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Archive for the ‘System Legitimacy’ Category

The Tiger Mother

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 Marty Ehlenbach.

Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s recently published book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has become a seemingly endless source of fodder for Internet blogs and discussion groups. The book, largely meant to be a memoir, recounts the author’s methods of raising her two daughters; she allowed them limited time for playdates or TV, and describes grueling methods for both study and music practice. When a short excerpt was published in the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper fielded an enormous number of comments (7670 at this writing) expressing a wide variety of opinions on the topic. Even The Onion has weighed in on the subject.

Why does this book seem to resonate with so many people? One possible explanation is that it makes a distinction between a “Western” and “Chinese” parent in a time when many people seem to be particularly sensitive to any sort of cultural comparison. Chua’s stereotypical model of “Western” parenting describes a childhood lacking in any discipline and in some ways signifying a lack of commitment by parents to make their children into the most successful people possible. A New York Times article underscored the idea that there are many different types of skills needed to be a success, and believes that Professor Chua’s parenting style does not appropriately develop “soft skills” like communication and teamwork necessary in most business environments.

Blasi and Jost’s chapter on System Justification Theory (“SJT”) can serve to illuminate certain biases present in the story and in reactions to Chua’s assertions. The author, as a Yale professor, is admittedly a fairly elite member of our society, so she is not looking at the system from a position of disadvantage. The story clearly prescribes a particular path to success and shows an ultimate belief in the “winner’s” mantra as described by Jost:

I am deserving. My group is deserving. And, fortunately, we live in a system that has the wisdom and justice to reward deserving people.

Chua writes that “tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence,” but this idea necessarily presupposes that with excellence will come success. It doesn’t really address the differences in educational opportunities available to many children, but seems to have faith that the current system will treat people fairly by recognizing hard work. Losers in the system are clearly “lazy, unintelligent, poorly educated, or irresponsible” as described by Jost. Jost and Blasi recognize that system justification theory can be used to analyze ideologies like the Protestant work ethic and a belief in a meritocracy: Chua’s entire child-rearing method has aspects of both.

Another interesting connection between Jost’s theory and Chua’s book is the possibility that Chua could be providing ultimate justification for the type of upbringing that she experienced. The article on SJT shows that even on a micro-level, within a particular family, people still use methods of ego and system justification to perpetuate particular social arrangements. Chua herself was clearly raised by fairly strict Asian parents; she describes her father calling her “garbage” at one point when she was disrespectful. One wonders if this book is simply a way to legitimize her own upbringing and defend her willingness to create a similar type of relationship with her own daughters. Chua’s daughter Sophia, in an open letter defending her mother’s treatment, says that she “decided to be an easy child to raise”: the fact that she called it a “decision” could be an early justification for her own upbringing, and might show an early willingness to conform to her parents’ expected behaviors. Many of those commenting on the articles who described themselves as being being raised by parents similar to the “Tiger Mother” also spoke about how much they appreciated their parents’ tough love.

Chua’s story has important implications, I believe, for our legal system as pertains to victims of abuse. I do not mean to suggest that Chua’s methods constitute abuse; her goal was clearly to help her children be successful, and as one article described, shows a fear that success is becoming difficult to obtain in a world of increasing competition and a less than robust job market. This is a legitimate worry. Furthermore, I cannot pretend to understand the complex relationship between another parent and child, because they are quite unique and often complicated. However, recognizing that this justification can satisfy “needs for consistency, coherence, and certainty” as described by Blasi and Jost, and analyzing one woman’s story through this lens, leads one to wonder how the legal system could account for a demonstrable bias towards the status quo. Before a real abuse victim can come forward, she or he must be able to recognize that she does not actually deserve the behavior to which she is being subjected, and SJT posits that this recognition is not automatic. Furthermore, we don’t want to believe that our system is corrupt, but in many cases it is not the most hardworking who become successful, and frequently injustice is neither obvious nor easily corrected.

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Read the students’ discussion of the chapter here.

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Book, Conflict, Education, Life, System Legitimacy | 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 »

System Justification Theory and Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 5, 2011

Over at the new Law & Mind Blog, several Harvard Law students have been blogging about about system justification theory.  In the first post on the topic (copied below), third-year student Rachel Funk summarizes a chapter by Gary Blasi and Situationist Contributor John Jost (forthcoming in Ideology, Psychology, and Law, edited by Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson).

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In System Justification Theory and Research: Implications for Law, Legal Advocacy, and Social Justice, Gary Blasi and John Jost outline a model of social psychology they call system justification theory (SJT). According to Blasi and Jost, in addition to the well-established theories of ego justification (that is, our psychological need to think well of ourselves) and group justification (our psychological need to think well of the groups that we identify and associate with), there is a third related phenomenon: namely, system justification. While ego justification accounts for our tendency to privilege ourselves above others and to think and behave in ways that are self-serving, and group justification accounts for our tendency to give preference to members of our group over outsiders, Blasi and Jost argue that system justification is needed to fill out the picture, because we need to account for why marginalized members of society tend to support the current social order, even though it disadvantages them, thus defying the rational actor model inherent in our social institutions, particularly the legal system.

According to the rational actor model, members of disadvantaged groups should be trying to undermine the current regime, since, by definition, it disadvantages them. Instead, as demonstrated by various empirical studies, they seem to be zealous advocates (so to speak) of the status quo. Blasi and Jost argue that SJT can account for this seeming contradiction because, unlike the rational actor model, it posits that people will generally support the status quo, regardless of whether it advantages or disadvantages them.

In fact, our defense of the status quo becomes even more ardent when we perceive the current system to be threatened. For instance, Blasi and Jost cite one study in which people were asked to assign punishments to hypothetical defendants. For crimes that the researchers represented as being common but rarely punished — and thus an implicit threat to the existing social order — people assigned much more severe punishments to defendants accused of that crime than to defendants accused of crimes represented as being more frequently successfully prosecuted (129-30). However, we have the opposite reaction to the status quo when we view the regime change as “inevitable” (134-35), which may explain the phenomenon we are now seeing with regard to Americans’ changing attitudes to same-sex marriage, although it is unclear what is needed for a regime change to be considered “inevitable.”

So what happens when we endorse the status quo and adopt system-justifying ideologies? Studies show that in the short term, the acceptance of the status quo by disadvantaged members of society results in greater satisfaction at work and at home, indicating that system justification serves a “palliative function” (132). However, in the long run, their support of the status quo leads to cognitive dissonance, because their need to think well of themselves and their social groups necessarily conflicts with their low status in society. In other words, for disadvantaged members of society, ego justification and group justification will inevitably conflict with system justification because members of these groups will not be able to reconcile their positive perception of themselves and their social groups with their simultaneous support of a system that marginalizes them.

One of the reasons that society may be resistant to this model, as Blasi and Jost suggest, is that it necessitates accepting that our biases can be implicit (that is, unconscious) as well as explicit. The rational actor model is more comforting, because it assures us that we are in full control of our beliefs and behavior. If we have control over them, we can change them. And if we don’t change them, that must be because they are fine the way they are (and of course they are fine, because why else would we have them?).

Overall, SJT provides a persuasive account of the phenomena that Blasi and Jost seek to explain in the chapter. In the same vein as theories like “belief in a just world”, SJT offers a further insight into how we conjure up rationalizations for our situation in life because we do not want to believe — or cannot believe — that it is random or out of our control. Blasi and Jost also suggest a variety of ways in which SJT could be incorporated into the legal system, something that is desperately needed if the law’s foundational view of human behavior — which is to say, the rational actor model — is so far off the mark.

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Read the students’ discussion of the chapter here.

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Situationist Contributors, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Patriots Loss = “poetic justice”

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on January 17, 2011

Sal Paolantonio interviewed Bart Scott after the Jets beat the Patriots and Scott describe the win as  “poetic justice” that showed “what kind of defense, what kind of team this was.” Scott warned anyone who’s going to “talk crap about us” that they’ll play for it.  The video is here.

Those comments, as well as Deione Branch’s description of the Jets as “classless” put us in mind of the following Situationist post, published originally on February 5, 2008 (here).

Tom Brady

In case you hadn’t heard, the New England Patriots played their worst game of the season last night. A team that had savored, not merely defeating, but blowing out their opponents failed in their quest for perfection. For at least a little longer, the 1972 Miami Dolphins will hold onto their place in NFL history as the last team to end a season with a perfect record.

For Pats fans, like us, last night’s defeat was as shocking as it was untimely. And, really, who in their right mind would have thought that the Giants would win? Sure, some of the Giants players and die-hard fans were confident (or at least claimed to be), but the folks betting in Vegas certainly weren’t: the Pats were favored to win by 12 points. It sort of reminds us of another big and recent Super Bowl upset: the up-start and “lucky” Patriots defeating the allegedly indomitable St. Louis Rams back in 2002 in Super Bowl XXXVI. That one felt good, though.

But, if sports bloggers and commentators are to be believed, perhaps we should take heart. Apparently, much more is revealed by the outcome of this football game than simply the fact that Belichick’s boys are not the best team in the history of the sport. The team’s lackluster performance allegedly proved something far more important than that.

According to these commentators, by losing the Super Bowl in nail-biting fashion, the Patriots revealed that behind imperfection is a deeper and more affirming perfection: the universe is just.

One blogger writes: “We all saw something inexplicable, incredible and possibly supernatural when Eli Manning completed a spellbinding drive with a TD pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds remaining.”

Consider the evidence.:

The Patriots got busted for cheat[ing] during the first game of the season, and when the season came down to it, after Asante Samuel drops an interception that would have ended the game, Eli Manning miraculously escaped the grasp of 200 Patriots pass rushers and heaved a prayer over David Tyree’s head that he pinned against his own helmet and kept from hitting the ground as his body nearly split in two at the waist. If you were rooting for the Patriots, as I was, when that play happened you said to yourself, “uh oh.”

And another asks:

Who ever heard of a helmet-catch? What kind of a play was that where Eli Mannning escaped from the grasp of several Patriot pass-rushers, and then tossed the ball downfield so his receiver could catch it on his helmet? Is that normal? Well, not according to the receiver, David Tyree, who said about the play, “This was all supernatural.”

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As Josh Alper explains: “If you’re a karmic sort, . . . you can’t help but think the Patriots did their fair share to help [the Giants] along.” So, no, this was no mere coincidence. It wasn’t luck. And it wasn’t exactly skill either . . . . This was divine or cosmic intervention intended to even the scales of justice. Writing for the Denver Post, Mark Kizla is downright giddy about the game’s implications:

The only thing that left the Super Bowl undefeated was karma. For everyone who believes in truth, justice and a great American underdog story, the New York Giants kicked New England in the asterisk with a stunning 17-14 victory. Talk about your perfect ending. Sorry, Pats. Cheaters never prosper.

The 18-0 Patriots lost because they deserved to. In the end, writes another blogger, “[i]t was a team not worthy of perfection.” In a post titled “Karma Kicks Patriots In The Butt,” Madhava Gosh lays out the case this way:

Early in the season, [the Patriots] were caught videotaping the defensive signals of their opponents in a game. This is illegal and considered cheating. The results of the game were let stand, but the coach was fined 1 million dollars and the Patriots lost a draft choice in the 2008 draft.

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Now, it seems to me, that the perfect season up to the Super Bowl was simply Krishna setting them up, as karma for their cheating, for the ultimate pain — losing not only the Super Bowl but the chance at a historical 19-0 season.

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If you wanted to cause the team an enormous amount of pain for the cheating, what better way than to let them get so tantalizingly close. They had the lead with only 2 minutes left in the game, and then victory was snatched from their jaws by the Giants’ game winning miracle drive.

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Anyone who has played in a meaningful game knows what the pain of defeat can be, and in this case it was amplified to a huge degree.

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The cheating was nectar in the beginning that became poison in the end . . . . Karma is inexorable.

Just like that, the poison of losing a football game is transformed into the sweet nectar of justice. As Kizla puts it: “Karma won. The Patriots lost. No matter how you pour it, there’s nothing so sweet as the taste of justice.”

Yet another commentator sums up the karma effect as follows: “The Bradshaw fumble, holding penalties, false starts, running up the score, Spygate and yes, even the tuck rule from years ago finally caught up to the Patriots. They had a great regular season but at the end of the day, Karma bit the Pats in the ass!”

And still another describes the “karmic payback” this way:

If there was any moment that summed up why the Patriots deserved to lose this Super Bowl, it was Bill Belichick deciding not to remain on the field for the final second of the game.

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It was a classless move by a classless coach, but there was also much more to it than that. It was a microcosm of the entire Patriots season. Because . . . the truth is that this year’s Patriots team, and their fans, pushed the envelope like no team ever has before. And in the end, it came back to nail them in crushing fashion.

Just as the single moment was a microcosm for the season, the football season is a microcosm for life. So take heart Patriots fans. Take heart Giants fans. Take heart everyone! What goes around, comes around. If not sooner, then sometime later—perhaps even in the final seconds of the last quarter of the ultimate contest—good will triumph over evil.

Or so the human animal likes to believe.

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To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Situationist Contributors, Situationist Sports, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 15, 2011

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

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Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

mlk5.jpg

So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person's] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Blood & Race

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 21, 2010

From the Harvard Gazette:

The centuries-old “one-drop rule” assigning minority status to mixed-race individuals appears to live on in our modern-day perception and categorization of people like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and Halle Berry.

So say Harvard University psychologists, who’ve found that we still tend to see biracials not as equal members of both parent groups, but as belonging more to their minority parent group. The research appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Many commentators have argued that the election of Barack Obama, and the increasing number of mixed-race people more broadly, will lead to a fundamental change in American race relations,” says lead author Arnold K. Ho, a Ph.D. student in psychology at Harvard. “Our work challenges the interpretation of our first biracial president, and the growing number of mixed-race people in general, as signaling a color-blind America.”

In the United States, the “one-drop rule” — also known as hypodescent — dates to a 1662 Virginia law on the treatment of mixed-race individuals. The legal notion of hypodescent has been upheld as recently as 1985, when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as “white” on her passport.

“One of the remarkable things about our research on hypodescent is what it tells us about the hierarchical nature of race relations in the United States,” says co-author James Sidanius, professor of psychology and of African and African-American studies at Harvard. “Hypodescent against blacks remains a relatively powerful force within American society.”

Ho and Sidanius, along with co-authors Mahzarin R. Banaji (Situationist Contributor) at Harvard and Daniel T. Levin at Vanderbilt University, say their work reflects the cultural entrenchment of America’s traditional racial hierarchy, which assigns the highest status to whites, followed by Asians, with Latinos and blacks at the bottom.

Ho and colleagues presented subjects with computer-generated images of black-white and Asian-white individuals, as well as family trees showing different biracial permutations. They also asked people to report directly whether they perceived biracials to be more minority or white. By using multiple approaches, their work examined both conscious and unconscious perceptions of biracial individuals, presenting the most extensive empirical evidence to date on how they are perceived.

The researchers found, for example, that one-quarter-Asian individuals are consistently considered more white than one-quarter-black individuals, despite the fact that African Americans and European Americans share a substantial degree of genetic heritage.

Using face-morphing technology that presented a series of faces ranging from 5 percent white to 95 percent white, they also found that individuals who were a 50-50 mix of two races, either black-white or Asian-white, were almost never identified by study participants as white. Furthermore, on average, black-white biracials had to be 68 percent white before they were perceived as white; the comparable figure for Asian-white biracials was 63 percent.

“The United States is already a country of ethnic mixtures, but in the near future it will be even more so, and more so than any other country on earth,” says Banaji, Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard. “When we see in our data that our own minds are limited in the perception of those who are the products of two different ethnic groups, we recognize how far we have to go in order to have an objectively accurate and fair assessment of people. That’s the challenge for modern minds.”

The team found few differences in how whites and non-whites perceive biracial individuals, with both assigning them with equal frequency to lower-status groups. The researchers are conducting further studies to examine why Americans continue to associate biracials more with their minority parent group.

“The persistence of hypodescent serves to reinforce racial boundaries, rather than moving us toward a race-neutral society,” Ho says.

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Arnold Ho is one of the confirmed presenters at the 2011 PLMS conference on “The Psychology of Inequality.”

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Fifth Annual PLMS Conference – Save the Date,” “Jim Sidanius ‘Terror, Intergroup Violence, and the Law’,” “The Palliative Function of Ideology,” The Blame Frame – Abstract,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” The Situation of Political and Religious Beliefs?,” Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV,” Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” “Wages Are Only Skin Deep – Abstract,” Colorblinded Wages - Abstract,” Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice,” and “Black History is Now.”

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Choosing a World Cup Site

Posted by Adam Benforado on December 5, 2010

Qatar has been awarded the 2022 World Cup.

Given the mysteries of FIFA (soccer’s world governing body) decision making, I was less sure than most that the United States had this one “in the bag,” despite what the New York Times described as “an apparently superior technical bid.”

Still, I was surprised that the pea-sized (okay, Connecticut-sized) Middle Eastern nation got the nod . . . and more than a little disappointed given the human rights record of the country.

FIFA was apparently drawn to the idea of the transformative power of football and the notion that a World Cup in Qatar could alter opinions of the Arab world.  According to the head of Qatar’s winning bid, Sheik Mohammed bin Hamad al-Thani, the 2022 World Cup will “present a new image of the Middle East — far away from clichés and closer to reality.”

But the present reality of Qatar is not so pretty.

As Amnesty International reported back in June of this year, Qatari laws “prescribe imprisonment for criticizing the Emir, for writing about the armed forces without permission and for offending divine religions, as well as . . . punish[ing] blasphemy and consensual ‘illicit sexual relations.’”  In another report, it was noted that “discrimination against women [in the country] remains rife” and “[d]eprivation of nationality has been used by the government against a number of individuals and tribes to target political opponents.”  According to the UN Refugee Agency, homosexual behavior is illegal in Qatar and, as recently as 1996, an American citizen was sentenced to six months imprisonment and 90 lashes for homosexual activity.

I am hopeful that winning the bid for the World Cup could prompt Qatar to think seriously about its commitment to human rights.  There are twelve long years to improve the treatment of women, gays, dissidents, migrant workers, and others before the tournament begins.  A lot of progress could be made.

But I remain skeptical.  It appears that most of the Qatari 2022 proposal is focused on building glittering new soccer stadiums and ways to get to them (see the stunning video below).  FIFA officials were clearly wowed by the $4 billion dollars allocated for soccer arenas and $50 billion allocated for transportation and other infrastructure improvements.  What they should have been pushing for, however, was a commitment to fixing the abuses and injustice built into the Qatari legal and social systems.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Can Sports Save the World? (& what must be done beforehand) – Part I & Part 2,” and “Manufactured Hype: Can ESPN’s Agenda-Setting Behaviour save Major League Soccer?.”

Posted in Politics, Public Relations, Situationist Sports, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Warming World or Just World?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 27, 2010

From UCBerkeley News:

Dire or emotionally charged warnings about the consequences of global warming can backfire if presented too negatively, making people less amenable to reducing their carbon footprint, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.

“Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming,” said Robb Willer, UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of a study to be published in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science.

“The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it,” agreed Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student in psychology and coauthor of the study.

But if scientists and advocates can communicate their findings in less apocalyptic ways, and present solutions to global warming, Willer said, most people can get past their skepticism.

Recent decades have seen a growing scientific consensus on the existence of a warming of global land and ocean temperatures. A significant part of the warming trend has been attributed to human activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the mounting evidence, a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year found that 48 percent of Americans believe that global warming concerns are exaggerated, and 19 percent think global warming will never happen. In 1997, 31 percent of those who were asked the same question in a Gallup poll felt the claims were overstated.

In light of this contradictory trend, Feinberg and Willer sought to investigate the psychology behind attitudes about climate change.

In the first of two experiments, 97 UC Berkeley undergraduates were gauged for their political attitudes, skepticism about global warming and level of belief in whether the world is just or unjust. Rated on a “just world scale,” which measures people’s belief in a just world for themselves and others, participants were asked how much they agree with such statements as “I believe that, by and large, people get what they deserve,” and “I am confident that justice always prevails over injustice.”

Next, participants read a news article about global warming. The article started out with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. But while half the participants received articles that ended with warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming, the other half read ones that concluded with positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions.

Results showed that those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming and had more faith in science’s ability to solve the problem. Moreover, those who scored high on the just world scale were less skeptical about global warming when exposed to the positive message. By contrast, those exposed to doomsday messages became more skeptical about global warming, particularly those who scored high on the just world scale.

In the second experiment, involving 45 volunteers recruited from 30 U.S. cities via Craigslist, researchers looked specifically at whether increasing one’s belief in a just world would increase his or her skepticism about global warming.

They had half the volunteers unscramble sentences such as “prevails justice always” so they would be more likely to take a just world view when doing the research exercises. They then showed them a video featuring innocent children being put in harm’s way to illustrate the threat of global warming to future generations.

Those who had been primed for a just world view responded to the video with heightened skepticism towards global warming and less willingness to change their lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprint, according to the results.

Overall, the study concludes, “Fear-based appeals, especially when not coupled with a clear solution, can backfire and undermine the intended effects of messages.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Value-Affirmation, and the Situation of Climate Change Beliefs,” Global Climate Change and The Situation of Denial,” “Al Gore – The Situationist,” The Situation of Climate Change,” “Getting a Grip on Climate Change,” “Juliet Schor, ‘Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies’,” “Denial,” Thanksgiving as ‘System Justification,’” “The Heat is On,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Abstracts, Environment, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 24, 2010

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Bush - Times OnlineExisting levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

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No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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To review a related set of Situationist posts, see “A System-Justification Primer,” “Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” “Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation,” Cheering for the Underdog,” and “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!“  To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

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

“Talk to an Iraqi” from This American Life 

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 1, 2010

From This American Life:

“A young Iraqi ends up in America after fleeing Iraq and goes on a road trip to ask Americans questions about the War. But he approaches people in a very specific way, a way you might actually recognize from Peanuts comics. The conversations he has illuminate how we form opinions about a war happening far away.”

The roughly sixteen minutes worth of video are, like most TAL stories, outstanding.  We include them on the Situationist, however, because of how powerfully the dialogues illustrate the influence of system justification, in-group bias, and other psychological motives.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Cruelty of Children,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “The Situation of an Airstrike,” The Situation of Soldiers,” Our Soldiers, Their Children: The Lasting Impact of the War in Iraq,” The Situation of a “Volunteer” Army,” Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” Some (Interior) Situational Sources of War – Part VII,” “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors,” “Michael McCullough on the Situation of Revenge and Forgiveness,”The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers,” and “March Madness.”

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

The Unproductive Situation of Picking Underdogs in the NCAA Tournament

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 20, 2010

Earlier this week, we blogged about the role of implicit attitudes in the selection of teams for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Today we bring your attention to a New York Times piece by Nicholas Bakalar on a study titled, Match Madness: Probability Matching in Prediction of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  The study’s authors, Professors Sean McCrea and Edward Hirt, conclude that while betting on the underdogs may make a fan feel good, the decision often proves regrettable.   We excerpt Bakalar’s piece below.

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Some people think that the way to win the office pool in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament is to pick the promising underdogs to win — and they believe they know which underdogs to pick. But two psychology professors have this advice for them: don’t bet on it.

The problem is that of all the prediction techniques — asking sportswriters, polling coaches, following the Las Vegas odds, and others — none does better than simply predicting that the better-seeded team will win.

“We all feel we can guess right; it’s seductive,” said Edward R. Hirt, a co-author of a study on the subject published in the December issue of The Journal of Applied Social Psychology. “We know that we’re better off just picking the lower-seeded team, but that’s boring.”

A pool involves predicting the winner of each game in the tournament. The person with the most correct picks wins. In the first round, when the No. 1 seeds plays the No. 16s, the outcome is, for all practical purposes, preordained. Although there have been a few close calls, including two 1-point losses, no 16th seed has ever beaten the No. 1 seed since the expansion to 64 teams in 1985.

But the closer the seeding, the more likely an upset becomes. The game between the teams seeded eighth and ninth is virtually a tossup.

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To read the rest, click here.  For a related Situationist post, see Cheering for the Underdog and Jack Bauer and Growing Up Rich.

Posted in Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Looting

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 4, 2010

Stephen Mulvey for BBC News had an illuminating article earlier this article, asking “Why Do People Loot?”  Here are some excerpts.

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Chile could be mistaken for being in the throes of a political uprising rather than the aftermath of a natural disaster.

“We understand your urgent suffering, but we also know that these are criminal acts that will not be tolerated,” President Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday, condemning the “pillage and criminality”.

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Social psychologists accept both that looting is criminal behaviour, and that it is natural when the forces of law and order disappear.

They distinguish different types of looting, including:

  • Looting of goods needed for survival
  • Opportunistic theft of good such as TV sets
  • Collective action, conditioned by the political environment

It’s the third category that is of most interest to psychologists.

Steve Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at St Andrews University in the UK, quotes approvingly Martin Luther King’s adage “a riot is the language of the unheard”.

In his view, a mass outbreak of looting can follow precise patterns, which express the community’s sense of right and wrong.

During the riots in the St Pauls area of Bristol in 1980, some shops were untouched because they were regarded as part of the community. A bank, on the other hand, came under heavy attack because it was perceived as a symbol of authority.

“People joined in spontaneously,” he says. “The number of people who told me they had attacked the bank in St Pauls was remarkable.”

During food riots in Britain at the turn of the 18th Century, there were cases where grain was seized from merchants and sold to the needy at a fair price – and then the money and the empty sacks were handed back to the merchant.

“In Chile, the questions I would want to ask are, ‘Let’s look closely at the patterns of behaviour, the grievances, the sense of right and wrong of those involved,’” he says.

“It’s not ‘What happened to me?’ but ‘What happened to us?’ How are ‘We’ as a group treated by ‘Them’? How much is this due to the fact that they ignored us?”

At the same time, he acknowledges that individuals do use the cover of the riot for straightforward cases of theft – and that distinguishing collective action from cases of individual opportunism is not always easy.

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To read the entire article, including a section discussing the role of anger, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “A System-Justification Primer,” “Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and “March Madness,”

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Morality, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 20, 2010

“Crime and Criminals: Address to the Prisoners in the Chicago Jail” (1902)

Preface

This address is a stenographic report of a talk made to the prisoners in the Chicago jail. Some of my good friends have insisted that while my theories are true, I should not have given them to the inmates of a jail.

Realizing the force of the suggestion that the truth should not be spoken to all people, I have caused these remarks to be printed on rather good paper and in a somewhat expensive form. In this way the truth does not become cheap and vulgar, and is only placed before those whose intelligence and affluence will prevent their being influenced by it.
—Clarence Darrow

Crime and Criminals

If I looked at jails and crimes and prisoners in the way the ordinary person does, I should not speak on this subject to you. The reason I talk to you on the question of crime, its cause and cure, is because I really do not in the least believe in crime. There is no such thing as a crime as the word is generally understood. I do not believe there is any sort of distinction between the real moral condition of the people in and out of jail. One is just as good as the other. The people here can no more help being here than the people outside can avoid being outside. I do not believe that people are in jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control and for which they are in no way responsible.

I suppose a great many people on the outside would say I was doing you harm if they should hear what I say to you this afternoon, but you cannot be hurt a great deal anyway, so it will not matter. Good people outside would say that I was really teaching you things that were calculated to injure society, but it’s worth while now and then to hear something different from what you ordinarily get from preachers and the like. These will tell you that you should be good and then you will get rich and be happy. Of course we know that people do not get rich by being good, and that is the reason why so many of you people try to get rich some other way, only you do not understand how to do it quite as well as the fellow outside.

There are people who think that everything in this world is an accident. But really there is no such thing as an accident. A great many folks admit that many of the people in jail ought not to be there, and many who are outside ought to be in. I think none of them ought to be here. There ought to be no jails, and if it were not for the fact that the people on the outside are so grasping and heartless in their dealings with the people on the inside, there would be no such institution as jails.

I do not want you to believe that I think all you people here are angels. I do not think that. You are people of all kinds, all of you doing the best you can, and that is evidently not very well — you are people of all kinds and conditions and under all circumstances. In one sense everybody is equally good and equally bad. We all do the best we can under the circumstances. But as to the exact things for which you are sent here, some of you are guilty and did the particular act because you needed the money. Some of you did it because you are in the habit of doing it, and some of you because you are born to it, and it comes to be as natural as it does, for instance, for me to be good.

Most of you probably have nothing against me, and most of you would treat me the same as any other person would; probably better than some of the people on the outside would treat me, because you think I believe in you and they know I do not believe in them. While you would not have the least thing against me in the world you might pick my pockets. I do not think all of you would, but I think some of you would. You would not have anything against me, but that’s your profession, a few of you. Some of the rest of you, if my doors were unlocked, might come in if you saw anything you wanted — not out of malice to me, but because that is your trade. There is no doubt there are quite a number of people in this jail who would pick my pockets. And still I know this, that when I get outside pretty nearly everybody picks my pocket. There may be some of you who would hold up a man on the street, if you did not happen to have something else to do, and needed the money; but when I want to light my house or my office the gas company holds me up. They charge me one dollar for something that is worth twenty-five cents, and still all these people are good people; they are pillars of society and support the churches, and they are respectable.

When I ride on the street cars, I am held up — I pay five cents for a ride that is worth two and a half cents, simply because a body of men have bribed the city council and the legislature, so that all the rest of us have to pay tribute to them. If I do not wish to fall into the clutches of the gas trust and choose to burn oil instead of gas, then good Mr. Rockefeller holds me up, and he uses a certain portion of his money to build universities and support churches which are engaged in telling us how to be good. Some of you are here for obtaining property under false pretenses — yet I pick up a great Sunday paper and read the advertisements of a merchant prince — “Shirt waists for 39 cents, marked down from $3.00.”

When I read the advertisements in the paper I see they are all lies. When I want to get out and find a place to stand anywhere on the face of the earth, I find that it has all been taken up long ago before I came here, and before you came here, and somebody says, “Get off, swim into the lake, fly into the air; go anywhere, but get off.” That is because these people have the police and they have the jails and judges and the lawyers and the soldiers and all the rest of them to take care of the earth and drive everybody off that comes in their way. A great many people will tell you that all this is true, but that it does not excuse you. These facts do not excuse some fellow who reaches into my pocket and takes out a five dollar bill; the fact that the gas company bribes the members of the legislature from year to year, and fixes the law, so that all you people are compelled to be “fleeced” whenever you deal with them; the fact that the street car companies and the gas companies have control of the streets and the fact that the landlords own all the earth, they say, has nothing to do with you.

Let us see whether there is any connection between the crimes of the respectable classes and your presence in the jail. Many of you people are in jail because you have really committed burglary. Many of you, because you have stolen something; in the meaning of the law, you have taken some other person’s property. Some of you have entered a store and carried off a pair of shoes because you did not have the price. Possibly some of you have committed murder. I cannot tell what all of you did. There are a great many people here who have done some of these things who really do not know themselves why they did them. I think I know why you did them — every one of you; you did these things because you were bound to do them. It looked to you at the time as if you had a chance to do them or not, as you saw fit, but still after all you had no choice. There may be people here who had some money in their pockets and who still went out and got some more money in a way society forbids. Now you may not yourselves see exactly why it was you did this thing, but if you look at the question deeply enough and carefully enough you would see that there were circumstances that drove you to do exactly the thing which you did. You could not help it any more than we outside can help taking the positions that we take. The reformers who tell you to be good and you will be happy, and the people on the outside who have property to protect — they think that the only way to do it is by building jails and locking you up in cells on week days and praying for you Sundays.

I think that all of this has nothing whatever to do with right conduct. I think it is very easily seen what has to do with right conduct. Some so-called criminals — and I will use this word because it is handy, it means nothing to me — I speak of the criminals who get caught as distinguished from the criminals who catch them — some of these so-called criminals are in jail for the first offenses, but nine-tenths of you are in jail because you did not have a good lawyer and of course you did not have a good lawyer because you did not have enough money to pay a good lawyer. There is no very great danger of a rich man going to jail. Some of you may be here for the first time. If we would open the doors and let you out, and leave the laws as they are today, some of you would be back tomorrow. This is about as good a place as you can get anyway. There are many people here who are so in the habit of coming that they would not know where else to go. There are people who are born with the tendency to break into jail every chance they get, and they cannot avoid it. You cannot figure out your life and see why it was, but still there is a reason for it, and if we were all wise and knew all the facts we could figure it out.

In the first place, there are a good many more people who go to jail in the winter time than in summer. Why is this? Is it because people are more wicked in winter? No, it is because the coal trust begins to get in its grip in the winter. A few gentlemen take possession of the coal, and unless the people will pay $7 or $8 a ton for something that is worth $3, they will have to freeze. Then there is nothing to do but break into jail, and so there are many more in jail in the winter than in summer. It costs more for gas in the winter because the nights are longer, and people go to jail to save gas bills. The jails are electric lighted. You may not know it, but these economic laws are working all the time, whether we know it or do not know it.

There are more people go to jail in hard times than in good times — few people comparatively go to jail except when they are hard up. They go to jail because they have no other place to go. They may not know why, but it is true all the same. People are not more wicked in hard times. That is not the reason. The fact is true all over the world that in hard times more people go to jail than in good times, and in winter more people go to jail than in summer. Of course it is pretty hard times for people who go to jail at any time. The people who go to jail are almost always poor people — people who have no other place to live first and last. When times are hard then you find large numbers of people who go to jail who would not otherwise be in jail.

Long ago Mr. Buckle, who was a great philosopher and historian, collected facts and he showed that the number of people who are arrested increased just as the price of food increased. When they put up the price of gas ten cents a thousand I do not know who will go to jail, but I do know that a certain number of people will go. When the meat combine raises the price of beef I do not know who is going to jail, but I know that a large number of people are bound to go. Whenever the Standard Oil Company raises the price of oil, I know that a certain number of girls who are seamstresses, and who work after night long hours for somebody else, will be compelled to go out on the streets and ply another trade, and I know that Mr. Rockefeller and his associates are responsible and not the poor girls in the jails.

First and last, people are sent to jail because they are poor. Sometimes, as I say, you may not need money at the particular time, but you wish to have thrifty forehanded habits, and do not always wait until you are in absolute want. Some of you people are perhaps plying the trade, the profession, which is called burglary. No man in his right senses will go into a strange house in the dead of night and prowl around with a dark lantern through unfamiliar rooms and take chances of his life if he has plenty of the good things of the world in his own home. You would not take any such chances as that. If a man had clothes in his clothes-press and beefsteak in his pantry, and money in the bank, he would not navigate around nights in houses where he knows nothing about the premises whatever. It always requires experience and education for this profession, and people who fit themselves for it are no more to blame than I am for being a lawyer. A man would not hold up another man on the street if he had plenty of money in his own pocket. He might do it if he had one dollar or two dollars, but he wouldn’t if he had as much money as Mr. Rockefeller has. Mr. Rockefeller has a great deal better hold-up game than that.

The more that is taken from the poor by the rich, who have the chance to take it, the more poor people there are who are compelled to resort to these means for a livelihood. They may not understand it, they may not think so at once, but after all they are driven into that line of employment. There is a bill before the legislature of this State to punish kidnapping of children with death. We have wise members of the legislature. They know the gas trust when they see it and they always see it — they can furnish light enough to be seen, and this legislature thinks it is going to stop kidnapping of children by making a law punishing kidnapers of children with death. I don’t believe in kidnapping children, but the legislature is all wrong. Kidnapping children is not a crime, it is a profession. It has been developed with the times. It has been developed with our modern industrial conditions. There are many ways of making money — many new ways that our ancestors knew nothing about. Our ancestors knew nothing about a billion dollar trust; and here comes some poor fellow who has no other trade and he discovers the profession of kidnapping children.

This crime is born, not because people are bad; people don’t kidnap other people’s children because they want the children or because they are devilish, but because they see a chance to get some money out of it. You cannot cure this crime by passing a law punishing by death kidnapers of children. There is one way to cure it. There is one way to cure all these offenses, and that is to give the people a chance to live. There is no other way, and there never was any other way since the world began, and the world is so blind and stupid that it will not see. If every man and woman and child in the world had a chance to make a decent, fair, honest living, there would be no jails, and no lawyers and no courts. There might be some persons here or there with some peculiar formation of their brain, like Rockefeller, who would do these things simply to be doing them; but they would be very, very few, and those should be sent to a hospital and treated, and not sent to jail, and they would entirely disappear in the second generation, or at least in the third generation.

I am not talking pure theory. I will just give you two or three illustrations. The English people once punished criminals by sending them away. They would load them on a ship and export them to Australia. England was owned by lords and nobles and rich people. They owned the whole earth over there, and the other people had to stay in the streets. They could not get a decent living. They used to take their criminals and send them to Australia — I mean the class of criminals who got caught. When these criminals got over there, and nobody else had come, they had the whole continent to run over, and so they could raise sheep and furnish their own meat, which is easier than stealing it; these criminals then became decent, respectable people because they had a chance to live. They did not commit any crimes. They were just like the English people who sent them there, only better. And in the second generation the descendants of those criminals were as good and respectable a class of people as there were on the face of the earth, and then they began building churches and jails themselves.

A portion of this country was settled in the same way, landing prisoners down on the southern coast; but when they got here and had a whole continent to run over and plenty of chances to make a living, they became respectable citizens, making their own living just like any other citizen in the world; but finally these descendants of the English aristocracy, who sent the people over to Australia, found out they were getting rich, and so they went over to get possession of the earth as they always do, and they organized land syndicates and got control of the land and ores, and then they had just as many criminals in Australia as they did in England. It was not because the world had grown bad; it was because the earth had been taken away from the people.

Some of you people have lived in the country. It’s prettier than it is here. And if you have ever lived on a farm you understand that if you put a lot of cattle in a field, when the pasture is short they will jump over the fence; but put them in a good field where there is plenty of pasture, and they will be law-abiding cattle to the end of time. The human animal is just like the rest of the animals, only a little more so. The same thing that governs in the one governs in the other.

Everybody makes his living along the lines of least resistance. A wise man who comes into a country early sees a great undeveloped land. For instance, our rich men twenty-five years ago saw that Chicago was small and knew a lot of people would come here and settle, and they readily saw that if they had all the land around here it would be worth a good deal, so they grabbed the land. You cannot be a landlord because somebody has got it all. You must find some other calling. In England and Ireland and Scotland less than five percent own all the land there is, and the people are bound to stay there on any kind of terms the landlords give. They must live the best they can, so they develop all these various professions — burglary, picking pockets and the like.

Again, people find all sorts of ways of getting rich. These are diseases like everything else. You look at people getting rich, organizing trusts, and making a million dollars, and somebody gets the disease and he starts out. He catches it just as a man catches the mumps or the measles; he is not to blame, it is in the air. You will find men speculating beyond their means, because the mania of money-getting is taking possession of them. It is simply a disease; nothing more, nothing less. You cannot avoid catching it; but the fellows who have control of the earth have the advantage of you. See what the law is; when these men get control of things, they make the laws. They do not make the laws to protect anybody; courts are not instruments of justice; when your case gets into court it will make little difference whether you are guilty or innocent; but it’s better if you have a smart lawyer. And you cannot have a smart lawyer unless you have money. First and last it’s a question of money. Those men who own the earth make the laws to protect what they have. They fix up a sort of fence or pen around what they have, and they fix the law so the fellow on the outside cannot get in. The laws are really organized for the protection of the men who rule the world. They were never organized or enforced to do justice. We have no system for doing justice, not the slightest in the world.

Let me illustrate: Take the poorest person in this room. If the community had provided a system of doing justice the poorest person in this room would have as good a lawyer as the richest, would he not? When you went into court you would have just as long a trial, and just as fair a trial as the richest person in Chicago. Your case would not be tried in fifteen or twenty minutes, whereas it would take fifteen days to get through with a rich man’s case.

Then if you were rich and were beaten your case would be taken to the Appellate Court. A poor man cannot take his case to the Appellate Court; he has not the price; and then to the Supreme Court, and if he were beaten there he might perhaps go to the United States Supreme Court. And he might die of old age before he got into jail. If you are poor, it’s a quick job. You are almost known to be guilty, else you would not be there. Why should anyone be in the criminal court if he were not guilty? He would not be there if he could be anywhere else. The officials have no time to look after these cases. The people who are on the outside, who are running banks and building churches and making jails, they have no time to examine 600 or 700 prisoners each year to see whether they are guilty or innocent. If the courts were organized to promote justice the people would elect somebody to defend all these criminals, somebody as smart as the prosecutor — and give him as many detectives and as many assistants to help, and pay as much money to defend you as to prosecute you. We have a very able man for State’s Attorney, and he has many assistants, detectives and policemen without end, and judges to hear the cases — everything handy.

Most of our criminal code consists in offenses against property. People are sent to jail because they have committed a crime against property. It is of very little consequence whether one hundred people more or less go to jail who ought not to go — you must protect property, because in this world property is of more importance than anything else. How is it done? These people who have property fix it so they can protect what they have. When somebody commits a crime it does not follow that he has done something that is morally wrong. The man on the outside who has committed no crime may have done something. For instance: to take all the coal in the United States and raise the price two dollars or three dollars when there is no need of it, and thus kills thousands of babies and send thousands of people to the poorhouse and tens of thousands to jail, as is done every year in the United States — this is a greater crime than all the people in our jails ever committed, but the law does not punish it. Why? Because the fellows who control the earth make the laws. If you and I had the making of the laws, the first thing we would do would be to punish the fellow who gets control of the earth. Nature put this coal in the ground for me as well as for them and nature made the prairies up here to raise wheat for me as well as for them, and then the great railroad companies came along and fenced it up.

Most all of the crimes for which we are punished are property crimes. There are a few personal crimes, like murder — but they are very few. The crimes committed are mostly against property. If this punishment is right the criminals must have a lot of property. How much money is there in this crowd? And yet you are all here for crimes against property. The people up and down the Lake Shore have not committed crime, still they have so much property they don’t know what to do with it. It is perfectly plain why these people have not committed crimes against property; they make the laws and therefore do not need to break them. And in order for you to get some property you are obliged to break the rules of the game. I don’t know but what some of you may have had a very nice chance to get rich by carrying the hod for one dollar a day, twelve hours. Instead of taking that nice, easy profession, you are a burglar. If you had been given a chance to be a banker you would rather follow that. Some of you may have had a chance to work as a switchman on a railroad where you know, according to statistics, that you cannot live and keep all your limbs more than seven years, and you get fifty dollars a month for taking your lives in your hands, and instead of taking that lucrative position you choose to be a sneak thief, or something like that. Some of you made that sort of chance. I don’t know which I would take if I was reduced to this choice. I have an easier choice.

I will guarantee to take from this jail, or any jail in the world, five hundred men who have been the worst criminals and law breakers who ever got into jail, and I will go down to our lowest streets and take five hundred of the most hardened prostitutes, and go out somewhere where there is plenty of land, and will give them a chance to make a living, and they will be as good people as the average in the community. There is a remedy for the sort of condition we see here. The world never finds it out, or when it does find it out it does not enforce it. You may pass a law punishing every person with death for burglary, and it will make no difference. Men will commit it just the same. In England there was a time when one hundred different offenses were punishable with death, and it made no difference. The English people strangely found out that so fast as they repealed the severe penalties and so fast as they did away with punishing men by death, crime decreased instead of increased; that the smaller the penalty the fewer the crimes.

Hanging men in our county jails does not prevent murder. It makes murderers. And this has been the history of the world. It’s easy to see how to do away with what we call crime. It is not so easy to do it. I will tell you how to do it. It can be done by giving the people a chance to live — by destroying special privileges. So long as big criminals can get the coal fields, so long as the big criminals have control of the city council and get the public streets for street cars and gas rights, this is bound to send thousands of poor people to jail. So long as men are allowed to monopolize all the earth, and compel others to live on such terms as these men see fit to make, then you are bound to get into jail.

The only way in the world to abolish crime and criminals is to abolish the big ones and the little ones together. Make fair conditions of life. Give men a chance to live. Abolish the right of private ownership of land, abolish monopoly, make the world partners in production, partners in the good things of life. Nobody would steal if he could get something of his own some easier way. Nobody will commit burglary when he has a house full. No girl will go out on the streets when she has a comfortable place at home. The man who owns a sweatshop or a department store may not be to blame himself for the condition of his girls, but when he pays them five dollars, three dollars, and two dollars a week, I wonder where he thinks they will get the rest of their money to live. The only way to cure these conditions is by equality. There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would wipe them out, there would be no more criminals than now. They terrorize nobody. They are a blot upon civilization, and a jail is an evidence of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the jails and fill them with the victims of their greed.
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Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) is most well known for his role in the Scopes and Leopold-Loeb trials, but he also defended Eugene Debs, Big Bill Haywood and many other labor, antiwar and civil rights cases. More extensive discussion of his views on crime and punishment can be found in his books Resist Not Evil (1903) and Crime: Its Cause and Treatment (1922).

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To read a sample or related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of False Confessions,” The Legal Situation of the Underclass,”The Situation of Criminality – Abstract,” A Situationist View of Criminal Prosecutors,” “Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,” The Justice Department, Milgram, & Torture,” “Why Torture? Because It Feels Good (at least to “Us”),” “The Situation of Solitary Confinement,” The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” “The Situation of Punishment,” “Why We Punish,” and “The Situation of Death Row.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Distribution, Education, History, Ideology, Law, Life, Marketing, Morality, Politics, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

System Justification and the Meaning of Life

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 9, 2010

Situationist Contributor John T. Jost and his co-authors Lindsay E. Rankin and Cheryl J. Wakslak recently published a fascinating article, titled “System Justification and the Meaning of Life: Are the Existential Benefits of Ideology Distributed Unequally Across Racial Groups?” 22, Social Justice Research 312 (2009).  Here’s the abstract.

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In this research, we investigated the relations among system justification, religiosity, and subjective well-being in a sample of nationally representative low-income respondents in the United States. We hypothesized that ideological endorsement of the status quo would be associated with certain existential and other psychological benefits, but these would not necessarily be evenly distributed across racial groups. Results revealed that religiosity was positively associated with subjective well-being in general, but the relationship between system justification and well-being varied considerably as a function of racial group membership. For low-income European Americans, stronger endorsement of system justification as an ideology was associated with increased positive affect, decreased negative affect, and a wide range of existential benefits, including life satisfaction and a subjective sense of security, meaning, and mastery. These findings are consistent with the notion that system justification satisfies psychological needs for personal control and serves a palliative function for its adherents. However, many of these effects were considerably weakened or even reversed for African American respondents. Thus, the psychological benefits associated with religiosity existed for both racial groups, whereas the benefits of system justification were distributed unequally across racial groups.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “John Jost Speaks about His Own Research,” The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part II,” “Ideology is Back!,” A System-Justification Primer,” “Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,”

To review other Situationist posts about system justification or ideology, click here or here respectively.

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Situationist Contributors, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 18, 2010

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

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Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

mlk5.jpg

So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person's] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Larry Lessig’s Situationism,” Al Gore – The Situationist,”

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Global Climate Change and The Situation of Denial

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 11, 2010

Situationist Contributor John T. Jost together with Irina Feygina and Rachel E. Goldsmith have recently completed a fascinating article examining the motivations behind some people’s unwillingness to take climate change seriously.  The article, titled “System Justification, the Denial of Global Warming, and the Possibility of ‘System-Sanctioned Change’” will be published later this year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here’s the abstract.

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Despite extensive evidence of climate change and environmental destruction, polls continue to reveal widespread denial and resistance to helping the environment. It is posited here that these responses are linked to the motivational tendency to defend and justify the societal status quo in the face of the threat posed by environmental problems. The present research finds that system justification tendencies are associated with greater denial of environmental realities and less commitment to pro-environmental action. Moreover, the effects of political conservatism, national identification, and gender on denial of environmental problems are explained by variability in system justification tendencies. However, this research finds that it is possible to eliminate the negative effect of system justification on environmentalism by encouraging people to regard pro-environmental change as patriotic and consistent with protecting the status quo (i.e., as a case of “system-sanctioned change”). Theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.

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For the NYU Alumni Magazine,  Sharon Tregaskis and Jason Hollander recently wrote a piece, titled “Why We Put Environmental Time Bomb on the Backburner,” in which she discusses that article.  Here are some excerpts.

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Imagine a mammoth meteor blazing toward Earth. When it will arrive and whether it will hit directly is debatable, but scientists are unanimous on one thing—it’s coming. And they’re trying desperately to motivate everyone to take action before it’s too late.

While this scenario is science fiction, a similar danger—just as daunting and apocalyptic—is on the horizon. Researchers now almost universally believe that catastrophic climate change, caused primarily by carbon dioxide emissions, is more a matter of “when,” rather than “if.” NASA climate scientist James Hansen predicts that we have perhaps a decade to halt our runaway greenhouse gases, otherwise we will guarantee for our children a fundamentally different planet—one where sea ice no longer blankets the Arctic, where storms relentlessly buffet coastal communities, and conflicts over scarce fresh water and shifting climactic zones rock international relations. And yet global carbon emissions are rising at unprecedented rates, and Americans are expected to produce ever-greater volumes of carbon dioxide in coming years.

Our inaction, in part, boils down to how we think. As with the meteor hurtling in our direction from millions of miles away, the science for measuring climate change and its future effects is complicated, and so far most evidence comes from distant, barely habited places. We, and our leaders, are easily distracted by closer issues—war, terrorism, disease, race relations, economic distress. “People get motivated with near-term dangers, but this is different,” says Tyler Volk (GSAS ’82, ’84), a biologist and core faculty member in NYU’s new environmental studies program. “It’s not like the Hudson River is suddenly full of mercury and everyone is threatened.”

As individuals, we may not deny the mounting evidence of global climate change, but we do harbor an inherent desire to keep our minds on other things. In his 1974 Pulitzer prize-winning book The Denial of Death, social scientist Ernest Becker argued that “the essence of normality is the refusal of reality,” echoing Freud who believed repression to be our natural self-protection. In order to tolerate all sorts of inequities, we will often support or rationalize the status quo even when it contradicts our own self-interest, says NYU social psychologist John Jost, who calls this phenomenon “system justification theory.”

Last spring, Jost collaborated with graduate student Irina Feygina (GSAS ’10) and Mount Sinai Hospital psychologist Rachel Goldsmith to investigate how system justification theory interacts with environmental attitudes. Among their findings: Most people who believe that society is generally fair are also skeptical about the forecasted climate crisis. “There are psychological obstacles to creating real, lasting change,” Jost says, “in addition to all of the scientific, technical, economic, and political obstacles.” Because of this, he notes, denial is far easier and more convenient than supporting a carbon tax, paying more for high-efficiency technology, or giving up cheap goods shipped through elaborate, fuel-guzzling supply chains.

Even so, denial is getting harder, as scientists gain an increasingly nuanced understanding of the mechanics—and the consequences—of climate change. . . .

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This public conversation is slowly trickling up to policy makers. In April, a cadre of retired U.S. generals and admirals offered the chilling statement that climate change was a “a threat multiplier” for global security and the fight against terrorism, as it will further destabilize desperate regions in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Even George W. Bush, who rejected the Kyoto climate accord in 2001, for the first time acknowledged global climate change in last winter’s State of the Union address. “The problem is, among other things, ideological,” Jost says, “and it needs to be addressed at that level, as well as at other, more technological levels.”

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[T]he momentum seems to be growing, says philosopher and director of environmental studies Dale Jamieson, who sees a parallel between the climate campaign and the Civil Rights Movement or widespread efforts to enact smoking bans, where over time, a moral and personal imperative emerged. “There’s no way of addressing this unless people come to see it as an ethical issue that changes what they see as right and wrong, how they live, and what kind of world they’re going to leave to their children,” says Jamieson, adding, “The question [remains] whether we’re going to act, and whether it will be meaningful.”

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To read the entire essay, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “John Jost Speaks about His Own Research,” “The Situation of Climate Change,” “Getting a Grip on Climate Change,” “Juliet Schor, ‘Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies’,” “Denial,” The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” “Captured Science,” and Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and, particularly, Part V.”

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

John Jost Speaks about His Own Research

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 14, 2009

This is Part III and the conclusion of an interview of Situationist Contributor John Jost by the Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus.    Part I is here and Part II is here.  This segment focuses on John’s own remarkable and pathbreaking research.

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APSSC: Much of your research has focused on psychological characteristics of liberals and conservatives. What have you learned that could be applied in the increasingly partisan world of politics?

Jost: Well, that is an interview in itself, and I have given several on this topic (including one that is archived at The Situationist). The bottom line is that major differences of opinion (such as the debate over health care reform) are not easy to resolve because they are rooted in fundamental differences not only in personalities and values, but also in lifestyles, social networks, and even physiological responses, as our work has shown.

In general, liberals are more drawn to flexibility, tolerance, progress, complexity, ambiguity, creativity, curiosity, diversity, equality, and open-mindedness, whereas conservatives are more drawn to order, stability, structure, closure, discipline, tradition, familiarity, and conscientiousness. Presumably, society needs at least a little of both types of characteristics.

Democracy is an ingenious system when it works well, because it seeks to establish a set of rules and procedures that are fair and efficient by which individuals and groups are compelled to rise above relatively narrow needs and interests. My colleague, Tom Tyler, and I have written about this. How else can we resolve disputes except to require opposing sides to make the best possible case for policies that their adversaries are inclined to resist for their own social and psychological (as well as ideological) reasons? But when democratic norms are flouted or otherwise fail to protect us, we are lost. We find ourselves in very deep trouble.

APSSC: You’ve also spent a lot of time studying and developing system justification theory, which describes how one works to maintain society’s status quo, even when it’s not in one’s best interest. Do you think that system justification can be found in the field of psychology?

Jost: I think you’re trying to get me in trouble now. But, yes, as long as the science and practice of psychology is undertaken by human beings, I expect that some degree of system justification is likely, at least on occasion. Do I think that it’s easier to publish an article in one of our top journals that is largely compatible or incompatible with the status quo (i.e., past precedent and existing theory, as institutionalized in textbooks and so forth), I would bet on compatible.

The same is true of our legal system, which is heavily reliant on past precedent (stare decisis) and therefore inherently conservative. I am not saying that there are never good reasons to privilege what comes first — often there are. But if there is a bias that is built into scientific and legal systems, it is probably in favor of what has already been established (the status quo) and against what appears to challenge it. I suspect that this is part of human nature, and such a bias characterizes our way of thinking and most, if not all, of our social and cultural institutions.

APSSC: How has what you’ve learned through your research influenced how you live your life?

Jost: I suppose that because of my research I am more skeptical of decision outcomes that preserve the status quo than I otherwise would be. So when I had the chance to move to NYU a few years ago, I knew that psychological inertia would work against the move, and I tried to adjust for that. I even spent a wonderful year in a “neutral” location at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. In retrospect, I’m very glad that I moved to NYU. Since coming here, I have had terrific colleagues and the kinds of PhD students that one dreams of working with! I feel very fortunate. Maybe the system does work after all!

APSSC: What do you see in the future for the field of psychology?

Jost: I have no idea, but I certainly agree with various APS luminaries who regard psychology as a “hub” science. I would like to see us do a better job of connecting to — and translating important insights from — the social and behavioral sciences, such as sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, and so on. And I’m sure that psychology will continue to be influenced by the biological sciences, and hopefully we can give something back to them, too.

APSSC: Is there a question that you wish I had asked? What would your answer have been?

Jost: Is it possible to care deeply about something, like the problem of global climate change, and still investigate it scientifically? Yes, because the rules of the scientific method, if you follow them scrupulously, actually work, and (in my opinion) the rules have nothing to do with being dispassionate or disinterested. Much as genuine engagement with and adherence to democratic norms and procedures serves to elevate discourse and action above particularized interests, so, too, does genuine engagement with and adherence to scientific norms and procedures. Following the scientific method matters far more, in my view, than the specific social or personal characteristics of any given scientist, which — at the end of the day — are irrelevant. The evidence and the quality of the argument are what matter. As Kurt Lewin noted at the outbreak of World War II, this is why science and democracy go hand in hand.

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You can listen here to a fascinating related lecture recently delivered by John Jost at NYU about some of the sources, correlates, and antecedents of ideology.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 1 and Part 2,” The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part II,” “Ideology is Back!,” A System-Justification Primer,” “Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” To review other Situationist posts about system justification or ideology, click here or here respectively.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of John Jost

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 12, 2009

The Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus recently conducted fascinating interview of Situationist Contributor, John Jost.    Here are some excerpts.

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APSSC: What led you to choose psychology as a career?

Jost: . . . . I knew at age 13 or 14 that I wanted to be a psychologist, but, like many others, I expected that I would become a clinical psychologist. The reason for that was that as a child and adolescent, I was very close to someone (an extended family member) who had a serious mental illness. I thought — quite unrealistically, of course — that I could understand him better than other people and that I could somehow help him. It wasn’t until college that I decided that I would rather try to fix the “holes” in the social system than force individual “pegs” into them. So I gravitated toward social, personality, and political psychology.

APSSC: How did you go about developing your current research interests, and how have they influenced you as a person and a professional?

Jost: I suppose that they have a personal and familial basis as well. From an early age, I was aware of differences between people in terms of political and religious attitudes. The fact that the Nixon administration spied on my father for teaching university courses on the philosophy of Karl Marx probably forced the issue. I grew up in a relatively liberal enclave of a largely conservative community and was attuned to social class and other differences — especially ideological differences. Later, when I (and others) tried, mostly in vain, to organize a union of beleaguered graduate students, I became intrigued by the question of why so many people fail to support social change efforts that are designed specifically to help them and their fellow group members. This is really the focal issue addressed by system justification theory.

How have these research interests influenced me personally? They have inspired me by setting ambitious goals that (I think) are meaningful and ultimately beneficial to society as a whole. They have also, at times, dispirited me, because I have come to see society as (under the best of circumstances) progressing by taking two steps forward and one step backward.

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We’ll post other portions of the interview, including Jost’s advice to young mind scientists, over the next several days.  If you’d like to read the entire interview right away, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see A System-Justification Primer,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” Mahzarin Banaji’s Situation,” and “The Situation of a Situationist – Mahzarin Banaji.”

Posted in Ideology, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Aaron Kay, “The Psychological Power of the Status Quo”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 19, 2009

Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay is an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Professor Kay’s research has focused on the integration of implicit social-cognitive processes with the study of broad social issues. In his primary line of work, he investigates the myriad ways by which people cope with, adapt to, and rationalize social inequalities. At the moment, this research program addresses questions such as: (1) How do people rationalize and justify their good fortune and bad fortune, others’ good fortune and bad fortune, and the social systems that dictate these outcomes? (2) What are the psychological tools employed in aiding people to cope with the internal conflict produced from participating in social systems that are, in many objective ways, unfair and capricious?

At the second annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, which took place im March of 2008, Professor Kay’s remarkable presentation was titled “The Psychological Power of the Status Quo.”  Here’s the abstract:

Although people tend to view their beliefs, values, and ideology as entirely the product of thoughtful deliberation, it is becoming increasingly clear that such a view is largely mistaken. In this talk, I will describe how the motivation to perceive the current status quo as just, legitimate, and desirable — an implicit motive known as “system justification” — exerts powerful and consequential effects on social perception and judgment.  My remarks will focus particularly on the role of system justification in maintaining social inequalities.

His talk was videotaped (though with poor lighting), and you can watch it on the three (roughly 9-minute) videos below.

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For more information about the Project on Law and Mind Sciences, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,”Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?,” Cheering for the Underdog,”The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III.”  To review all of the Situationist posts that discuss system justification motive, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

A System-Justification Primer

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 14, 2009

Here is a worthwhile Blogging Heads clip in which Josh Knobe interviews Situationist Contributor John Jost regarding the success of George W. Bush.

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To review a related set of Situationist posts, see The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” “Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation,” Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?” and “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!“  To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

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

 
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