The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘John Edwards’

The Stone-Age Mind in an Information-Age Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 28, 2008

From Shankar Vedantam’s Washington Post article “Why Fluff-Over-Substance Makes Perfect Evolutionary Sense“:

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Consider these scenarios.

Scandal A: A prominent politician gets caught sleeping with a campaign aide and plunges himself into an ugly paternity dispute — all while his cancer-stricken wife is fighting for her life.

Scandal B: A prominent politician’s signature health-care plan turns out to have been put together badly, and he is forced to confess that the plan will cost taxpayers billions more than expected.

It’s a no-brainer which scandal is likely to catch — and keep — our attention. The interesting question as the presidential election heads into the homestretch is why we care more about some stories that do not affect us directly, even as we tune out other stories that do.

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. . . . Why are we more likely to discuss a gossipy rumor at a party than a policy error that can actually make a material difference to our own lives?

One explanation is that cultural mores attune us to certain stories — we live in an era where gossipy scandals rule. To test this, psychologist Hank Davis at the University of Guelph in Ontario examined hundreds of sensational stories on the front pages of newspapers in eight countries over a 300-year period, from 1701 to 2001.

Remarkably, he concluded that the themes of sensational news were identical not only across the centuries but also in diverse geographic locales — from the United States to Bangladesh, from Canada to Mauritius. . . .

The stories were sometimes about important things and sometimes not, but they nearly always involved the kind of themes that people who are part of small groups like to know about one another: lying and cheating, altruism and heroism, loyalty and disloyalty.

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Davis and other evolutionary psychologists argue that the reason John Edwards’s adultery has more zing in our heads than a dry policy dispute that could cost taxpayers billions of dollars is that the human brain evolved in a period where there were significant survival advantages to finding out the secrets of others. Since humans lived in small groups, the things you learned about other people’s character could tell you whom to trust when you were in a tight spot.

“We are continuing to navigate through the modern world with a Stone Age mind,” Davis said.

In the Pleistocene era, he added, there was no survival value in being able to decipher a health-care initiative, but there was significant value in information about “who needs a favor, who is in a position to offer one, who is trustworthy, who is a liar, who is available sexually, who is under the protection of a jealous partner, who is likely to abandon a family, who poses a threat to us.”

We may consciously know that we are no longer living in small hunter-gatherer groups and that it no longer makes sense to evaluate someone like Edwards as we might a friend or intimate partner, but our reptilian brain doesn’t realize this. Our prefrontal cortex might reason that a man who cheats on his wife while she is fighting cancer could make a perfectly fine president in a complex world, but the visceral distaste people feel about Edwards stems from there being an ancient part of the human brain that says, “Gee, I don’t want to get mixed up with this guy, because even in my hour of greatest need I might not be able to count on him,” said Frank T. McAndrew, an evolutionary social psychologist at Knox College in Illinois.

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“The human brain does not have any special module for evaluating welfare policy or immigration policy, but it has modules for evaluating people on the basis of character,” said Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics. “That is probably why we have this gut reaction to affairs and marriages and lying. All of those things existed in the ancestral environment 100,000 years ago.”

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To read more, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” “Seeing Faces,” and “The Situation of Kissing.”

Posted in Emotions, Life, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, and Now John Edwards: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on August 9, 2008

Last summer we published the post below in response to the sex scandal du jour involving David Vitter. In March we republished it in the wake of Eliot Spitzer’s remarkable “indiscretions.” The latest John Edwards confession had us dusting off this post yet again. (We have little doubt that we’ll be posting it again, which is part of our point.)

The Vitter story has much in common with the most recent scandal to titillate, enrage, and otherwise occupy the press and the public. We’ve republished the Vitter post below, and leave it to our readers to assess its relevance for the John Edwards scandal.

* * *

David and Wendy VitterSenator David Vitter achieved much of his success by professing steadfast allegiance to “traditional family values” and punitive intolerance for those who violate them. Consider, for instance, his campaign statement on protecting the “sanctity of marriage”:

This is a real outrage. The Hollywood left is redefining the most basic institution in human history, and our two U.S. Senators won’t do anything about it. We need a U.S. Senator who will stand up for Louisiana values, not Massachusetts’s values. I am the only Senate Candidate to coauthor the Federal Marriage Amendment; the only one fighting for its passage. I am the only candidate proposing changes to the senate rules to stop liberal obstructionists from preventing an up or down vote on issues like this, judges, energy, and on and on.

Similarly, Vitter once told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that “infidelity, divorce, and deadbeat dads contribute to the breakdown of traditional families.” That’s extraordinarily serious, says Vitter, because “marriage is truly the most fundamental social institution in human history.”

In part because of his squeaky-clean, straight-arrow, red-state-values image, Rudolph Giuliani selected Vitter as his Southern campaign chairperson. Vitter was to be the personifying proof that social conservatives could trust Giuliani. Vitter was even seen by some Republicans as a future presidential candidate himself.

As recent revelations make clear, Vitter was more committed to family values in his preaching than in his practicing. According to CBS News:Deborah Palfrey

On Monday, Vitter acknowledged being involved with the so-called D.C. Madam [Deborah Palfrey], hours after Hustler magazine told him his telephone number was among those she disclosed. A day later, new revelations linked him to a former madam in New Orleans [Jeanette Maier] and old allegations that he frequented a former prostitute resurfaced, further clouding his political future.

Vitter’s apology read as follows: “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling.”

With his public admission coming only after tJeanette Maier by Alex Brandon for APhe his dirty laundry was about to be aired publicly, Vitter comes off looking like quite the scoundrel. Many commentators see him, not simply as unfaithful to his family but, worse, hypocritical regarding his purported family values.

We Americans like to see people in terms of their dispositions, and we despise those who pretend to have one disposition when in fact they have another. We can’t stand hypocrites! And Vitter is nothing if not a hypocrite.

Although we share the indignation, there are two related problems with this reaction. First off, it misses the fact that, in important ways, most of us are hypocrites.

Surely many of our leaders are. Prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to preach fidelity while practicing “philandery.” Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich are good examples of the political balance. Moreover, “sinning against God” seems all too common even among the anointed — from Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker to untold numbers of Catholic Priests.

clinton-cartoon.jpg

In all cases, the critics relish the opportunity to point to the flaws of their opponents. And, true to form, it seems that no one in this case is eager to attribute blame or responsibility to anyone other than Vitter — and everyone sees his use of “escorts” as a reflection of nothing other than his true disposition. As we’ve suggested, most commentators, and particularly those who are not close to him politically, portray him as a hypocrite. But even politicians closer to him are noticeably dispositionist in their reactions.

Rudolph Giuliani, for instance, responded to questions about his Southern campaign chairperson by emphasizing that the revelations reflected something about Vitter, butRudy Giuliani Judith Nathan David Vitter nothing about Giuliani: “Some people are flawed.” “I think you look at all the people I appointed — a thousand or so – sure, some of them had issues, some of them had problems, the vast majority of them were outstanding people.” The implication is that Vitter is among the minority of Giuliani appointees who are flawed and are not “outstanding people.”

It’s a strange distinction coming from Giuliani, who, if the measure is adultery, seems similarly “flawed” and less than “outstanding.” There is, in other words, hypocrisy among those who seek to distance themselves from this hypocrite.

Many of us, upon close examination might discover a similar tension. American attitudes toward adultery are sort of like American attitudes toward unhealthy, highly-caloric food. We claim to not want that “junk,” and sometimes manage to avoid it; still, most of us find ourselves eating something we wish we hadn’t from time to time — perhaps most of the time. In America, we curse our cake and eat it too. And also in America, we blame the obesity epidemic on the bad choices and dispositions of the obese.

Poll Americans and you’re likely to find that roughly 90 percent believe adultery is morally wrong. Meanwhile, ask Americas about whether they have engaged in an extramarital affair, and you’ll discover that many more than 10 percent have. In fact, according to one study, 25 percent of wives and 44 percent of husbands have extramarital intercourse. In other words, there seems to be a gap between what many people say is Marital Problemsmorally wrong and what many people do.

There’s another way of illustrating how we overestimate our own sexual righteousness. Numerous studies have shown that people are far less able to act according to their own explicit attitudes, goals, and standards when confronted with fairly intense drive states such as hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, moods, emotions, physical pain and sexual desire. According to George Loewenstein, such “visceral factors” tend to “crowd out” all goals other than that of mitigating the visceral factors themselves. As summarized elsewhere:

If you find that difficult to understand, try holding your breath for two minutes or dropping an anvil on your toe, and see what significance your other goals and attitudes have in your behavior before the pain subsides.

Of course, responding to such intense bodily reactions makes perfect sense and is not, in itself, problematic. People should prioritize the acquisition of oxygen when it is scarce. And people should attend to their acute injuries before checking to make sure the anvil is ok. The problem stems from the fact that people often behave, in response to visceral cues, in ways that contradict their view of how they should behave, and sometimes even their own volition. And that problem occurs, according to Loewenstein, because of the second key feature of visceral factors, which is that “people underestimate the impact on their own behavior of visceral factors they will experience in the future”: “Unlike currently experienced visceral factors which have a disproportionate impact on behavior, delayed visceral factors tend to be ignored or to be severely underweighted in decision making. Today’s pain, hunger, anger, and so on are palpable, but the same sensations anticipated in the future receive little weight.”

In one experiment, for example, two groups of male subjects were shown photographs and then asked to imagine how they would behave in the context of a date-rape scenario. The group that had been shown sexually arousing photographs reported a much greater likelihood of behaving aggressively than the group that had been shown non-arousing photos. Without being aroused by the photographs, the second group seemed less able to imagine what they would do when aroused on a date.

There is plenty more evidence we could offer to make this point, but more details are unnecessary. Our goal is not to excuse Vitter’s behavior or justify Vitter’s policy positions (at least some of which, frankly, make us proud to be from Massachusetts). Instead, we hope simply to suggest that few of us are without similar “flaws” — or put differently, none of us are moved solely by disposition, much less our professed values.

And that brings us to a larger point. The human tendency to see hypocrisy will often reflect the fundamental attribution error — the tendency to overestimate the influence of a person’s disposition and to underestimate the influence of his situation — as well as our own motivations to see hypocrisy in the “others” that we would not be motivated to see in ourselves or in our in-groups.

Situations commonly lead us to behave in ways that are inconsistent with our expectations, ambitions, attitudes, principles, and self-image. A basic lesson of social psychology and related fields is that, just as the spirit is often weaker than the flesh, the disposition is often weaker than the situation.

By attacking Vitter’s disposition, many of his critics may be missing an opportunity to make a bigger point to the sorts of conservative politicians who Vitter typifies. It is the hard-core conservatives who too much of the time are attributing solely to people’s disposition what should be attributed significantly to the their situation. “Tough on crime,” for instance, means “tough on criminals,” not tough on the situations that tend to produce criminal behavior. “Personal responsibility” means attributing personal bankruptcies to the flawed choices of those declaring bankruptcy and disregarding, say, the unexpected medical costs or layoffs experienced by families trying to make ends meet. “Common sense” means blaming the obesity epidemic on the laziness and bad food choices on the part of the obese and dismissing any role that situational forces might have played. And so on.

Bill O’Reilly and Homelessness

We want to see sinister motives and evil intent in our enemies, just as we are subconsciously eager to see deficient character or lack of merit in those who are worse of than ourselves. Too often, though, the distinctions between “us” and “them” are more or less group- and system-affirming fabrications.

Instead of leaping at the opportunity to paint politician after politician after politician with the brush of hypocrisy, perhaps these instances might be used as teaching tools — examples to the Vitters of the world that although the disposition may be strong, the situation is often stronger. If we could stop pretending that people’s behavior and their condition in life is a product solely of their character or preferences, then perhaps we could begin to have more meaningful debates about topics that really matter.

Put differently, the dispositionist search for bad apples and hypocrites harmfully eclipses a deeper discussion that we could be having if we were to acknowledge the extent to which we are all situational characters rather than dispositional actors. With a different mindset, perhaps citizens and politicians would begin to take seriously ways of examining and altering the situation that is otherwise altering us.

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For some Situationist posts on the power, causes, and consequences of sexual attraction and love, go to “The Situation of Love,” Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “The Situation of Cupid’s Arrow,” “How System Threat Affects Cupid,” and “The Situation of Flirting.”

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

On Being a Mindful Voter

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 3, 2008

Our intense scrutiny of the presidential candidates has produced a relentless stream of questions, some thoughtful and relevant, others spectacularly irrelevant and even embarrassing: Why are you not more likable, Hillary? How good a Christian can he be with the name Hussein?

With our focus solely on the candidates, however, we have neglected to examine the other powerful determinant of the election: the state of our own minds. And yet we know that the voter’s mind, the very thing doing the questioning, probing and judging, is itself prone to limitations no less profound than those of the candidates themselves.

Keeping one’s own mind “in mind” and being aware of its limitations is the first step toward making a conscious choice of who is best for us, the country and the world.

Human minds have a remarkable capability for self-reflection — the envy of every chimpanzee. This fanciest bell and whistle of the brain bestows on us the ability to consciously look into our own mind, recognize its contents, report on it and even change it.

As remarkable as this ability is, however, it tends to mask the fact that we are nonetheless unaware of the vast majority of our minds’ work.

It keeps us from knowing, and therefore from accepting, that the reasons we offer for our choices may not actually be driving those choices. This blindness should not be underestimated, because it is always accompanied by an insidious if honest denial of facts.

The mind sciences tell us much about the invisible mental gymnastics that end up dictating what we like and dislike, what we believe to be true and not, what drives us toward particular people and their ideologies.

My colleagues and I have posed two kinds of questions to understand these two sides of the mind, the conscious and the less conscious. Measuring the conscious side is familiar, tried and true. In the context of race, we ask, “Whom do you like? Whom will you vote for? Why?”

The other question is not only unfamiliar, it isn’t a question at all. To measure race preferences that may be less conscious, we measure the speed and accuracy of the mind at work. How quickly and how accurately do we — can we — perform the simple task of associating black and white with both good and bad? In the gender case, do we associate female or male more easily with “commander-in-chief”?

Such tests do not seek a reasoned answer but an automatic one, a response we form without “thinking.” From such responses we can derive an estimate of our less-conscious likes and dislikes, called automatic preferences. If the results of the two tests agree; that is, if you say you prefer black and you show the same level of preference for black on the automatic test, the two are boringly consistent.

But in ordinary people like me, we often don’t see consistency. Rather we see disparities between what we say and what we reveal. I, for example, report a seemingly genuine attitude of equal liking for black and white, but the automatic test reveals that I have a preference for white over black (as do the majority of whites and Asians in the United States and at least a third of African-Americans). Likewise, although I might express and even have an automatic preference for women, I struggle more than I’d like when I am asked to associate “female” with commander-in-chief.

Such disparity tells me that my spoken preference and beliefs, my intended egalitarian values are out of sync with my less explicit, less conscious preference for white (or for a male leader).

It tells me that I may not be fully aware of who I am or wish to be. What I take away from such a fracture in my own mind is a skepticism that I am color-blind or that I can look past gender to the truly competent candidate. Without awareness of the slippage in my own mind, I am likely to believe that all the relevant data are embedded in the candidates, not in me.

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In the Democratic primaries, we have been given two candidates who represent what was unthinkable in any previous election. Both represent what it means to be American in the broadest, most optimistic sense possible.

One represents the gender of half the people of this country and half the people of the world, but who after 232 years of independence is the first viable female candidate for president.

We also have a candidate who captures another aspect of a changing America: a person with parents from two continents, who is both black and white, from two cultures, rich and poor, with their own languages and religions.

But wait, we have a third candidate, whose demographics represent the familiar — a white, Southern male candidate — but whose actions reflect virtues so powerful that we might indeed set aside the strengths of the first two.

Everything that is tribal and ignorant about us should move us away from them. And that’s the mind’s natural, unexamined inclination. But I see millions taking these candidates seriously. The crossing over is thrilling to watch. Black, male and young, casting for Clinton. Women, white and elderly, voting for Obama. Northerners, the rich supporting Edwards.

These voters have overcome the easy inclination to go with the familiar past. They have broken a tribal cord that bound their predecessors. Their minds have seen through those candidates who create false fears of the enemy outside, who even now fail to recognize what is clearly a futile and unjust war, who lie about taxes, who hold religious beliefs contradictory to physical reality.

* * *

The next election will again be determined not by Democrats or Republicans but by the sizable bloc of independents. Independents cannot be proud of the opportunities they missed four and eight years ago.

But now, there’s a new moment. From the research evidence, I know that to support any of the three Democratic candidates will not come easily. They demand that you give up a preference for the status quo, for what looks familiar, for what sounds superficially “presidential.”

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If that tribal preference is at all attractive, any of the throwbacks on the Republican slate will do.

But if Americans are ready to do what they have occasionally done before . . . the time to cast a similar vote is 2008.

Hillary, Barack and John, as much as we are testing them, are testing us.

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To read the entire editorial, click here. To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. To review 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.

For a sample of previous posts examining situational elements of voting or, specifically, the 2008 presidential election, see “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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