer, an article by Situationist Contributor John T. Jost and Erin P. Hennes

A multitude of environmental scientists, among others, worry that future generations will look back at the present era as one in which the human race could have — and should have —taken decisive action to prevent (or at least mitigate) the most menacing costs associated with global climate change. According to public opinion surveys, however, only 38 percent of Americans believe that global warming will seriously affect them or their way of life (Newport, 2012), and 42 percent continue to believe that global warming claims are “generally exaggerated” (Saad, 2012). When it comes to beliefs about climate change, men are more skeptical than women, and political conservatives are more skeptical than liberals. In a Gallup survey conducted in 2010, 42 percent of men and only 30 percent of conservatives agreed that “effects of global warming are already occurring,” as compared to 56 percent of women and 74 percent of liberals (Jones, 2010; see also McCright & Dunlap, 2011).

In a recent book, the philosopher Stephen Gardiner (2011) argues that environmental inaction is the consequence of a “perfect moral storm.” Specifically, he points to the conjunction of three unfortunate causes: 1) a tendency for the richer nations of the world to foist the burden of environmental risks upon poorer nations; 2) the present generation’s temptation to defer the costs of the crisis to future generations; and 3) pervasive ignorance concerning science, ethics, international justice, and the interdependence of life. Gardiner writes that the last factor “not only complicates the task of behaving well, but also renders us more vulnerable to the first two storms” (p. 7). Gardiner provides an astute analysis of the problem of environmental inaction, but he overlooks the possibility that climate change denial may not merely result from ignorance. Rather, many members of the public may possess a relatively strong motivation to deny and minimize environmental realities. Specifically, our research team has found that the social psychological motivation to defend, bolster, and justify aspects of the status quo — what we refer to as system justification (see, e.g., Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004) — contaminates the public’s understanding of anthropogenic climate change.

In research published in 2010, we discovered that individuals who score higher on Kay and Jost’s (2003) General System Justification scale (which measures responses to statements such as “Most policies serve the greater good,” and “In general, the American political system operates as it should”) exhibit greater denial of environmental problems and vulnerabilities. Furthermore, system justification statistically mediates the effects of gender and political ideology on support for the environment. That is, men and conservatives are more likely than women and liberals to believe that American society is fair and legitimate, and these differences in system justification explain, at least in part, why they are so skeptical about climate change and are reluctant to take pro-environmental action (Feygina, Jost, & Goldsmith, 2010; see also Feinberg & Willer, 2011).

More recently, we have conducted a series of studies corroborating the hypothesis that system justification motivates skepticism about climate change. Specifically, we have found that the denial of environmental problems is facilitated by information-processing distortions associated with system justification that affect evaluation, recall, and even tactile perception (Hennes, Feygina, & Jost, 2011). In one study, we found that individuals who scored higher (vs. lower) on Jost and Thompson’s (2000) Economic System Justification scale (which measures responses to such statements as “If people work hard, they almost always get what they want,” and “It is unfair to have an economic system which produces extreme wealth and extreme poverty at the same time,” reverse-scored) found messages disparaging the case for global warming to be more persuasive, evaluated the evidence for global warming to be weaker, and expressed less willingness to take action to curb global warming.

In a second study, we extended these findings by demonstrating that motivated processing biases recall of information about climate change. Specifically, we exposed research participants to clips from a televised newscast and later asked them to recall details from the program and to evaluate scientific evidence concerning climate change. Once again, we found that high system-justifiers evaluated the quality of the evidence to be weaker, were less likely to believe that climate change is occurring, and viewed it as a less important policy issue, in comparison with low system-justifiers. High system-justifiers also recalled the information to which they had been exposed as less serious (i.e., remembering smaller increases in global temperatures, lower sea levels, and less reliable historical data concerning climate change) than did low system-justifiers. Poorer recall was associated with skepticism about climate change. Thus, individuals who misremembered the evidence provided in the video to be less severe were less likely to support efforts to address climate change.

In an experimental investigation, we demonstrated that temporarily activating system-justification motivation produced memory biases and exacerbated skepticism about global climate change. More specifically, we adapted a system-dependence manipulation developed by Kay, Gaucher, Peach et al. (2009; see also Shepherd & Kay, 2012) and found that when people were led to believe that the political system exerted a strong (vs. weak) impact on their life circumstances, they were more likely to misremember details from a newspaper article they read earlier in the session. Importantly, all of the memory errors were in a system-exonerating direction: The proportion of man-made carbon emissions was recalled as being less than actually reported, and the scientists who reported errors in the much-maligned 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were misidentified as skeptics rather than believers in anthropogenic climate change (Hennes et al., 2011).

We have discovered that system-justification motivation can even affect perceptions of ambient temperature. Our research assistants approached pedestrians in New York’s Washington Square Park during the summer months and asked them a series of questions, including their estimates of the temperature outside. Individuals who scored high on system justification or who were assigned to a high system-dependence condition reported that the current temperature was significantly lower than did individuals who scored low on system justification or who were assigned to a low system-dependence condition. These findings suggest that people may be motivated to feel (or not feel) the evidence of global warming when system-justification needs are either chronically or temporarily heightened.

Berkeley physicist Richard Muller, a former skeptic of anthropogenic climate change, made headlines last summer when he declared that not only is climate change real, but that “humans are almost entirely the cause” (Muller, 2012). If catastrophic events like Hurricane Sandy become more common, they may shift hearts and minds, albeit slowly. Given economic and other crises facing the nation (many of which probably exacerbate system-justification motivation), it still remains to be seen whether Americans and their elected officials will follow suit in embracing the scientific consensus. Climate change was a non-issue during the 2012 election campaign, and President Obama (2013) was criticized resoundingly by Senator Marco Rubio and other conservatives for emphasizing the issue in his most recent State of the Union speech. Suffice it to say that neither politicians nor the voters who back them appreciate the suggestion that the opinions they hold are motivated, even in part, by social and psychological factors that are probably outside of their awareness. American society and many others have yet to find a way of allowing the facts — scientific and otherwise — to trump special interests, political posturing, and motivated reasoning when it comes to the development of public policy. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

References and Further Reading:

Carroll, J. (2007). Public: Iraq war still top priority for President and Congress. Gallup Poll. Retrieved April 9, 2007, from http://www.galluppoll.com/content/?ci=27103&pg=1

Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2011). Apocalypse soon? Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting just world beliefs. Psychological Science, 22, 34–38.

Feygina, I., Jost, J. T., & Goldsmith, R. (2010). System justification, the denial of global warming, and the possibility of “system-sanctioned change.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 36, 326–338.

Hennes, E. P., Feygina, I., & Jost, J. T. (2011). Motivated evaluation, recall, and tactile perception in the service of the system: The case of anthropogenic climate change. Paper presented at the Princeton University Conference on Psychology and Policymaking, Princeton, NJ.

Jones, J. M. (2010). Conservatives’ doubts about global warming grow. Gallup Poll. Retrieved August 14, 2012, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/126563/conservatives-doubts-global-warming-grow.aspx

Jost, J. T., Banaji, M. R., Nosek, B. A. (2004). A decade of system justification theory: Accumulated evidence of conscious and unconscious bolstering of the status quo. Political Psychology, 25, 881–919.

Jost, J. T., & Thompson, E. P. (2000). Group-based dominance and opposition to equality as independent predictors of self-esteem, ethnocentrism, and social policy attitudes among African Americans and European Americans. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36, 209–232.

Kay, A. C., & Jost, J. T. (2003). Complementary justice: Effects of “poor but happy” and “poor but honest” stereotype exemplars on system justification and implicit activation of the justice motive. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 823–837.

McCright, A. M., & Dunlap, R. E. (2011). Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States. Global Environmental Change, 21, 1163–1172.

Muller, R. A. (2012, July 30). The conversion of a climate-change skeptic. New York Times, p. A19.

Newport, F. (2012). Amercans’ worries about global warming up slightly. Gallup Poll. Retrieved January 28, 2013, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/153653/Americans-Worries-Global-Warming-Slightly.aspx

Obama, B. (2012). State of the union address. Retrieved March 6, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/13/us/politics/obamas-2013-state-of-the-union-address.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

Saad, L. (2012). In U.S., global warming views steady despite warm winter. Gallup Poll. Retrieved January 28, 2013, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/153608/Global-Warming-Views-Steady-Despite-Warm-Winter.aspx

Shepherd, S., & Kay, A. C. (2012). On the perpetuation of ignorance: System dependence, system justification, and the motivated avoidance of sociopolitical information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 264–80.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Environment, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 2 Comments »

Eliot Spitzer – Today at HLS

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 27, 2013

spitzer cover

Discussion with Eliot Spitzer on Corporations in America.  Wed., March
 27, 12 – 1 P.M.  Austin North.  Lunch served.

Courtesy of Professor Hanson’s Corporations class (aka “Like a Virgil”), please join us for a conversation with Governor Eliot Spitzer on Corporations in America.  A graduate of Harvard Law School, Eliot Spitzer has served as Governor and as Attorney General of New York, he conducted “The Wall Street Cases.”

Co-sponsored by ACS and the HLS Democrats.

Posted in Deep Capture, Distribution, Events, Politics, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of How We Became Fat – Part 3

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 15, 2012

Part 3 of the BBC’s Remarkable Three-Part Series “The Men Who Made Us Fat”:

Jacques Peretti examines assumptions about what is and is not healthy. He also looks at how product marketing can seduce consumers into buying supposed ‘healthy foods’ such as muesli and juices, both of which can be high in sugar.

He speaks with Simon Wright, an ‘organic consultant’ for Sainsbury’s in the 1990s, who explains how the food industry cashed in on the public’s concerns around salmonella, BSE and GM crops. By 1999 the organic industry was worth over £605M, a rise of 232% within two years.

How did the mainstream food producers compete? Peretti speaks with Kath Dalmeny, former policy director at the Food Commission, who explains some of the marketing strategies used by mainstream food producers to keep our custom.

The programme also explores the impact of successive government initiatives and health campaigns, such as the proposal of ‘traffic light labelling’, the introduction of which the food industry lobbied hard against.

But in 2012, when we have an Olympic Games sponsored by McDonalds and Coca Cola, has anything changed?

Related Situationist posts:

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

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Distribution, Evolutionary Psychology, Food and Drug Law, Marketing, Public Policy, Public Relations, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of How We Became Fat – Part 2

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 14, 2012

Part 2 of the BBC’s Remarkable Three-Part Series “The Men Who Made Us Fat”:

Jacques Peretti investigates how the concept of ‘supersizing’ changed our eating habits forever. How did we – once a nation of moderate eaters – start to want more?

Speaking to Mike Donahue, former McDonalds Vice President, Peretti explores the history behind the idea of supersizing. 40 years ago, McDonalds hired David Wallerstein, a former cinema manager who had introduced the idea of selling larger popcorn servings in his Chicago cinema. Wallerstein realised that people would eat more but they didn’t like the idea of appearing gluttonous by going back for seconds. By increasing the portion sizes and the cost, he could sell more food. In 1972, he introduced the idea to McDonalds and their first large fries went on sale.

By the 1980s, we were eating more – and eating more often. Perretti speaks with industry professionals to examine the story behind the introduction of value meals, king-size snacks and multi-buy promotions. How did the advertising industry encourage us to eat more often?

The programme also explores the developments in dietary advice – by 2003, the Chief Medical Officer was warning of an ‘obesity time bomb.’ Peretti speaks to obesity expert Professor Philip James, who made recommendations in his 1996 report that the food industry should cease targeting children in their advertisements. He also speaks with Professor Terry Wilkin, who led a pioneering study into childhood weight gain; and former Labour MP David Hinchliffe, who chaired the 2003 Parliamentary Select Committee on Health.

Related Situationist posts:

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

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Distribution, Evolutionary Psychology, Food and Drug Law, Marketing, Public Policy, Public Relations, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of How We Became Fat – Part 1

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 12, 2012

From Introduction of BBC’s Remarkable Three-Part Series “The Men Who Made Us Fat”:

Around the world, obesity levels are rising. More people are now overweight than undernourished. Two thirds of British adults are overweight and one in four of us is classified as obese. In the first of this three-part series, Jacques Peretti traces those responsible for revolutionising our eating habits, to find out how decisions made in America 40 years ago influence the way we eat now.

Peretti travels to America to investigate the story of high-fructose corn syrup. The sweetener was championed in the US in the 1970s by Richard Nixon’s agriculture secretary Earl Butz to make use of the excess corn grown by farmers. Cheaper and sweeter than sugar, it soon found its way into almost all processed foods and soft drinks. HFCS is not only sweeter than sugar, it also interferes with leptin, the hormone that controls appetite, so once you start eating or drinking it, you don’t know when to stop.

Endocrinologist Robert Lustig was one of the first to recognise the dangers of HFCS but his findings were discredited at the time. Meanwhile a US Congress report blamed fat, not sugar, for the disturbing rise in cardio-vascular disease and the food industry responded with ranges of ‘low fat’, ‘heart healthy’ products in which the fat was removed – but the substitute was yet more sugar.

Meanwhile, in 1970s Britain, food manufacturers used advertising campaigns to promote the idea of snacking between meals. Outside the home, fast food chains offered clean, bright premises with tempting burgers cooked and served with a very un-British zeal and efficiency. Twenty years after the arrival of McDonalds, the number of fast food outlets in Britain had quadrupled.

Related Situationist posts:

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

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Distribution, Evolutionary Psychology, Food and Drug Law, Marketing, Public Policy, Public Relations, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

Seduction by Contract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 20, 2012

Oren Bar-Gill recently posted his introductory chapter for his intriguing new book, “Seduction by Contract: Law, Economics and Psychology in Consumer Markets” on SSRN.   Here’s the abstract.

Consumers routinely enter into contracts with providers of goods and services. These contracts are designed by sophisticated sellers to exploit the psychological biases of consumers. They provide short-term benefits, while imposing long-term costs – because consumers are myopic and optimistic. They are excessively complex – because complexity allows sellers to hide the true cost of the product or service from the imperfectly rational consumer. Using both general theory and detailed case studies, this book explains the costs – to consumers and society at large – imposed by seductive contracts, and outlines a promising legal policy solution: Disclosure mandates. Simple, aggregate disclosures can help consumers make better choice. Comprehensive disclosures can facilitate the work of intermediaries, enabling them to better advise consumers. Effective disclosure would expose the seductive nature of consumer contracts and, as a result, reduce sellers’ incentives to write inefficient contracts.

Download the introduction for free here.

Related Situationist posts:

One of the very first legal-academic articles (part of  a trilogy) devoted to the way sellers manipulate consumers is Taking Behavioralism Seriously: The Problem of Market Manipulation (74 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 363 (1999)) available for free download on SSRN.

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Choice Myth, Marketing, Public Policy | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Fairness – 2

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 30, 2012

Earlier this month wrote an excellent piece, “titled The Fairness Trap,” for the New Yorker.  Surowiecki considers some of the ways that the widespread preference for fairness may be contributing to some of the global and local economic woes.  Here are a few excerpts from the article.

With Europe’s economic woes dominating the headlines once more, it’s hard not to think of Yogi Berra’s dictum “It’s déjà vu all over again.” As usual, the turmoil centers on Greece, which is in its fifth year of recession and struggling beneath a colossal debt load. This year, in exchange for drastic austerity measures, Greece’s government agreed to an aid package (its second) with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, totalling $174 billion. But three weeks ago furious Greek voters tossed the ruling parties out of office; attempts to form a coalition government failed, and new elections are scheduled for next month. Now Greek politicians are talking tough about renegotiating, but the E.U., led by Germany, which is the largest contributor to the bailout, says that there will be no more money for Greece if it doesn’t live up to its promises. So policymakers are seriously discussing a so-called Grexit—in which Greece would default on its debts and abandon the euro.

This isn’t an outcome that anyone wants. Even though a devalued currency would make Greece’s exports cheaper and attract tourists, it would do so at a terrible price, destroying huge amounts of wealth and seriously harming the country’s G.D.P. It would be costly for the rest of Europe, too. Greece owes almost half a trillion euros, and containing the damage would likely require the recapitalization of banks, continent-wide deposit insurance (to prevent bank runs), and more aid to Portugal, Spain, and Italy, which seem to be the next countries in line to default. That’s a very high price to pay for getting rid of Greece, and much more expensive than letting it stay.

Rationally, then, this standoff should end with a compromise—relaxing some austerity measures, and giving Greece a little more aid and time to reform. And we may still end up there. But the catch is that Europe isn’t arguing just about what the most sensible economic policy is. It’s arguing about what is fair. German voters and politicians think it’s unfair to ask Germany to continue to foot the bill for countries that lived beyond their means and piled up huge debts they can’t repay. They think it’s unfair to expect Germany to make an open-ended commitment to support these countries in the absence of meaningful reform. But Greek voters are equally certain that it’s unfair for them to suffer years of slim government budgets and high unemployment in order to repay foreign banks and richer northern neighbors, which have reaped outsized benefits from closer European integration. The grievances aren’t unreasonable, on either side, but the focus on fairness, by making it harder to reach any kind of agreement at all, could prove disastrous.

The basic problem is that we care so much about fairness that we are often willing to sacrifice economic well-being to enforce it. Behavioral economists have shown that a sizable percentage of people are willing to pay real money to punish people who are taking from a common pot but not contributing to it. Just to insure that shirkers get what they deserve, we are prepared to make ourselves poorer. Similarly, a famous experiment known as the ultimatum game—one person offers another a cut of a sum of money and the second person decides whether or not to accept—shows that people will walk away from free money if they feel that an offer is unfair. Thus, even when there’s a solution that would leave everyone better off, a fixation on fairness can make agreement impossible.

You can see this in the way the U.S. has dealt with the foreclosure crisis. . . . * * *

The fairness problem is exacerbated by the fact that our definition of what counts as fair typically reflects what the economists Linda Babcock and George Loewenstein call a “self-serving bias” * * * [which] leads us to define fairness in ways that redound to our benefit, and to discount information that might conflict with our perspective. This effect is even more pronounced when bargainers don’t feel that they are part of the same community—a phenomenon that psychologists call “social distance.”  * * *

Read the entire article, including a discussion of the U.S. mortgage crisis here.

Related Situationist posts:

Frans De Waal on Morality

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Nancy Gertner on the Situation of Feminism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 3, 2012

From Harvard Gazette:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reltated Situationist posts:

Image by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer.

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The Situation of Choice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 23, 2012

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Making Better Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Making Decisions About the Environment

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

References and Further Reading:

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

More.

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You can review hundreds of Situationist posts related to the topic of “choice myth” here.

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

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.

* * *

“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.

* * *

Download the paper here.

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You can review hundreds of Situationist posts related to the topic of “deep capture” here

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Can The Law Go Upstream?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 22, 2011

Roger Magnusson, Lawrence O. Gostin, and David  Studdert recently posted their paper, “Can Law Improve Prevention and Treatment of Cancer?” on SSRN:

The December 2011 issue of Public Health (the Journal of the Royal Society for Public Health) contains a symposium entitled: Legislate, Regulate, Litigate? Legal approaches to the prevention and treatment of cancer. This symposium explores the possibilities for using law and regulation – both internationally and at the national level – as the policy instrument for preventing and improving the treatment of cancer and other leading non-communicable diseases (NCDs). In this editorial, we argue that there is an urgent need for more legal scholarship on cancer and other leading NCDs, as well as greater dialogue between lawyers, public health practitioners and policy-makers about priorities for law reform, and feasible legal strategies for reducing the prevalence of leading risk factors. The editorial discusses two important challenges that frequently stand in the way of a more effective use of law in this area. The first is the tendency to dismiss risk factors for NCDs as purely a matter of individual ‘personal responsibility'; the second is the fact that effective regulatory responses to risks for cancer and NCDs will in many cases provoke conflict with the tobacco, alcohol and food industries. After briefly identifying some of the strategies that law can deploy in the prevention of NCDs, we briefly introduce each of the ten papers that make up the symposium.

You can download the paper for free 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 »

9/11 Remembered

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 11, 2011

A number of Situationist posts have discussed the causes an consequences of the 9/11 attacks or have been related, sometimes only implicitly, to the war on terror.  Here is a sample:

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. For a list of posts discussing how people attribute causation, responsibility, and blame, click here.

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, History, Public Policy, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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.”

* * *

“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.

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

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.

 

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Law, Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

David Brooks, the Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 9, 2011

From New York Times:

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More.

Related Situationist posts:

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

The 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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