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The Situation of Political and Religious Beliefs?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 1, 2010

Science Daily summarized an intriguing (and, no doubt, soon-to-be-very-controversial study) finding that “Intelligent People Have Values Novel in Human Evolutionary History,” (such as liberalism and atheisim).  Here are some excerpts from that summary.

* * *

More intelligent people are statistically significantly more likely to exhibit social values and religious and political preferences that are novel to the human species in evolutionary history.  Specifically, liberalism and atheism, and for men (but not women), preference for sexual exclusivity correlate with higher intelligence, a new study finds.

The study, published in the March 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Social Psychology Quarterly, advances a new theory to explain why people form particular preferences and values.  The theory suggests that more intelligent people are more likely than less intelligent people to adopt evolutionarily novel preferences and values, but intelligence does not correlate with preferences and values that are old enough to have been shaped by evolution over millions of years.”

“Evolutionarily novel” preferences and values are those that humans are not biologically designed to have and our ancestors probably did not possess.  In contrast, those that our ancestors had for millions of years are “evolutionarily familiar.”

“General intelligence, the ability to think and reason, endowed our ancestors with advantages in solving evolutionarily novel problems for which they did not have innate solutions,” says Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  “As a result, more intelligent people are more likely to recognize and understand such novel entities and situations than less intelligent people, and some of these entities and situations are preferences, values, and lifestyles.”

An earlier study by Kanazawa found that more intelligent individuals were more nocturnal, waking up and staying up later than less intelligent individuals.  Because our ancestors lacked artificial light, they tended to wake up shortly before dawn and go to sleep shortly after dusk.  Being nocturnal is evolutionarily novel.

In the current study, Kanazawa argues that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and being liberal, caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with, is evolutionarily novel.  So more intelligent children may be more likely to grow up to be liberals.

Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) support Kanazawa’s hypothesis.  Young adults who subjectively identify themselves as “very liberal” have an average IQ of 106 during adolescence while those who identify themselves as “very conservative” have an average IQ of 95 during adolescence.

Similarly, religion is a byproduct of humans’ tendency to perceive agency and intention as causes of events, to see “the hands of God” at work behind otherwise natural phenomena.  “Humans are evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, and they believe in God because they are paranoid,” says Kanazawa.  This innate bias toward paranoia served humans well when self-preservation and protection of their families and clans depended on extreme vigilance to all potential dangers.  “So, more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to go against their natural evolutionary tendency to believe in God, and they become atheists.”

Young adults who identify themselves as “not at all religious” have an average IQ of 103 during adolescence, while those who identify themselves as “very religious” have an average IQ of 97 during adolescence.

In addition, humans have always been mildly polygynous in evolutionary history.  Men in polygynous marriages were not expected to be sexually exclusive to one mate, whereas men in monogamous marriages were.  In sharp contrast, whether they are in a monogamous or polygynous marriage, women were always expected to be sexually exclusive to one mate.  So being sexually exclusive is evolutionarily novel for men, but not for women.  And the theory predicts that more intelligent men are more likely to value sexual exclusivity than less intelligent men, but general intelligence makes no difference for women’s value on sexual exclusivity.  Kanazawa’s analysis of Add Health data supports these sex-specific predictions as well.

One intriguing but theoretically predicted finding of the study is that more intelligent people are no more or no less likely to value such evolutionarily familiar entities as marriage, family, children, and friends.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Stone-Age Mind in an Information-Age Situation,” Seeing Faces,” “The Situation of Hair Color,”The Situation of Reason,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,”The Situation of Revenge,” and “The Situation of Kissing.”

(The illustration above is by Situationist artist Marc Scheff.)

Posted in Ideology, Illusions, Life, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Reporting Social Facts vs. Pining for Jim Crow: No Comparison Between Reid and Lott

Posted by Eric D. Knowles on January 13, 2010

Imagine a scenario. An African American lawyer, we can even call him “Barry,” has applied for a job at a prestigious firm—one that has never before hired a Black person. You eavesdrop on a couple of partners talking about the candidate. Question: Which, if either, of the these overheard comments is the more racist?

“I don’t know… Barry’s facing an uphill climb at an all-White firm like this. However, he just might have a shot given the fact that he’s fairly light-complected and doesn’t speak using African American Vernacular English.”

* * *

“This firm’s going to hell if it hires a Black guy. I wish Strom Thurmond were the head of the hiring committee.”

The analogy may be a bit crude. But those paying attention to recent political news will recognize the partners as stand-ins for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Senator (and Majority Leader) Trent Lott, respectively. Senator Reid has found himself in hot water for comments he made in 2008 assessing Barack Obama’s chances of winning the presidency. Republicans, in particular, have decried Reid’s “racist” comments, demanding that he apologize to the American people and relinquish his leadership position in the Senate. They insist that this is exactly what happened to their own Trent Lott in 2002. Let’s take a look at what Reid and Lott said:

Reid told the authors of a new book about the 2008 campaign that “the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama—a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’”

* * *

Lott toasted the late Strom Thurmond by saying, “When [Thurmond] ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”

Interestingly, I haven’t read or heard a single commentator dispute the accuracy of what Reid said. I’ve heard many say—and I agree—that his comments were indelicate and his use of the term “Negro” anachronistic. Politically stupid, yes. But also true. Anti-Black racism is alive and well in our country, and there is good evidence that it affected voting patterns in the 2008 election and continues to shape attitudes toward President Obama’s policies. It is entirely plausible that the ways in which Obama doesn’t fit most Americans’ stereotype of “Black person” (itself a media-perpetuated caricature) mitigated the high electoral hurdles he faced. More to the point, the social-psychological literature on “colorism”—the tendency of lighter-skinned Blacks to be viewed and treated more positively than those with darker skin—corroborates Reid’s prediction that Obama would have a relatively good shot at the presidency. There is no incompatibility between the content of Reid’s observation and having perfectly progressive racial views.

What about Lott’s comments? In waxing nostalgic over Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential run, Lott is endorsing the politics of a segregationist firebrand who, as Senator, filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes. One can’t read Lott’s comments without suspecting that the “problems” he believes President Thurmond would have prevented include things like racial integration and equality under the law. Now that strikes me as racist, and for Republicans to liken Reid’s comment to Lott’s—and to imply that they should suffer similar fates—is silly.

This episode says a great deal about how Americans talk (or fail to talk) about race. Most illustrative were comments made by Liz Cheney on ABC’s This Week. Ms. Cheney found herself sparring with, of all people, conservative commentator George Will over the Reid affair. Cheney contended that Reid’s comments were “outrageous” and “racist.” When Will countered that Reid’s comments contained “not a scintilla of racism,” Cheney responded—and this is telling—”George, give me a break. I mean, talking about the color of the president’s skin…” For Cheney, the mere mention of race is tantamount to racism. It’s worth pausing to appreciate how pernicious this extreme form of color-blindness is. If we can’t talk about race, we can’t talk about racial inequality—and if we can’t talk about racial inequality, we’re guaranteed not to do anything about it. Perhaps this is exactly what some people want.

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This post first appeared on Seeing in Color.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Wages Are Only Skin Deep – Abstract,”  Colorblinded Wages - Abstract,” Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice,”The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” “Racial Attitudes in the Presidential Race,” Black History is Now,” “The Racial Situation of Voting,” Why Are They So Biased?,” and I’m Objective, You’re Biased,”

Posted in Naive Cynicism, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 2, 2010

situationism-in-the-news

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of the Situationist news over the last several weeks.

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From BBC News: “What’s my brain’s motivation?”

“For an actor, the performance conditions weren’t exactly ideal: flat on her back in a large machine, under strict instructions to lie as still as possible, speaking in short bursts interspersed with the shrill sound of a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. […] Professor Sophie Scott of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London wanted to know what happens physically in an actor’s head when they pretend to be someone else. Rivals on the dating scene could make one feel closer to God, according to new research that suggests one’s religiousness may be more closely related to mating strategies than previously known.” Read more . . .

From Wired: “Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why”

“[…] It’s not that the old meds are getting weaker, drug developers say. It’s as if the placebo effect is somehow getting stronger. The fact that an increasing number of medications are unable to beat sugar pills has thrown the industry into crisis. The stakes could hardly be higher. In today’s economy, the fate of a long-established company can hang on the outcome of a handful of tests.” Read more . . .

Posted in Uncategorized | 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.

* * *

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 »

Zimbardo Interview at The Believer

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on September 6, 2009

Zimbardo montagePhilosopher Tamler Sommers was kind enough to post a link over at the Garden of Forking Paths to an interview he did with Situationist contributor Philip Zimbardo that appears in the latest edition of The Believer.  Here is the first question and answer from the interview:

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THE BELIEVER: I take it that one of the goals of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to build on Milgram’s results that demonstrated the power of situational elements. Is that right?

PHILIP ZIMBARDO: It was really to broaden his message and put it to a higher-level test. In Milgram’s study, we don’t know about those thousand people who answered the ad. His subjects were not Yale students, although he did it at Yale. They were a thousand ordinary citizens from New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut, ages twenty to fifty, and in his advertisement in the newspaper he said: college students and high-school students cannot be used. It could have been a selection of people who were more psychopathic. For our study, we picked only two dozen of seventy-five who applied, who on seven different personality tests were normal or average. So we knew there were no psychopaths, no deviants. Nobody had been in therapy, and even though it was a drug era, nobody (at least in the reports) had taken anything more than marijuana, and they were physically healthy at the time. So the question was: Suppose you had only kids who were normally healthy, psychologically and physically, and they knew they would be going into a prison-like environment and that some of their civil rights would be sacrificed. Would those good people, put in that bad, evil place—would their goodness triumph?

***

That sitautionist snippet should convince you to check out the rest of the interview!  Also, it is worth pointing out the Sommers has a forthcoming collection entitled A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, which includes past interviews with philosophers and psychologists such as Galen Strawson, Michael Ruse, Jon Haidt, Frans de Waal, Steve Stich, Josh Greene, Liane Young, Joe Henrich, William Ian Miller, and Zimbardo.  So, make sure to check it out as well once it comes out.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see, “Milgram Remake,” “Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience Part I,” “Zimbardo on Migram and Obedience Part II,” and “Zimbardo Lecture on How Good People Turn Evil.”

Posted in Classic Experiments, Philosophy, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Secret Politics of the Compatibilist Criminal Law

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on September 3, 2009

Expulsion from Eden

I recently stumbled upon a really provocative paper by Anders Kaye entitled, “The Secret Politics of the Compatibilist Criminal Law.” Given that one of the key issues addressed in  the paper is whether compatibilist theories of free will–which focus very heavily on dispositional traits and conscious mental states–can accommodate situational forces that are criminogenic (e.g., poverty and early childhood abuse).  According to Kaye, compatibilist theories of free will and responsibility have been used by contemporary legal retributivists such as Michael Moore and Stephen Morse to shield the criminal law from developments in behavioral science, criminology, etc. that might otherwise lead to a less punitive justice system as well as a more egalitarian society.  In short, Kaye suggests that compatibilism is not a “politically innocent” theory of free will.  Here is the abstract:

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Many criminal theorists say that we have a ‘compatibilist’ criminal law, by which they mean that in our criminal law a person can deserve punishment for her acts even if she does not have ‘genuinely’ free will. This conception of the criminal law harbors and is driven by a secret politics, one that resists social change and idealizes the existing social order. In this Article, I map this secret politics. In so doing, I call into question the descriptive accuracy of the compatibilist account of the criminal law, and set the stage for a franker discussion of criminal punishment – one that recognizes that the perpetual struggle to say just who ‘deserves’ punishment is driven as much by brute politics and the competition to allocate power and resources in society as by any independent moral logic.

***

There is already a heated debate about Kaye’s novel line of reasoning over at The Garden of Forking Paths.  However, it would be nice to see an active comment thread here at The Situationist as well.  So, please take a look at the paper and then give us your thoughts!

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “A Situationist View of Criminal Prosecutors,” “The Legal Brain,” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Philosophy, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

The Law and Neuroscience Blog

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on July 24, 2009

Greetings!  I just wanted to let the readers of The Situationist know that the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project recently launched The Law and Neuroscience Blog.

law-brain-image

Needless to say, we are excited about it.    In addition to posting updates concerning the various research projects being carried out by the members of our two main networks–namely, Legal Decision Making (LDM) and Criminal Responsibility and Prediction (CRP)–we will also try to provide readers with helpful links to more general developments at the cross-roads of neuroscience, law, and philosophy.  Hopefully, we will hear from some of you in the comment threads soon!

Posted in Blogroll, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Behavioral Consequences of Unconscious Bias

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 22, 2009

NYTimes Tierney Implicit Bias.jpgFrom EurekaAlert and the new Blog, Project Implicit:

In the decade since the Implicit Association Test was introduced, its most surprising and controversial finding is its indication that about 70 percent of those who took a version of the test that measures racial attitudes have an unconscious, or implicit, preference for white people compared to blacks. This contrasts with figures generally under 20 percent for self report, or survey, measures of race bias.

A new study published this week validates those findings, showing that the Implicit Association Test, a psychological tool, has validity in predicting behavior and, in particular, that it has significantly greater validity than self-reports in the socially sensitive topics of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and age.

The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is an overview and analysis of 122 published and unpublished reports of 184 different research studies. In this analysis, 85 percent of the studies also included self-reporting measures of the type generally used in surveys. This allowed the researchers, headed by University of Washington psychology Professor Anthony Greenwald, to compare the test’s success in predicting social behavior and judgment with the success of self-reports.

“In socially sensitive areas, especially black-white interracial behavior, the test had significantly greater predictive value than self-reports. This finding establishes the Implicit Association Test’s value in research to understand the roots of race and other discrimination,” said Greenwald. “What was especially surprising was how ineffective standard self-report measurers were in the areas in which the test measures have been of greatest interest – predicting interracial behavior.”

Greenwald created the Implicit Association Test in 1998 and he and Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychology professor, and Brian Nosek, a University of Virginia associate professor of psychology, further developed it. Since then the test has been used in more than 1,000 research studies around the world. More than 10 million versions of the test have been completed at an Internet site where they are available as a self-administer demonstration.

The research looked at studies covering nine different areas – consumer preference, black-white interracial behavior, personality differences, clinical phenomena, alcohol and drug use, non-racial intergroup behavior, gender and sexual orientation, close relationships and political preferences.

Findings also showed that:

  • Across all nine of these areas, measures of the test were useful in predicting social behavior.
  • Both the test, which is implicit, and self-reports, which are explicit, had predictive validity independent of each other. This suggests the desirability of using both types of measure in surveys and applied research studies.
  • In consumer and political preferences both measures effectively predicted behavior, but self-reports had significantly greater predictive validity.

Studies in the research came from a number of countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Poland and the United States. They looked at such topics as attitudes of undecided voters one-month prior to an Italian election; treatment recommendations by physicians for black and white heart attack victims; and reactions to spiders before and after treatment for arachnophobia, or spider phobia.

“The Implicit Association Test is controversial because many people believe that racial bias is largely a thing of the past. The test’s finding of a widespread, automatic form of race preference violates people’s image of tolerance and is hard for them to accept. When you are unaware of attitudes or stereotypes, they can unintentionally affect your behavior. Awareness can help to overcome this unwanted influence,” said Greenwald.

Co-authors of the new study are [Situationist Contributor] Mahzarin Banaji, T. Andrew Poehlman of Southern Methodist University and Eric Uhlmann of Northwestern University.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Confronting the Backlash against Implicit Bias,” Legal Academic Backlash - Abstract,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” and “Implicit Bias and Strawmen.”

Image source is here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Taking Advantage of the Elderly

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 19, 2009

Jayne Barnard, the Cutler Professor of Law at William and Mary Law School, has recently posted an extremely interesting article titled “Deception, Decisions and Investor Education” (17 Elder Law Journal (forthcoming 2009)) on SSRN.  The approach and conclusions will make any Situationist proud.  Here’s the abstract.

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Tens of millions of dollars each year are spent on investor education. Because older adults (those aged 60 and older) are disproportionately victims of investment fraud schemes, many educational programs are targeted at them. In this Article, Professor Barnard questions the effectiveness of these programs. Drawing on recent studies from marketing scholars, neurobiologists, social psychologists, and behavioral economists examining the ways in which older adults process information and make decisions, she offers a model of decision making (the “deception/decision cycle”) that explains why older adults are often vulnerable to investment fraud schemes. She then suggests that many of the factors that contribute to fraud victimization are unlikely to be influenced by fraud prevention education. She suggests some alternative uses for the money now spent on fraud prevention education that would better achieve the goal of protecting older investors.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “No Contract for Old Men” and When Thieves See Situation.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

The Changing Face of Marketing?

Posted by Adam Benforado on May 15, 2009

Last week, in a guest blog post at the Faculty Lounge, I suggested that corporate America has been behaving rather strangely recently.  Oil companies have been touting investments in wind american-apparel-jobstechnology.  Investment firms have been urging caution.  Agriculture behemoths have been talking about conserving earth’s precious resources.  And clothing companies, known for trading on sex, youth, and hipness, have been focusing their advertisements on the benefits that they provide to their workers.

In the post (part of which I excerpt below) I considered whether this recent shift might reference a genuine change in corporate culture or if it might just be the latest marketing fad (comparable, in certain respect, to playing up swine flu fears to sell hygiene-related products).

* * *

Over the course of this term, I’ve encouraged students in my Business Organizations class to consider whether, in the wake of the current economic disaster, the role of corporations might be reconceptualized.  As we’ve discussed the history of shareholder primacy, stakeholder statutes, fiduciary duties, director incentives, and the like, I’ve pushed the class to think about whether we are on the cusp of change.

What, if anything, are we to make of business school deans, like Yale’s Sharon M. Oster, arguing recently for a new emphasis on social commitment in B-schools and indicting the blind pursuit of profit?   How should we view Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner asserting that the financial industry needs “[n]ot modest repairs at the margin, but new rules of the game”?  Are we perhaps entering a new era in which corporations will forsake profit in favor of good works—or, at least, only seek to profit from doing good?

Certain corporate managers—like Timberland CEO Jeffrey Schwartz—have been publicly embracing a compatible vision for a number of years (according to the company website, the Timberland “mission is to equip people to make a difference in their world.  We do this by creating outstanding products and by trying to make a difference in the communities where we live and work.”).  John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, has gone as far as to state that

[l]ong-term profits are maximized by not making them the primary goal.  A business is best not thought of as a machine with various factors of production working in tandem to maximize profits.  A business model more in touch with our complex, post-modern, information-rich world is a complex self-adaptive system of interdependent constituencies.  Management’s role is to optimize the health and value of the entire complex, evolving, and self-adaptive system.

Has the recent recession and resulting public outrage caused other companies to change their practices?  It’s hard to tell, but they do appear to have changed their tune.  Flipping through the New York Times yesterday morning as I waited for copies of my exam to print, I was struck by a particularly revealing full-page Starbucks advertisement—and it wasn’t solely because the somniferous drone of the copier left me in dire need of a little caffeine.

Starbucks

What is Starbucks selling?

Well, “[i]t’s not just coffee.”

Coffee, Hummers, diamond-encrusted purses, alligator cowboy boots . . . Those things are so 2007!  Americans aren’t into blind consumerism anymore.  People are no longer satisfied feeding on a never ending buffet of disposable products and easy comforts.  Starbucks understands: “It’s not just what you are buying.  It’s what you are buying into.”

And what is that exactly?

“[A] coffee ethic.”

As the advertisement explains, Starbucks “ensur[es] that the farmers who grow . . . [coffee] beans receive a fair price for their hard work” and that employees “receive full healthcare coverage.”  Even the beans are taken care of—“nurtured from farm to cup under our watchful eye.”

And who is the final stakeholder?

It’s you, the valued consumer.  The profit from your Frappuccino isn’t going to enrich some fat-cat Wall Street type; no, Starbucks is going to use it to better serve your needs: “[A] little bit of the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee helps furnish the place with comfy chairs, good music, and the right atmosphere to dream, work and chat in.  We all need a place like that these days.”

One might be skeptical of the company’s motivation in all of this, were it not for the reassurance in the ad itself: “We continue to do this, even in hard times, because it’s the right thing to do.”

You know, I’d really, truly love to believe that.  It’s just that the friends and colleagues of Mr. Starbucks have a long history of playing up their commitments to their customers and the broader community for the sole reason that doing so helps them sell more products.  Could this time be different?  Could the new wave of advertisements reference a real shift in corporate behavior—a genuine and lasting response to public concerns?  Maybe.

But maybe it’s just the best way to get nervous consumers to open their pocketbooks in a sick economy.

Posted in Marketing, Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

Virtual Worlds, Learning, and Virtual Milgram

Posted by Will Li on April 28, 2009

In a post in February, BoingBoing writer Cory Doctorow told a story about a parent who incentivizes their son’s video gaming by having the teenager adhere to the Geneva Conventions while playing the game Call of Duty.

I asked Evan to google the Geneva Convention. Then he had to read it and then we had to discuss it. This we did. So the deal is that Evan has to fight according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. If his team-mates violate the Convention then play stops and Call of Duty goes away for a while.

It might seem outlandish, or merely a tool to educate your child about the Geneva Convention (as opposed to teaching an actor in real life to adhere to the same Conventions), but is there any real-life applicability to virtual worlds and teaching behavior through virtual environments?

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A study by Mel Slater at University College London might indicate that there is. In a 2006 experiment, Slater and other researchers replicated the famous Milgram experiments, only in a completely virtual setting. Their study concluded that

in spite of the fact that all participants knew for sure that neither the stranger nor the shocks were real, the participants who saw and heard her tended to respond to the situation at the subjective, behavioural and physiological levels as if it were real. This result reopens the door to direct empirical studies of obedience and related extreme social situations, an area of research that is otherwise not open to experimental study for ethical reasons, through the employment of virtual environments.

* * *

Other examples of the intersection of virtual worlds and behavior in the real world have popped up in the news more recently.

Lei Feng was a young man who joined a transportation unit of the People’s Liberation Army in Communist China, and at the age of 21 in 1962 was killed in a work-related accident. His life and story was subsequently promoted heavily by Communist leaders during the Cultural Revolution in China as a paragon of Communist virtues. Today, he is alive and well in an online video game that employs him as the protagonist of the game, in which participants gain levels by performing selfless deeds. Additionally, March 5 of each year is designated Lei Feng Day, and while the promotion of his character by Communist authorities has declined, his name has made its way into everyday vocabulary.

The existing and increasing popularity of online gaming in China is well-documented, from participation of youth in MMOs like World of Warcraft, to internet cafes, to the establishment of “gold-farming” as an industry in the same game. The popularity is apparently being co-opted as a learning tool to re-teach and re-deploy the lessons of a cultural icon. And while the effectiveness has not been studied, the ostensible aim of the game is for its players to take the lessons of the game and then employ them in everyday life.

While the use of video games to teach behavior in Communist China raises a rather extreme case, it raises the same questions as our Geneva Convention / Call of Duty example and Virtual Milgram example, and it might only seem extreme due to the unique situation of the participants in the game.

* * *

In fact, blogs (hat tip to BoingBoing and Terra Nova) report that the Council of Europe has developed two sets of guidelines, one regarding human rights guidelines for online games providers, and the other regarding human rights guidelines for internet service providers. While the guidelines target those that distribute the games and provide access to them, Ren Reynolds writing for the blog Terra Nova points out the wide range of actors involved in what we consider gaming, and that these actors play potentially different and importantly unique roles in the process of developing, publishing, distributing and enjoying online games.

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For other posts on the subject of virtual worlds and situationism, see “Virtual Bias,” “Are Video Games Addictive?,” “Resident Evil 5 and Racism in Video Games,” Encourage Your Daughters To Play Violent Video Games?,” “The Situation of First-Person Shooters,” “Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson,” and Michael McCann’s “The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Video Games.”

Posted in Education, Entertainment, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 8, 2009

situationism-in-the-news

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quote from some of the Situationist news items of March 2009. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

* * *

From Wired Science: “Religion: Biological Accident, Adaptation – or Both

Whether or not God exists, thinking about Him or Her doesn’t require divinely dedicated neurological wiring. Instead, religious thoughts run on brain systems used to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. The findings, based on brain scans of people contemplating God, don’t explain whether a propensity for religion is a neurobiological accident. But at least they give researchers a solid framework for exploring the question.” Read more . . .

From Guardian: “This column will change your life”

“You’re a reasonable, warm-spirited person. You sometimes get irritable, after a stressful day, when it’s raining and you forgot your umbrella, but who wouldn’t? That doesn’t make you an unpleasant person. It’s others who are irredeemably, intrinsically awful. (See also Sartre’s famous remark that “hell is other people, especially the ones who linger pointlessly at the cash machine for 45 seconds after withdrawing their money.”)  We think this way because we’re hypocrites, certainly – but also thanks to one of the most important phenomena in social psychology, the fundamental attribution error (FAE). In accounting for others’ behaviour, we chronically overvalue personality-based explanations, while undervaluing situational ones. “When we see someone else kick a vending machine for no visible reason, we assume they are ‘an angry person’,” writes Eliezer Yudkowsky at overcomingbias.com.  “But when you kick the machine, it’s because the bus was late, your report is overdue, and now the damned machine has eaten your lunch money.” Read more . . .

From Huffington Post: “To Forgive, Correct the Fundamental Attribution Error”

“Willingness to forgive is dependent on our explanatory or attributional style, on why we think people do what they do. People are scientists by nature: when we observe an event, we attempt to make sense of it. Making sense of the world is adaptive, necessary for survival. The more we understand about the world, the safer we feel. Say we just had a meeting with a co-worker, and after the meeting is over, we observe the co-worker forcefully shut the door as she enters her office. Without a moment’s delay, almost automatically, we search for an explanation. And in doing so, we are limited to essentially two types of explanations for things that happen: we can either attribute the event to a force within the person (personal attribution), or to a force outside of the person (contextual attribution). ” Read more . . .

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Situationism in the Blogosphere – February Part III

Posted by aferris on April 4, 2009

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of our favorite non-Situationist situationist blogging during February 2009. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

* * *

From Frontal Cortex: “The Color of Creativity

The brain is like a Swiss Army knife, stuffed full of different mental tools that are well suited to different situations. Sometimes, we want to flex the prefrontal cortex, and really exert our rational muscles. And then there are other situations (like picking a strawberry jam) where thinking too much can be a real problem, and we should rely instead of the subtle signals emanating from the emotional brain.” Read more . . .

From The Garden of Forking Paths: “Terminological Differences

Given the interest generated by Tamler’s recent post on free will skepticism, I thought I would try to keep the discussion going by posting something about a related issue that I have often found puzzling.  On the surface, it is obvious enough what distinguishes libertarians, on the one hand, from compatibilists, semi-compatibilists, and revisionists, on the other hand.  The later, unlike the former, believe that we could be free and/or morally responsible even if determinism were true.  Similarly, it is obvious enough what distinguishes libertarians from free will skeptics.  The former, unlike the later, believe that we are both free and desert-based responsible.Read more . . .

From Mind Hacks: “Hello, my name is Trouble

Time magazine has an interesting article on links between given names and behaviour, with a new study finding children with unpopular names are more likely to be get in trouble with the law. This doesn’t mean that being called an unusual name causes criminality – the article notes that boys with unpopular names are likelier to live in single-parent households and be poorer, which are also known to be linked to higher levels of offending.” Read more . . .

From Mind Hacks: “Reigning in the extended mind

Philosopher Jerry Fodor has written a sceptical and entertaining review of a new book on the extended mind hypothesis – the idea that that we use technology to offload our mental processes and that such tools can be thought of as extensions of the mind itself. The book in question is by fellow philosopher Andy Clark and is entitled Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension.”  Read more . . .

From We’re Only Human: “Try A Little Powerlessness

“Self-control is one of our most cherished values. We applaud those with the discipline to regulate their appetites and actions, and we try hard to instill this virtue in our children. Think of the slogans: Just say no. Just do it. We celebrate the power of the mind to make hard choices and keep us on course. But what if we can’t just do it? What if “it” is too difficult or our strategy for success is misguided? Is it possible that willpower might actually be an obstacle rather than a means to happiness and harmony? Can we have too much of a good thing?” Read more . . .

For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click on the “Blogroll” category in the right margin.

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Dick Cheney: A Situationist?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 19, 2009

vp-dick-cheneyIt is interesting that in an interview with CNN this past Sunday, former Vice President Dick Cheney, a hardcore dispositionist, offered a situationist-like defense of the troubles that ailed the Bush Administration.

It appears that after walking in his own shoes for eight years, Cheney could see the situation and how it complicated the bright-line, often unforgiving directives that guide dispositionists.  Sometimes, as Cheney appears to have discovered, bad outcomes are not always the products of bad choices, but are instead borne from–to borrow the former vice president’s words–bad “stuff.”

We excerpt Cheney’s interview, a complete transcript for which can be read here.

* * *

JOHN KING: There are people I assume watching this interview right now, and people in this town who would say, why should we listen to you? And they would say that because of the context of the Bush administration numbers.

They would say, you know, what did you do when you were in charge? And they have some numbers to back up their case. And I want to show some to our viewers When you came to office, the unemployment rate in the country was 4.2 percent, when you left it was 7.6 percent.

The number of Americans in poverty when you arrived, just under 33 million, over 37 million when you left. The number without health insurance, a little over 41 million when you came, over 45 million approaching 46 million when you left.

And you came with a budget surplus of $128 billion and in the final year, the budget deficit was a record $1.3 trillion. So what would you say to someone out there watching this who is saying, why should they listen to you?

FORMER VP CHENEY: Well, there are all kinds of arguments to be made on that point. But there’s something that is more important than the specific numbers you’re talking about, and that had to be priority for our administration.

Eight months after we arrived, we had 9/11. We had 3,000 Americans killed one morning by al Qaeda terrorists here in the United States.  We immediately had to go into the wartime mode. We ended up with two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of that is still very active. We had major problems with respect to things like Katrina, for example. All of these things required us to spend money that we had not originally planned to spend, or weren’t originally part of the budget.

Stuff happens. And the administration has to be able to respond to that, and we did.

* * *

KING: Do you wish your administration had taken more aggressive steps, and were you boxed in by opposition to Iraq not only here, but around the world?

CHENEY: I can’t say that. You know, you deal with the situation you find.

* * *

* * *

For a related Situationist post discussing attributional biases, including the “ultimate attribution error,” see “March Madness.”

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 6, 2009

situationism-in-the-news

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of the Situationist news items of February 2009. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

* * *

From The Economist: The kindness of crowds

“According to a much-reported survey carried out in 2002, Britain then had 4.3m closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras—one for every 14 people in the country. That figure has since been questioned, but few doubt that Britons are closely scrutinised when they walk the streets. This scrutiny is supposed to deter and detect crime. Even the government’s statistics, though, suggest that the cameras have done little to reduce the worst sort of criminal activity, violence.  That may, however, be about to change, and in an unexpected way. It is not that the cameras and their operators will become any more effective. Rather, they have accidentally gathered a huge body of data on how people behave, and particularly on how they behave in situations where violence is in the air. This means that hypotheses about violent behaviour which could not be tested experimentally for practical or ethical reasons, can now be examined in a scientific way. And it is that which may help violence to be controlled.” Read more . . .

From Miller McCune: The Down Side of Self Control

Self-control is a limited resource, one we cannot go on exercising indefinitely any more than we can run 100 miles without rest and replenishment. A group of research psychologists has been proposing and refining that concept for more than a decade, and in a newly published paper, two of them report it has disturbing moral implications.Read more . . .

From Science Daily: Collective Religious Rituals, Not Religious Devotion, Spur Support For Suicide Attacks

“ In a new study in Psychological Science, psychologists Jeremy Ginges and Ian Hansen from the New School for Social Research along with psychologist Ara Norenzayan from the University of British Columbia conducted a series of experiments investigating the relationship between religion and support for acts of parochial altruism, including suicide attacks. . . . The researchers found that the relationship between religion and support suicide attacks is real but is unrelated to devotion to particular religious beliefs or religious belief in general. Instead, collective religious ritual appears to facilitate parochial altruism in general and support for suicide attacks in particular.” Read more . . .

From Science Daily: If Its Hard To Say, It Must Be Risky

“Will it seem safer when its name is easy to pronounce? In a new study reported in Psychological Science psychologists Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz from the University of Michigan present evidence that we if have problems pronouncing something, we will consider it to be risky.” Read more . . .

From Science Daily: Violent Media Numbs Viewers To The Pain Of Others

“Violent video games and movies make people numb to the pain and suffering of others, according to a research report published in the March 2009 issue of Psychological Science.” Read more . . .

From Time: Giving the Finger: This Hurts Me More Than You

“No one knows whether Plato ever flipped anyone the bird — but he might have. People have been raising their middle finger to indicate something other than “Does this cuticle need trimming?” since the time of the ancient Greeks. Like democracy and feta cheese, it spread around the world.” Read more . . .

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The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on February 28, 2009

The death of free will, or its exposure as a convenient illusion, some worry, could wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility. According to those who believe that free will and determinism are incompatible…it would mean that people are no more responsible for their actions than asteroids or planets. Anything would go

–Dennis Overbye, The New York Times (2007)

During the past few years the popular press has become increasingly interested in free will, agency, and responsibility, with stories appearing in mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times, The Economist, Forbes Magazine, Wired, and FOX News. As psychologists continue to demystify the mind by uncovering the mechanisms that undergird human behavior, what was once an issue that fell mostly under the purview of philosophers and theologians has started to pique the curiosity of the public more generally. This interest is quite understandable. If free will caught-cheating-tests-01-af5provides the foundation for our traditional moral beliefs and practices, and its existence is incompatible with the gathering data from the so-called “sciences of the mind,” then free will isn’t just a topic fit for philosophers—it is a psychological, sociological, cultural, and policy issue as well. To the extent that scientific advancements undermine or threaten our traditional views about human agency, we ought to carefully consider what impact this might have on our moral and legal practices.

To get a sense for why some philosophers and psychologists are anxious when it comes to folk beliefs about free will and moral responsibility, consider the following extended quote from Francis Cricks’ The Amazing Hypothesis:

“You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.

Most religions hold that some kind of spirit exists that persists after one’s bodily death and, to some degree, embodies the essence of that human being. Religions may not have all the same beliefs, but they do have a broad agreement that people have souls.

Yet the common belief of today has a totally different view. It is inclined to believe that the idea of a soul, distinct from the body and not subject to our known scientific laws, is a myth. It is quite understandable how this myth arose without today’s scientific knowledge of nature of matter and radiation, and of biological evolution. Such myths, of having a soul, seem only too plausible. For example, four thousand years ago almost everyone believed the earth was flat. Only with modern science has it occurred to us that in fact the earth is round.

From modern science we now know that all living things, from bacteria to ourselves, are closely related at the biochemical level. We now know that many species of plants and animals have evolved over time. We can watch the basic processes of evolution happening today, both in the field and in our test tubes and therefore, there is no need for the religious concept of a soul to explain the behavior of humans and other animals. In addition to scientists, many educated people also share the belief that the soul is a metaphor and that there is no personal life either before conception or after death.

Most people take free will for granted, since they feel that usually they are free to act as they please. Three assumptions can be made about free will. The first assumption is that part of one’s brain is concerned with making plans for future actions, without necessarily carrying them out. The second assumption is that one is not conscious of the “computations” done by this part of the brain but only of the “decisions” it makes – that is, its plans, depending of course on its current inputs from other parts of the brain. The third assumption is that the decision to act on one’s plan or another is also subject to the same limitations in that one has immediate recall of what is decided, but not of the computations that went into the decision.

So, although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that. The actual cause of the decision may be clear cut or it may be determined by chaos, that is, a very small perturbation may make a big difference to the end result. This would give the appearance of the Will being “free” since it would make the outcome essentially unpredictable. Of course, conscious activities may also influence the decision mechanism.

One’s self can attempt to explain why it made a certain choice. Sometimes we may reach the correct conclusion. At other times, we will either not know or, more likely, will confabulate, because there is no conscious knowledge of the ‘reason’ for the choice. This implies that there must be a mechanism for confabulation, meaning that given a certain amount of evidence, which may or may not be misleading, part of the brain will jump to the simplest conclusion.

Having just read Crick’s deflationary remarks about free will, do you think you would be more likely to cheat if you were given the opportunity?  The obvious answer is “No, of course not”! However, the results from a series of recent studies by psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler suggest that things are less obvious than they seem.

For instance, in a recent paper entitled “The Value of Believing in Free Will,” Vohs and Schooler suggest that when people are induced to disbelieve in free will and believe in determinism—as the result of reading the aforementioned passage from Crick—they are more likely to cheat shortly thereafter. Here is the abstract:

Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.

In light of the results from these two studies, Vohs and Schooler conclude that ‘the fact that brief exposure to a message asserting that there is no such thing as free will can increase both passive and active cheating raises the concern that advocating a deterministic worldview could undermine moral behavior’ (Vohs & Schooler 2008: 53).

If we assume for the sake of argument that being induced to disbelieve in free will is what is really driving the results of their studies—and I am unconvinced that it is, but that is a story for another day—then we are faced with the interesting question of what philosophers and psychologists who work on free will ought to do in light of these findings. For free will skeptics, the stakes are particularly high. After all, ought one to be advocating for the so-called “death of free will” if doing so might make it more likely that people will cheat or steal?

Posted in Philosophy, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet: “Guilty”

Posted by Philip Zimbardo on December 19, 2008

bush-tenetMore than 10,000 people cast their votes during the last year and a half in a virtual voting booth at www.LuciferEffect.com. Their judgments accord with the recent Senate Armed Services bipartisan report that blames Bush officials for detainee abuse. It also finds that the prison guards and interrogators were not the “true culprits.”

The vast majority of these voters found all four Bush officials guilty of having created the legal frameworks, laws, and motivational conditions that provided the foundation for the abuses and torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons. The guilty verdicts (for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George Tenet) were true regardless of political preference, across all age groups, and whether or not they had read The Lucifer Effect book before voting.

Democrats were more likely to vote guilty than were those identified as Republicans, but even so, the majority of Republicans found each of the four officials guilty:

  • Bush: 95 % (Democrat) to 57% (Republican);
  • Cheney: 88% to 72%;
  • Rumsfeld: 89% to 72%;
  • Tenet: 83% to 70 %.

Those identified as “Other” political preference overwhelmingly gave guilty verdicts to all four:

  • 93% Bush;
  • 96% Cheney;
  • 95 % Rumsfeld, and
  • 89 % Tenet.

The percentage of guilty votes increased systematically with age of voters for all four officials: 86% of those under age 21 found George W. Bush guilty, as did 89% of those 21-40, 93 % of those 41-60, and a high of 97% for voters over the age of 60.

For Dick Cheney, the guilt verdicts were even higher at each age level, from 88% under 21, to 93% 21-40, to 97% 41-60, and a maximum of 99% for senior voters. Similar patterns can be seen for former Sec. of Defense Rumsfeld and former head of the CIA, Tenet.

My involvement with trying to understand the causes of the abuses and torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib began when I agreed to be part of the defense team organized by Gary Myers, legal council for one of the Army Reserve Military Police, Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick. In that role, I read all of the many investigative reports by various generals and one headed by James Schlesinger, former Sec. of Defense. I also read all of the relevant Human Rights Watch reports, International Red Cross reports, and more. I spoke with interrogators, military criminal investigators, and senior military officers who were on that scene. After in-depth interviews with Chip Frederick and reviewing his psychological evaluation by a military specialist, and his prior service record, I felt competent in rendering the judgment that he was a “good apple.” And further, that the conditions he and the other MPs were forced to work in and live in constituted the “Bad Barrel” that corrupted him and the other prison guards on the Tier 1A night shift (where all the abuses occurred).

These findings were summarized in two chapters of a book I wrote subsequently, Chapters 14 and 15 of The Lucifer Effect (Random House, 2007). While military justice put Frederick and many of the other MPs on trial for the abuses they had perpetrated on individuals they were supposed to protect while in their custody, none of the officers who should have been in charge were ever tried. Those abuses took place over more than three months in the fall of 2003 before being exposed. Command complicity involves responsibility for illegal or immoral behavior of one’s subordinates that officers should have known about – had they cared enough to be watching the store or the torture dungeon.

My summation to the military prosecutor in Frederick’s trial (2004) stated that although the soldier on trial was guilty of the abuses for which he was charged (for which he got an 8 year prison sentence), it was the Situation and the System that were also responsible. The Situation is the complex set of environmental circumstances in operation on the night shift in the interrogation center of Tier 1A—that created horrendous conditions for our soldiers as well as the detainees. The System includes those in charge of creating and maintaining those situations by means of resource allocation, legal rules, and top-down pressures for “actionable intelligence” by all means necessary.

I ended my conceptual analysis with a call for readers of my Lucifer Effect book to play the role of jurors in deciding on the guilt and accountability of some of the military command in charge at Abu Ghraib, along with Bush officials who were the ultimate Systems Managers. However, the World-Wide Web allows us to go beyond a rhetorical message of how one might vote in this case to creating a virtual voting booth where many people could openly register their vote on the guilt of the civilian officials whom they considered to be responsible for some of these abuses and tortures.

The summary of these votes by more than 10,000 people attest to the widespread public understanding that the abuses of human rights and integrity that have been perpetrated under the banner of protecting Homeland Security are traceable up to the highest levels of our government, and not just down to the foot soldiers doing their dirty work in the trenches of war. It is encouraging that the Senate Armed Services Committee also supports this viewpoint in blaming our leaders and not just the followers.

* * *

For related Situationist posts, see “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors,” “The Devil You Know . . . ,” “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “The Lucifer Effect Lecture at Harvard Law School,” “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part I,” “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part II,” and “Jonestown (The Situation of Evil) Revisited.”

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The Situational Power of Anonymity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 2, 2008

Sam Sommers has another first-rate situationist post, titled “Aggressive Drivers Anonymous” over on the Psychology Today Blog.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

Last week I was driving my daughters to a birthday party when I pulled over at an intersection to let a fire engine through. Naturally, one driver, in a green Nissan, decided to use the speeding truck as his personal blocking back, tailing close behind and passing those of us who had pulled to the side. He made just enough progress before getting to the stoplight that I found myself totally cut off once the truck passed, forced to sit there and wait through yet another cycle of the light. I could have just let the transgression go, of course, but I felt an uncontrollable urge to honk my horn at Green Nissan as we waited at the red light.

In fact, I didn’t just give a quick honk of irritation. No, I gave him two distinct honks—the first a brief one to announce my presence with authority, the second a longer, drawn-out one to remind Green Nissan, as he waited at the light, that 1) he did something wrong, 2) I know he did something wrong, and 3) I know that he knows he did something wrong.

* * *

. . . [D]istracted, it took me a few minutes to realize that, two miles later, I was still right behind Green Nissan. And I had made a few turns since the fire truck went by. I started to get the sinking sensation that we might be headed to the same destination, a hypothesis further supported by the sight of a car seat in the back of his car as well.

Why this gave me an uneasy feeling, I cannot pinpoint precisely, as there were multiple factors at play. But of one thing I’m quite sure—the freedom I felt to honk my horn aggressively at Green Nissan from my safe, anonymous seat behind the windshield quickly dissipated at the mere thought of having a face-to-face encounter with him in an open parking lot.

Was I afraid of an actual physical confrontation? Not really. . . .

More likely, I was thinking about the fact that I really don’t enjoy confrontations of any type, my zealous horn-honking notwithstanding. Moreover, I don’t relish being thought of as a jerk, and it was beginning to dawn on me that this was probably precisely what Green Nissan thought of me. Maybe I hadn’t been a jerk per se, but had I overreacted at least a tad? Sure. And while all these thoughts were running through in my head, I found myself following Green Nissan through yet another pair of turns, one left, one right. I slumped a bit further down in my seat as I drove on.

* * *

The experience just served to crystallize for me how powerful it is to feel anonymous in a situation, particularly when it comes to the manifestation of aggression. As [Situationist contributor] Phil Zimbardo has written, feeling anonymous and deindividuated leads college students to administer greater levels of shocks to fellow student in laboratory studies. Along similar, albeit graver lines, perpetrators of violence, whether vigilante or state-sponsored in origin, often disguise themselves in hoods, masks, or make-up. And it’s no coincidence that the harshest, most aggressive verbal swipes taken in cyberspace usually come from anonymous sources as well.

Research even speaks directly to my very experiences on the road last week, illustrating that feelings of anonymity lead to increases in aggressive driving. In retrospect, that’s exactly how I felt behind the wheel when Green Nissan cut me off: anonymous. I knew he could catch a glimpse of me if he turned to look, but I assumed we were heading in different directions and I was never going to see him again. That liberated me to act in ways I’d never dream of in face-to-face interaction.

* * *

. . . . Just yet another demonstration of the power of subtle situational factors: It’s amazing how something as simple as sitting behind the wheel of a car can be enough to lead to such transformations in identity and behavior.

* * *

To read his entire post (with links), click here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho,” “The Devil You Know . . . ,” “The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing,” “Alone Together – The Commuter’s Situation,” and “Internet Disinhibition.”

Posted in Conflict, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

What does an Obama victory mean?

Posted by Al Sahlstrom on November 22, 2008

change-we-can-believe-inAfter eight years under the same president, our country is on the verge of some major changes.  This is an exciting time.  The election of a new president encourages us to take a collective look in the mirror and it throws the spotlight on the distinctive characteristics of the person we’ve elected.  Whom we choose as president says a great deal about us – who we are, what we want, and how we have changed in the past eight years.

It is beyond doubt that Barack Obama’s intelligence, his policy positions, and his remarkable temperament will play a crucial role in the next chapter of world history. At the same time, both the full meaning of this election and its likely impact on the next four years are more difficult to ascertain than we might like to admit.

As a Democrat, it’s tempting to interpret an Obama victory as a clear-cut endorsement, both of Obama specifically and the Democratic platform generally.  After all, Obama has practically Kennedyesque personal appeal and he’s spent the past 21 months campaigning relentlessly on the idea that he would bring progressive change to the country by ending the war in Iraq, providing health care to all Americans, and practicing a new kind of politics.

The idea of the election as a direct choice between the policies of Obama and McCain would also fit into a clean, dispositionist narrative of American politics.  But what if voters ultimately made their decisions based on other factors?  For example, Douglas Schoen of the Wall Street Journal argues that the results of this election are “not a mandate for Democratic policies” because voters acted primarily out of a desire to reject Bush and the Republicans.  What about other factors such as the economy or the personal attributes of the candidates?

Though the economy was hardly a centerpiece of Obama’s campaign, his first concrete lead appeared shortly after the advent of the current financial crisis.  How do we read the tea leaves?  Does the important role of the economy in Obama’s victory hint that his policies couldn’t gain acceptance under normal circumstances, or did the crisis simply prove that that the American people trust Obama’s judgment?  What about age, race, or any of the other factors that might have influenced the election?  Does Obama’s charisma strengthen or weaken the rationale for electing him?  What are the implications for an Obama presidency if the election represented something other than a direct up or down referendum on the president-elect’s policies?

In the context of dispositionist Enlightenment values, elections present the highest, purest forum for individuals to exercise rational choice.  By choosing between various candidates and platforms, we communicate our preferences to the government, in turn providing our rulers with a mandate for the choices they make.  It’s clear that voting is important and that our choice of a given candidate expresses a preference, but it’s not clear how much of that preference derives from stable views or strictly rational evaluation of qualifications and policy positions.  Voters’ perceptions of issues are susceptible to the influence of emotion and identity appeals.  Changes in situational factors such as political climate, economic stability, and “October surprises” affect support for candidates without necessarily altering their positions or qualifications.  And it’s widely understood that politicians don’t reliably follow through on their campaign promises (for example, even before this election, the bailout made both candidates’ existing proposals unfeasible).  What, then, is the nature of the connection between a vote based on proposals from the campaign season and the mandate for the action a new president actually takes?

Even to the extent that we vote based on conscious policy decisions, it is easy to overestimate the degree to which a president’s innate qualities and preferences determine how events unfold during his or her time in office.  Our dispositionist assumptions emphasize a view of the chief executive primarily as an independent decision-making actor – the president as “the decider.”

But even the deepest convictions and policy positions of a president-elect are not determinative of what the country experiences in the following four years. No initial mandate can render a president immune to political forces.  Preexisting conditions (such as our current economic and military challenges) can complicate or preclude efforts to enact new policy.  And every president faces historic changes in global and domestic circumstances that come to define his or her term in office.  Good judgment is crucial when meeting such challenges, but ultimately the president’s choices represent only one of many factors shaping the course of events.

Barack Obama’s election has inspired millions and ignited hope around the globe.  Given the historic shift in power we’re experiencing, it’s tempting to jump to conclusions about what we’ve proven by electing Obama and what the world will look like with him as president of the United States.  But in the end, we support candidates for many different reasons and the results of this presidential election don’t unambiguously define the country.  Likewise, President Obama may go on to accomplish many things, but it’s unwise to assume – for better or for worse – that the fate of our country lies in his hands.  The full meaning of Obama’s presidential victory will take time to emerge.  For now, the best first step we can take into the Yes We Can era would be to remember the limitations we all have as individuals and not rely on President Obama to single-handedly change the world.

Posted in Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Methodology of the Behavioral Analysis of Law – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 1, 2008

Avishalom Tor has written an article, “The Methodology of the Behavioral Analysis of Law” (forthcoming  4 Haifa Law Review 237 (2008)) that will be of particular value for our readers interested in economic behavioralism. You can download the paper for free on  SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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This article examines the behavioral analysis of law, meaning the application of empirical behavioral evidence to legal analysis, which has become increasingly popular in legal scholarship in recent years. Following the introduction in Part I, this Article highlights four central propositions on the subject. The first, developed in Part II, asserts that the efficacy of the law often depends on its accounting for relevant patterns of human behavior, most notably those studied by behavioral decision scientists. This Part therefore reviews important behavioral findings, illustrating their application and relevance to a broad range of legal questions. Part III then argues that the behavioral approach is empirically driven, engaging in both the theoretical application of extant empirical findings to the law and the generation of new, legally relevant, experimental and observational evidence. As this Part shows, moreover, each of these behavioral genres possesses different methodological strengths and weaknesses, and they therefore both substitute for and complement one another, in different respects. Part IV explains that the behavioral approach encounters a series of “gaps” between the type of empirical evidence provided by behavioral decision researchers and the data required to resolve legal questions. Legal scholars should therefore be aware of these gaps, which may limit the usefulness of extant behavioral evidence for legal analysis. This Part also addresses what legal scholars may do to overcome these gaps and distinguish real gaps from imaginary ones. Part V completes the body of the Article, arguing that the behavioral analysis of law is simultaneously normatively neutral and normatively relevant. It is normatively neutral because the behavioral analysis of law is not committed to any specific legal goal or value system. This fundamental neutrality, in turn, makes the behavioral approach a versatile instrument, which can help generate important normative conclusions in the service of scholars evaluating the law based on any normative criteria – from justice to welfare and more. Part VI concludes.

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