Using a few simple tweaks to body language, Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy discovers ways to help people become more powerful.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 13, 2013
Using a few simple tweaks to body language, Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy discovers ways to help people become more powerful.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 12, 2013
The Drug War: A Psychological Problem-A Conversation with Carl Hart
Tuesday, March 12th, 12pm-1pm
Lunch talk featuring Dr. Carl Hart, Assistant Professor of Clinical Neuroscience in the Department of Psychiatry, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, and author of the forthcoming book High Price. Dr. Hart was featured in the film “The House I Live In” where he discussed his research on the effects of meth on human subjects.
Non-pizza lunch served.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 9, 2013
Eric Zacks has a superb new situationist article, titled “Contracting Blame,” (forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law, Vol. 15, 2012) available for free download on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.
This Article explores the impact of the cognitive biases of judges and juries in the context of contract preparation and execution. From rental car contracts to mortgage forbearance agreements, contract preparers include provisions and formatting characteristics that appear to add little to the material terms or understanding of the agreement. These features, however, make perfect sense if one considers the implications of attribution theory, which is based on our tendency to attribute blame for an event to another’s disposition or personality. We are predisposed to blame the victim, which makes us susceptible to misjudgment when examining another’s actions. This Article makes a novel link between behavioral literature and contract preparation and suggests that contract preparers may be able to manipulate adjudicators’ cognitive biases systematically. Exclusive of the economic bargain, contract provisions can provide attributional ‘clues’ about the contracting context that inform and reassure judicial interpreters that a particular contracting party is more blameworthy than another. For example, multiple signature blocks, boldfaced or highlighted warnings, and recitals depicting a particular version of events all reinforce our tendency to perceive the contracting party as being able to act freely without being influenced by his or her situation. In counterproductive fashion, however, these features are often irrelevant to a party’s decisions in the contracting context. In light of the significant implications of the existence and prospective use of such attributional clues for contract law theory and judgment, this Article proposes a broader contextual and adjudicative focus when contemplating contract law reforms.
Download the article here.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 7, 2013
Infographics on the distribution of wealth in America, highlighting both the inequality and the difference between our perception of inequality and the actual numbers. The reality is often not what we think it is.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 5, 2013
Feeling good about spending money on someone else rather than for personal benefit may be a universal response among people in both impoverished countries and rich nations, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.
“Our findings suggest that the psychological reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts,” said lead author Lara Aknin, PhD, of Simon Fraser University in Canada.
The findings provide the first empirical evidence that “the warm glow” of spending on someone else rather than on oneself may be a widespread component of human psychology, the authors reported in the study published online in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Researchers found a positive relationship between personal well-being and spending on others in 120 of 136 countries covered in the 2006-2008 Gallup World Poll. The survey comprised 234,917 individuals, half of whom were male, with an average age of 38. The link between well-being and spending on others was significant in every region of the world, and it was not affected by other factors among those surveyed, such as income, social support, perceived freedom and perceived national corruption, the study said.
The results were similar in several experiments the researchers themselves conducted with participants in wealthy and poor countries. For one analysis, they compared responses from 820 individuals recruited mostly from universities in Canada and Uganda. The participants wrote about a time they had either spent money on themselves or on others, after which they were asked to report how happy they felt. They were also asked if they spent money on another person to build or strengthen a relationship. People who remembered spending money on someone else felt happier than those who recalled spending money on themselves, even when the researchers controlled for the extent to which people built or strengthened a relationship, according to the study.
The researchers obtained the same results when they conducted an online survey of 101 adults in India. Some respondents were asked to recall recently spending money on themselves or someone else, while others were tested for their happiness level without recalling past spending. Those who recalled spending on someone else said they had a greater feeling of well-being than those who remembered spending on themselves or those who weren’t asked about spending.
In another experiment, 207 university students in Canada and South Africa reported higher levels of well-being after purchasing a goody bag for a sick child rather than buying one for themselves. Both groups went to labs where they were given a small amount of money and told to buy a bag of treats for themselves or one for a child at a local hospital.
“From an evolutionary perspective, the emotional benefits that people experience when they help others acts to encourage generous behavior beneficial to long-term human survival,” said Aknin.
Download the pdf here.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 3, 2013
Mahzarin Banaji shouldn’t have been biased against women. A leading social psychologist — who rose from unlikely circumstances in her native India, where she once dreamed of becoming a secretary — she knew better than most that women were just as cut out for the working world as men.
Then Banaji sat down to take a test. Names of men and women and words associated with “career” and “family” flashed across the computer screen, one after the other. As she tried to sort the words into groups as instructed, she found that she was much faster and more accurate when asked to lump the male names with job-oriented words. It wasn’t what a pathbreaking female scientist would have expected, or hoped, to see.
“I thought to myself: Something is wrong with this damned test,” said Banaji, Harvard’s Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, as she reflected during an interview in her William James Hall office on her first run-in with an Implicit Association Test (I.A.T.).
That Banaji specializes in creating just these kinds of assessments did nothing to change the results. But at least she can take comfort in knowing she’s not alone. In the past 15 years, more than 14 million such tests have been taken at Project Implicit, the website of Banaji and her longtime collaborator Anthony Greenwald.
What these curious test-takers, as well as Banaji and Greenwald, found was that many of us hold onto quite a bit of unconscious bias against all sorts of groups, no matter how unprejudiced we strive to be in our actions and conscious thoughts. It’s a counterintuitive, even unnerving proposition, and one that Banaji and Greenwald, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, set out to explain for a lay audience in “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.”
“This test can get under your skin in some ways,” Banaji said. “There is something annoying about us coming around and telling these good people that something may be less good here.”
But if most of us want to be good — to match our actions to our best intentions — our brains sometimes have other ideas. Just as the human eye has a blind spot in its field of vision, they write, our unconscious minds can contain hidden biases (often toward groups of which we are not a member or with which we are less familiar) that can guide our behavior. Banaji and Greenwald have devoted three decades to developing scientifically sound ways to uncover those biases.
“I’m not a good theoretician. I don’t have great ideas about how minds work or how people behave,” Banaji said, laughing. “But maybe as a result, I’ve focused a lot more on the development and understanding of a method that, if wielded appropriately, would produce evidence that would have to change our minds.”
In “Blindspot,” she and Greenwald offer people tools to overcome their hardwired biases, and to stoke conversation about the deeply ingrained, very human tendency toward bias in a country that prides itself on egalitarian values.
Banaji met Greenwald in the early 1980s at Ohio State University, where Banaji had enrolled to in a Ph.D. program almost on a whim, after picking up a cheap copy of the “Handbook of Social Psychology” in India. The subject seemed to meld science and philosophy, she said.
Until then, “I had no clue that it really was possible to conduct an honest-to-goodness experiment on human nature.”
Greenwald became her graduate adviser and, after she accepted a position at Yale, her collaborator. For years, the two worked together on a number of papers, largely by email. (“Neither of us likes talking on the phone,” Banaji said.)
They developed the I.A.T. in the 1990s at Yale with the help of Brian Nosek, then a graduate student of Banaji and now a professor at the University of Virginia. The simple tests can be taken in roughly 10 minutes and can be modified to assess unconscious bias in different categories, for example, whether white test-takers are likelier to associate “good” words with white faces more quickly than with black faces. (They are, and black test-takers show the reverse results.)
At the time, few psychology studies were conducted online. When the team members launched Project Implicit in 1998, Banaji hoped to garner 500 responses in the first year. With no advertising, they hit 45,000 in the first month. A flood of media attention followed, as did professional controversy.
Many critics were upset by the social implications of learning that humans may be unconscious unegalitarians, Banaji said. “But it’s been great for us to have the criticism. It has led to the work moving much faster. The standards the I.A.T. has been held to have been higher than anything I have seen.”
Banaji is quick to point out that an I.A.T. isn’t meant to shame people. If a patient went to a doctor and took a blood pressure test (which, she adds, is about as reliable as the I.A.T.), and was told he had hypertension, he wouldn’t beat himself up for not having detected it himself. Rather, he’d ask what he steps he could take to improve the situation.
“If somebody asked me what my kidneys are doing right now, I would have no idea,” she said. “Yet, we really do believe that we pretty much know what goes on in our heads. And that’s because we do have access to a piece of it called the conscious mind, and that wrongly gives us the feeling that we know all of it.”
Overcoming our biases, even the unconscious ones we can’t tell are influencing our actions, isn’t about striving for political correctness. In a globalized world, the tools of our primitive brains — the tendency to associate “the Other” with a threat, for instance — can often hold us back.
“When our ancestors met someone who was different from them, their first thought was probably: Are they going to kill me before I can kill them?” Banaji said. “Today, when we see someone who’s totally different from us, we have to ask: Can we outsource to them? Can we collaborate with them? Can we forge a relationship with them and beat somebody who’s genetically just like us? That’s a tall order!”
Though the idea of implicit bias has captured the public’s attention for more than a decade, Greenwald and Banaji did not conceive of a book on the topic until 2004, when both spent a year as fellows at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where Banaji had taken a faculty appointment in 2002. Free from their normal academic obligations and once again in the same town, they began to work on “Blindspot.”
The ideas in “Blindspot” will hardly incite debate among psychologists at this point, Banaji said. Rather, she and Greenwald wrote the book in response to the many requests they received to speak to groups of physicians, business executives, lawyers, and other private-sector professionals who saw how ignoring their unconscious biases — in hiring the best candidates, treating patients of all ages and races, selecting witnesses and jury members — could hurt their bottom line.
Twenty years ago, when Banaji asked her intro-psych students whether they held any biases, 95 percent would say no. Now that number is about one-fifth, she said.
“This recognition that we have failings is, I think, a much more accepted idea — which is why I think the book is not going to be controversial,” Banaji said.
Of course, she added, that’s what happens to many once-incendiary ideas. “They’re criticized; people say they can’t be true. And then over time it becomes common sense. While we’re not quite at the common sense stage, I do think we’re getting there.”
To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. To review many previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin or, for a list of such posts, click here.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 1, 2013
SALMS hosted Ryan Enos at Harvard Law School on October 11, 2012, for a talk entitled “Mitt Romney Is Really, Really Good Looking: Do Attractiveness and Other Trivial Things Affect Elections?” The talk was part of the Mind Sciences & the Election series, which was cosponsored by American Constitution Society, HLS Republicans, HLS Democrats, and the Black Law Students Association. Click the link below to watch the video – enjoy!
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More posts on the situation of politics here.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 27, 2013
By Soledad de Lemus, Russell Spears, & Miguel Moya wrote a terrific post on SPSP Blog about the mystery and meaning of the smile. Here are some excerpts:
We smile when we feel happy, but smiles are more than just the outward display of an inner emotion. We are far more likely to smile when we are with other people because a smile is a message: just one more way for people to communicate information to and establish social ties with other people.
A smile, though, sometimes means more than just “I am happy.” Just as many species bare their teeth to signal their dominance and rank, smiles exchanged among humans serve an interpersonal, regulatory function. In our research we wanted to understand how smiles, which usually serve to signal positive affiliation, also define status in the social hierarchy when the smile is coupled with other nonverbal information (e.g., posture). Specifically, we studied women’s nonverbal reaction to a man’s smile: will she, in addition to smiling back, also display signs of submissiveness, such as downcast eyes or a narrowing posture?
For social psychologists interested in gender, patronizing and paternalistic forms of discrimination have become a key focus of research in recent years. There are good reasons for this. Forms of prejudice and discrimination that are subtle make them more difficult to recognize and resist (Jackman, 1994), and these forms can be expressed more easily. For instance, gender relations are characterized by a power difference between men and women such that the men are considered as more worthy (e.g., as more competent, agentic than women) but women as friendlier, and more socially-oriented than men; attributes that some consider to be important but less valuable in society. Further, gender stereotypes prescribe dominance to men compared to women, who are often expected to behave in a more submissive way to comply with the stereotypes of their group.
Other researchers have diligently explored how behaving in a complementary way in a social interaction helps to maintain positive relations, facilitating achievement of common goals. That is, when people are working together on a task with another person and they want to succeed in this task and also to maintain a positive interpersonal relations, they will often respond to the other person’s behavior in a complementary way. This tendency generates interpersonal complementarity: If one behaves in a dominant manner, the other will be more submissive (or vice versa), as long as there is a positive affiliation between them (e.g., they see each other as friendly and cooperative). These results have been found also when observing the non-verbal behavior of people during interpersonal interactions (Tiedens & Fragale, 2003).
Bringing together these two ideas (the role of power in gender relations, and the existence of complementary behavior in interpersonal relations), we hypothesized that in an affiliative setting—with smiles serving as strong signals of the situation’s positive emotional tone—people will display complementarity: in response to dominant behavior they will become more submissive, especially when gender is salient (i.e. in an intergroup context) providing a gender stereotypic basis for dominance vs. submission. When the context is more competitive (not affiliative –no smiling) the motivation will be to contest (compete with) the dominant behaviour, instead of complementing it.
We tested our hypotheses in three studies recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (de Lemus, Spears, & Moya, 2012).
. . .
Our research supports the argument that certain forms of prejudice and discrimination (sexism) that are subtle (disguised with a smile) make them more difficult to recognize and resist. The other way to frame our findings (perhaps in a more positive tone), is that when the smile is not present, women do seem to challenge male sexist dominance. This is, to some extent, a positive finding in terms of gender equality. We conclude our paper saying that “if women sustain the cycle of sexism unconsciously through their behavior this makes achieving gender equality harder than we might have thought. However, this implies that raising consciousness is literally as well as metaphorically the way forward.”
Read the rest of their post and a summary of their results here.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 25, 2013
This month a team of Yale psychologists released a study indicating that male jurors—but not female jurors—were more likely to hand a guilty verdict to obese women than to slender women. The researchers corralled a group of 471 pretend peers of varying body sizes and described to them a case of check fraud. They also presented them with one of four images—either a large guy, a lean guy, a large woman, or a lean woman—and identified the person in the photograph as the defendant. Participants rated the pretend-defendant’s guilt on a five-point scale. No fat bias emerged when the female pretend peers evaluated the female pretend defendants or when either men or women assessed the guilt of the men. But when the male pretend peers pronounced judgment on the female pretend defendants, BMI prejudice reared up. . . .
The study offers further depressing insights. Not only did the male pretend jurors prove “significantly more likely” to find the obese female defendants—rather than the slim ones—guilty, but the trim male participants were worst of all, frequently labeling the fat women “repeat offenders” with “awareness” of their crimes. And because the effect disappeared when the photographs depicted a man, the hypothesis that subjects were simply layering class-based assumptions—such as “poor people are more often overweight” and “poor people commit more crime”—on top of one another falls a bit short. (On the other hand, as one of the researchers, Dr. Natasha Schvey, explained to me over the phone, fat women are more likely to be perceived as coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than fat men. Somehow I don’t find that consoling.)
“What’s going on?” I asked her. Schvey suggested that stereotypes about obese people paint them as greedy, selfish, and thus prone to defrauding checks.
Read the rest of the article, including the author’s alternative theories here.
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Image from Flickr (by Eric Molinsky).
Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 22, 2013
Voters sometimes cross party lines, but not very often: In U.S. elections, for example, people who label themselves Democrats usually vote for the Democratic candidate and Republicans vote Republican. The recent 2012 election illustrated the power of political affiliation: the Republican candidate Governor Mitt Romney won Wyoming, where Republicans far outnumber Democrats, but President Obama won in places like Vermont, where Democrats are more plentiful than Republicans.
Given the salience and influence of partisanship in the United States, the following fact might surprise some Americans: Democrats and Republicans are the minority in the U.S. According to the 2008 American National Election Studies, the majority of Americans identify as politically Independent. Political independence implies objectivity in political decision making, and a seemingly noble ability to resist partisan influence. Given how influential party membership can be, how do Independents avoid the strong arm of partisan influence? This is the question my collaborator Brian Nosek (http://projectimplicit.net/nosek/) and I sought to understand, the results of which have recently been published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Political scientists have a long history of empirical investigation of political independence, and this research has revealed that most Independents, when pressed, will admit that they lean toward the Democratic or Republicans parties, and this ‘leaning’ party membership predicts their voting patterns quite well (Keith et al., 1992). Independents who lean toward the Democratic Party behave similarly to Democrats and Independents who lean toward the Republican Party behave similarly to Republicans. However, a full third of Independents, who are termed ‘Pure’ Independents, do not report leaning toward either party – even when pressed, they maintain their Independent identity.
Recent social psychological research utilizing implicit measurement, which uses reaction time to gauge the strength of associations between concepts in the mind without requiring direct report of these associations, has shown that undecided voters demonstrate implicit preferences for candidates or political parties. Even though these undecided voters are unable – or unwilling – to report their explicit political preferences, these implicit measures reveal a preference that predicts their later voting patterns (e.g., Arcuri, Castelli, Galdi, Zogmaister, & Amadori, 2008).
Given this evidence from political science and social psychology, we wondered whether Independents might implicitly identify with Democrats or Republicans, even if they aren’t willing or able to report that they lean toward either party. On our virtual laboratory Project Implicit (https://implicit.harvard.edu/), we administered a political party Implicit Association Test, which required participants to quickly sort words representing ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ and words representing ‘Self’ and ‘Other.’ Participants who sort ‘Democrats’ with ‘Self’ faster than they sort ‘Republicans’ with ‘Self’ are termed ‘implicitly Democratic,’ whereas participants who sort ‘Republicans’ and ‘Self’ faster are termed ‘implicitly Republican.’ Independents were distributed across the spectrum – some implicitly identified as Democratic, some as Republican, and some showed no differences in implicit self-association between the parties.
Demonstrating that Independents implicitly identify as Democratic or Republican when they do not report this information is of value to basic science. It illustrates that people may have group allegiances with related preferences and beliefs that they either do not know they have, or are not readily willing to admit that they have. However, the real interesting – and practical – question is whether these implicit identities predict actual political decisions. To test this, we had participants read about two welfare policies – one stringent and one generous – and manipulated what party proposed what policy (Cohen, 2003). Half the participants saw Democrats propose the generous policy and Republicans propose the stringent policy, and the other half saw Democrats propose the stringent policy and Republicans propose the generous policy. Partisans preferred the policy that was proposed by their party, and for the most part, Independents resembled partisans – Independents who demonstrated implicit Democratic identities liked the plan proposed by Democrats and Independents who demonstrated implicit Republican identities liked the plan proposed by Republicans. Though Independents report nonpartisan political identities, many demonstrate implicit party identities, and these predict their political judgments along party lines.
Given that many Independents seem to fall into the Democratic or Republican camp and are influenced by these party inclinations, why identify as Independent? To find out, we simply asked. We formulated a list of 35 reasons why someone might identify as Independent, and asked Independents who visited Project Implicit how much they agreed with each reason. The most commonly endorsed reasons centered around a theme of self-objectivity, and included items such as “I prefer to think for myself rather than feel like I need to support a party line” and “I say ‘independent’ because I come to my political positions by thinking objectively.” From this, we gather that Independents may choose these political identities because they think of themselves as objective political decision makers, or perhaps want to think of themselves in this way. However, their implicit party identities and party-influenced political judgments tell a different story. In politics, as in so many areas of our lives, who we are and who we say we are is not necessarily the same thing.
The American National Election Studies Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior. (2010). Party identification 7-point scale 1952-2004. Stanford University and the University of Michigan [producers and distributors]. Available from http://www.electionstudies.org
Arcuri, L., Castelli, L., Galdi, S., Zogmaister, C., & Amadori, A. (2008). Predicting the vote: Implicit attitudes as predictors of the future behavior of decided and undecided voters. Political Psychology, 29, 369-387.
Cohen, G. L. (2003). Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 808-822.
Keith, B. E., Magleby, D. B., Nelson, C. J., Orr, E., Westlye, M. C., & Wolfinger, R. E. (1992). The myth of the independent voter. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 20, 2013
From SPSP Press Release:
Giving away money to feel wealthy
New research shows that people all around the world – from Canada to Uganda, from South Africa to India – derive more happiness from spending money on others than they do on themselves.
For the first time, we show that giving away money or spending it on others confers the ironic psychological benefit of increasing the giver’s sense of wealth,” says Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and co-author with Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia of the upcoming book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. In a suite of new, not-yet published, studies, Norton and colleagues showed that charitable giving makes people feel wealthier.
This research follows on other recent work published in Psychological Science by Norton and colleagues that shows that giving time to others – from helping with homework to shoveling a neighbors’ driveway – actually makes people feel that they have more time. “In fact, giving time away alleviates people’s sense of time famine even more than receiving unexpected windfalls of free time.”
That people feel wealthier from spending money on others may explain why poor individuals tend to give away a higher fraction of their income than members of the middle class do. In one study, researchers reported that Americans earning less than $20,000 a year give a higher percentage of their income to charity than others earning up to $300,000 a year.
“Our results suggest when the poor give money away, that very act might mitigate their feelings of poverty,” Norton says. “More broadly than this specific benefit, our investigation contributes to the growing body of research documenting the benefits of prosocial behavior, which include greater happiness, reduced mortality, and better immune function.”
Buying experiences to feel happy
In related research, psychologists are finding that spending money on experiential purchases, such as vacations, concerts, and meals out, tends to bring us more happiness than material purchases, such as clothing, jewelry, or electronic gadgets. Amit Kumar and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University are investigating one potential explanation for this difference: that experiences prompt storytelling more than possessions do.
In new research, they asked participants to recall either a significant experiential purchase or a significant material purchase. They then asked them how much they had talked about the purchase they recalled, and questions related to the satisfaction they derived from their purchase. Participants rated a higher satisfaction for experiences than for possessions, which was because they were more likely to talk about the experiences with other people.
In another experiment, the researchers measured what happens when people cannot talk about their purchases. They asked participants if they would be willing to pay a price to be able to talk about a beach vacation (experiential purchase) or an electronic good (material purchase). “Participants were more likely to switch from a better purchase that they could not talk about to a lesser purchase that they could talk about in the experiential condition than in the material one,” Kumar says.
“Well-being is likely to be enhanced by shifting the balance of spending in our consumer society away from material goods and towards experiential ones,” Kumar says. “This research also suggests that there are benefits to be had not only by nudging people to choose experiences over possessions, but also by encouraging people to share stories about their experiences.”
Knowing what is best to help others
The roots for how we give to others form at a very young age. Children, it turns out, are very sophisticated givers – not only coming to someone’s aid when needed but also coming up with the best strategy for doing so, often independent of an adult’s instruction.
In new research, Kristina Olson of Yale University and Alia Martin have found that children often will act, thinking they know better than others what is best for them or others. In a series of experiments, the researchers investigate whether 3-year-old children will help someone by ignoring the specific request and instead offering a better alternative.
In one study, for example, when an experimenter asks the child for a specific marker, but the child knows that marker does not work, the child will instead offer up a better marker. In another study, a pre-recorded child asks the child participant to give her a piece of chocolate via a tube that supposedly connects them. If the participant knows that chocolate makes the other child sick, the participant will decide to give her fruit snacks instead.
“Perhaps most provocatively, children will selectively decide not to help in this way if they don’t like the person,” Olson says. “For example, if an experimenter has previously been mean, children won’t warn the adult of a potential harm – such as something sharp in the container they are reaching in – but will if the experimenter was not mean.”
“These results suggest that children are able to help adults and peers already by the preschool years in rather complex ways, even when the beneficiary is misguided about what he or she wants,” Olson says. “Children don’t just blindly do as they are requested, but rather consider a person’s goal and consider alternative possible ways to achieve that goal.”
Read the entire press release here.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 18, 2013
From Carnegie Mellon:
When faced with a difficult decision, it is often suggested to “sleep on it” or take a break from thinking about the decision in order to gain clarity.
But new brain imaging research from Carnegie Mellon University, published in the journal “Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience,” finds that the brain regions responsible for making decisions continue to be active even when the conscious brain is distracted with a different task. The research provides some of the first evidence showing how the brain unconsciously processes decision information in ways that lead to improved decision-making.
“This research begins to chip away at the mystery of our unconscious brains and decision-making,” said J. David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory. “It shows that brain regions important for decision-making remain active even while our brains may be simultaneously engaged in unrelated tasks, such as thinking about a math problem. What’s most intriguing about this finding is that participants did not have any awareness that their brains were still working on the decision problem while they were engaged in an unrelated task.”
For the study, Creswell, recent CMU graduate James K. Bursley and Northeastern University’s Ajay B. Satpute presented 27 healthy adults with information about cars and other items while undergoing neuroimaging. Then, before being asked to make decisions about the items, the participants had to complete a difficult distractor task — memorizing sequences of numbers — to prevent them from consciously thinking about the decision information.
The results included three main findings. First, the team confirmed previous research demonstrating that a brief period of distraction — in this case two minutes — produced higher quality decisions about the cars and other items. But did this effect occur because the distraction period provided an opportunity for the brain to take a break from decision-making and then return to the problem with a fresh look? Or alternatively, does the brain continue to unconsciously process decision information during this distraction period? This research supports the latter unconscious processing explanation.
When the participants were initially learning information about the cars and other items, the neuroimaging results showed activation in the visual and prefrontal cortices, regions that are known to be responsible for learning and decision-making. Additionally, during the distractor task, both the visual and prefrontal cortices continued to be active — or reactivated — even though the brain was consciously focused on number memorization.
Third, the results showed that the amount of reactivation within the visual and prefrontal cortices during the distractor task predicted the degree to which participants made better decisions, such as picking the best car in the set.
“We all face difficult problems we need to solve on a regular basis,” Creswell said. “Whether it’s buying a new car, finding a new apartment to rent, or seeking out a new dating partner on social networking sites. This study provides some of the first clues for how our brains process this information for effective problem-solving and decision-making.”
Bursley (DC’12), who joined CMU’s Health and Human Performance Laboratory as a freshman, spent his undergraduate career working on this research and related studies. To support his work, he received a Small Undergraduate Research Grant (SURG) and Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). Bursley also received a Rothberg Research Award in Human Brain Imaging, made possible by Carnegie Mellon alumnus and trustee Jonathan M. Rothberg (E’85), founder of four genetics companies aimed at improving human health.
“Carnegie Mellon was the perfect place to carry out this work because there’s a significant focus here on pursuing new directions in mind-brain research,” Bursley said. “This study is really a starting point. We also are using brain imaging to see if we find the same reactivation patterns in learning tasks that we saw here in decision-making.”
CMU’s Department of Psychology has helped to establish Carnegie Mellon as a world leader in brain sciences. The university recently launched a Brain, Mind and Learning initiative to build from its research excellence in psychology, computer science and computation to continue to solve real-world problems.
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 14, 2013
Related Situationist posts:
To review all of the previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin, or, for a list of such posts, click here.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 12, 2013
HLS students, if you’re interested in the work of SALMS and want to be more involved over the next year, the current SALMS board will be selecting new officers this month. To apply, please send us your responses to the following:
1) Name, class year
2) Position(s) applying for (President, VP/Treasurer, Speakers Chair, Communications Chair)
3) Paragraph on why you are interested in and qualified for this/these position/s
4) Description of your past involvement with SALMS
5) What you would like to see SALMS do in the future
Please send your application to rmatte[at]jd14.law.harvard.edu (replace “[at]” with “@”) by Wednesday, February 13.
President: The President oversees all facets of the organization. This year, one part of the President’s role has been to organize and lead the Writer’s Workshop events. The President also works to facilitate cosponsorships and communicates with applying and admitted students, relaying to them the benefits of our organization and other exciting things at HLS.
Vice President/Treasurer: The VP/Treasurer is probably the most open position on the board. It is the most time intensive in spring semester, since the Treasurer is responsible for submitting the budget application for the following year. The outgoing Treasurer will work with the new Treasurer in March & April to get that done based on her experience last year, but it requires advocacy and an explanation of new ideas. Following the budget (which is very important for the scope of SALMS), there are no set responsibilities for the VP/Treasurer other than monitoring the budget. This position provides leeway for interested persons to establish new ideas and programs for the SALMS community, which this year included a speaker series based around the election. The VP/Treasurer is expected to assist the other board members with their responsibilities and making sure the lunch talks proceed smoothly. This position requires a little bit of creativity for new events and a great attention to detail to ensure the budget is done properly and is expanded for the following year.
Speakers Selection Chair: The Speakers Selection Chair is responsible for shaping, organizing, and coordinating the SALMS speakers series. The Chair brainstorms a variety of potential guests to invite (with input from the SALMS community), communicates with the speakers, and creates a diverse program for the academic year. The Chair will also be generally responsible for ordering food, booking rooms, and requesting media services for each speaker event.
Communications & Online Chair: The Communications & Online Chair sends out all emails to the SALMS listserv and adds SALMS events to the HLS events calendar. He/she is also responsible for updating the website (previous WordPress experience is desired). This year, the Communications Chair will also coordinate SALMS efforts to contribute content to Professor Jon Hanson’s website, The Situationist.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 10, 2013
From UC Berkeley Press:
When it comes to climate change, deforestation and toxic waste, the assumption has been that conservative views on these topics are intractable. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that such viewpoints can be changed after all, when the messages about the need to be better stewards of the land are couched in terms of fending off threats to the “purity” and “sanctity” of Earth and our bodies.
A UC Berkeley study has found that while people who identified themselves as conservatives tend to be less concerned about the environment than their liberal counterparts, their motivation increased significantly when they read articles that stressed the need to “protect the purity of the environment” and were shown such repellant images as a person drinking dirty water, a forest filled with garbage, and a city under a cloud of smog.
Published today (Dec. 10) in the online issue of the journal Psychological Science, the findings indicate that reframing pro-environmental rhetoric according to values that resonate strongly with conservatives can reduce partisan polarization on ecological matters.
“These findings offer the prospect of pro-environmental persuasion across party lines,” said Robb Willer, a UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of the study. “Reaching out to conservatives in a respectful and persuasive way is critical, because large numbers of Americans will need to support significant environment reforms if we are going to deal effectively with climate change, in particular.”
Researchers conducted a content analysis of more than 200 op-eds published in such newspapers as The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, and found the pro-environmental arguments were most often pitched in terms of moral obligations to care about the natural environment and protect it from harm, a theme that resonates more powerfully with liberals, they added, than with conservatives.
They hypothesized that conservatives would be more responsive to environmental arguments focused on such principles as purity, patriotism and reverence for a higher authority. In their study, the authors specifically tested the effectiveness of arguments for protecting the purity of the environment. They said the results suggest they were on the right track:
“When individuals view protecting the environment as a moral issue, they are more likely to recycle and support government legislation to curb carbon emissions,” said Matthew Feinberg, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Stanford University and lead author of the study which he conducted while at UC Berkeley.
Scientific consensus on the existence of warming global land and ocean temperatures – attributed in large part to human activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions – continues to grow and influence public opinion, especially with such extreme weather events as Hurricane Sandy. A recent Rasmussen poll reported that 68 percent of Americans view climate change as a “serious problem,” compared to a 2010 Gallup poll in which 48 percent of Americans said they thought global warming was exaggerated.
In the first experiment, 187 men and women recruited via several U.S. Craigslist websites rated their political ideology on a scale of “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.” They then rated the morality of such activities as recycling a water bottle versus throwing it in the garbage. The results of that experiment, and a similar one conducted on 476 college undergraduates, showed that liberals are more prone to viewing sustainability as a moral issue than are conservatives.
Next, researchers conducted a content analysis of pro-environmental videos on YouTube and more than 200 op-eds in national newspapers, sorting them under the themes of “harm/care,” which they expected to resonate more with liberals, and “purity/sanctity,” which they predicted would appeal more to conservatives. They found that most pro-environmental messages leaned strongly toward liberal moral concerns.
In the last experiment, 308 men and women, again recruited via Craigslist, were randomly assigned to read one of three articles. The harm/care-themed article described the destruction wreaked on the environment by humans and pitched protection of the environment as a moral obligation. Images accompanying the text were of a forest with tree stumps, a barren coral reef and drought-cracked land, which are more typical of the visuals promoted by pro-environmental groups.
The purity/sanctity-themed article stressed how pollution has contaminated Earth and people’s bodies, and argued for cleaning up and purifying the environment. To enhance those themes and elicit disgust, the accompanying images showed a person drinking filthy water, a city under a cloud of pollution and a forest full of garbage. The neutral article talked about the history of neckties.
Participants were then asked to rate how strongly they felt certain emotions, including disgust, in response to what they’d read. Next, they reported how strongly they agreed or disagreed with such statements as “It is important to protect the environment,” “I would support government legislation aimed at protecting the environment” and ‘I believe humans are causing global warming.”
Overall, the study found that the purity-themed message inspired conservatives to feel higher levels of disgust, which in turn increased their support for protecting the environment.
Sample of related Situationist posts:
Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 5, 2013
On Wednesday, Feb. 6, scholars from across Harvard University will join social media experts from Facebook, Twitter, Socialflow and Microsoft Research, for a conference on social media, theory and practice, and its potential effects on voting behavior, electricity consumption, pro-social behavior and privacy.
The event, “Social Media and Behavioral Economics Conference,” sponsored by Harvard Law School’s new Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy, will be held at Harvard Law School’s Wasserstein Hall.
The event is free and open to the public and will also be webcast live, beginning at 9 a.m. on the day of the conference.
Wednesday, February 6, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Wasserstein Hall 2019 (Milstein West AB)
1585 Massachusetts Avenue
Harvard Law School
Cass Sunstein, Professor, Harvard Law School
Moderator: Yochai Benkler, Professor, Harvard Law School, and Faculty Co-Director, Berkman Center for Internet and Society
Eytan Bakshy, Data Scientist, Facebook
Sendhil Mullainathan, Professor of Economics, Harvard University
Sharad Goel, Senior Researcher, Microsoft Research
Gilad Lotan, VP of Research and Development, Socialflow
Moderator: David Laibson, Professor of Economics, Harvard University
Sarah Feinberg, Director of Corporate Communications, Facebook
Andy Cameron, Associate Professor of Surgery and Surgical Director of Liver Transplantation, Johns Hopkins University
Michael Sachse, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and General Counsel, Opower
Moderator: Cass Sunstein, Professor, Harvard Law School
Jonathan Zittrain, Professor, Harvard Law School, and Faculty Co-Director, Berkman Center for Internet and Society
Mike Luca, Assistant Professor, Harvard Business School
Elliot Schrage, Vice President, Communications and Public Policy, Facebook
Alex Macgillivray, General Counsel, Twitter
Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 3, 2013
This post (authored by Adam Benforado) was originally published on February 4, 2007.
As I stake out my position on the couch this evening – close enough to reach the pretzels and my beer, but with an optimal view of the TV – it will be nice to imagine that the spectacle about to unfold is a sporting event.It shouldn’t be too hard: after all, there on the screen will be the field, Brian Urlacher stretching out his quads, Peyton Manning tossing a football, referees in their freshly-starched zebra uniforms milling about.Yes, I’ll think to myself, this has all the makings of a football game.
The Super Bowl isn’t about sports; it’s about making money.And with 90 million or so viewers, there is a lot of money to be made.
With CBS charging an estimated $2.6 million for each 30-second advertising spot, it’s no surprise that corporations don’t mess around with guessing what the most effective approach will be for selling their products.They call in the scientists.
For the second year in a row, FKF Applied Research has partnered with the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, to “measure the effect of many of the Super Bowl ads by using fMRI technology.”The research involves “track[ing] the ads on a host of dimensions by looking for activity in key parts of the brain areas that are known to be involved in wanting, choosing, sexual arousal, fear, indecision and reward.”As the FKF website explains, why this research is useful to Fortune 100 companies is that it
shows clearly that what people say in focus groups and in response to poll questions is not what they actually think, feel and do. fMRI scans using our analytical methods allow us to see beyond self report and to understand the emotions and thoughts that are driving (or impeding) behavior.
Looking beyond the spoken word provides immense and actionable insights into a brand, a competitive framework, advertising and visual images and cues.
As it turns out, “brand” lives in a particular place in the human brain:
[W]hen [FKF] did an academic study on the impact of iconic brands, such as Pepsi and Coke and McDonalds, [they] found that the same part of the brain lit up over images of sports logos – say, for the NBA or NFL. There is a clear connection in the human brain between the anticipation of eating that you get from, say, the Coke logo and with the NBA logo.
For someone like me, who has always wondered why I feel so hungry reading the sports page, this is interesting stuff.For a corporate CEO, this is extremely interesting – and actionable – stuff.For everyone else . . . this is a reason to be concerned.
Corporations are using science to figure out how our brains work so they can sell more products and what they are finding is that our brains don’t work the way we think they do.
Anticipating this worry, FKF has an Ethics tab on its website:
We are committed to the highest level of ethical behavior in conducting our work. We are determined to be diligent in carving out a new field, and being a leader and advocate in ensuring the best interests of our subjects, the public, and our clients are protected. . . . We believe that wide dissemination about how people make decisions will empower all concerned – both consumers and purveyors of information. Such information, freely discussed in a democracy, will allow us to understand better how marketing is affecting us, discredit manipulation, promote communication, and help illuminate a process that fundamentally shapes the lives of human beings.
Sounds good – in fact, it sounds like situationism, and I have no reason to think that the founders of FKF, or the university scientists with whom they work, aren’t upstanding citizens with good moral compasses.It’s just that I’m still uneasy.
Corporations don’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to learning counterintuitive information about human decision making and then using it responsibly.Rather, the best approach for maximizing shareholder profit is to discover some seemingly-illogical detail about the human brain, use that knowledge to sell more widgets, and then convince the public that their naïve (and incorrect) beliefs about how they make choices are, in fact, correct.
Take big tobacco: as Jon Hanson and others have documented, after figuring out that nicotine was addictive and could compel people to buy Marlboros, cigarette companies made a concerted effort to both up nicotine concentrations in their products and convince people, through advertising, that they were rational actors who were not easily manipulated.From the perspective of an entity that is charged, through our legal rules, with making money (and not with doing social good), it makes little sense to alter peoples’ situations to get them to be better consumers and then tell them that you are doing it and that it matters.
Why, that would be as silly as announcing a weak-side blitz to the quarterback before the play.Sure, it would be the nice, ethical thing to warn decent gentlemen like Manning and Rex Grossman of the imminent threat, but it’s not part of the game we’ve developed.Football is a game where you can get blind-sided.
As corporations and our brains make certain, so is watching football.
* * *
(To read about the results of a brain-scan study of men and women watching the 2006 Super Bowl by UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacobini, click here. To listen to a recent one-hour NPR (On Point) program on “The Changing World of Advertising,” click here.)