Recently, I did a TEDx talk on implicit bias titled “Immaculate Perception?” It’s only about 13 minutes long, which made it quite a challenge. Enjoy!
Here’s a guide to my related scholarship.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 2, 2013
By Bjorn Carey (Stanford News)
Nalini Ambady, a Stanford professor of psychology, died Oct. 28 after a long battle with leukemia. Her passing followed a yearlong, worldwide effort by family, friends and students to find a bone marrow donor match. She was 54.
A distinguished social psychologist, Ambady was well known for her research showing that people can form accurate first impressions about others based only on seconds-long observations of their nonverbal behavior.
“Thin slices,” as these quick impressions are known, are now a staple of social science textbooks, and were popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2005 bestselling book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Ambady was born in Calcutta, India, and earned her bachelor’s degree at Delhi University. She came to the United States for her master’s degree in psychology, from the College of William and Mary, and later received her PhD in social psychology from Harvard. While at Harvard, she met her future husband, Raj Marphatia, who was studying at Harvard Law School.
After earning her PhD in 1991, she quickly joined the ranks of academia by accepting a position as an assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross; she would go on to become an associate professor at Harvard and a professor at Tufts University. Ambady joined the Stanford faculty in 2011, becoming the first person of Indian origin to teach in Stanford’s Department of Psychology.
Ambady’s work on thin slices was fueled by her passion for nonverbal behavior. She argued that nonverbal behavior is important because it is a quick, efficient and relatively effortless way of obtaining information about others. At birth, humans respond to and produce nonverbal cues and nonverbal behavior that can serve as a primary mechanism of socialization across the lifespan. As she put it, “Nonverbal behavior offers a means of adapting to the social world.”
She put these concepts to the test in one of her first publications, in 1993. She created 30-second, silent video clips of college professors delivering a lecture and asked people who had never seen the professors before to assess their teaching effectiveness. Remarkably, the scores from independent raters fell in line with those of students who had actually spent an entire semester in the professor’s class. The results held even when she shortened the clip to 10, 6 and 2 seconds.
The work demonstrated that perceptual judgments made on the basis of very brief observations of nonverbal behavior can be surprisingly accurate and can influence a person’s long-term impressions. The findings challenged established wisdom that intuitive reasoning is typically wrong and became a basis for the growing appreciation of the usefulness of nonconscious or “fast” thinking.
Ambady believed that even without conscious awareness, initial evaluative impressions can influence whom we sit next to in a subway, whom we hire for a job and, perhaps, even whom we marry. Her follow-up studies showed that similar snap evaluations can accurately predict a person’s sexual orientation or political affiliation or a CEO’s company profits.
In 1999, she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Bill Clinton in recognition of this work. In February, she will be posthumously awarded the prestigious Carol and Ed Diener Award in Social Psychology, a recognition give by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology to scholars whose work has added substantially to the body of knowledge of the field.
As a researcher, Ambady had a reputation for being collaborative and encouraging a very collegial lab space.
“Nalini had incredible energy, a very positive spirit,” said Hazel Markus, a professor of psychology. “She was brilliant and held herself and others to very high standards. She loved social psychology so much that people were very attracted to working with her.”
Ambady made her students and research assistants feel as though they were an extension of her family. When a first-generation college student from a low-income family was having difficulties getting to campus, Ambady took her to buy a bike. She bought a textbook for a struggling student who couldn’t afford it. And when she learned that some of her lab members either lived too far away or couldn’t afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, she invited them to dinner at her house.
She took immense pride in her students, said Marphatia, her husband, and was thrilled to see them rise to tenured professorships throughout academia. When her leukemia returned last November, she stayed deeply involved with her students’ work. She met with students at home and in the hospital while she was receiving treatment, and insisted on helping researchers with their grant proposals.
“Even though she was sick, she had this tremendous focus toward others,” said Brent Hughes, a postdoctoral scholar in Ambady’s lab. “She would stay on top of us in a really deeply caring way to make sure that we had everything we needed to do well.”
Upon coming to Stanford, one of her priorities was establishing a research center called SPARQ, designed to bring social psychological answers to real-world questions.
“She was the galvanizing force behind SPARQ,” said Jennifer Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology. “We now have a clinic which pairs practitioners with researchers and an online solutions catalog which describes effective interventions for a variety of social and environmental problems. This all happened within a year of Nalini coming to Stanford, and she continued to push hard on it until days before the end of her life.”
“She said, ‘Let’s take our academic research and findings and see if we can apply it to make changes in the real world,’” said Marphatia. “SPARQ is one thing that she was really looking forward to working on with her colleagues, and it is particularly disappointing that she won’t have a chance to work on that.
“It was the joy of her life to be at Stanford,” he said. “She thought it is such a wonderful environment to do research, with people inspiring each other and collaborating. It brought out the best of her professional abilities.”
One of the first projects that SPARQ-affiliated scientists will engage on will be done with Ambady in mind: A “Be the Match” initiative will aim to develop actionable ways to increase participation in bone marrow donor programs.
Ambady was originally diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, but treatment drove the disease into remission. When it returned last November, doctors told her that she needed a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, South Asians – and minorities in general – are severely underrepresented in bone marrow donor registries in the United States.
Students and friends began fundraising drives, including Nalini Needs You, to purchase and distribute the cheek swab kits used to identify potential donor matches, both in the United States and near her birthplace in India, where doctors believed there might be a better chance of locating a genetic match.
These efforts identified previously unregistered matches for seven other people in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant, for which Ambady was exceptionally pleased. Of the roughly dozen people who were potential matches for Ambady, however, half turned out to be incompatible or only superficial matches.
The others chose not to donate, a result that is common in bone marrow transplant cases. There are many reasons people ultimately decide not to donate, including cultural taboos or fears of pain or inconvenience. (Donating bone marrow is only slightly more complex than donating blood, though it requires multiple visits.) Some people’s contact information simply falls out of the system, especially the case with college-age donors who frequently change addresses.
Eberhardt and Markus said that SPARQ will partner with bone marrow registries to develop strategies for enrolling more people, and especially minorities, to participate in cheek swab tests, and also to encourage people to actually donate later on when they are identified as a match.
Ambady is survived by her husband, Raj Marphatia, and two daughters: Maya, who will enroll at Stanford next fall, and Leena, a sophomore at Castilleja School in Palo Alto.
Details of a memorial have yet to be finalized. Donations can be made to the Nalini Ambady Memorial Fund, care of the Department of Psychology, Jordan Hall, Building 420, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. Make checks payable to Stanford University.
Nalini Ambady was, among other things, a long-time Situationist friend who made two presentations of her extraordinary research at Harvard Law School over the years. Her brilliance and warmth left a lasting impression on all who had the privilege of attending those talks. Our hearts go out to her family and loved ones.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 3, 2013
A few excerpts from an outstanding 1992 New York Times book review by Walter Reich of Christopher Browning’s remarkable book, “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland“:
We know a lot about how the Germans carried out the Holocaust. We know much less about how they felt and what they thought as they did it, how they were affected by what they did, and what made it possible for them to do it. In fact, we know remarkably little about the ordinary Germans who made the Holocaust happen — not the desk murderers in Berlin, not the Eichmanns and Heydrichs, and not Hitler and Himmler, but the tens of thousands of conscripted soldiers and policemen from all walks of life, many of them middle-aged, who rounded up millions of Jews and methodically shot them, one by one, in forests, ravines and ditches, or stuffed them, one by one, into cattle cars and guarded those cars on their way to the gas chambers.
In his finely focused and stunningly powerful book, “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland,” Christopher R. Browning tells us about such Germans and helps us understand, better than we did before, not only what they did to make the Holocaust happen but also how they were transformed psychologically from the ordinary men of his title into active participants in the most monstrous crime in human history. In doing so he aims a penetrating searchlight on the human capacity for utmost evil and leaves us staring at his subject matter with the shock of knowledge and the lurking fear of self-recognition.
* * *
In the end, what disturbs the reader more than the policemen’s escape from punishment is their capacity — as the ordinary men they were, as men not much different from those we know or even from ourselves — to kill as they did.
Battalion 101′s killing wasn’t, as Mr. Browning points out, the kind of “battlefield frenzy” occasionally seen in all wars, when soldiers, having faced death, and having seen their friends killed, slaughter enemy prisoners or even civilians. It was, rather, the cold-blooded fulfillment of German national policy, and involved, for the policemen, a process of accommodation to orders that required them to do things they would never have dreamed they would ever do, and to justify their actions, or somehow reinterpret them, so that they would not see themselves as evil people.
Mr. Browning’s meticulous account, and his own acute reflections on the actions of the battalion members, demonstrate the important effect that the situation had on those men: the orders to kill, the pressure to conform, and the fear that if they didn’t kill they might suffer some kind of punishment or, at least, damage to their careers. In fact, the few who tried to avoid killing got away with it; but most believed, or at least could tell themselves, that they had little choice.
But Mr. Browning’s account also illustrates other factors that made it possible for the battalion’s ordinary men not only to kill but, ultimately, to kill in a routine, and in some cases sadistic, way. Each of these factors helped the policemen feel that they were not violating, or violating only because it was necessary, their personal moral codes.
One such factor was the justification for killing provided by the anti-Semitic rationales to which the policemen had been exposed since the rise of Nazism, rationales reinforced by the battalion’s officers. The Jews were presented not only as evil and dangerous but also, in some way, as responsible for the bombing deaths of German women and children. Another factor was the process of dehumanization: abetted by Nazi racial theories that were embraced by policemen who preferred not to see themselves as killers, Jews were seen as less than people, as creatures who could be killed without the qualms that would be provoked in them were they to kill fellow Germans or even Slavs. It was particularly when the German policemen came across German Jews speaking their own language, especially those from their own city, that they felt a human connection that made it harder to kill them.
The policemen were also helped by the practice of trying not to refer to their activities as killing: they were involved in “actions” and “resettlements.” Moreover, the responsibility wasn’t theirs; it belonged to the authorities — Major Trapp as well as, ultimately, the leaders of the German state — whose orders they were merely carrying out. Indeed, whatever responsibility they did have was diffused by dividing the task into parts and by sharing it with other people and processes. It was shared, first of all, by others in the battalion, some of whom provided cordons so that Jews couldn’t escape and some of whom did the shooting. It was shared by the Trawnikis, who were brought in to do the shooting whenever possible so that the battalion could focus on the roundups. And it was shared, most effectively, by the death camps, which made the men’s jobs immensely easier, since stuffing a Jew into a cattle car, though it sealed his fate almost as surely as a neck shot, left the actual killing to a machine-like process that would take place far away, one for which the battalion members didn’t need to feel personally responsible.
CLEARLY, ordinary human beings are capable of following orders of the most terrible kinds. What stands between civilization and genocide is the respect for the rights and lives of all human beings that societies must struggle to protect. Nazi Germany provided the context, ideological as well as psychological, that allowed the policemen’s actions to happen. Only political systems that recognize the worst possibilities in human nature, but that fashion societies that reward the best, can guard the lives and dignity of all their citizens.
* * *
Related Situationist posts:
Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 25, 2013
From a very good 2011 NYTimes article by Benedict Carey, here are a few excerpts on some of the psychological dynamics behind cheating:
[P]aradoxically, it’s often an obsession with fairness that leads people to begin cutting corners in the first place.
“Cheating is especially easy to justify when you frame situations to cast yourself as a victim of some kind of unfairness,” said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the use of prescription drugs to improve intellectual performance. “Then it becomes a matter of evening the score; you’re not cheating, you’re restoring fairness.”
The boilerplate tale of a good soul gone wrong is well known. It begins with small infractions — illegally downloading a few songs, skimming small amounts from the register, lies of omission on taxes — and grows by increments. The experiment becomes a hobby that becomes a way of life. In a recent interview with New York magazine, Bernard Madoff said his Ponzi scheme grew slowly from an investment advisory business that he began as a sideline for certain clients.
This slippery-slope story obscures the process of moving to the dark side; namely, that people subconsciously seek shortcuts more than they realize — and make a deliberate decision when they begin to cheat in earnest.
In a series of recent studies, Dan Ariely of Duke University and his colleagues gave college students opportunities to cheat on a general knowledge test. In one, students were instructed to transfer their answers onto a form with color-in bubbles, to register their official score. Some received bubble sheets with the correct answers seemingly inadvertently shaded in gray, and changed about 20 percent of their answers. A follow-up study demonstrated that they were unaware of the magnitude of their dishonesty. They were cheating without being fully aware of it.
Yet the behavior changes once a clear rule is in place. “If you specifically tell people in these studies not to use the answer key and just sign their name,” said Zoe Chance, a doctoral student at Harvard who worked on some of the experiments, “they won’t look at it.”
David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston and co-author of the . . . book “Out of Character,” about deception and other misbehavior, said: “With all of these kinds of decisions there’s a battle between short- and long-term gains, a tension between the more virtuous choice and the less virtuous one. And of course there are outside factors that can sway that arrow to one side or another.”
That is, low-level cheating may be natural and even productive in some situations; the brain naturally seeks useful shortcuts. But most people tend to follow rules they accept as fair, even when they have the opportunity and a strong incentive to break them.
In short, the move from small infractions to a deliberate pattern of deception or fraud is less an incremental slide than a deliberate strategy. And in most people it takes shape for personal, and often very emotional, reasons, psychologists say.
One of the most obvious of these is resentment of an authority or a specific rule. The evidence of this is easy enough to see in everyday life, with people flouting laws about cellphone use, smoking, the wearing of helmets. In studies of workplace behavior, psychologists have found that in situations where bosses are abusive, many employees withhold the unpaid extras that help an organization, like being courteous to customers or helping co-workers with problems.
Yet perhaps the most powerful urge to cheat stems from a deep sense of unfairness, psychologists say. As people first begin to compete and compare themselves with others, as early as middle school, they also begin to learn of others’ hidden advantages. Private tutors. Family money. Alumni connections. A regular golf game with the boss. Against a competitor with such advantages, taking credit for other people’s work at the office is not only easier, it can seem only fair.
Once the cheating starts, it’s natural to impute it to others. “When it comes to negative characteristics, we tend to overestimate how much others have in common with us,” said David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University.
That is to say: A corner cutter often begins to think everyone else is cheating after he has started cheating, not before.
“And if they are subsequently rewarded for the extra productivity, they tend to internalize the feeling of pride and view their success as due to inherent ability and not something else they were using,” said Dr. DeSteno.
Finally, in the winner-take-all environment that characterizes many competitive fields, cheating feels like a hedge against that most degrading sensation: being a chump. The fear of finishing out of the money and hearing someone say, “Wait, you mean to tell me you could have and you didn’t?” Psychologists argue that the sensation of being duped — anger, self-blame, bitterness — is such a singular cocktail that it forces an uncomfortable kind of self-awareness.
How much of a fool am I? How did I not see this?
It happens every day to people who resist cheating. Nothing fair about it.
Read the entire article here.
Related Situationist posts:
Posted by Adam Benforado on March 25, 2013
As detailed in a post last week, NYU marketing and psychology professor Adam Alter’s terrific new book, Drunk Tank Pink, is now out in bookstores around the country. It is a thoroughly interesting and engaging read and well worth picking up (indeed, you can order a copy here on Amazon).
As part of what I hope will turn into a trend here at The Situationist, I interviewed Adam about his book. My questions and his responses are found below:
1. What led you to write a book for a trade press?
Adam: The Boston Globe featured a piece on cognitive fluency, one of my main areas of academic interest, and several agents called me after reading the piece. After reading the piece, which played up the striking relationship between cognitive processing and all sorts of important real-world outcomes, they were convinced that the research should be translated for the public. I began writing a proposal, but felt that fluency alone wasn’t enough to fill an entire book, so broadened the book’s scope. Fluency is still in there, but I also cover other drivers of behavior and thinking (e.g., names and linguistic labels, symbols, culture, the presence of other people, weather, etc.). My agent sent the proposal to a number of publication houses, and I was delighted when Penguin Press decided to publish the book.
2. Had you ever written for a non-academic audience before? What are the challenges of writing a popular book in psychology?
Adam: I had and have since written shorter pieces for a number of non-academic sites—Psychology Today, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and Slate, for example. I really enjoy writing for non-academic audiences, because that sort of writing forces you to think about what the research really means, to jettison the technical baggage that allows you to avoid thinking about the broader implications of the work. Theory development is obviously critical, but it’s easy to get bogged down in minutiae, and over time you lose sight of the work’s broader importance. When you write for a popular outlet, you’re constantly pushed to expose the broader practical implications of the work. It’s never enough to describe, say, the fact that people prefer simpler names to complex names—you also have to explain why that’s important in a context that people find meaningful and personally relevant.
3. What type of people do you hope will read the book?
Adam: I wrote the book for an audience of intelligent laypeople who haven’t studied much (or any) psychology. I’d be very happy to have psychologists and other academics read the book as well, but my aim was to describe the work with all its complexity while steering clear of arcane technical terms.
4. What is your favorite experiment in the book?
Adam: One of my favorites is a study that overturned the widely held belief that the Müller-Lyer illusion is universal. According to the illusion, people perceive the vertical line on the right, below, as longer than the vertical line on the left. In fact the lines are identical in length, but it’s difficult for almost everyone in the world to shake the sense that they differ in length depending on the orientation of the shorter lines that extend from their ends.
The researchers presented the two lines to people from different cultural groups across the world, and found that it almost always held—except among African tribesmen and bushmen who had never lived in or encountered the hard geometric angles we associate with modern architecture. If you look at the line on the left, it looks like the near edge of two walls (illustrated in Wall A, below). In contrast, the line on the right looks like the far edge of two walls (Wall B, below). When you look at the image below, you know that the edges at Wall A and Wall B are actually identical in height, and you automatically adjust by assuming that Wall A is relatively shorter than it appears, while Wall B is relatively taller in comparison. Most people in the world today have learned to adjust for perspective, but the tribespeople in the study were immune to the illusion because they hadn’t been exposed to the sorts of visual scenes that train people to make these hard-to-detect mental adjustments. The study illustrates a number of important ideas: that we’re quick to assume an effect is universal before we’ve tested it more broadly; that cultural experience shapes even the most basic perceptual processes (and not just which foods we like to eat or how we treat our elders); and that focusing our intellectual attention on a single cultural group occludes some very interesting results that aren’t clear until we venture into relatively remote cultural territory.
5. If you had the ability to take one insight from your book and use it to alter American policy at the local, state, or national level what would it be?
Adam: There’s a great study showing that people donate more to hurricane relief charities when the hurricane name shares the first letter in their own first name. So Matts, Marys, and Marks are more likely to donate to Hurricane Mitt relief than to Hurricane Katrina relief, but Kims, Kevins, and Kens are more likely to do the reverse. The National Weather Service has named its hurricanes using a series of alphabetical lists for six or seven decades, but now that we know that people donate based on their initials, it might make sense to name hurricanes more systematically. For example, more Americans have the first name initials J and M than the initials O and V, so perhaps we should remove Olga and Van from the 2013 list, replacing them with, say, James and Maria. I conducted a rough simulation and calculated that, over the course of the last decade, hurricane relief agencies could have attracted $500 billion more in aid relief just by renaming hurricanes using this very simple approach. Small tweaks like this—tweaks that are both inexpensive and non-invasive—sometimes bring about strikingly large real-world effects.
Many thanks to Adam for doing the interview. As I said, it’s a great book and I encourage readers to pick up a copy.
Posted by Adam Benforado on March 21, 2013
NYU professor Adam Alter’s new book, Drunk Tank Pink, is out today!
As I mentioned in a post last week, we are trying out a new feature here at The Situationist of interviewing authors about their books and we’ll be publishing the interview with Adam in a few days.
In anticipation of that, here is one of Adam’s interesting recent papers, Fondness makes the distance grow shorter: Desired locations seem closer because they seem more vivid:
Do appealing locations seem nearer than unappealing locations merely because they are more desirable? We examine the possibility that people represent desirable locations as nearer than equidistant undesirable locations. In three studies, participants represented a variety of locations on a university campus (Study 1) and in the greater New York City area (Studies 2 and 3) as nearer the more positive they felt about those locations. The relationship between positivity and closeness was mediated by the tendency for participants to generate particularly vivid representations of the locations when they evaluated them more positively (Studies 2 and 3). We discuss the theoretical implications of these results for mental construal, motivated perception and metacognition.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 11, 2012
Today, October 4th
12 pm, Austin North
Dr. Ryan Enos (Harvard Government)
“Mitt Romney is Really, Really Good Looking: Do Attractiveness and Other Trivial Things Affect Elections?”
Free Chinese food!
Cognitive and social psychology have evidence that physical appearance can powerfully shape human behavior through “thin slice” judgments. Advances in measurement allow us to measure the appearance of individual politicians. Evidence consistently shows that good-looking politicians tend to win elections. But do voters really cast votes for politicians based on good looks? Dr. Enos evaluates the evidence and explains the possible role for these heuristic evaluations in voting.
Here is an excerpt from a related blog post (The Monkey Cage) by Enos and his work with co-authors:
Mitt Romney is better looking than almost everyone reading this blog. Back in 2008, I wrote about how Sarah Palin’s looks put her in the 95th percentile of politicians. Romney has even Palin beat—he scores above the 99th percentile.
These results come from a study with my colleagues Matthew Atkinson and Seth Hill, in which we developed a method for obtaining the ratings of the facial competence of governor and Senate candidates from 1994 to 2006 by showing the images of these candidates to undergraduate students for 1 second, as pioneered by Alex Todorov. In 2007, when we collected this data, we removed highly-recognizable candidates so that opinions about the candidates, other than their appearance, would not affect the ratings. However, as with Palin, we are fortunate that Romney was a relative unknown at the time (at least to the undergraduates in California that we used), so we obtained a rating of his face.
And what a face it is! We gathered the ratings of 728 candidates for Senate and Governors’ seats and Romney outscored all but four of them. The only persons to win election that beat him are Russ Feingold (the best looking Democrat) and John Thune (the best looking overall). Romney also appears to far outdo Paul Ryan, who came in in the 67th percentile of the 2004 House candidates (although the photos did not include abs). (Also, that study only included white male candidates and the House was not measured on a common scale with Senators and Governors, but I’d feel pretty confident saying the 67th percentile of the House puts you well behind Romney).
We don’t have a rating of Obama because we deemed him too well-known, even in 2007, because his Senate race had attracted a lot of attention and there was already an excitement building around a possible White House bid. However, we do have a score for Biden—and Romney has him beat badly. Biden only comes in the 62nd percentile of Senate and governor candidates.
So, if the election were decided on looks, it would be no contest. Fortunately for Obama and Biden, the election is not decided by looks. As we point out in our paper associated with the study, most of the correlation between candidate appearance and election outcomes is probably spurious. Very few voters are willing to cast their ballot for a candidate based on looks – we estimate that if a candidate moves from the 25th to the 75th percentile in attractiveness, this is likely to gain that candidate about 3.5 percentage points in vote among independent voters, which was not enough to decide the winner of even a single Senate race out of 99 that we examined. Rather than good looks directly affecting voters’ decisions, it is likely that good looking people like Romney have a lot of success in life, obtain significant human capital—education, career success, education—and because of all they have to lose, they are strategic about which races they enter.
In a certain respect, Romney’s career both fits and is counter to this explanation, because he ran for Senate in 1994, against Ted Kennedy when he did not have a good chance of winning, but he did not run for Governor until 2002 where he used his good looks and the considerable capital he had earned from the Salt Lake City Olympics to run in a seat with no incumbent. Of course, Romney may not have been able to be as strategic about when to run for President – and unfortunately for him, most voters seem to have made up their mind long ago—nevertheless, if a candidate’s appearance every can make a difference, it should make a difference for Mitt Romney and his face in the 99th percentile.
Related Situationist posts:
More posts on the situation of politics here.
Posted by Adam Benforado on July 19, 2012
As some of you may already know, you can follow The Situationist on Twitter (@TheSituationist, https//twitter.com/TheSituationist).
And, now, after months and years of irrational resistance, I have also joined up (@Benforado, http://www.twitter.com/benforado).
In my first week, my tweets have been focused on law, psychology, and neuroscience (with sports, art, and culture thrown in) and I hope to provide a steady stream of interesting asides and links that require immediacy or don’t have quite enough meat for a blog post.
In addition, prompted by the broad census of law professors using Twitter that Bridget Crawford is undertaking at the Faculty Lounge, it occurs to me that it would be great to link various law and mind sciences folks who are active Twitter users.
As a result, if you are on Twitter, please add yourself in the comments. Let’s build the network. (If I get enough of a response, I’ll repost the list later to facilitate connections).
Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 24, 2012
Despite cultural progress in reducing overt acts of racism, stark racial disparities continue to define American life. This conference considers what emerging social science can contribute to the discussion of race in American law, policy, and society. The conference will explore how scientific evidence on the human mind might help to explain why racial equality is so elusive. This new evidence reveals how human mental machinery can be skewed by lurking stereotypes, often bending to accommodate hidden biases reinforced by years of social learning. Through the lens of these powerful and pervasive implicit racial attitudes and stereotypes, the conference, designed to coincide with the launch of the book “Implicit Racial Bias Across the Law”, examines both the continued subordination of historically disadvantaged groups and the legal system’s complicity in the subordination.
The conference will bring together scholars, judges, practitioners, and community leaders to explore the issues surrounding implicit racial bias in law and policy. It will begin with a compelling overview of the social science. What does science teach us about automatic biases? And what do we still not know? Leaders in the areas of criminal justice, housing law and policy, education, and health care will then present overviews of the impact of implicit bias in their fields. Attendees will hear federal judges’ and leading scholars’ perspective on implicit bias claims in the courtroom and hear experts’ assessment of the future of implicit bias in the law. A lively afternoon session will include simultaneous break-out sessions and roundtable discussions of specific implicit bias related topics. Audience participation will be welcomed and encouraged. The conference will close with a discussion of setting a forward looking and collaborative implicit bias agenda.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 24, 2012
Accusations of racism accompanying the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent actions of Florida police are prevalent in the national media. Many are questioning the psychological motivations of everyone involved. Recent research by MU Professor of Psychological Sciences Bruce D. Bartholow has shown that consuming alcohol can lead to increased expression of racial bias. A new study by Bartholow and his colleague, Elena Stepanova of Florida Gulf Coast University, shows that simply being exposed to alcohol-related images can have similar effects, even when no alcohol is consumed.
“Simply seeing images of alcohol, but not drinking it, influences behaviors like racial bias on a subconscious level,” Bartholow said. “Walking by a bar or seeing an ad for beer could be enough to affect someone’s mindset. You don’t have to be aware of the effects for it to affect you.”
The recent study found that participants who had initially viewed a series of magazine ads for alcoholic beverages made more errors indicative of racial bias in a subsequent task than did others who had initially seen ads for non-alcoholic beverages, such as water or coffee.
Test participants were shown a series of ads for either alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages. They then completed a computerized task in which pictures of white and black men’s faces were shown for a split second, followed immediately by either a picture of a handgun or a tool. Numerous previous studies using this same task have shown that people often mistakenly identify tools as guns following presentation of a black face, a response pattern attributed to the effects of racial stereotypes. The fast pace of the experiment kept participants from thinking about their responses, which allowed the subconscious mind to control reactions.
In the real world, snap decisions in which one object is mistaken for another can be deadly.
“As for the Trayvon Martin case, it very much reminds me of the Amadou Diallo case in 1999, when an unarmed black individual was shot to death by New York City police officers,” Stepanova said. “Diallo was shot because officers claimed that they thought he pulled a gun, while in fact he reached for his wallet. The wallet was misconstrued as a gun by police officers.”
“Associations between blacks and guns, violence and criminal behavior played a role in Mr. Martin’s case,” Stepanova said. “Mr. Martin was essentially a victim of racial stereotypes that so many in our society hold, and that cost him his life.”
The results of Bartholow and Stepanova’s study don’t contend that every test participant was a racist, however.
“Even if people do their best to be open-minded, we are all aware of stereotypes,” Bartholow said. “Participants’ responses could have been due to associations they are aware of but don’t personally endorse. Also the results could be influenced by people’s ability to control their behaviors. A member of the KKK could hide his prejudice if he had good control of his responses.”
Analysis of the results showed people’s automatic, subconscious behaviors were most affected after seeing an alcohol ad, whereas earlier studies found actually drinking alcohol most influenced conscious, controlled reactions. Bartholow suggested the mental associations people have with the effects of drinking alcohol may have been what caused their increased expression of racial bias after seeing alcohol ads. Upon seeing alcohol, they subconsciously felt they could relax their inhibitions and allow their behaviors to be more influenced by stereotypes.
The study was led by Elena Stepanova, a post-doctoral fellow in Bartholow’s lab, now a professor of social and behavioral science at Florida Gulf Coast University. The study was published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Bartholow’s research focuses on basic aspects of social cognition as well as how social and environmental factors, along with individual differences, contribute to alcohol involvement among young adults.
Related Situationist posts:
Image from Flickr.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 3, 2012
“A History of Cognitive Neuroscience…in Three Minutes.” Set to the melody of Billy Joel’s classic song “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” new lyrics highlight significant scientists and advances in the field over the years, interspersed with comedy bits reminiscent of silent films. A lively and fun history lesson, this student video won the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience Brains on Film Competition 2012 at University College London. Full lyrics are available here in the video’s description.
Sample of related Situationist posts:
Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 12, 2012
Researchers have found a way to study how our brains assess the behavior – and likely future actions – of others during competitive social interactions. Their study, described in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to use a computational approach to tease out differing patterns of brain activity during these interactions, the researchers report.
“When players compete against each other in a game, they try to make a mental model of the other person’s intentions, what they’re going to do and how they’re going to play, so they can play strategically against them,” said University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Kyle Mathewson, who conducted the study as a doctoral student in the Beckman Institute with graduate student Lusha Zhu and economics professor and Beckman affiliate Ming Hsu, who now is at the University of California, Berkeley. “We were interested in how this process happens in the brain.”
Previous studies have tended to consider only how one learns from the consequences of one’s own actions, called reinforcement learning, Mathewson said. These studies have found heightened activity in the basal ganglia, a set of brain structures known to be involved in the control of muscle movements, goals and learning. Many of these structures signal via the neurotransmitter dopamine.
“That’s been pretty well studied and it’s been figured out that dopamine seems to carry the signal for learning about the outcome of our own actions,” Mathewson said. “But how we learn from the actions of other people wasn’t very well characterized.”
Researchers call this type of learning “belief learning.”
To better understand how the brain processes information in a competitive setting, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track activity in the brains of participants while they played a competitive game, called a Patent Race, against other players. The goal of the game was to invest more than one’s opponent in each round to win a prize (a patent worth considerably more than the amount wagered), while minimizing one’s own losses (the amount wagered in each trial was lost). The fMRI tracked activity at the moment the player learned the outcome of the trial and how much his or her opponent had wagered.
A computational model evaluated the players’ strategies and the outcomes of the trials to map the brain regions involved in each type of learning.
“Both types of learning were tracked by activity in the ventral striatum, which is part of the basal ganglia,” Mathewson said. “That’s traditionally known to be involved in reinforcement learning, so we were a little bit surprised to see that belief learning also was represented in that area.”
Belief learning also spurred activity in the rostral anterior cingulate, a structure deep in the front of the brain. This region is known to be involved in error processing, regret and “learning with a more social and emotional flavor,” Mathewson said.
The findings offer new insight into the workings of the brain as it is engaged in strategic thinking, Hsu said, and may aid the understanding of neuropsychiatric illnesses that undermine those processes.
“There are a number of mental disorders that affect the brain circuits implicated in our study,” Hsu said. “These include schizophrenia, depression and Parkinson’s disease. They all affect these dopaminergic regions in the frontal and striatal brain areas. So to the degree that we can better understand these ubiquitous social functions in strategic settings, it may help us understand how to characterize and, eventually, treat the social deficits that are symptoms of these diseases.”
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 14, 2012
Posted by Adam Benforado on September 29, 2011
In a previous post I discussed my struggles with anthropocentrism — and my satisfaction in having it thoroughly shaken by a short video on the otherworldly skin of certain octopuses.
After mentioning it to a friend, he pointed me to two other videos of cephalopods engaging in quite shocking (and amazing) behavior — and, it is now safe to say, I have become a cephalopod fanatic.
These invertebrates don’t seem much like invertebrates at all when it comes to their brain power and it turns out they are the focus of fascinating research in the realm of comparative psychology (some of which is discussed in the NOVA video linked below).
As I watched cuttlefish change their skin texture and tone to blend in with their environments, alter their color and shape to mimic the opposite sex (to slip by mating rivals guarding a female), navigate mazes, and learn from their mistakes, it made me wonder whether I would soon sway too far in the opposite direction from human exceptionalism. That is always the danger with comparative psychology: the ever-present threat that we will draw connections and similarities to ourselves that simply do not exist.
When we watch an octopus climb out of its tank in a research laboratory, crawl across the floor, and climb into a neighboring tank to feast on crabs before slipping back into its own tank, it is hard not to start to see very human-like qualities: Ah, ha! See how he was premeditating this act and waited until late at night, when the humans had left, to make his move! See how he knew he needed to go back into his own tank so he wouldn’t get caught! Perhaps, but perhaps not.
On September 20, The New York Times published an article on same-sex sexual behavior and a certain species of deep-sea squid was front in center. Reading about how the squid are quite indiscriminate in their mating behavior, the natural inclination is to analogize to homosexuality in human beings. Look: gay squid! But, of course, there is nothing to suggest that squid have sexual orientations like humans. The researchers in question appear to be quite cognizant of the anthropomorphization concern, but particularly as work is translated for more popular audience the threat can reemerge.
Overall, we humans seem to struggle with keeping in the Goldilocks Zone — we vacillate between extremes: seeing animals as objects, property, or food with little similarity to ourselves or seeing animals as basically humans with fur . . . or, well, eight arms and two tentacles.
Watch the amazing NOVA program, Kings of Camouflage — Nature’s Masters of Illusion, here.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 14, 2011
As graduate students at the University of Kansas in the late 1970s Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and I were interested in understanding the psychological underpinnings of prejudice and ethnic conflict as well as the nature and function of self-esteem. In 1980, I accidentally stumbled across the work of the late cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who in books such as The Birth and Death of Meaning (1962), The Denial of Death (1973), and Escape From Evil (1975) argued that the uniquely human awareness of death, and the denial thereof, guides and directs a substantial proportion of human behavior. According to Becker, culture consists of humanly created (albeit quite unconsciously) beliefs about the nature of reality shared by individuals in groups to reduce or eliminate the potentially overwhelming terror engendered by the awareness of death by providing a sense of meaning and value that in turn confers the possibility of literal and/or symbolic immortality. Terror management theory resulted from our efforts to translate Beckers ideas into a formal theory that could be subjected to empirical scrutiny.
According to terror management theory, people “manage” the potential terror associated with death through a dual-component anxiety-buffer consisting of a cultural worldview (beliefs about the nature of reality that provide a sense that the universe is meaningful, orderly, and stable and that provisions for immortality) and self-esteem (the perception that one is living up to the standards of value associated with the social role inhabited by individuals in the context of their culture, and hence rendering them eligible for safety and security in this life and immortality thereafter).
Thus, while cultures vary considerably, they share the same defensive psychological function in common: to provide meaning and value and in so doing bestow psychological equanimity in the face of death. All cultural worldviews are ultimately shared fictions, in the sense that none of them are likely to be literally true, and their existence is generally sustained by social consensus. When everyone around us believes the same thing, we can be quite confident of the veracity of our beliefs.
But, and here’s the rub, when we do encounter people with different beliefs, this poses a challenge to our death-denying belief systems, which is why people are generally quite uncomfortable around, and hostile towards, those who are different. Additionally, because no symbolic cultural construction can actually overcome the physical reality of death, residual anxiety is unconsciously projected onto other groups of individuals as scapegoats, who are designated all-encompassing repositories of evil, the eradication of which would make earth as it is in heaven. We then typically respond to people with different beliefs or scapegoats by berating them, trying to convert them to our system of beliefs, and/or just killing them and in so doing assert that “my God is stronger than your God and we’ll kick your ass to prove it.”
In order to test terror management theory, we designed what we call the mortality salience paradigm, which basically entails asking people to think about their own death (e.g., by asking them to respond to some questions about dying, or by subliminal exposure to death-related words, or being interviewed in front of a funeral parlor) and then asking them to make judgments about people or events that either bolster or threaten important aspects of the individuals cultural worldviews. We hypothesize that to the extent that culture serves a death-denying function, then making mortality salient should increase affection and altruistic behavior toward those who share or uphold cherished cultural beliefs, as well as increase hostility and disdain to those who disagree with cherished beliefs, or merely hold different ones.
Related Situationist posts:
Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 11, 2011
A number of Situationist posts have discussed the causes an consequences of the 9/11 attacks or have been related, sometimes only implicitly, to the war on terror. Here is a sample:
One series of posts was devoted to the situational sources of war.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 2, 2011
The Harvard Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is excited to announce its tentative schedule for the Fall 2011 Speaker Series!
Below, see confirmed speakers, the dates of their talks, and a very brief description (that certainly does not do their exceptional scholarship and topics justice). All listed talks are slated to begin at noon. Stay tuned for updates, locations, and additional speakers!