The Situationist

Trent Smith on Deep Capture and Obesity – The Video

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 29, 2015

Trent Smith Poster

In the fall of 2014, Trent Smith delivered a talk titled “The Economics of Information, Deep Capture, and the Obesity Debate.”  Here’s the abstract and, below that, the video of his talk.

Are consumers susceptible to manipulation by large corporations?  Or are consumers basically rational, able to decide for themselves what to buy and how to live?  This lecture will argue that these seemingly contradictory views of the American consumer are not mutually exclusive, and in fact follow directly from economic models of imperfect information.  Examples of U.S. food industry practices, both historical and in the ongoing public debate over the causes of the obesity epidemic, serve to illustrate a broader phenomenon: when large industrial producers take steps to limit the information available to consumers, a market breakdown can occur in which low-quality products dominate the market.  As a result, consumer welfare and–in the case of food–public health suffers.  This would seem to represent a clear instance of the phenomenon known as “deep capture,” in which powerful commercial interests attempt to influence conventional wisdoms that might affect industry profits.

Related Situationist posts:

You can review hundreds of Situationist posts related to the topic of “deep capture” here

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Events, Legal Theory, Video | Leave a Comment »

Elizabeth Loftus on “The Memory Factory”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 20, 2015

A lecture by Elizabeth F. Loftus, Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology and Professor of Law and Cognitive Science at University of California, Irvine.

In this lecture, Loftus shows us that people can be led to develop rich false memories for events that never happened. False memories look very much like true ones: they can be confidently told, detailed, and expressed with emotion.

From Radcliffe Magazine, an excerpt from an article by Susan Seligson:

Elizabeth Loftus can make people “remember” that eggs once made them sick or that as children they were briefly lost in a mall, though both “memories” are false.

A high-profile forensic psychologist and memory researcher, Loftus does this not as a parlor trick, although she’s witty and entertaining—and clearly savors toppling the assumptions of TED audiences and, once, 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl. For decades, Loftus has led one of the sides in what has been dubbed “the memory wars.”

“I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” says the Los Angeles native, now a distinguished professor of social ecology and a professor of law and cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Her UC website playfully describes Loftus as “an expert on nothing.” That’s because her groundbreaking studies of false memories, involving thousands of subjects, drive home the point that human memory is unreliable at best, and malleable enough to wreck the lives of the unjustly accused.

Loftus visited the Radcliffe Institute at the end of April to speak about her 40 years of work in the memory field, which have won her the 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award. Loftus, who has a PhD from Stanford, has testified in more than 250 legal cases and consulted on many others, including those of Michael Jackson, Oliver North, O.J. Simpson, and Martha Stewart. Despite often unsparing attacks from the defense (“I often joke that I deserve combat pay,” she says), Loftus can shatter, with sound science, the record/playback notion of how we remember and how memories become narratives. “Memory actually works more like a Wikipedia page,” says Loftus. “You can go into your page and change things. But so can other people.”

Posted in Events, Illusions, Law, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

Supreme Court Acknowledges “Unconscious Prejudice.”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 26, 2015

From Slate, by Kenji Yoshino:

Thursday’s blockbuster opinion in the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project case will be primarily and justly remembered for interpreting the Fair Housing Act to include a disparate-impact cause of action. In anti-discrimination law, “disparate treatment” requires an intent to discriminate, while “disparate impact” can allow a plaintiff to win even in the absence of discriminatory intent. For instance, if an entity has a policy that disproportionately affects a protected group, it has to justify that disparity even in the absence of any allegation of discriminatory intent. If it cannot produce such a justification, it will lose. As many progressives have already noted, this interpretation of the FHA is a big win, as discriminatory intent is often difficult to prove.

While less obvious, however, there is a passage in the FHA case that can also be counted as a potential win for progressives. On Page 17 of the slip opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy writes, “Recognition of disparate-impact liability under the FHA also plays a role in uncovering discriminatory intent: It permits plaintiffs to counteract the unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment.” (Emphasis mine.) Disparate impact has long been seen as a way of proving “disguised animus”—so that is nothing new. However, the idea that disparate impact can be used to get at “unconscious prejudices” is, to my knowledge, an idea new to a Supreme Court majority opinion.

The idea of “unconscious prejudice” is that one can have prejudices of which one is unaware that nonetheless drive one’s actions. It has been kicking around in academia for years. As Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald discuss in Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Greenwald created the test to assess such unconscious biases in 1994. This test can now be found at Since taking academia by storm, it has migrated over to industry—companies ranging from Google to Pfizer have laudably adopted it to assist in making their workplaces more inclusive.

Read the entire article, including portion where Professor Yoshino discusses potential implications of the Kennedy’s acknowledgment, here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Law, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Systemic Justice Conference – Today!

Posted by JH on April 10, 2015

Systemic Justice Conf 11x17[1]

For more information, see the conference website or the facebook page or download the program (pdf).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Erin Hennes at Harvard Law School – Discussing “A Convenient Untruth”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 11, 2015


Tomorrow (Thursday) at noon  join the HLS Student Association for Law & Mind Sciences and JUSTICE FOR bALL for a lunch talk with Erin Hennes, PhD to discuss the psychological processes underlying the acceptance of the existence of climate change, and the implications these biases have for our legal system. Non-pizza lunch provided.

Where: WCC 2009
When: 3/12/15 at noon
A Convenient Untruth: System Justification and the Processing of Climate Change Information
Erin P. Hennes, PhD (University of California, Los Angeles & Harvard University)

The contemporary political and legal landscape is characterized by numerous divisive issues. Unlike many other legal issues, however, much of the disagreement about human-caused climate change centers not on how best to take action to address the problem, but on whether the problem exists at all.

Recent findings indicate that, to the extent that sustainability initiatives are seen as threatening to the socioeconomic system, individuals may be motivated to deny environmental problems in order to maintain the societal status quo. Across three lines of research using experimental laboratory studies, field work, and content analysis of focus group interviews, we find that economic system justification (a) distorts recall of scientific information about climate change and leads such evidence to be evaluated as weaker, (b) leads individuals to perceptually judge the ambient temperature to be cooler, and (c) is associated with spontaneous retrieval of misinformation about climate change.

These findings suggest that, because system justification can distort the ways in which information is processed, simply providing the public with scientific evidence may be insufficient to inspire action to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Posted in Events, Public Policy, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Leave a Comment »

Morality and Politics: A System Justification Perspective

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 5, 2015

capital buildingAn Interview with John Jost by Paul Rosenberg

Note: This interview was originally published on with an outrageously incendiary title that entirely misrepresented its content.

Introduction by Paul Rosenberg:

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, a wide range of thinkers, both secular and religious, struggled to make sense of the profound evil of war, particularly Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. One such effort, “The Authoritarian Personality” by Theodore Adorno and three co-authors, opened up a whole new field of political psychology—initially a small niche within the broader field of social psychology—which developed fitfully over the years, but became an increasingly robust subject area in 1980s and 90s, fleshing out a number of distinct areas of cognitive processing in which liberals and conservatives differed from one another. Liberal/conservative differences were not the sole concern of this field, but they did appear repeatedly across a growing range of different sorts of measures, including the inclination to justify the existing social order, whatever it might be, an insight developed by John Jost, starting in the 1990s, under the rubric of “system justification theory.”

The field of political psychology gained increased visibility in the 2000s as conservative Republicans controlled the White House and Congress simultaneously for the first time since the Great Depression, and took the nation in an increasingly divisive direction. Most notably, John Dean’s 2006 bestseller, “Conservatives Without Conscience,” popularized two of the more striking developments of the 1980s and 90s, the constructs of rightwing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. A few years before that, a purely academic paper, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” by Jost and three other prominent researchers in the field, caused a brief spasm of political reaction which led some in Congress to talk of defunding the entire field.

But as the Bush era ended, and Barack Obama’s rhetoric of transcending right/left differences captured the national imagination, an echo of sentiment appeared in the field of political psychology as well. Known as “moral foundations theory,” and most closely associated with psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and popularized in his book “The Righteous Mind,” it argued that a too-narrow focus on concerns of fairness and care/harm avoidance had diminished researchers’ appreciation for the full range of moral concerns, especially a particular subset of distinct concerns which conservatives appear to value more than liberals do. In order to restore balance to the field, researchers must broaden their horizons—and even, Haidt argued, engage in affirmative action to recruit conservatives into the field of political psychology. This was, in effect, an argument invoking liberal values—fairness, inclusion, openness to new ideas, etc.—and using them to criticize or even attack what was characterized as a liberal orthodoxy, or even a church-like, close-minded tribal moral community.

Yet, to some, these arguments seemed to gloss over, or even just outright dismiss a wide body of data, not dogma, from decades of previous research. While people were willing to consider new information, and new perspectives, there was a reluctance to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as it were. In the most nitty-gritty sense, the question came down to this: Was the rhetorical framing of the moral foundations argument actually congruent with the detailed empirical findings in the field? Or did it serve more to blur important distinctions that were solidly grounded in rigorous observation?

Recently, a number of studies have raised questions about moral foundations theory in precisely these terms—are the moral foundations more congenial to conservatives actually reflective of non-moral or even immoral tendencies which have already been extensively studied? Late last year, a paper co-authored by Jost—“Another Look At Moral Foundations Theory”—built on these earlier studies to make the strongest case yet along these lines. To gain a better understanding of the field as a whole, moral foundations theory as a challenge within it, the problems that theory is now confronting, and what sort of resolution—and new frontiers—may lie ahead for the field, Paul Rosenberg spoke with John Jost. In the end, he suggested, moral foundations theory and system justification theory may end up looking surprisingly similar to one another, rather than being radically at odds.

PR: You’re most known for your work developing system justification theory, followed by your broader work on developing an integrated account of political ideology. You recently co-authored a paper “Another Look at Moral Foundations Theory,” which I want to focus on, but in order to do so coherently, I thought it best to begin by first asking you about your own work, and that of others you’ve helped integrate, before turning to moral foundations theory generally, and this critical paper in particular.

So, with that in mind as a game plan, could you briefly explain what system justification theory is all about, how it was that you became interested in the subject matter, and why others should be interested in it as well?

JJ: When I was a graduate student in social psychology at Yale back in the 1990’s I began to wonder about a set of seemingly unrelated phenomena that were all counterintuitive in some way and in need of explanation. So I asked: Why do people stay in abusive relationships, why do women feel that they are entitled to lower salaries than men, and why do African American children come to think that white dolls are more attractive and desirable? Why do people blame victims of injustice and why do victims of injustice sometimes blame themselves? Why is it so difficult for unions and other organizations to get people to stand up for themselves, and why do we find personal and social change to be so difficult, even painful? Of course, not everyone exhibits these patterns of behavior at all times, but many people do, and it seemed to me that these phenomena were not well explained by existing theories in social science.

And so it occurred to me that there might be a common denominator—at the level of social psychology—in these seemingly disparate situations. Perhaps human beings are in some fairly subtle way prone to accept, defend, justify, and rationalize existing social arrangements and to resist attempts to change the status quo, however well-meaning those attempts may be. In other words, we may be motivated, to varying degrees, to justify the social systems on which we depend, to see them as relatively good, fair, legitimate, desirable, and so on.

This did not strike me as implausible, given that social psychologists had already demonstrated that we are often motivated to defend and justify ourselves and the social groups to which we belong. Most of us believe that we are better drivers than the average person and more fair, too, and many of us believe that our schools or sports teams or companies are better than their rivals and competitors. Why should we not also want to believe that the social, economic, and political institutions that are familiar to us are, all things considered, better than the alternatives? To believe otherwise is at least somewhat painful, insofar it would force us to confront the possibility that our lives and those of others around us may be subject to capriciousness, exploitation, discrimination, injustice, and that things could be different, better—but they are not.

In 2003, a paper you co-authored, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition” caused quite a stir politically—there were even brief rumblings in Congress to cut off all research funding, not just for you, but for an entire broad field of research, though you managed to quell those rumblings in a subsequent Washington Post op-ed. That paper might well be called the tip of the iceberg of a whole body of work you’ve helped draw together, and continued to work on since then. So, first of all, what was that paper about?

We wanted to understand the relationship, if any, between psychological conservatism—the mental forces that contribute to resistance to change—and political conservatism as an ideology or a social movement. My colleagues and I conducted a quantitative, meta-analytic review of nearly fifty years of research conducted in 12 different countries and involving over 22,000 research participants or individual cases. We found 88 studies that had investigated correlations between personality characteristics and various psychological needs, motives, and tendencies, on one hand, and political attitudes and opinions, on the other.

And what did it show?

We found pretty clear and consistent correlations between psychological motives to reduce and manage uncertainty and threat—as measured with standard psychometric scales used to gauge personal needs for order, structure, and closure, intolerance of ambiguity, cognitive simplicity vs. complexity, death anxiety, perceptions of a dangerous world, etc.—and identification with and endorsement of politically conservative (vs. liberal) opinions, leaders, parties, and policies.

How did politicians misunderstand the paper, and how did you respond?

I suspect that there were some honest misunderstandings as well as some other kinds. One issue is that many people seem to assume that whatever psychologists are studying must be considered (by the researchers, at least) as abnormal or pathological. But that is simply untrue. Social, cognitive, developmental, personality, and political psychologists are all far more likely to study attitudes and behaviors that are normal, ordinary, and mundane. We are primarily interested in understanding the dynamics of everyday life. In any case, none of the variables that my colleagues and I investigated had anything to do with psychopathology; we were looking at variability in normal ranges within the population and whether specific psychological characteristics were correlated with political opinions. We tried to point some of these things out, encouraging people to read beyond the title, and emphasizing that there are advantages as well as disadvantages to being high vs. low on the need for cognitive closure, cognitive complexity, sensitivity to threat, and so on.

How has that paper been built on since?

I am gratified and amazed at how many research teams all over the world have taken our ideas and refined, extended, and otherwise built upon them over the last decade. To begin with, a number of studies have confirmed that political conservatism and right-wing orientation are associated with various measures of system justification. And public opinion research involving nationally representative samples from all over the world establishes that the two core value dimensions that we proposed to separate the right from the left—traditionalism (or resistance to change) and acceptance of inequality—are indeed correlated with one another, and they are generally (but not always) associated with system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation.

Since 2003, numerous studies have replicated the correlations we observed between epistemic motives, including personal needs for order, structure, and closure and resistance to change, acceptance of inequality, system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation. Several find that liberals score higher than conservatives on the need for cognition, which captures the individual’s chronic tendency to enjoy effortful forms of thinking. This finding is potentially important because individuals who score lower on the need for cognition favor quick, intuitive, heuristic processing of new information, whereas those who score higher are more likely to engage in more elaborate, systematic processing (what Daniel Kahneman refers to as System 1 and System 2 thinking, respectively). The relationship between epistemic motivation and political orientation has also been explored in research on nonverbal behavior and neurocognitive structure and functioning.

Various labs have also replicated the correlations we observed between existential motives, including attention and sensitivity to dangerous and threatening stimuli, and resistance to change, acceptance of inequality, and conservatism. Ingenious experiments have demonstrated that temporary activation of epistemic needs to reduce uncertainty or to attain a sense of control or closure increases the appeal of system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation. Experiments have demonstrated that temporary activation of existential needs to manage threat and anxiety likewise increases the appeal of system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation, all other things being equal. These experiments are especially valuable because they identify causal relationships between psychological motives and political orientation.

Progress has also been made in understanding connections between personality characteristics and political orientation. In terms of “Big Five” personality traits, studies involving students and nationally representative samples of adults tell exactly the same story: Openness to new experiences is positively associated with a liberal orientation, whereas Conscientiousness (especially the need for order) is positively associated with conservative orientation. In a few longitudinal studies, childhood measures of intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity as well as sensitivity to fear, threat, and danger have been found to predict conservative orientation later in life. Finally, we have observed that throughout North America and Western Europe, conservatives report being happier and more satisfied than liberals, and this difference is partially (but not completely) explained by system justification and the acceptance of inequality as legitimate. As we suspected many years ago, there appears to be an emotional or hedonic cost to seeing the system as unjust and in need of significant change.

“Moral foundations theory” has gotten a lot of popular press, as well as serious attention in the research community, but for those not familiar with it, could you give us a brief description, and then say something about why it is problematic on its face (particularly in light of the research discussed above)?

The basic idea is that there are five or six innate (evolutionarily prepared) bases for human “moral” judgment and behavior, namely fairness (which moral foundations theorists understand largely in terms of reciprocity), avoidance of harm, ingroup loyalty, obedience to authority, and the enforcement of purity standards. My main problem is that sometimes moral foundations theorists write descriptively as if these are purely subjective considerations—that people think and act as if morality requires us to obey authority, be loyal to the group, and so on. I have no problem with that descriptive claim—although this is surely only a small subset of the things that people might think are morally relevant—as long as we acknowledge that people could be wrong when they think and act as if these are inherently moral considerations.

At other times, however, moral foundations theorists write prescriptively, as if these “foundations” should be given equal weight, objectively speaking, that all of them should be considered virtues, and that anyone who rejects any of them is ignoring an important part of what it means to be a moral human being. I and others have pointed out that many of the worst atrocities in human history have been committed not merely in the name of group loyalty, obedience to authority, and the enforcement of purity standards, but because of a faithful application of these principles. For 24 centuries, Western philosophers have concluded that treating people fairly and minimizing harm should, when it comes to morality, trump group loyalty, deference to authority, and purification. In many cases, behaving ethically requires impartiality and disobedience and the overcoming of gut-level reactions that may lead us toward nepotism, deference, and acting on the basis of disgust and other emotional intuitions. It may be difficult to overcome these things, but isn’t this what morality requires of us?

There have been a number of initial critical studies published, which you cite in this new paper. What have they shown?

Part of the problem is that moral foundations theorists framed their work, for rhetorical purposes, in strong contrast to other research in social and political psychology, including work that I’ve been associated with. But this was unnecessary from the start and, in retrospect, entirely misleading. They basically said: “Past work suggests that conservatism is motivated by psychological needs to reduce uncertainty and threat and that it is associated with authoritarianism and social dominance, but we say that it is motivated by genuinely moral—not immoral or amoral—concerns for group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity.” This has turned out to be a false juxtaposition on many levels.

First researchers in England and the Netherlands demonstrated that threat sensitivity is in fact associated with group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity. For instance, perceptions of a dangerous world predict the endorsement of these three values, but not the endorsement of fairness or harm avoidance. Second, a few research teams in the U.S. and New Zealand discovered that authoritarianism and social dominance orientation were positively associated with the moral valuation of ingroup, authority, and purity but not with the valuation of fairness and avoidance of harm. Psychologically speaking, the three so-called “binding foundations” look quite different from the two more humanistic ones.

What haven’t these earlier studies tackled that you wanted to address? And why was this important?

These other studies suggested that there was a reasonably close connection between authoritarianism and the endorsement of ingroup, authority, and purity concerns, but they did not investigate the possibility that individual differences in authoritarianism and social dominance orientation could explain, in a statistical sense, why conservatives value ingroup, authority, and purity significantly more than liberals do and—just as important, but often glossed over in the literature on moral foundations theory—why liberals value fairness and the avoidance of harm significantly more than conservatives do.

How did you go about tackling these unanswered questions? What did you find and how did it compare with what you might have expected?

There was a graduate student named Matthew Kugler (who was then studying at Princeton) who attended a friendly debate about moral foundations theory that I participated in and, after hearing my remarks, decided to see whether the differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of moral intuitions would disappear after statistically adjusting for authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. He conducted a few studies and found that it did, and then he contacted me, and we ended up collaborating on this research, collecting additional data using newer measures developed by moral foundations theorists as well as measures of outgroup hostility.

What does it mean for moral foundations theory?

To me, it means that scholars may need to clean up some of the conceptual confusion in this area of moral psychology, and researchers need to face up to the fact that some moral intuitions (things that people may think are morally relevant and may use as a basis for judging others) may lead people to behave in an unethical, discriminatory manner. But we need behavioral research, such as studies of actual discrimination, to see if this is actually the case. So far the evidence is mainly circumstantial.

And what future research is to come along these lines from you?

One of my students decided to investigate the relationship between system justification and its motivational antecedents, on one hand, and the endorsement of moral foundations, on the other. This work also suggests that the rhetorical contrast between moral foundations theory and other research in social psychology was exaggerated. We are finding that, of the variables we have included, empathy is the best psychological predictor of endorsing fairness and the avoidance of harm as moral concerns, whereas the endorsement of group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity concerns is indeed linked to epistemic motives to reduce uncertainty (such as the need for cognitive closure) and existential motives to reduce threat (such as death anxiety) and to system justification in the economic domain. So, at a descriptive level, moral foundations theory is entirely consistent with system justification theory.

Finally, I’ve only asked some selective questions, and I’d like to conclude by asking what I always ask in interviews like this—What’s the most important question that I didn’t ask? And what’s the answer to it?

Do I think that social science can help to address some of the problems we face as a society? Yes, I am holding out hope that it can, at least in the long run, and hoping that our leaders will come to realize this eventually.

Our conversation leads me to want to add one more question. Haidt’s basic argument could be characterized as a combination of anthropology–look at all the “moral principles” different cultures have advanced—and the broad equation of morality with the restraint of individual self-interest and/or desire. Your paper, bringing to attention the roles of SDO and RWA, throws into sharp relief a key problem with such a formulation—one that Southern elites have understood for centuries: wholly legitimate individual self-interest (and even morality—adequately feeding & providing a decent future for one’s children, for example) can be easily over-ridden by appeals to heinous “moral concerns,” such as “racial purity,” or more broadly, upholding the “God-given racial order.”

Yet, Haidt does seem to have an important point that individualist moral concern leave something unsaid about the value of the social dimension of human experience, which earlier moral traditions have addressed. Do you see any way forward toward developing a more nuanced account of morality that benefits from the criticism that harm-avoidance and fairness may be too narrow a foundation without embracing the sorts of problematic alternatives put forward so far?

Yes, and there is long tradition of theory and research on social justice—going all the way back to Aristotle—that involves a rich, complex, nuanced analysis of ethical dilemmas that goes well beyond the assumption that fairness is simply about positive and negative reciprocity.

Without question, we are a social species with relational needs and dependencies, and how we treat other people is fundamental to human life, especially when it comes to our capacity for cooperation and social organization. When we are not engaging in some form of rationalization, there are clearly recognizable standards of procedural justice, distributive justice, interactional justice, and so on. Even within the domain of distributive justice—which has to do with the allocation of benefits and burdens in society—there are distinct principles of equity, equality, and need, and in some situations these principles may be in conflict or contradiction.

How to reconcile or integrate these various principles in theory and practice is no simple matter, and this, it seems to me, is what we should focus on working out. We should also focus on solving other dilemmas, such as how to integrate utilitarian, deontological, virtue-theoretical, and social contractualist forms of moral reasoning, because each of these—in my view—has some legitimate claim on our attention as moral agents.

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Ideology, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 3 Comments »

Systemic Justice Project in The Globe

Posted by JH on February 7, 2015

Jon Hanson Jacob Lipton Systemic Justice Project Below are excerpts from Courtney Humphries’s superb Boston Globe article about the Systemic Justice Project at Harvard Law School (cartoon by Sam Washburn and photo by Justin Saglio, both for the Globe):

From the first day, it’s clear that law professor Jon Hanson’s new Systemic Justice class at Harvard Law School is going to be different from most classes at the school. Hanson, lanky, bespectacled, and affable, cracks jokes as he paces the room. He refers to the class of 50-odd students as a community; he even asks students to brainstorm a name for the group. But behind the informality is a serious purpose: Hanson is out to change the way law is taught.

“None of us really knows what ‘systemic justice’ is—yet you’re all here,” he points out. The new elective class, which is being taught for the first time in this spring term, will ask students to examine common causes of injustice in history and ways to use law and activism to even the field.

Traditionally, students come to law school to master existing laws and how to apply them. But surveys given to the students in this class beforehand show that most are worried about big unsolved social problems—income inequality, climate change, racial bias in policing—and believe that law is part of the problem. The goal of Hanson’s class is to introduce a new approach.

The class is part of a new Systemic Justice Project at Harvard, led by Hanson and recent law school graduate Jacob Lipton. They’re also leading a course called the Justice Lab, a kind of think tank that will ask students to analyze systemic problems in society and propose legal solutions. Both classes go beyond legal doctrine to show how history, psychology, and economics explain the causes of injustice. A conference in April will bring students and experts together to discuss their findings.

Harvard’s project is an unusual one, but it arises out of a growing recognition that law students need to be trained to be problem-solvers and policy makers. As Hanson tells his students that first day, “If you’re thinking about systemic justice, you need to be thinking about legal education.” He believes that this education should be less about learning the status quo and more about how the next generation of lawyers can change it.

There’s widespread acknowledgment that justice is often meted out unfairly; decades of scholarship have shown how social biases based on race, gender, corporate interests, or ideology find their way into written laws. Nevertheless, Hanson says, law school classes don’t always give students the tools to counteract injustices. “My students have expressed increasing amounts of frustration with the fact that many of our biggest problems are not being addressed by the legal system,” he says. Lipton was one of those students. After graduating in 2014, he turned down a fellowship in Washington, D.C., to stay at Harvard and help Hanson see the new project through.

One of their targets is the case method of legal education, which has been the dominant form of teaching law in America since it was introduced at Harvard Law School by Christopher Columbus Langdell after he became its dean in 1870. Rather than lecturing his students, Langdell asked them to examine judicial cases of the past. Then, through a process of Socratic questioning, he would challenge students to explain their knowledge and interpretation of a case, allowing them to glean the deeper principles of the law, much like a scientist would examine evidence.

Though the case method has evolved since the 19th century, the primary text of most classes is still the casebook—a set of legal decisions chosen for their ability to illustrate legal principles. Professors who embrace it say this approach forces students—particularly first-year students with little legal training—to think like lawyers. “Within a few weeks, I have reprogrammed their brains,” says Bruce Mann, a law professor at Harvard who’s known for his rapid-fire questions in class. “That doesn’t mean that it is backward-looking. I’m really teaching them how to think.” Mann, like many professors these days, tries to put cases in a larger historical and social context.

Jon Hanson Jacob Lipton

But Hanson and Lipton believe that the case method, while helpful in the hands of skilled teachers, puts too much emphasis on what the law already is, rather than what it should be. It tends to assume that decisions of the past are fair and appropriate. Instead, says Lipton, “we think that legal education should start with what the problems are in the world.”

They also take issue with the way that law gets divided into categories—tax law, criminal law, property law, torts, contracts—each with different professors and different casebooks. Douglas Kysar, a law professor at Yale Law School and former student of Hanson’s who has embraced his interdisciplinary approach to the law, says that these divisions can hinder tackling issues that existing laws don’t address, and permits problems that run across disciplines to go unaddressed. “In each one of those fields, we often try to present the cases and materials as if they’re an efficient and fair whole,” he says. When something arises to challenge that picture, professors can pass the buck. For instance, in environmental law, one of Kysar’s specialties, it’s not always clear where the responsibility to fix a problem like pollution lies. “Everyone’s pointing their fingers at other systems that are supposed to address a harm,” he says. “There’s no place where you’re looking at the systems in a cross section.”

Hanson and Lipton also argue that the law focuses too much on the actions and disputes of individuals—and not even on an accurate vision of how individuals behave. “In many cases, the focus on the individual obscures what the actual problem is or what the solutions are,” Lipton says. Hanson, meanwhile, has long argued that the vision of the individual that exists in law isn’t well backed up by research. He directs the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard, which brings findings from social psychology and social cognition to bear on the law. The law generally treats people as rational actors making decisions based on their own knowledge and beliefs. In fact, Hanson says, research has shown that people are easily swayed by their circumstances. Through their academic writing and on a blog called The Situationist, Hanson and a growing group of like-minded scholars have argued that solving systemic problems means focusing more on forces that act on us, rather than assigning blame and punishment to individual actors.

A systemic approach to racial bias in policing, for instance, might look at psychological research on unconscious racial bias, police training techniques, and law enforcement policies in order to create a more just system, rather than on the actions of a specific officer. For the problem of rising student debt, another complex issue that students in the Justice Lab think tank are likely to tackle, it might look at federal loan systems that allow for-profit colleges to put students in debt without providing enough value in return. Another example is obesity and the food system; a systemic approach would look at ways that advertising, agricultural subsidies, supermarket zoning, and food service practices create an unhealthy system for consumers. “We want to examine the role that large commercial interests play in shaping laws,” Hanson says. Solutions might involve class actions, new regulations, or institutional changes.

. . . .Hanson thinks that the idea of systemic justice resonates now in a way that it hasn’t always in the past. “I think that is a reflection of the change in the mood in the country and in this generation of law students,” he says.

* * *

The Systemic Justice Project, though unique in some ways, is part of a larger effort introduce a policy focus into law school—Stanford Law School, for instance, recently launched a Law and Policy Lab that asks students to find policy solutions to real-world problems. “Traditionally, law school education has been doctrinal,” says Sergio Campos, a law professor at the University of Miami and visiting professor at Harvard. “You teach students what the law is and how to apply it.” . . . . “When you get to a position where you can change the law, you don’t have a background on policy and what it should be,” Campos says.

* * *

. . . Harvard law professor David Rosenberg . . . . believes law schools often leave students unprepared to think broadly. “Over and over again in my many decades at Harvard, students have told me that my advice contradicts their instruction in other courses that making social policy arguments is a confession of weakness in your legal position, and should be done, if ever, only as a last resort,” he says. “We’re de-training them.”

Rena Karefa-Johnson, a second-year student who’s signed up for both the Systemic Justice class and the Justice Lab, admits that some students simply want to learn existing law and don’t appreciate Hanson’s approach. But it’s been popular with students like her who are already active in fighting for social causes. “The law is inherently political,” she says. “He does not allow his students to learn the law outside of its context.”

Read entire article here.

Posted in Education, Law, Legal Theory, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

Stanford Prison Experiment – The Movie

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 2, 2015

From ETonline:

The Stanford Prison Experiment, which premiered this week at Sundance to mostly positive reviews, is not always an easy film to watch.

Much of the action takes place in barren 6-foot-wide hallway. The characters–seemingly normal and well-adjusted Stanford students recruited to participate in a landmark 1971 study about the psychology of imprisonment–take their role-playing as prisoner and guard to extremes, turning power-hungry, violent and occasionally sadistic. The “grown-ups,” led by researcher Philip Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup), watch a live feed of the action from a nearby office and fail to stop the abuse–fueled by their own power trips and unchecked ambition.

None of the men or boys come off looking very good in the film, though director Kyle Patrick Alvarez does a masterful job humanizing them. And it’s impossible to watch without wondering how you’d react if parachuted into Zimbardo’s simulated prison. Would you stand up for yourself–or for the humanity of others? And can we really know until we’ve been there?

“One of the big questions this film deals with is, ‘Are we who we think we are?’” Crudup said when we sat down in Park City, Utah, this week to discuss the film. “This story talks about the ways we don’t fulfill our own moral capacity, and that what we think of as our true self is actually the product of many different situations, institutions, and places.”

Crudup (Almost Famous) is excellent as Dr. Zimbardo, a man who so badly wants to affect positive change in the world–and have an impact as a psychologist–that he’s willing to let his study subjects endure psychological torture for what he perceives as a greater good. It isn’t until the sixth day, when his girlfriend and fellow researcher (played by Juno’s Olivia Thirlby) objects to the experiment’s direction, that he finally accepts the damage he’s doing.

Read entire review here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | 1 Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by JH on January 19, 2015

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

* * *

Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”


So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person’s] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Systemic Justice Blog

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 9, 2014


There will be an official announcement regarding our new organization, The Systemic Justice Project at Harvard Law School, in January.  That new organization will be collaborating with several other organizations, including the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School.

For now, we wanted to alert readers that, at least for the time being, blog posts related to both projects can be found at The Systemic Justice Blog.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Distributional Preferences

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 3, 2014

An article of interest in the latest issue of Psychological Science:

Subjective Status Shapes Political Preferences, by Jazmin L. Brown-Iannuzzi, Kristjen B. Lundberg, Aaron C. Kay B. Keith Payne (November, 2014).


Economic inequality is at historically high levels and rising. The United States has the highest level of inequality of all industrialized countries, with the wealthiest 1% of Americans owning nearly 50% of the country’s wealth (Keister & Moller, 2000; Wolff, 2002). Greater economic inequality within a society is associated with a variety of problems, including lower subjective well-being, shorter life expectancy, and increased crime (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Moreover, surveys show that a large majority of Americans would prefer a more equal distribution of wealth (Norton & Ariely, 2011). Curiously, though, the majority of Americans also tends to support tax cuts and reduced spending on social services aimed at reducing inequality (Bartels, 2005). What drives the public’s complex attitudes toward the distribution of wealth?

Two frequently cited factors are economic ideologies and economic self-interest. The ideology explanation assumes that attitudes toward redistribution are driven by a coherent system of principles governing how resources should be distributed. Individualist ideologies view an individual’s hard work and talent as the primary causes of economic outcomes, and generally oppose redistributive policies. Egalitarian ideologies assume that fairness entails treating everyone equally, and are generally supportive of redistribution. Although certain ideologies are consistently associated with attitudes toward redistribution, the evidence is almost exclusively correlational, leaving open the question of causal direction. We acknowledge that ideologies can cause people to support or oppose redistributive policies, but we suggest that the causal arrow can sometimes point in the other direction as well. That is, we suggest that the correlation between ideology and attitudes toward redistribution may in part reflect ideological justifications for policy preferences.

Consistent with this position is the fact that meritocracy and egalitarianism frequently coexist within the same culture and even within the same person. Kay and Eibach (2012) argued that people generally hold multiple, often contradictory, ideologies that become more or less accessible as a function of chronic and situational factors (Higgins, 1996). Growing evidence suggests that political ideology can be a reaction to psychological motivations (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003; Kay, Gaucher, Napier, Callan, & Laurin, 2008). Like beliefs of all kinds, ideologies are sometimes adopted because they satisfy particular needs. Even when motivational factors are at work, people tend to experience ideologies as principled beliefs about fairness and justice, rather than as arising from circumstance and self-interest (Ross & Ward, 1996).

Thus, we argue that policy preferences and the ideologies that legitimize them may also fluctuate on the basis of momentary motivations and self-serving preferences. Self-serving preferences, however, are not as straightforward as they seem. According to the self-interest explanation of attitudes toward redistribution, redistributive policies that take resources from the wealthy to provide benefits to the poor should be favored by the poor but opposed by the wealthy. Although some evidence supports this intuitive idea, the association between income and opposition to redistribution is small (Finseraas, 2009; Gilens, 2000; Kluegel & Smith, 1986). This may be, in part, because many citizens do not know what policies are in their self-interest. In one study, most Americans could not accurately identify whether the tax cuts of the George W. Bush administration would benefit them (Bartels, 2005), and about half of the beneficiaries of federal programs believe that they have never benefited from a government program (Mettler, 2010). Such inaccuracies suggest that subjective perceptions of status may be important in shaping attitudes toward redistribution and the ideologies they reflect.


. . . . We hypothesized that participants would support redistribution more when they felt low than when they felt high in subjective status, even when actual resources and self-interest were held constant. Moreover, we predicted that people would legitimize these shifts in policy attitudes by appealing selectively to ideological principles concerning fairness. In four studies, we found correlational (Study 1) and experimental (Studies 2–4) evidence that subjective status motivates shifts in support for redistributive policies along with the ideological principles that justify them.

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by JH on November 26, 2014

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Existing levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

* * *

No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Altruism, History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Jennifer Eberhardt Wins MacArthur!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 17, 2014

Congratulations to Situationist friend, Jennifer Eberhardt who is one of this year’s MacArthur Grant winners.

Eberhardt investigates the subtle, complex, largely unconscious yet deeply ingrained ways that individuals racially code and categorize people and the far-reaching consequences of stereotypic associations between race and crime.

To read numerous Situationist posts about Eberhardt’s research or presentations at Harvard Law School click here. To watch similar videos, visit the video libraries on the Project on Law and Mind Sciences website (here).

Posted in Implicit Associations, Law, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Trent Smith on Deep Capture and Obesity – SALMS Talk Friday!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 9, 2014

Trent Smith

The Economics of Information, Deep Capture, and the Obesity Debate
When: Friday 09/12/14 –  12-1pm
Where: WCC 1023

Are consumers susceptible to manipulation by large corporations?  Or are consumers basically rational, able to decide for themselves what to buy and how to live?  This lecture will argue that these seemingly contradictory views of the American consumer are not mutually exclusive, and in fact follow directly from economic models of imperfect information.  Examples of U.S. food industry practices, both historical and in the ongoing public debate over the causes of the obesity epidemic, serve to illustrate a broader phenomenon: when large industrial producers take steps to limit the information available to consumers, a market breakdown can occur in which low-quality products dominate the market.  As a result, consumer welfare and–in the case of food–public health suffers.  This would seem to represent a clear instance of the phenomenon known as “deep capture,” in which powerful commercial interests attempt to influence conventional wisdoms that might affect industry profits.

Please join SALMS and Section 6 for Professor Smith’s presentation and lunch (which will be provided).

Posted in Events, SALMS | Leave a Comment »

Ideology, Psychology, and Free Speech

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 7, 2014


From Today’s New York Times, here is a brief excerpt from an article about a revealing new study, co-authored by Lee Epstein.

In cases raising First Amendment claims, a new study found, Justice Scalia voted to uphold the free speech rights of conservative speakers at more than triple the rate of liberal ones. In 161 cases from 1986, when he joined the court, to 2011, he voted in favor of conservative speakers 65 percent of the time and liberal ones 21 percent.

He is not alone. “While liberal justices are over all more supportive of free speech claims than conservative justices,” the study found, “the votes of both liberal and conservative justices tend to reflect their preferences toward the ideological groupings of the speaker.”

Social science calls this kind of thing “in-group bias.” The impact of such bias on judicial behavior has not been explored in much detail, though earlier studies have found that female appeals court judges are more likely to vote for plaintiffs in sexual harassment and sex discrimination suits.

Lee Epstein, a political scientist and law professor who conducted the new study with two colleagues, said it showed the justices to be “opportunistic free speech advocates.”

Read the entire article here.

The role that ideology plays in law and legal decision making is the focus of the book, Ideology, Psychology, and Law, which contains numerous chapters by contributors to and friends of this blog including one co-authored by Lee Epstein.  Read more about Ideology, Psychology, and Law here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Ideology, Law | Leave a Comment »

The Gendered (Lookist) Situation of Venture Capital

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 4, 2014

If you’re in search of startup funding, it pays to be a good-looking guy.

A series of three studies reveals that investors prefer pitches from male entrepreneurs over those from female entrepreneurs, even when the content of the pitches is identical. Attractive men are the most persuasive pitchers of all, the studies show.

The findings are detailed in the paper Investors Prefer Entrepreneurial Ventures Pitched by Attractive Men, published in the March 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our paper provides concrete proof that gender discrimination exists in the context of entrepreneurial pitching,” says Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who coauthored the paper with Laura Huang . . . Sarah Wood Kearney . . . and Fiona E. Murray . . . .

As a behavioral psychologist, Brooks studies the situational variables that influence personal persuasion. Kearney, her twin sister, is an entrepreneur and scholar whose research is fueled by both a frustration with and curiosity about the dearth of venture capital for women. (In the first half of 2013, companies with at least one female founder secured some 13 percent of total venture funding, up from 4 percent in 2004, according to data from PitchBook.) Murray is Kearney’s thesis adviser. Huang, whom Brooks met in the initial stages of their research, studies the role of “gut feel” in investment decisions.


In their first study, the research team examined video recordings of 90 randomly selected pitches from three real-life entrepreneurial pitch competitions, held in various United States locations over a three-year period. In each case, a panel of angel investors had judged the pitches and awarded startup capital to the winners.

The researchers recruited a separate panel of 60 seasoned angel investors to watch the videos and code them across several measures, including physical attractiveness—rating the entrepreneurs on a scale of 1 (very unattractive) to 7 (very attractive). The coders were blind to the actual competition results.

The analysis showed a significant relationship between an entrepreneur’s gender and whether a pitch had been successful. Male entrepreneurs were 60 percent likelier to receive a funding prize than were female entrepreneurs. Among those male entrepreneurs, investor-deemed attractiveness led to a 36 percent increase in pitch success. But for female entrepreneurs, their looks had no apparent effect on the success of their pitches.

The second study was an experiment designed to isolate the effect of gender on pitch persuasiveness. The researchers used 521 participants to watch two entrepreneurial pitch videos online. In each case, one of the pitches had won funding in real life. Participants in the experiment, roughly half of whom were women, were tasked with guessing the actual winner, with the incentive of a monetary reward for a correct guess.

The pitches included still images and a voiceover narration by the entrepreneur. This format enabled the researchers to assign a gender to the entrepreneur—dubbing in a male voice for some videos and a female voice for others, while the content of the narrations remained identical.

All else being equal, 68.33 percent of participants favored ventures pitched by male voices, while only 31.67 percent chose female-voiced pitches. Importantly, the gender effect held steady regardless of the “investor’s” gender.

“We saw the same discriminatory effects between male and female participants,” Brooks says.

In the third study, . . .

* * *


In the secondary stages of their exploration, the researchers plan to dive deeper into gender dynamics. Among the questions they are pursuing: What happens when the female entrepreneur is perceived as stereotypically masculine vs. feminine? Is a female entrepreneur more likely to be funded if her business targets female customers? Will a successful track record increase a woman’s chances of securing capital?

Brooks is hardly shocked by the results of the studies thus far. “I was surprised to find the effects consistently across both field and lab settings,” she says. “But, in general, I find our results to be more sad than surprising.”

Still, she’s hopeful that the research provides a wake-up call to the venture capital industry.

“Awareness is a critical first step,” Brooks says. “Though gender in entrepreneurship has become a hot topic . . . , we haven’t seen much concrete data on the topic until now. We hope this research leads investors and entrepreneurs to become more supportive of male and female entrepreneurs alike.”

Read the entire article here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Francis Shen

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 30, 2014

FrancisShen_350Just a reminder that SALMS will be hosting a lunchtime speaker event tomorrow:

Professor Francis Shen will be speaking to us about the intersection of neuroscience and the law. This area of scholarship often delves into questions of mental illness, drug rehabilitation, and mental privacy, and other issues of mind. For those looking to learn more about this branch of legal scholarship, this lunch should be a good first look.

When: Monday 3/31/14 12-1pm
Where: WCC 1010
Free Lunch?: Of course

For an example of Francis Shen’s more recent work, here is a link to a recent article:

Posted in Events, Legal Theory, Neuroscience, SALMS | Leave a Comment »

Upcoming SALMS Talks

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 20, 2014

HLS Langdell

Francis Shen U. Minnesota Law School March 31st
The Intersection of neuroscience and the law
Joshua Greene Harvard College Psychology April 18th
Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

Stay tuned for more details.

Posted in Events, SALMS | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Criminal Defense

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 8, 2014

Debo Adegbile

An op-ed by Situationist friend, Sam Wheeler in (Talking Points):

On November 27, 1770, John Adams began the most important trial of his legal career. His clients were eight British soldiers who, when confronted by an angry gathering of Boston patriots, fired into the crowd, killing five. The soldiers were accused of murder and threatened with the death penalty. Adams was a patriot, openly and adamantly opposed to British occupation of the colonies, with no love of the British army. He took the case, which he called “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country,” because in this nation, even before its founding, every accused criminal is entitled to zealous legal defense.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate blocked the confirmation of Debo Adegbile President Obama’s nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Every Senate Republican voted against Adegbile’s nomination. They were joined by eight Democrats: Senators Casey, Coons, Donnelly, Heitkamp, Manchin, Pryor, and Walsh. The main charge against Adegbile is that, during the ten years he worked with the NAACP, he worked on a brief that successfully commuted the death sentence given to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a man convicted of murdering a police officer thirty years ago.

Sen. Casey said in a statement explaining his vote: “I respect that our system of law ensures the right of all citizens to legal representation no matter how heinous the crime.” It is difficult if not impossible to reconcile this statement with his vote against Mr. Adegbile. The right of every citizen to competent legal representation simply cannot survive in a climate where politicians punish lawyers for the acts of their worst, most despised clients.


Our justice system is fundamentally flawed, and many of the cracks and imperfections manifest in stark racial and economic disparity. . . .

Men and women like Adegbile spend their careers trying to fix these cracks and imperfections, striving to make sure that American citizens are only punished after they have been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of their peers, are only executed after having exhausted all appeals, and not a moment before hand. They throw their bodies between a prosecutor and their client so that the government must move mountains of incontrovertible evidence before it can take the life and liberty of a citizen. They are paid next to nothing, they work excruciating and unforgiving hours, and they go to work each day representing the people who can afford no other defense, who no one else will help.

They do these things not necessarily because they believe in the virtue or innocence of every client. Rather, they go to work every day because they understand that the only way to ensure that the rights and freedoms of virtuous men and women are not taken away without cause is to fight for the rights and freedoms of every person, regardless of crime or character.

I am currently a second year student at Harvard Law School. I go to school with some of the brightest young legal minds in the country, with the men and women who will undoubtedly shape the laws and legal institutions of the United States.

My classmates think seriously about what doors their choices will open and close. It’s incredibly hard to sell my friends on spending our careers like Adegbile knowing that it is now the practice of the United States Senate to punish public service.

There are already tremendous barriers to such a career. My school, like so many other prestigious institutions, is designed to be a waterslide to big law firms in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles. The vast majority of my classmates will end up in corporate law, eschewing a chance to make their living working for the common good. The choice is simple and understandable: corporate firms pay roughly three times what a first-year lawyer can receive in a public interest job, these jobs are secured during the summer of your second year, and they provide incredibly enticing job security in an increasingly competitive and precarious legal market.

Even my classmates who want to go into public service are wary of indigent criminal defense. They worry about the hours, the stress, and the compensation. They worry about being responsible for whether or not their clients spend their lives in jail. They worry about job security in a political climate where budgets in public defenders’ offices are routinely slashed. And they worry that the acts of their worst clients – the murderers, the rapists, the child molesters – will be held against them by their friends and family, by voters, and now by legislators in Congress.

So, the sell has just gotten harder. The Senate has sent an unequivocal message: that lawyers must beware of whom they represent. Should they have the opportunity to serve their country in high office, the men and women in the Senate will judge them not by their actions, not by their character, not by their achievements, but instead by the reputations and crimes of their clients.

In the aftermath of the Senate vote to block Adegbile’s nomination, I am left with only questions for the Senators who voted no.

What should I tell my classmates who are considering a career in indigent criminal defense? Should I tell them that they should not spend their lives representing the wretched, the despised, the friendless, for fear that they will be judged by people like you? How can we ensure everyone gets a zealous defense when lawyers are condemned for public service?

And while we’re at it, would you have voted against John Adams for defending the British soldiers that fired into the crowd during the Boston Massacre? Would you have voted against Thurgood Marshall for his defense of young black men accused of murder? Did you vote against John Roberts for representing eight-time murderer John Errol Ferguson? Does your humanity not teach you that the despised and the rejected are the most in need of help, compassion, and counsel?

We need our young lawyers to aspire to be the next John Adams and we must ask ourselves, in light of the Senate’s decision, how many will be willing to play that part. The number of lawyers who will stand and fight for those that society has condemned and who cannot advocate for themselves – already too few – will become vanishingly small. The Senate has told young lawyers that they must cast aside personal goals and ambitions if they choose to dedicate their careers to the belief that every citizen is entitled to a fair trial and a vigorous defense.

The Senate has raised the cost of such patriotism. I can only hope that there are those who remain willing to pay.

Read the entire op-ed here.

Posted in Law, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Situationist Torts at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 11, 2014

Frontier Torts Logo

From The Harvard Law Record (an article by Sara Murphy, Jessica Ranucci, Sean Cuddihy):

From the first day we marched into Professor Jon Hanson’s Torts class, it was clear that the course would not follow the traditional 1L torts syllabus. Professor Hanson, who is the Alfred Smart Professor of Law and Director of the Project on Law and the Mind Sciences, is well-known for his unusual course structure and material. He was charged with teaching us Torts last semester, but what we learned transcended the bounds of the traditional 1L curriculum. Professor Hanson teaches what he calls “situationist torts,” an approach to the law based in ideas from the mind sciences. He frames legal issues in terms of the “situation” and “disposition” of the actors involved, and demonstrates how legal institutions overemphasize the role of people’s dispositions (their freely made choices) when understanding and responding to problems. It is through this frame that he took us on an in-depth exploration of the evolution of tort law, from verses in the Torah to the present.

The class departed from many 1L pedagogical conventions. We read fewer cases, and for those we did study, we delved into the social and historical context. During a few class meetings we even engaged in imaginative reconstructions of the facts to help bring our presuppositions to light. There were no traditional cold calls. In the classroom, we focused on tort doctrine less than our peers— Professor Hanson provided us with videos and outlines so that we could efficiently learn the doctrine at home. For the final stage in our tour of the history of torts, we explored what Professor Hanson calls “Frontier Torts,” which are wrongs for which there currently exists no remedy in the civil legal system, but that could be on the edge of the expansion of liability. We spent weeks working in large groups on a final project applying situationist and dispositionist viewpoints to real-world problems. Most of us would agree that Frontier Torts week, which included presentations by our classmates and attorneys who are fighting on the frontiers of tort law, was the most memorable week of the semester. Even our final mandated that we apply our understanding of tort law to work towards fixing one of the largest problems facing America today.

Not everyone agrees with Professor Hanson’s ideas. Not everyone needs to. But we believe that generations of his students will remember his approach to understanding the law. Making whatever argument we can get away with to advance our side and presenting that argument as strongly as possible are important skills we learn throughout law school and will continue to develop throughout our legal careers. However, we believe that in the current 1L curriculum there is insufficient focus on the implications and motivations of the arguments we make and evaluate. Professor Hanson is one of the few 1L instructors to focus squarely and consistently on filling this educational gap. When the details of the cases and doctrine we’ve had to learn in most of our 1L classes have faded, his ideas will remain. They are applicable across subjects, and heighten our analytical abilities. We gained a framework for thinking about the law. We learned how to approach problems from a particular point of view. We learned how to recognize a pervasive type of bias.

We believe that Professor Hanson’s approach should play a greater role in the 1L curriculum and the legal profession. Essentially, it is the liberal arts educational ideal realized in the law school classroom. It taught us a mode of inquiry that is broadly applicable across situations. We then used that mode of inquiry to look at torts cases and understand why particular decisions may have been made, and to consider real, pressing societal issues and our approach to solving them. Our section may not be the best at telling you about the details of trespass to chattel, but we can pick out motivated reasoning and we can think creatively about how we, as future lawyers, can expand the frontiers of tort law to protect those who have been harmed in ways that are not yet recognized. What Professor Hanson left us with is a sense that we can do something about the problems that are encapsulated in (or omitted from) the law. Knowing how to clarify our thinking and address those problems by considering situational factors and challenging traditional assumptions seems more important than being able to regurgitate the Restatement (Second) of Torts.

Ohio attorney James D. Dennis, a guest speaker in our class and the winner of the 2013 Frontier Torts Award for his work to find civil remedies for workplace sexual harassment, wrote to our class about Professor Hanson:

“His teaching methods not only hone your abilities to think effectively like the excellent members of the bar and bench which you all are going to be, but also energize you to want to do it.” We couldn’t agree more. We would like to see more 1L classes that veer away from the traditional doctrine in favor of a more holistic and real-world pedagogical approach to each area of the law.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Education, Legal Theory | Leave a Comment »


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