The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

The Facial Situation of Presidential Candidates

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 16, 2012

From InMind (an outstanding article by Dr. Theresa DiDonato from a few years ago):

If your citizenship comes with the responsibility – and privilege – of voting, then every few years you face an interesting challenge. Who will you vote for? Whether you choose to support an incumbent, a celebrated war hero, an experienced government official, or a new face on the political scene, psychologists are incredibly curious about the process by which you come to that decision. There is reason to believe that, coming from a thoughtful and prepared voter, your ballot will reflect an objective assessment of candidate qualifications. You may, for example, use the time before an election to analyze debates, weigh social policies, and scrutinize performance records. With a wealth of political information at the tip of your fingers, only careful, deliberative thinking will contribute to your final decision…right?

Recent research in political psychology tells us that conscious deliberation is only part of the story when it comes to the voter-decision process. Information about candidates is further gathered using no mental effort, through processes operating completely outside of our awareness. Visual cues, for example, such as physical appearance, are instrumental in shaping our impressions of political candidates. Consider the case of Richard Nixon, a United States’ presidential hopeful back in September of 1960. Coming off of a hospital visit and sporting a five-o’clock shadow, Nixon participated in the first-ever televised presidential debate against John F. Kennedy, whose recent return from sunny California left him well-rested and tan. There is reason to believe that Nixon’s arguments were superior: radio listeners thought he won the debate. The estimated 70 million TV viewers, however, overwhelmingly preferred Kennedy. Visual information, i.e. Kennedy’s clean-cut confidence versus Nixon’s haggard appearance, is presumed to have influenced the TV viewers, ultimately shaping their global impressions of both candidates (Kraus, 1988).

Fast forward almost fifty years and researchers are just beginning to understand how physical appearance, particularly facial appearance, factors into voter choice. Nixon’s and Kennedy’s facial expression may certainly have evoked emotional reactions from television viewers during that critical debate. Accordingly, research suggests that feelings, like warmth or happiness, in response to a candidate’s facial gestures can influence voters’ attitudes and subsequent decisions (Sullivan & Masters, 1988). Of particular interest to social-cognitive researchers who study person-perception is how the mind translates facial appearance into beliefs about a candidate’s suitability for office. We now know that in the instant we see a person’s face, an array of fast and implicit cognitive processes take place. In that split second, we unconsciously construct ideas about a person’s personality (Bar, Neta & Linz, 2006). We may think a person is kind, strict, or honest, based only on his appearance. As you might imagine, because we make these personality inferences so easily, they can have important implications for a political candidate seeking election. Indeed, early research had found that a candidate’s photograph can communicate a clear image of his “congressional demeanor,” and fitness for office, affecting his voter appeal (Rosenberg, Bohan, McCafferty, & Harris, 1986). But what is it exactly about a politician’s face that influences his popularity? And which trait inferences matter when it comes to our voting decisions?

As most politicians know, people generally favor familiar faces over unfamiliar faces. What they may not be aware of is people also tend to prefer faces that are similar to their own. Such an idea is firmly grounded in evolutionary theory. Our faces tend to be similar to our family members’ faces, and we also generally share genetic material with them. The evolutionary perspective argues that we are fundamentally wired to protect and spread our genes, so it makes sense that we might be biologically-biased to prefer similar faces. Is this preference sufficiently ingrained so that we might actually prefer candidates who resemble us?

Bailenson, Iyengar, Yee, and Collins (in press) used a creative method to test this idea. Building on their previous work (Bailenson, Garland, Iyengar, & Yee, 2006), they examined the influence of facial similarity on voting behavior by actually manipulating the degree of facial similarity between participants and candidates. How? By digitally morphing images of participants’ faces with photographs of current candidates! Essentially, they screened out participants with glasses and facial hair, and used only high-quality photographs. They then used a computer program to morph, or blend, participants’ faces into the faces of real-life United States’ politicians, such as Hillary Clinton. Participants were unaware of the image modifications.

The researchers conducted three experiments in which they showed participants candidate photos that had been morphed with themselves (self-morph) and/or with a random other participant (other-morph). In some cases, these images were of widely-known politicians, like John Edwards or Rudy Giuliani, while other times they were of unfamiliar candidates. Participants rated each candidate on a set of ten positive personality traits (i.e. moral, intelligent, and friendly), reported their party affiliation (Democrat or Republican), and indicated the strength of that affiliation. In the final experiment, participants also saw a brief description of the candidates’ positions on issues like the Iraq War along with their picture.

The intrigue and appeal of these findings are further enhanced by the researchers’ discovery that judgment speed mattered. They found that immediate, first impressions of competence, made after seeing an image for only 100 milliseconds, were superior to deliberative judgments in anticipating the winner of an election (Ballew & Todorov, 2007). This finding seems counterintuitive: how could gut feelings outperform reflective thinking? At the same time, it fits well with one research study focused not on candidate preferences, but on strawberry jam. Wilson and Schooler (1991) asked participants to taste and rate the quality of different jams, and then tested the “accuracy” of these ratings by comparing them with evaluations offered by trained tasting experts. Results showed that when participants were instructed to reflect on why they liked or disliked the jams, they produced ratings that did not corresponded with the experts’ ratings as well as those who simply rated the jams without reflection.

What is it about judging unfamiliar candidates and unfamiliar jams that champions intuition over careful reflection?

Find out and to read the rest of the superb article, here.

Related Situationist posts:

More posts on the situation of politics here.

Posted in Evolutionary Psychology, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Racial Situation of 2012 Election

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 8, 2012

From University of Washington Newswire:

After the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, many proclaimed that the country had entered a post-racial era in which race was no longer an issue. However, a new large-scale study shows that racial attitudes have already played a substantial role in 2012, during the Republican primaries. They may play an even larger role in this year’s presidential election.

The study, led by psychologists at the University of Washington, shows that between January and April 2012 eligible voters who favored whites over blacks – either consciously or unconsciously – also favored Republican candidates relative to Barack Obama.

“People were saying that with Obama’s election race became a dead issue, but that’s not at all the case,” said lead investigator Anthony Greenwald, a UW psychology professor.

The study’s findings mean that many white and non-white voters, even those who don’t believe they tend to favor whites over blacks, might vote against Obama because of his race. These voters could cite the economy or other reasons, but a contributing cause could nevertheless be their conscious or unconscious racial attitudes.

“Our findings may indicate that many of those who expressed egalitarian attitudes by voting for Obama in 2008 and credited themselves with having ‘done the right thing’ then are now letting other considerations prevail,” said collaborator Mahzarin Banaji, a psychology professor at Harvard University.

In the study, a majority of white eligible voters showed a pattern labeled “automatic white preference” on a widely used measure of unconscious race bias. Previous studies indicate that close to 75 percent of white Americans show this implicit bias.

In a study done just prior to the 2008 presidential election, Greenwald and colleagues found that race attitudes played a role in predicting votes for the Republican candidate John McCain.

The 2012 data, collected from nearly 15,000 voters, show that race was again a significant factor in candidate preferences.

In an online survey, Greenwald asked survey-takers about their political beliefs, how “warmly” they felt toward black and white people, and which presidential contender they preferred. Because the survey was conducted in the first four months of 2012, it included the five main Republican hopefuls – Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum – as well as Obama.

Greenwald also measured unconscious race attitude using the Implicit Association Test, a tool he developed more than a decade ago to gauge thoughts that people don’t realize they have. Different variations of the test measure implicit attitudes about race, gender, sexuality, ethnicities and other topics.

Greenwald found that favoritism for Republican candidates was predicted by respondents’ racial attitudes, both their self-reported views and their implicit biases measured by the IAT. Greenwald emphasized that the study’s finding that some candidates are more attractive to voters with pro-white racial attitudes does not mean that those candidates are racist.

“The study’s findings raise an interesting question: After nearly four years of having an African-American president in the White House, why do race attitudes continue to have a role in electoral politics?” Greenwald said.

He suspects that Obama’s power as president in 2012, compared with his lesser status as candidate in 2008, may have “brought out race-based antagonism that had less reason to be activated in 2008.”

Another possibility is that Republican candidates’ assertions that their most important goal is to remove Obama from the presidency “may have strong appeal to those who have latent racial motivation,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald and his research team will continue to collect people’s attitudes about the 2012 presidential candidates as part of their Decision 2012 IAT study. Now that Mitt Romney has emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee, the researchers are modifying their survey to focus on voters’ comparisons of Romney with Obama.

They plan to post summaries of the data each month until the November election. Anyone can take the test online: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/featuredtask.html

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Implicit Associations, Politics, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Haidt on “The Righteous Mind”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 7, 2012

From Wired:

Jonathan Haidt is a professor in social psychology and author of The Righteous Mind, an examination of the intuitive foundations of morality and its consequences. He has some disgusting stories for you.

Imagine, if you will, a man going to a supermarket, buying a ready-to-cook chicken, taking it home, and having sexual intercourse with it. He then cooks it and eats it.

Or imagine a brother and sister who go on holiday, and end up sleeping together. They feel that it brings them closer, and are very careful with birth control so there’s no absolutely chance of pregnancy.

Don’t worry if you found these stories sick and wrong — most people do. But trying to pin down what exactly is wrong with these stories can be tricky. No one is harmed, the food isn’t wasted, the siblings are happy, yet it’s somehow still wrong. This is “moral dumbfounding’, the strong feeling that something is wrong without clear reasons as to why that is. According to Haidt, this offers a deep insight into human morality, and has profound implications for politics and religion.

Haidt’s studies bear out his message is that for every one of us, however rational we think we are, intuition comes first, and strategic reasoning second. That is, we rationalise our gut instincts, rather than using reason to reach the best conclusion. So, with the chicken story, you’re left scrabbling around for reasons to explain why something is wrong when you just know that it is. For Haidt, this is something that modern thinking has failed to recognise. “In America there was a long period where we were trying to teach kids critical thinking, and you never hear about it anymore because it didn’t work,” says Haidt.

Haidt sees our reasoning mind and intuition as a rider on top of an elephant, with the rider (reason) serving the elephant (intuition). But he doesn’t necessarily see this as a flaw. “You need to learn how to get the rider and elephant to work together properly. Each have their separate skill, and if if you think that the rider is both in charge and deserves to rule, you’re going to find yourself screwing up, and wondering why you keep screwing up. I think maturity and wisdom occur when someone gets good integration between the rider and the elephant — and I picked an elephant rather than a horse because elephants are really big and really smart. If you see a trainer and an elephant working together it’s a beautiful sight.”

Not only do we start with a conclusion and work backwards when making moral judgements, the different moral tenets you use define where you lie on the political spectrum. Broadly, the left makes moral judgements mostly based on harm and fairness, while the right has a broader palette — harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

So when, for example David Cameron suggests children should be more deferential, Haidt sees this as textbook: “That’s the authority foundation right there. Respect for authority is an offensive idea to people on the left, but it is quite sensible to social conservatives. It’s speaking directly to the elephant. Did he suggest this because he has really long been upset about the decline of authority, or is he maybe doing this to appeal to the more working-class traditionalist voters, those who vote Labour but are socially conservative at heart?”

But isn’t this simply another typical liberal college professor finding yet another way to attack the right? Haidt says that his work into morality has changed his politics, making him less of a liberal, and more of a centrist: “I’ve really become less enamoured of liberalism and more enamoured of conservatism. I think both are important. It’s a yin-yang thing, you need both and if you let either side run things they’re going to screw it up in very predictable ways.”

Our flawed post-hoc reasoning, our cherry-picking of evidence to suit our instincts, makes us poor policy makers, and creates politics that is tribal, confrontational and ill-suited to solving the world’s problems. “Our reasoning is very good as a press agent and lawyer,” says Haidt, “But we’re so biased, no individual can design social policy just using reason. But once you can accept what reasoning is and what it is designed to do, you can start to design groups and institutions that can do a pretty good job of it. When you put people together, you can think of each person as being like a neuron, and if you put us together in the right way then you can get some very good reasoning coming out of it.”

Haidt’s plea is for us to avoid the demonisation of those we see as morally suspect by understanding the way we reach these moral judgements. Like any evolved mechanism, our brain is a hotchpotch of compromises rather than a perfectly designed machine. Our understanding of others starts with understanding ourselves.

“It’s easy to see how flawed and biased and post-hoc everyone else is. If you realise that it’s true about you too, at least you’ll be a little more modest, and if you’re a little more modest then you’ll at least be a little bit more open to the possibility that you might be wrong. There is some wisdom to be found on all sides, because nobody can see the whole problem.”

Watch Haidt’s TED talk on “the real difference between liberals and conservatives” below:


Related Situationist posts:

To review a collection of posts examining the the situation of ideology, click here.

Posted in Book, Conflict, Emotions, Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Informational Situation of Voters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 19, 2011

Michele Margolis and Anthony Fowler, have posted their paper, “The Bias of Uninformed Voters,” on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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Survey researchers and political pundits bemoan the lack of political information within the American electorate. Not only do Americans fail to meet the democratic ideals of an informed electorate, but this lack of knowledge also has political consequences. An empirical analysis of survey data finds that informed voters are more likely to vote for Republican candidates; however, these correlational findings may be plagued by reverse causation and omitted variable bias. We present a model of an election with uninformed voters and experimentally test the effect of political information. Our results suggest that the lack of information in the American electorate typically biases election results toward the Republican Party. When uninformed citizens receive political information, they systematically shift away from the Republican Party.

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Download the paper for free here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Education, Ideology, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Interview with Professor Robert MacCoun on Drug Policy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2010

Here is a fascinating interview of Professor Robert MacCoun about “The Psychology and Politics of Drug Policy.”  The 36-minute interview was conducted by Nina Catalano as part of the Law and Mind Science Seminar at Harvard Law School.

Biography

Robert MacCoun, a psychologist, joined the faculty of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Policy in 1993 and the Boalt faculty in 1999. From 1986 to 1993 he was a behavioral scientist at The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan private research institution. He has published many studies of jury decision making, alternative dispute resolution, illicit drug dealing, alternative drug laws, harm reduction, gays and lesbians in the military, media biases, and bias in the use and interpretation of research evidence. He is on the National Academy of Sciences committee on drug policy research and analysis, and in 1999 he was a visiting professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Table of Contents

00:15 — How do you see the relationship between scientific research and drug policy?

05:34 — What role does the media play in public drug policy debates?

07:50 — What’s up with the drug policy reform movement these days?

11:36 — How does our scientific understanding of addiction impact the legalization debate?

17:31 — What are your thoughts about the California ballot initiative to legalize and tax marijuana?

28:10 — What are the current trends with regard to marijuana and public opinion?

32:44 — Can you tell us how you got involved in the intersection between psychology and the law?

Duration: 35:24

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “News about the Captured Situation of Food Policy,” “The Situation of Medical Research,” “Andrew Papachristos Explains Why Criminals Obey the Law – Video,” and “The Situation of Criminality – Abstract.”

Posted in Food and Drug Law, Law, Public Policy, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Situationist Political Science and the Situation of Voters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 14, 2010

Joe Keohane wrote an outstanding article, “How Facts Backfire: Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains,” for the Boston Globe last week.  Here are some excerpts.

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It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. . . . Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

These findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals. Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.

Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be,” read a recent Onion headline. Like the best satire, this nasty little gem elicits a laugh, which is then promptly muffled by the queasy feeling of recognition. The last five decades of political science have definitively established that most modern-day Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works. In 1996, Princeton University’s Larry M. Bartels argued, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science.”

On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)

Studies by other researchers have observed similar phenomena when addressing education, health care reform, immigration, affirmative action, gun control, and other issues that tend to attract strong partisan opinion. Kuklinski calls this sort of response the “I know I’m right” syndrome, and considers it a “potentially formidable problem” in a democratic system. “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs,” he wrote, “but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.”

What’s going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we’re right?

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To read the rest of the article, including Keohane‘s answers to those questions, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Presidential Death Threats,” Voting for a Face,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,”Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” “Your Brain on Politics.” The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,” Racial Attitudes in the Presidential Race,” The Racial Situation of Voting,” The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters,” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” and “What does an Obama victory mean?

Posted in Choice Myth, Conflict, Cultural Cognition, Deep Capture, Education, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.”

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“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.'”

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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 »

Racial Attitudes in the Presidential Race

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 29, 2009

From Project Implicit Blog:

An article by Project Implicit researchers published this month in Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy reports evidence that both implicit and explicit race attitudes were related to intended vote in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. 1,057 registered voters completed a study conducted at Project Implicit’s research website during the week before the presidential election. The participants completed multiple measures of racial attitudes including self-reported feelings of warmth toward Blacks and Whites, a measure of “symbolic” racism, two implicit measures of racial attitudes – a brief version of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) and the Affective Misattribution Procedure (AMP), and reported their intended vote. Analyses suggested that participants who showed strong implicit and self-reported favoring of Whites compared to Blacks were also more likely to intend to vote for John McCain instead of Barack Obama. Collectively, the four race attitude measures accounted for 21% of the variation in intended vote. Further, after including liberalism-conservatism that is a (strong) predictor of vote and related to race attitudes, the race attitude measures still predicted 2% (p-value = 10e-24) of voting intention variance. Also, implicit and self-reported racial attitude measures each contributed unique predictive validity of intended vote. Of course, like any study of these relations, the data are correlational leaving open the possibility of unseen third-variables that are determinants of both racial attitudes and intended vote. However, in the absence of plausible alternative accounts, these results strongly suggest that race attitudes played a role in determining the 2008 Presidential vote.

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For a sample or related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Pollworkers and Voting Booths – Abstract,” The Racial Situation of Voting,” “Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” “The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters,” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.”

To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. You can take the Policy IAT here.

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Narcissism in Politics

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 3, 2009

Mark SanfordSharon Jayson of USA Today has an interesting piece on why many politicians seem narcissistic.  We excerpt the piece below.

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“Politicians are different,” says Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who’s writing a book about narcissistic men. “How many of us would have the desire, much less the ability, to promote ourselves ceaselessly? You have to do that as a politician. It’s an amazing level of self-love … and a need for affirmation.”

Most recently in the news was Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, whose extramarital romance with a woman in Argentina spurred investigations into his spending habits. And remember Eliot Spitzer? He was forced to resign as governor of New York last year; his extramarital dalliance involved a prostitution ring. James McGreevey, former governor of New Jersey, resigned in 2004 after revealing his adultery with a male aide.

“Ambition and narcissism are occupational hazards for all political leaders,” says Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at City University of New York and author of books dealing with psychological issues and political behavior. “Infidelity is a byproduct of narcissism.”

By definition, narcissism is “excessive self-love” and stems from a mythical youth who fell in love with his own reflection. In recent years, it’s become a buzzword with myriad other meanings — from egotism to selfishness to hubris. Traits associated with narcissism aren’t all negative: self-confidence, leadership ability and power. Many say those drawn to politics are risk-takers anyway.

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To read the rest, click here.  For a related Situationist series, see Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Jon Ensign, and Now Mark Sanford: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation.

Posted in Life, Morality, Politics | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

George Lakoff on the Metaphorical Situation of Moral Politics

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 2, 2009

From University of California Television: “UC Berkeley professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics George Lakoff explores how successful political debates are framed by using language targeted to people’s values instead of their support for specific government programs in this public lecture sponsored by the Helen Edison Series at UC San Diego.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Metaphors,” “Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?,” and “Your Brain on Politics.”

Posted in Ideology, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Racial Situation of Voting

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 20, 2009

Nate Silver discusses race in politics: Did Obama’s race hurt his votes in some places?  If so, how?  And what might be done about it?

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situational Effects of a Black President,” “The Situation of Voting for Obama,” Why Race May Influence Us Even When We ‘Know’ It Doesn’t,” What does an Obama victory mean?,” “The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV.” For other Situationist posts on President Obama, click here.

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Behavioral Economics and Policy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 5, 2009

Last month, Rick Montgomery wrote an interesting article, “Behavioral Economics Is Moving from Theory to Policy,” for the Kansas City Star.  Here are some excerpts.

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As the economy sinks and investors buckle over, the behavior buffs are rising up.

From the lesser-appointed corners of academia, psychologists, sociologists and a youthful breed of economists scoff at the revered mathematical models that have driven economic thought and snared Nobel Prizes.

These preachers of “behavioral economics,” including some on President-elect Barack Obama’s economic team, argue that humans cannot be relied upon to obey the efficient, orderly tenets espoused by free-market thinkers.

Chief among the old-school rules is the assumption that we act rationally with money.

“That’s absurd, counterfactual . . . and now they’ve created a catastrophe,” said William Black, who teaches economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Until now, policymakers showed slight regard for the growing field of study into how mortal gaffes and greed intersect with financial decision-making in ways that can punish us all.

Now some close to Obama suggest government’s role is to “nudge” Americans into behaving in economically smarter ways.

“We need a bit more ‘Psych 101’ in addition to ‘Econ 101’ in the design of public policies,” blogged Peter Orszag, the next chief of the Office of Management and Budget, who just turned 40.

Some traditional economists might ask, “And how do you intend to calculate the effects of herd mentality, blind faith or self-destructive foolishness when dealing with a mortgage broker?”

They might cite the gospel that free markets, like celestial bodies in orbit, move in rational and self-correcting ways. Knowing that, who would ever fall for the gravity-defying performance reports of fund manager Bernard Madoff, who claimed double-digit returns year after year after year?

Human beings, that’s who — now shorn of $50 billion.

In October, behavioral scholars were triumphant when the very oracle of the slide-rule set, Alan Greenspan, delivered in Congress what some called a requiem for decades’ worth of economic teaching.

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity — myself, especially — are in a state of shocked disbelief,” the former Federal Reserve chairman conceded.

Why so shocked?

As many see it, a star of Economics 101 known as the “rational actor” abandoned the stage and left markets a mess.

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Across America, collegiate quarrels have been building ever since economists began calling themselves scientists.

Channeling Isaac Newton, those 20th-century purveyors of empirical truths felt they needed formulas to forecast outcomes and solve economic riddles.

Oh, please, murmured many psychologists, sociologists and political scientists. To them, economists were trying to elevate themselves above the murkier, “softer” sciences.

The creation in 1969 of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science put monetary thinkers in the league of the great laureates of medicine and physics.

The second recipient of the prize was Paul A. Samuelson. His 1947 book, Foundations of Economic Analysis, was among the first to pitch sophisticated mathematics as the key to understanding and addressing problems.

Samuelson is 93 now. And what irritates him about the debate over behavioral economics is its either-or tone.

Most of the time, free markets do follow rational, predictable rhythms, Samuelson told The Star. But history has shown that bubbles can build and “the slide-rule guys can’t smooth out those bubbles.”

“A hopelessly addicted centrist (favoring) limited, sensible regulation,” Samuelson blamed “eight terrible years of deregulation” that saw some of Wall Street’s brightest financial engineers tiptoe from the rational realm to the reckless one.

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You can read the entire article here.  For a list of related Situationist posts, click here.

To read some longer law review articles detailing the history of the “competition” between economics, economic behavioralism, and situationism, check out “Legal Academic Backlash: The Response of Legal Theorists to Situationist Insights” (Emory Law Journal, Vol. 57, No. 5, 2008) available on SSRN, “The Situational Character: A Critical Realist Perspective on the Human Animal” (Georgetown Law Review, Vol. 93, 2004) available on SSRN,” and “Taking Behavioralism Seriously: The Problem of Market Manipulation” (New York University Law Review, Vol. 74, 1999) available on SSRN.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Ideology, Legal Theory, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Jonathan Haidt – 5 Moral Values Behind Political Choices

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 25, 2008

In his TedTalk, psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes five moral values that he believes form the basis of our political choices, whether we’re left, right or center.

To read a related Situationist post, see Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning.”  To review a collection of posts examining the the situation of ideology, click here.

Posted in Ideology, Morality, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Situationism in the News – October

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 18, 2008

situationism-in-the-news

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of the Situationist news items of October 2008. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

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From Battle of Ideas: “The dubious science of evolutionary psychology

“Evolutionary psychology prides itself on being a valid, scientific account of human psychology (and behaviour) by tying itself to the scientific theory of natural evolution. But evolution is an explanation of physical, anatomical traits . . . The plausibility of evolutionary psychology rests on the question of whether psychological attributes (patriotism, altruism, romantic love, aesthetic judgments, logical reasoning, recollecting your grandmother’s birthday, and studying to get into college) are analogous to anatomical structures in their origins and in their functioning. If they are not analogous, then it is a mistake to explain them in terms of evolutionary theory which explains physical, anatomical features determined by biological mechanisms.” Read more . . .

From CNN Money: “How to rebuild America

“America can pull through the current economic crisis with a dose of political maturity and a bit of luck. Success will mean the end of the Reagan era, of an ideology that has brought the country to its knees.” Read more . . .

From The Independent: “Scientists prove it really is a thin line between love and hate

“Love and hate are intimately linked within the human brain, according to a study that has discovered the biological basis for the two most intense emotions.” . . . “Scientists studying the physical nature of hate have found that some of the nervous circuits in the brain responsible for it are the same as those that are used during the feeling of romantic love – although love and hate appear to be polar opposites.” Read more . . .

From ObserverThis is Your Brain on Politics

“U.S. presidential candidates have been stumping for nearly two years with their every move being analyzed and reported ad nauseum. Logically, voters should be able to tap into lots of information when they make their decisions come November.  But it turns out there’s a lot more going on when we step behind the curtain to cast our ballot.” Read more . . .

From ScienceNOW: “When the Right Look Trumps the Right Stuff

“Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin received a media lashing last week when word trickled out that her makeup artist snagged $22,800 in the first half of October. Pundits warned that such royal treatment might undermine her “down home” persona, but the makeover may have been a savvy move: New research adds more weight to the idea that voters value attractiveness more than competence in the faces of female politicians.” Read more . . .

From Scientific American: “The Science of Gossip: Why We Can’t Stop Ourselves

“When you cut away its many layers, our fixation on popular culture reflects an intense interest in the doings of other people; this preoccupation with the lives of others is a by-product of the psychology that evolved in prehistoric times to make our ancestors socially successful. Thus, it appears that we are hardwired to be fascinated by gossip.” Read more . . .

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Ideology, Life, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Us & Them Politics

Posted by Al Sahlstrom on October 28, 2008

In just over a week, we will see a referendum on “Joe Six-Pack” politics. Over the past decade or two, the Republican Party has promoted a political fiction that conflates wholesomeness, independence, tradition, and common sense with anti-intellectualism and suspicion of outsiders. More recently, Sarah Palin has championed the effort to highlight the supposed division between secular liberal coastal elites and “normal” Americans. By her own words, Palin believes that small towns are “the real America” and she has warned that Barack Obama “is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America.” While it might be comforting to dismiss these efforts as a desperate appeal to emotional voters who don’t know or don’t care about the substantive issues in this election, the persistence of these “us vs. them” arguments in our current political paradigm hints at deeper reasons for concern.

Regardless of policy expertise, is there reason to think that makes a difference whether Sarah Palin is a moose-hunting, “Joe Six-Pack” conservative Christian? Yes. Humans are fundamentally social and those distinctions matter – no matter which side of them you may be on. In fact, our affinity for those with similar backgrounds provides an important means of making sense of the world and strengthening ties with others. We have such a natural predisposition for “birds of a feather” to “flock together” that even groups formed with no prior connection among the members (or no meaningful connection at all) can demonstrate a preference for their comrades over those outside the group. Social psychologists call this the “minimal group” paradigm: Individuals randomly assigned to one group over another, absent any rational justification, engage in self-evaluation that favors their new group and strengthens their affiliation with its members. In cultural, family, or political groups, our affiliation with others can provide a comforting means of evaluating the immense, complex web of incomplete information with which we are presented in everyday life. Psychologists have even found that identification of a policy proposal as being from one’s own party can be more determinative of an individual’s approval than the actual content of the proposed policy.

Because our evaluation of policies and political candidates is not purely rational, candidates like Sarah Palin can invoke existing or imagined group affiliations to reframe the political landscape and override other, more rational considerations.

All of this matters because, regardless of who draws the lines in the sand, these tactics do not uniquely manipulate one segment of the country or one end of the political spectrum. Rather they impact all of us by contributing to a situation that alters our perceptions, incites prejudice, and affects behavior across the board. When political tacticians push small town Americans to claim moral superiority over the rest of the country, the resulting climate encourages liberal, college-educated Americans to ignore the complexity in regional and local politics in favor of their own self-serving views. In short, the idea that liberals are more rational or intellectual than conservatives perpetuates a simplistic, partisan view that precludes empathy and interferes with positive change.

It is neither novel nor surprising that this presidential campaign has seen attempts to mobilize support based on identity appeals and false dichotomies. But as we decide which candidate will best face the domestic and international challenges of the next four years, it is worth remembering that our perceptions of those issues and ideas are inherently shaped by how we view ourselves in relation to those with different backgrounds and opposing perspectives. Unless we account for how “Joe Six-Pack” politics manipulate and polarize our political views, Conservatives will never be independent and Liberals will never truly be rational.

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For a related Situationist post, see “Without the Filter.”

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Genetic Situation of Ideology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 26, 2008

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Robert Lee Hotz summarizes some of the recent research showing how genes may shape people’s ideological and political attitudes: “The Biology of Ideology: Studies Suggest Many of Our Political Choices May Be Traced to Genetic Traits.”  Here are a few excerpts.

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In a wave of new research since the last presidential campaign, political scientists are using the tools of behavioral genetics to better understand how and why we vote. Certainly, no single gene can identify an entire electorate. But “in a broad sense, biology shapes all of human behavior,” says New York University social psychologist [and Situationist contributor] John Jost, “and that has to include political behavior.

By matching extensive electronic voter records to documented patterns of heredity among twins, researchers found tantalizing hints that up to half of the variation in our attitudes toward issues and our voting practices can be traced to a political psyche shaped by genetic traits.

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In a study published in May, political scientist James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed voter turnout among 396 identical and fraternal twins for eight elections in Los Angeles. Identical twins share their entire DNA genome, while fraternal twins don’t, so a comparison can offer a glimpse of hereditary influences. After controlling for a variety of environmental factors, he found the decision to cast a ballot may be partly genetic.

Then, he went beyond California voters to analyze political behavior among 1,082 identical and fraternal twins in a national database called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. “Whether you have run for office, donated to a candidate, attended a rally or joined a political organization, we found that those activities were heritable,” says Dr. Fowler. “The environment is incredibly influential, but without genetics you are missing half the story.”

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To read the entire article, click here.   You can download a free copy of Fowler’s papers here. To review other Situationist posts about ideology, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Ideology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

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.

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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 »

Voting for a Face

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 6, 2008

Barack Obama - Image by omgsaywhatt - FlickrAnn Ryman for the Arizona Republic has an interesting piece summarizing the research examining how looks influence votes. Here are a few excerpts.

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A growing body of research supports the notion that a candidate’s attempts to establish himself as a powerful leader can be helped or hurt by his facial features. Appearance is not, of course, the sole factor that sways voters, but experts who have studied the link between faces and people’s perceptions say we place more emphasis on looks than we think.

Facial structure can play a role in how trustworthy, strong and charismatic we perceive someone to be, said Caroline Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University who studies facial structure and perceptions of power.

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“One reason why it’s so important for us to perceive our leaders as competent, credible and sincere is because that makes us feel secure,” Keating said. “We identify with leaders. If leaders look confident, brave, bold and true, then we feel we can take on the world.”

Keating has conducted research on people’s reactions to former Presidents Reagan and Kennedy. Using digital images, she made subtle, almost undetectable changes designed to enhance or diminish their facial features and tested reactions. . . .

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There is evidence that people can often predict the election winners just by looking at faces.

John McCain Image by Wigwam Jones - FlickrAlexander Todorov, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University, gave people photos of unfamiliar political candidates who won and were runners-up in state governor races. He asked people to pick the most competent candidates, and they chose the winners 68 percent of the time.

Whether this reliance on snap judgments is good or bad is hard to tell, Keating said.

“What’s the job of a leader? It’s to move us,” she said. “If you don’t look sincere, then you’re never going to move anybody. You’re not going to instill in them the confidence and the emotional tenor you need to get them to sign onto the programs you think are important. So, when it comes to motivating people, it’s all about the non-verbal.”

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To read the entire article (which includes a analysis of McCain and Obama’s facial features, click here. For other posts on the Situation of politics, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

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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 »

David Vitter (Eliot Spitzer): The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on March 13, 2008

In July, we published the post below in response to the sex scandal du jour involving David Vitter. 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 Eliot Spitzer (Client 9) scandal.

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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.

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

 
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