The Situationist

Archive for January, 2007

Another Reason Not To Watch Drug Commercials

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 31, 2007


A study published in the current issue of the Annals of Family Medicine suggests that certain types of pharmaceutical advertising may be harmful to our health. According to the report, “American television viewers see as many as 16 hours of prescription drug advertisements each year.” All that tv time doesn’t come cheap, and it reflects a growing trend. Pharmaceutical expenditures on such commercials escalated from $654 million in 2001 to $1.19 billion in 2005.

The researchers, led by UCLA psychologist Dominick Frosch, “coded ads shown during eveninglunesta-small.jpg news and prime time hours for factual claims they make about the target condition, how they attempt to appeal to consumers, and how they portray the medication and lifestyle behaviors in the lives of ad characters.” And here is what they found:

“Most ads (82%) made some factual claims and made rational arguments (86%) for product use, but few described condition causes (26%), risk factors (26%), or prevalence (25%). Emotional appeals were almost universal (95%). No ads mentioned lifestyle change as an alternative to products, though some (19%) portrayed it as an adjunct to medication. Some ads (18%) portrayed lifestyle changes as insufficient for controlling a condition. The ads often framed medication use in terms of losing (58%) and regaining control (85%) over some aspect of life and as engendering social approval (78%). Products were frequently (58%) portrayed as a medical breakthrough.”

According to the researchers, the ads do not seem intended for educational purposes given that they provide only “limited information about the causes of a disease or who may be at risk.” Instead, the advertise tend to focus on “characters that have lost control over their social, emotional, or physical lives without the medication.” So what is their purpose? The ads seem primarily designed to tap into what Susan Fiske calls our “core social motives,” nexium.jpegincluding belonging, self-enhancement, and controlling.

Put differently, the pharmaceutical industry is betting billions on the idea that those of us who watch the nightly news — a shrinking group, to be sure — are situational characters and not the reasoning choosers we prefer to see ourselves as. And they succeed in part by selling us on the hope of improving ourselves and gaining control of our lives through choice — a choice to buy their product.

To listen to an NPR story about the report, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Food and Drug Law, Marketing | 2 Comments »

Time Changes Mind

Posted by J on January 30, 2007

time-person-of-the-year-image.jpgIt was only last month that Time was heaping praise on us for, well, just being us . . . and for doing the things we do, like “seizing the reins of the global media, . . . founding and framing the new digital democracy, . . . working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game . . . .” For our brilliance, hard work, and good choices, we were named and seemingly immortalized as “Time’s Person of the Year for 2006.

Being us was great back then, wasn’t it?

What a difference a month makes. Now that our 2007 magazine subscriptions are all paid up, and even before the glow of our collective blush has faded, Time turned ugly this week with a cover that might as well have read, “Hey you, “Person of the year for 2006”! Guess what, loser. You’re clueless!”time-cover.jpg

We should’ve known it couldn’t last. Just when we were getting comfortable with the notion that we were unexpectedly spectacular, Time’s editors whipsawed us back toward the terrestrial. How?

Easy. This week’s “Mind & Body Special Issue” provides accessible, well-written, fascinating overviews of some of the recent research in the mind sciences. Buzzkill!

Among Time’s “brain bank” is Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who provides the leading and longest article of the issue. Pinker cuts to the chase, taking aim at the most cherished component of our interiors, the very part that we always imagined made us so special, so human, so built for everlasting life: consciousness.

Illustration for TIME by Istvan Orosz

Within a half dozen, image-laden pages, Pinker peppers us with these bitter pills:

  • “Some of our deepest convictions about what it means to be human have been shaken”;
  • “[N]euroscientists agree . . . that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain”;
  • “Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain”;
  • “consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations”;
  • “the intuitive feeling we have that there’s an executive ‘I’ that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion”;
  • even “[o]ur authorship of voluntary actions can . . . be an illusion”; and, “people have a motive to sell themselves as beneficent, rational, competent agents.”

Not yet despondent? Just wait, there’s more. The implications of this mind-science research, Pinker claims, travel to questions about whether we will survive the death of our bodies (bye bye immortality) and whether we are, in fact, “free agents responsible for our choices.”

So, let me get this straight. In December, Time sells us on ourselves, giving us our propssteven-pinker-sm.jpg for choices well made. In January, Time brings in Professor Killjoy to inform us that we are active, if non-conscious participants in that selling and that we may not deserve much credit for our accomplishments. Makes me want to remove my museum-mounted Time cover from over the mantle and hide it under my bed until all this mind-science research fades from my consciousness or until my self-affirming motivated reasoning works its magic. But I won’t, because that’s just what they want me to do. And I can’t be manipulated. No, I can be, but I choose not to be. Don’t mess with “Time’s Person of the Year”!

Other disturbing articles and sidebars in the “Mind & Body” issue include: Time Travel in the Brain,” by Dan Gilbert & Randy Buckner; A Story We Tell Ourselves” by Antonio Damasio ; “How We Make Life and Death Decisions,” about Joshua Greene’s research; and “Marketing to Your Mind” about neuromarketing and research by scientists such as Read Montague.

Posted in Choice Myth | 6 Comments »

The Situationist Launches

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 28, 2007

quotations-image.jpgThe Situationist went live this morning. Part of a larger effort, including the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School (website forthcoming), this blog will provide commentary by social psychologists, law professors, policy analysts, practicing attorneys, and others connected to law and mind sciences. Our posts–several of which are already up–will address current events and law and policy debates, informed by what social scientists are discovering to be the causally significant features around us and within us that we believe are irrelvant or don’t even notice in explaining human behavior, that is “the situation.”

Situationism” represents a striking contrast to the dominant conception of the human animal as a rational, or at least reasonable, preference-driven chooser, whose behavior reflects stable preferences, moderated by information processing and will, but little else. Different versions of the rational actor model have served as the basis for most laws, policies, and mainstream legal theories, at the same time that social psychology and related social scientific fields have discovered many ways in which that model is wrong.

The Situationist, then, will be a venue in which the powerful, influential, but incorrect conceptions of the human animal come up against more accurate, if surprising and unsettling, realizations about who we are and what the law is and ought to be. Its content will reflect an emerging interdisciplinary trend in legal scholarship, as exemplified by the work of scholars such as Mahzarin Banaji, Gary Blasi, Martha Chamallas, Susan Fiske, Jerry Kang, Linda Hamilton Krieger, Lee Ross, David Yosifon and many others.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Jack Bauer and Growing Up Rich

Posted by Michael McCann on January 28, 2007

jack-bauer.jpgJack Bauer may be the greatest American ever. An agent of the United States government, his selflessness, patriotism, and intrepidness go unmatched. Yet perhaps his most inspiring characteristic is his willingness to sacrifice his life—and to endure a lot of accompanying pain—for the safety and well-being of the American people. Indeed, he never allows the situation to change his priorities; he is the true dispositional hero, one who unfailingly views his nation’s interests as paramount and whose behavior and choices always reflect that.

Unfortunately, Jack Bauer doesn’t really exist. He is a fictional character played by Kiefer Sutherland in the television series 24. And despite what Jack Bauer evidences on our TV screens, the human mind, even inside those most heroic, is deeply affected, often in unappreciated ways, by the surrounding situation. That is not to say that a Jack Bauer-type person cannot exist, but if he or she is out there, our nation should quickly turns its lonely eyes and find’em.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t look so quickly. After-all, the latest episode of 24 casts a slight shadow on this shining star. In the episode we learn that Jack apparently grew up in a highly-affluent family. Jack, who had not spoken with his father for over nine years, has to call him. But guess who answers the phone? “Sam”–an older man who Jack clearly knew and who appeared to be the Bauer family butler. Butler or not, it seemed highly probable that Jack’s dad was of profound wealth.

It was a surprising scene. Jack had seemed like the quintessential All-American hero, and until that scene, there was no evidence that he might have grown up with a silver spoon. Just the opposite, actually, his “toughness” and “resiliency” seemed to suggest that he might have come from an Oliver Twist kind of childhood. The resulting disappointment, ever so slight, has been evidenced on blogs and message boards alike.

But why should we care if, in fact, Jack grew up rich? Does that change the fact that (spoilers to follow) he was willing to endure 20 months of torture in a foreign prison in order to not spill state secrets? Or that his torture only ended because he was willing to endure worse torture and likely execution at the hands of a foreign terrorist because that was the only way to stop terrorist attacks in the U.S.? Or that he was willing to kill himself by flying a plane containing a nuclear bomb—one that was set to go off in Los Angeles—into the Mojave Desert? Or that he was willing to become a heroin addict as part of an undercover mission to prevent an Ebola-like virus from being released? Or that he was willing to kidnap the President of the United States upon learning that the President was a murderer? (end of spoilers) I could go on. If you watch the show you could come up with numerous other examples. The basic storyline is almost always the same: Jack breaks the law, thereby exposing himself to some combination of pain, incarceration, and condemnation, and he does so only because it is in the nation’s best interests.

So why should we care about his parents’ wealth? Why can’t the greatest American hero grow up rich and enjoy the same level of admiration? Like all of us, he didn’t select the circumstances in which he was born. Why do we need certain life stories to validate how we feel about someone’s accomplishments?

One explanation might relate to John Jost’s work on system justification theory. Jost has identified that we all have a powerful motive to embrace and justify the social systems to which we belong. He finds that people, even those disadvantaged by social systems, “justify and rationalize the way things are, so that existing social arrangements are perceived as fair and legitimate, perhaps even natural and inevitable.” Two of the more prominent ideologies in the U.S. are the “meritocractic ideology,” the idea that our system “rewards individual ability and motivation, so success is an indicator of personal deservingness” and “belief in a just world,” the idea that “people deserve what they get.”work-and-win.jpg

These system-justifying ideologies certainly seem observable when thinking about our social systems. We are culture that values the American Dream, the idea that hard-work, pluck, and determination can enable anyone to rise to success. Because of that, we tend to latch onto endearing narratives and vignettes of those Americans who intrepidly rose from poverty to wealth (and thus fulfilled the Horatio Alger story), while we tend to ignore aggregate statistics that confirm the more common difficulty of moving out of poverty in spite of work ethic. In that same vein, we have always seemed to have an uneasy relationship with wealth. Just consider how we believe firmly in equal opportunity, and yet we paradoxically loathe the estate tax (i.e., “the death tax”).

Of course, Jack Bauer isn’t the first person whose privileged upbringing attracts notice, and he won’t be the last. And more generally, perhaps we don’t like children of the rich because we can so obviously see that they didn’t “earn” it. But what about less obvious recipients of “situational support”? Bill Gates’ dad was a prominent lawyer; Warren Buffet’s dad was a Congressman; Michael Dell’s dad was an orthodontist. That is not say those three sons didn’t “earn” their success, but they didn’t exactly begin two touchdowns down, either. In fact, I suspect most of those who become successful get a lot of breaks along the way, and yet we tend to focus on their apparent dispositional qualities—work ethic, brains, doggedness etc. Perhaps we downplay their situational support because the more we recognize the power of situation, the less legitimate differences in wealth and status seem. And Jack Bauer or no Jack Bauer, that wouldn’t sound like the American Dream anymore.

Posted in Entertainment, Life, System Legitimacy | 6 Comments »


Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 26, 2007


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

FDA Wants Informed Choice

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on January 25, 2007

The Food and Drug Administration intends to use the Internet to help people better understand food labels. The concept is admirable, but will it make a difference?

The perception of obesity as the consequence of choice rather than of situation (or situationally constrained choices) is a clear The public health community has uncovered many of situational sources of obesity. Food Fight (by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Horgen at the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders) and Broken Scales detail many of those findings — everything from portion size and advertising to human biology, the economy, and agricultural policy seem to play a role. And the more scientists scrutinize, the more subtle causal forces they discover .

Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, director of the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has has recently conducted several studies suggesting that part of the cause might even be microbes. Yes, microbes. But not just any microbes. Hungry microbes bacteria.jpgthat live in our stomachs and share our food with us, while simultaneously helping us to digest it. As Dr. Gordon explained in an interview on NPR, scientists have had the ability to learn what lives in a person’s digestive tract only within the last few years. Today, with the help of genetic probes, they are able to take a census of each person’s stomach. What they have discovered is that the types of microbes — some of which are more effcient, effective calorie harvesters than others — vary depending on the weight of the person. Although there is much still to learn, Dr. Gordon’s research does suggest that “a large part of the difference between fat people and thin people may come down to” these hitchhiking, free-riding gut microbes.

Bacterial causes or not, if the situationists are correct, and if weight is influenced significantly by many factors beyond “choice,” then internet guidance on how to translate food labels is unlikely to have much effect. True, it could be of some use to those individuals with thetom-toles-cartoon-3.jpg opportunity and ability to visit the website and alter their consumption patterns significantly. But it could also hurt inasmuch as it further assures those who attribute obesity rates to individual choice, that the problem of, and solution to, obesity is to be found in each individual’s will or character. More or better information, in other words, may contribute to the “take personal responsibility” mantra that has been gaining volume in this country at roughly the same rate as many Americans have been. Changing those trends will require taking situation seriously.

Posted in Food and Drug Law | 2 Comments »

The Situational Character Goes to the Mall

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 25, 2007

In last week’s New York Times, John Tierney has a humorous article, “The Voices in My Head Say ‘Buy It!’ Why Argue?,” in which he summarizes some of the fascinating work being done by economic behavioralists and neuroeconomists, including Brian Knutson, Elliott Wimmer, Drazen Prelec, Cynthia Cryder, and George Loewenstein. The research is devoted to understanding why we buy some things and pass up others and on why spendthrifts are prone to the former, while tightwads do more of the latter.


With the aid of a functional M.R.I. machine, economic behavioralists were able to witness the neurological circuitry behind the “i gotta have it” and the “no way!” reactions. If looking into the black box is at all revealing, it seems many shopping choices are not exactly motivated by the utility-maximization calculations that neo-classical economists long imagined. Instead, something much simpler, though not exactly rational, is happening.

People buy those things that activate neurons in the pleasure center of their brains (thejohn-tierney-image2.jpg nucleus accumbens) and eschew products that activate the pain centers (the insula). No doubt, avoiding pain and seeking pleasure seems pretty rational, but the point is that the positive and negative arousal that lead us to anticipate rewards and pain are often manipulable and inaccurate. They lead to regret — or at least would, were we not such expert ex post rationalizers of bad outcomes. It appears that shoppers are not choosing based on anticipated long term pain and pleasure or, put differently, on stable preferences. No, it’s the on-the-spot affective responses that seem to determine our “choices.”

(That wide gap between who we imagine ourselves to be – preference-driven, thinking, willing choosers – and who science reveals us to be – situational characters – is at the heart of the situationist approach to law and policy.)

Tierney’s article is worth the read — it will stimulate your nucleus accumbens, without creating reader’s remorse. (Those who crave more detailed accounts of the research can access it here and here.)

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Marketing | 1 Comment »

The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Videogames

Posted by Michael McCann on January 25, 2007

Call of Duty 3 for PS3The increasing realism of videogames is unmistakable. With better graphics, enhanced sound, and more advanced plotlines, videogames are becoming frighteningly “lifelike.” While videogame humans still don’t look exactly like real humans, they will eventually. In fact, based on screens like the one to the left (which is from the game “Call of Duty 3“), that day seems to be approaching with great haste.

These new and remarkably vivid games invite numerous questions for legal scholars. One of the more fascinating questions is whether young persons become more likely to commit violence by playing violent videogames and, if so, whether that contribution should be considered legally-cognizable under tort law.

Several courts have already examined this question, including a Tennessee state court in Hamel, et al. v. Sony Computer Entertainment, Rockstar Games, and Wal-Mart, No. 28,613-III (Cocke County Cir. Court of Tenn. 2003). The claim, which asked for $46 million in compensatory damages and $200 million in punitive damages from the designer, marketer, and one of the retailers of the popular PlayStation 2 game “Grand Theft Autogta-violence.jpg (“GTA”)”, was brought by the decedents of a 43-year-old man shot and killed by two teenage boys while driving through Tennessee’s Great Smokey Mountains. The boys claimed that their experience playing GTA, which rewards players for shooting at pedestrians, inspired them to go on an actual shooting spree—a goal made infinitely more obtainable by their access to a parent’s shotgun. Jack Thompson, one of the lawyers for the plaintiff in Hamel, was recently profiled in Newsweek. Thompson insists that videogame companies owe a duty to consumers to either produce “responsible” games or to ensure that sales of violent ones go stringently regulated—and their failure to do either, in the view of Thompson, can cause tragedies like the one which befell Mr. Hamel.

Unfortunately for Thompson, the Hamel lawsuit failed, as have others like it. Courts have yet to identify an empirically-verifiable causal nexus between on-screen killings and real-life ones. Plaintiffs are likewise burdened by the sheer fact that most players do not seem inspired to commit real-life crimes or to suffer elevated aggression. For related reasons, courts have refrained from holding that videogame companies breach a duty of care to consumers by making, marketing, and distributing these games. Similar reasoning has been applied to other forms of violent entertainment, such as movies (e.g., Natural Born Killers) or songs (e.g., the works of Judas Priest) that allegedly inspire fans to commit crimes. But perhaps meaningfully distinguishing, videogame players, unlike movie goers or music listeners, control the characters on-screen and the game unfolds in large part based on the abilities and choices of those players.

The lack of litigation success has not dissuaded lawmakers from seeking to regulate violent videogames. In November 2005, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton co-sponsored the Family Entertainment Protection Act (”FEPA”), which aimed to impose significant fines on videogame retailers that fail to enforce game ratings. These ratings are determined by the videogame industry’s Entertainment Software Rating Board (”ESRB”). The ESRB’s most restrictive ratings are “Adult Only” and “Mature Only,” which are directed towards particularly violent and sexually-explicit games. Critics of the rating system contend that the ratings are not enforced; in fact, a more restrictive label, much like an NC-17 label for a film, can propel sales by making a game sound more realistic and compelling. More Videogame Playersrecently, in September 2006, Congressman Fred Upton proposed the Video Game Decency Act (H.R. 6120), which would require videogame labels to provide more detail and candor in revealing sexual content, with the expectation that more label information will enable parents to better select games for their children. Call it a “consumer choice” type of rationale.

Courts and lawmakers aren’t the only groups interested in the relationship between videogame violence and real violence. Social psychologists, like Jeffrey Goldstein of the University of Utrecht, have also weighed in. In comparing various studies, Goldstein concludes that videogame violence neither incites nor encourages real violence:

Even if we accept that there is a correlation between amount of time spent playing (violent) video games and aggressive behavior, there is no reason to think that games are the cause of aggression (Anderson & Dill, 2000; Colwell & Payne, 2000; Roe & Muijs, 1998). Furthermore, some correlational studies find no significant relationship with aggression (e.g., Sacher, 1993; van Schie & Wiegman, 1997).

To amplify Goldstein’s conclusion, other scientific research suggests that playing violent videogames may supply a therapeutic, healing benefit. According to a study of videogame players conducted by Dr. Bryan Raudenbush of Wheeling Jesuit University, videogames “can reduce pain and a high speed virtual death-match is more effective at dulling discomfort than an arcade classic like space invaders.” The study indicates that violent games are perhaps the best types of game for capturing the attention of their players and distracting them from what would otherwise ail them.

So if violent videogames are indeed therapeutic, we might wonder to what extent the “primacy effect”—the tendency for the first information received to carry more weight than later information on one’s overall impression—influences how the non-gameplaying public perceives violent videogames? After-all, many parents, judges, and lawmakers are worried about children playing violent videogames, and presumably many of them base their opinions on on-screen images rather than from actually playing the games. So perhaps the primacy effect is relevant: adults see children playing games that feature horrific images, which in turn dissuades them from wanting to try those games (or to learn more about the games), which in turn motivates them to dislike those games and to discount positive observations about the games and their effects on players.

But even if the primacy effect lends insight, new research on motivations behind playing videogames offers, at least by implication, a more sobering take. According to a recent study conducted by psychologists at the University of Rochester and published in Motivation and Emotion, playing videogames fulfills basic psychological needs, including autonomy, control, and competence. So why do videogame players feel obliged to simulate violence in order to satisfy their basic psychological needs? Why can’t those needs be satisfied by simulating charitable works or urban revitalization? I know, people don’t need to simulate good deeds on-screen: they can physically partake in them. But is that the real reason why games featuring those objectives would be considered incredibly lame and never sell?

I’m not sure, but perhaps our tendency to satisfy basic needs through videogame violenceSaddam Hussein Hanging relates to why we often condone or even praise real-life violence. Sure, there are plenty of times when we repudiate violence, but it is frequently the circumstances and situational factors of the violence rather than the violence itself. Just juxtapose public reaction to the hanging of Saddam Hussein (which most Americans supported) with reaction to the treatment of Hussein in the minutes immediately preceding his hanging (which many Americans seemed to oppose). Or take more routine circumstances—we embrace two boxers who savagely beat each other up, but assign criminal sanction to two street fighters engaging in the very same violence; we applaud and financially-reward a linebacker for sacking a quarterback with a harsh blow to the ribs, but we punish that same linebacker for exacting the same blow, except a foot higher on the quarterback’s body. Is it really the violence that we don’t like?

So maybe courts and various academics are missing a potentially larger point about violent videogames. Maybe we shouldn’t be looking for causation or duty or other elements of a tort claim. Maybe we should instead look for what those games say about the human animal—us.

Posted in Law, Life | 12 Comments »

Behavioral Realism Symposium

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 24, 2007

The California Law Review recently published an excellent collection of behavioral realist articles. The Situationist highly recommends the thoughtful and groundbreaking articles in the collection. (Some of the articles can be downloaded here or here and the close relationship of behavioral realism to situationism is discussed here.)



Vol. 94, No. 4 – July 2006california-law-review.jpg


Symposium on Behavioral Realism



Implicit Bias: Scientific Foundations

94 CALIF. L. REV. 945 (2006)

Anthony G. Greenwald & Linda Hamilton Krieger



The Law of Implicit Bias

94 CALIF. L. REV. 969 (2006)

Christine Jolls & Cass R. Sunstein



Behavioral Realism in Employment Discrimination and Law:

Implicit Bias and Disparate Treatment

94 CALIF. L. REV. 997 (2006)

Linda Hamilton Krieger & Susan T. Fiske



Fair Measures:

A Behavioral Realist Revision of “Affirmative Action”

94 CALIF. L. REV. 1063 (2006)

Jerry Kang & Mahzarin R. Banaji



System Justification Theory and Research:

Implications for Law, Legal Advocacy, and Social Justice

94 CALIF. L. REV. 1119 (2006)

Gary Blasi & John T. Jost



Discrimination and Implicit Bias in a Racially Unequal Society

94 CALIF. L. REV. 1169 (2006)

R. Richard Banks, Jennifer L. Eberhardt, & Lee Ross


Posted in Events, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Captured Science

Posted by J on January 23, 2007

thank-you-for-smoing.jpgIt’s widely accepted that a few industries have had an immense and deleterious influence over the “science” that regulators and consumers rely on to assess those industries’ products. Big Tobacco’s success in fomenting doubt and controversy, subsidizing friendly projects and scientists, and intimidating those who would disagree is the most notorious example. It’s the stuff of countless books and numerous movies. But the cigarette industry’s infamy poses a problem; it now stands as the great exception and not the great exemplar. “Yes, yes, Big Tobacco was evil, but we all know that. The bad apple has been removed from the barrel. Now how ’bout those Red Sox.”

big-pharma.jpgUnfortunately, what seems like the exception should be seen as the rule. The practices that the tobacco industry honed throughout the second half of the twentieth century are playbook favorites among the strategists, public relations experts, marketers, and lobbyists of any industry whose product is potentially dangerous to individuals or the planet.

If you are dubious, ask yourself why that wouldn’t be true? If the strategies worked for the cigarette — a product that is causally linked to more than 400,000 deaths per year in this county alone — why wouldn’t they be effective for other products. The presumption should be that the profit-maximizing suppliers of potentially dangerous products will adopt the tricks of the tobacco trade, and institutional and legal policies should be built on that presumption. And that’s true not just of the big-bad wolf industries – such as firearms, alcohol, and tobacco – but even of industries whose products are potentially life-sustaining or life-saving – such as food and pharmaceuticals.

This week, two reports were published, piling on additional evidence of the science-skewing situational effects of industry.

First, the Union of Concerned Scientists published “Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science.” The title of the sixty-three page exposé tells you much of what you need to know about its contents and tone. Though strident at times, the brief does a nice job of illustrating how a mere $16 million dollars went a long way toward buying time and buying cover.mojo-image.jpeg

That report is just the tip of the shrinking iceberg when it comes to such critiques of ExxonMobil. This summer, for instance, Mother Jones published a series of articles under the title “As the World Burns.” And the Sierra Club has a webpage devoted to “Exxpos[ing] Exxon,” on which you can view, exxonsecrets.gifamong other things, an animated movie, Toast the Earth, “a sad but humorous satire on Exxon and it’s science-bending, profiteering ways.” Meanwhile, Greenpeace has a webpage,, which ingeniously maps “howExxonMobile funds the climate control skeptics” at think tanks and various front groups.

The second report this week, titled “Relationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles,” is more scholarly in form and tenor than any of those. But the takeaway message is roughly the same: Industry investments in scientific debates are, from their perspective, dollars well spent.

A group of researchers from Children’s Hospital in Boston looked at the effects of research funding by the beverage industry – including soft drinks, juice and milk. The scientists gathered 206 relevant articles published between 1999 and 2003. With thatchildrens-hospita.gif sample, investigators, who did not know the articles’ authors, place of publication, or financial sponsorship classified each article’s conclusions as “favorable,” “neutral” or “unfavorable.” Meanwhile, another investigator who was not told of those assessments determined the funding source (22% were funded entirely by industry, 47% had no industry funding, and 32% had mixed funding) and classified articles as to whether a favorable finding would be beneficial, negative or neutral to its funder’s financial interests.

“The main finding of this study is that scientific articles about commonly consumed beverages funded entirely by industry were approximately four to eight times more likely to be favorable to the financial interests of the sponsors than articles without industry-related funding. . . . Our study also documented industry sponsorship was very common during the study period, indicating considerable potential for introduction of bias into the biomedical literature. In view of the high consumption rates of these beverages, especially among children, the public health implications of this bias could be substantial.”

When asked about sources of bias, Dr. David S. Ludwig, one of the study’s authors, indicated that the biases likely reflected subtle manipulations in the way the questions were framed or selection biases in which scientists were funded or which studies were david-ludwig.jpgpublished. Note that none of those sources likely involve scientists who are consciously biased or intentionally manipulating their data.

Still, consequences of the bias may be quite serious given that the role played by that literature in shaping governmental and professional dietary guidelines, the design of intervention programs, and FDA regulation of health claims on foods and beverages, and eventually “common-sense” perceptions of consumers.

According to the New York Times, Susan Neely, the President of The American Beverage Association, points her finger back at the study’s authors: “This isusan-neely.jpgs yet another attack on the industry by activists who demonstrate their own biases in their review by looking only at the funding sources and not judging the research on its merits.”

Similarly, Richard A. Forshee, a scholar whose research had been sponsored by the food industry reacted to the study with this assurance: “My co-authors and I rely heavily on scientific method in order to make sure we do not have bias in our studies.”

Of course, looking at the merits of an individual article or relying solely on the filter of “the scientific method” in a single study misses the point; the question is whether there exists a bias in the situation of science, not the the disposition of individual scientists or their studies. Taken alone, a bias can be extremely difficult to identify even by a study’s authors. How, for example, can one reliably identify the subtle consequences of seemingly trivial framing effects, unless one can test and re-test numerous alternative frames? And, of course, testing and re-testing requires funding . . . .

Posted in Deep Capture | 4 Comments »

Accidentally Us

Posted by J on January 23, 2007

david-linden.jpgIn March, Harvard University/Belknap Press will release David Linden’s new book, The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God. Linden is a professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University and has been studying and writing about neural function for many years.

His new book promises to reveal how, contrary to popular opinion, “the brain is not an optimized, general-purpose problem-solving machine, but rather a weird agglomeration of ad-hoc solutions that have been piled on through millions of years of evolutionary history” and, in turn how this evolved, path-dependent collection of quirks we know as the brain “have ultimately led to almost every transcendent human foible.

In a promotional interview, Linden had this to say about the inaccuracy of our self-perceptions:

In everyday life we behave with the implicit assumption that our sensory information is “raw data” and, if necessary, we can evaluate this datathe-accidental-mind.jpg dispassionately and, only then, make decisions and plan actions based upon it. This feeling that we have about our senses, that they are trustoworthy and independent reporters, while overwhelming and pervasive, is simply not true. Our senses are not built to give us an accurate picture of the extenal world at all. Rather, they have been designed to exaggerate certain features and aspects of the sensory world and to ignore others. Your brain then blends this whole sensory stew together with emotion to create a seamless ongoing story of experience that makes sense. We cannot experience the world in a purely sensory fashion, because by the time we are aware of sensory information, it’s already been filtered, molded, and deeply intertwined with emotions and plans for action.

It’s another version of the same message that again and again social psychology and the mind sciences are providing us: We are not who we perceive ourselves to be. That gap between perception and reality is precisely the gap that the neo-realists or situationists hope to bridge.

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Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by J on January 22, 2007

mlk1.jpgLast 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.”

Posted in System Legitimacy | 2 Comments »

Conference: The Troubling Language of Rape

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 22, 2007


The Judicial Language Project at the Center for Law and Social Responsibility at New England School of Law Announces its First Conference:

The Troubling Language of Rape: how eroticism, gender myths and victim blaming affect social and legal discourse.

Language affects all aspects of our lives – socially, culturally and legally. Rape myths and the use of erotic and sexualized language continue to permeate the discourse surrounding sexual assault, in both the media and the courtroom. This conference will bring linguists, social scientists, and legal scholars together to take a critical look at the language used in sexual assault discourse.


The conference is offered by the Judicial Language Project (JLP) at the Center for Law and Social Responsibility. The JLP, the only project of its kind in the country, uses socio-linguistic research to identify problematic language in judicial opinions for the purpose of focusing the attention of the judiciary, the bar, community activists and the public on its harmful impact. In doing so, participants in the JLP hope to reduce the use of needlessly erotic, sexist, minimizing or “blaming” language to describe sexually violent behavior, and to thereby affect society’s perceptions of sexual assault.

When: Saturday March 24, 2007 – 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM

Where: New England School of Law, 154 Stuart Street, Boston, MA 02116judicial-reporters.jpg

Confirmed Presenters:

Tory Bowen, Victim Advocate

Ross Cheit, Brown University

Linda Coates, Okanagan College

Justice Robert Cordy, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Lisa Cromer, SUNY Medical

Susan Ehrlich, York University

Toni Irving, University of Notre Dame

Wendy Murphy, New England School of Law

Penny Pether, Villanova Law School

Jonathan Saltzman, Boston Globe

Registration is free, but space is limited – Registration begins on January 16, 2007.

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The Economist Flirts with Situationism

Posted by J on January 21, 2007

Economist CoverIn a recent edition of The Economist, the editors sound a little like contributors to The Situationist. In the issue showcasing research on “happiness” (and how to measure it), they go beyond simply explaining how happiness is not exactly what neo-classical economists have traditionally assumed, and describe how science is demonstrating the potentially illusory aspects of the concepts of “free will” and “choice.” If happiness-yielding preferences, free-will, and choice are not causing behavior, then what is? The editors seem to acknowledge that the answer is what we would call, in broadest brush strokes, situation.

It’s an important concession, but one that is tempered by the context in which they make it. Their primary illustration is of a man with “paedophillic tendencies” — not your everyday “choice.” That is followed quickly by an illogical jump from evidence that behavior is often mistakenly attributed to “free will” (a basic premise of situationism), to the extreme (implicit) alternative that human beings are wholly without agency (not a premise of situationism). Based on that leap, the editors caution that without a faith in “free will”:

“the idea of responsibility for one’s actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society . . . together. If businessmen were no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, even though contract, crime and conception were ‘freely’ entered into, then social relations would be very different.”

Later, they warn that if we lose our “belief in free will,” our freedom itself will “erode[].”

As has been thorougly documented in the situationist literature, the “pedophiles running loose” and “your freedoms are at risk” bugaboos are two of the great tropes with which even sophisticated commentators avoid taking seriously the non-affirming lessons of science.

None of this is to gainsay the revolutionary implications of situationism, which does call on us to reconceive ourselves and reimagine our institutions. Nor is it meant to deny the pscyhological and practical difficulties of such a project. Relinquishing incorrect conceptions is extremely daunting when those conceptions are simplistic, common-sensical, and system-legitimating and the new conceptions have uncertain, and perhaps threatening implications. For such reasons, faith that our planet is flat renained long after Economist Free Will ImageGalileo, among others, provided convincing evidence to the contrary.

But allowing our fears to lead us, and not deliberative choice, is to accept in practice the very insight that is being rejected — particularly given that those fears are likely manufactured and motivated subconsciously. This topic, perhaps more than most, requires that we will ourselves to keep our fears in check and to excercise our judgments responsibly.

Recognizing that free will and choice are less causally significant than commonly assumed does not mean the end of responsibility, nor does it portend the end of society. Quite the contrary: It makes room for situational and system responsibility — which calls on all of us, indvidually and collectively, to take greater responsibility for influential and malleable situational forces. That cannot happen if we deny their very existence and allow our illusions and fears to eclipse the truth and, in turn, our freedom to choose.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, System Legitimacy | Leave a Comment »

Welcome to The Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 21, 2007

Thank you for clicking on The Situationist. Our blog is associated with The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School, a website for which will be coming soon.  The Project is devoted to identifying, inventorying, archiving, blogging, and otherwise promoting research, writing, conferences, colloquia, and presentations directed toward understanding the implications of social psychology, social cognition, and other related mind sciences for law, policymaking, and legal theory. The Project was created by Jon Hanson and Michael McCann with valuable input from a The Situational Justice Reading Group at Harvard Law School and Carol Igoe. Our blog postings will examine related topics, particularly as they relate to law and society.

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