The Situationist

Archive for March, 2007

Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on March 30, 2007

John Thompson IIIEarlier this week, we wrote about how group identification and disidentification — “us” and “them” — gives rise to various motivated attributions of causation, responsibility, and blame. Our analysis focused on college basketball fans in the height of March Madness. The motivated attributions we discussed include the ultimate attribution error, which leads fans to attribute positive behavior by their favorite teams to positive dispositional attributions (e.g., “our players are so talented“; “they have the heart of winners,” “no one works harder than our team“; “that’s just smart basketball“; “gotta love the character of these fellas, they don’t give up even when they’re down“; “it’s great to see people earn something through merit“). However, similar motivations often lead those same fans to make situational attributions of positive behavior by or outcomes for rival teams (e.g., “their guys have been so lucky this season“; “let’s face it, the refs have been on their side from the tip-off“; “it’s easy to do well when you have an easy schedule“; “it’s disgusting how these guys and their coach kiss-up to the media“). Visa versa for negative in-team outcomes and positive out-team outcomes (e.g., “of course we’re losing, the idiot refs are letting those cheaters fowl like crazy“).

As we indicated in the earlier post, those and other attributional tendencies reflecting group membership have been evidenced by social psychologists in countless settings. The classic demonstration was that of Muzafer Sherif in his Robber’s Cave experiment. But outside of social science, the evidence is ubiquitous — from the ballfield to the battlefield, from blood feuds to the war on terror, and from ageism to xenophobia. As other posts on The Situationist have discussed (e.g. Black History is Now; Implicit Bias and Strawmen) group associations also matter considerably when our attributions cause us, often unknowingly, to interpret another’s behavior based on his or her race.

All this brings us to a recent article by Sean Gregory in Time Magazine in which he considers why so many fans are surprised that the Georgetown University men’s basketball team has been able to grasp the “complex, precise” offense used by Princeton University’s men’s basketball team for so many years.Allen Iverson John Thompson

For those who need it, here’s an abridged history: For many years, Georgetown University’s men basketball team has almost exclusively featured African-American players, including superstars like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson. When the Hoyas played well, as they often did under former head coach John Thompson, they were heralded for their aggressiveness and athleticism, especially on the defensive end. But when they played poorly, as they often did after John Thompson’s 1999 retirement, they were roundly criticized for unsophisticated offensive designs and lack of on-court discipline.

That would all change when John Thompson III, the son of John Thompson, was hired as head coach of the Hoyas in 2004. He had been head coach of Princeton University’s men’s basketball team since 2000. Thompson III brought with him the “Princeton Offense,” which had been developed by former Princeton coach Pete Carril and which emphasizes passing, Princeton Offensepositioning, pick-setting, and disciplined teamwork. It’s most best-known feature is the “backdoor pass,” where one player moves in towards the basket and then receives a bounce pass from a guard on the perimeter, and “finds himself with no defenders between him and a layup.” In short, the Princeton offense is premised on “playing smart” and having a “high basketball I.Q.”

You see where this is going. When John Thompson III was hired by Georgetown in 2004, he said that he was going to implement the Princeton Offense at Georgetown University. As Sean Gregory writes, Thompson wasn’t too thrilled when others expressed doubts about his plan, but even his own Hoya players knew that the stereotype about the “black athlete” would be activated. Sean Gregory picks up there:

“That whole line of questioning is baffling,” insists Thompson III, 41, whose Hoyas mounted a bracket-saving comeback against North Carolina in the East Regional tourney to send Georgetown to its first Final Four in 22 years . . . .

Thompson, more than anyone else, knows what drives the doubters: a hoops stereotype that says black guys play with their bodies and white guys with their brains. And even if the 2007 Hoyas fail to win the national title on April 2 in Atlanta, Thompson’s team has done more to smash that perception than any other in recent memory. “If you think of the Princeton Offense, you wouldn’t think a team of African-American guys can run it,” notes Georgetown star Jeff Green, whose last-second bank shot against Vanderbilt in the regional semifinals kept the Hoyas on their magical run. Why? he asks himself, mocking the ignorance. “Because we’re not disciplined’ enough.”

After all, the athletic (read: black) guys need to push the ball up the court and run one-on-one plays to showcase their skills. You can’t hold them back by running that 1960s hayseed Princeton junk. Plus, only the smart, 1500-SAT (read: white) kids can learn those sets. The slower (read: very white) players need to milk the clock, move without the ball and throw those tricky backdoor passes to compete. So goes the code.


Fellow Situationist John Darley, along with co-authors Jeff Stone and Zachary W. Perry, has studied racial stereotypes in basketball. In 1997, Darley and co-authors published White Men Can’t Jump”: Evidence for the Perceptual Confirmation of Racial Stereotypes Following a Basketball Game in Basic and Applied Social Psychology. Here is the abstract from their study:

An experiment was conducted to demonstrate the perceptual confirmation of racial stereotypes about Black and White athletes. In a 2 x 2 design, target race (Black vs. White) and target athleticism (perceived athletic vs. unathletic) were manipulated by providing participants with a photograph of a male basketball player. Participants then listened to a college basketball game and were asked to evaluate the target’s athletic abilities, individualjordan-bird.jpg performance, and contribution to his team’ s performance. Multivariate analyses showed only a main effect for target race on the measures of ability and team performance. Whereas the Black targets were rated as exhibiting significantly more athletic ability and having played a better game, White targets were rated as exhibiting significantly more basketball intelligence and hustle. The results suggest that participants relied on a stereotype of Black and White athletes to guide their evaluations of the target’s abilities and performance.

Jeff Stone, Darley’s co-author in the White Men Can’t Jump study, is a social psychologist at the University of Arizona, where he runs the Social Psychology of Sports Lab. In conjunction with the lab in 2004, he and student Ross Parnell studied people’s beliefs about the relationship between age, gender, and performance in sports. They surveyed 1,500 male and female students of varying races/ethnicities and asked them to rate the following characteristics of Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian male and female athletes: (1) athletic ability; (2) intelligence; (3) emotionality; (4) and work ethic. Here is a summary of their findings:

  • Black athletes were rated higher in natural athletic ability and work ethic than sports intelligence or emotionality. This pattern did not depend on the race or gender of the perceiver—everyone, including Black perceivers, rated Black athletes this way.
  • White athletes were rated higher in sports intelligence and work ethic than natural ability and emotionality. This pattern also did not depend on the race or gender of the perceiver—White perceivers agreed.
  • Hispanic athletes were rated lower than Blacks and Whites in natural ability and intelligence, but higher in emotionality and work ethic.
  • Hispanic perceivers, however, rated Hispanic athletes higher in intelligence and natural ability compared to White, Black or Asian perceivers. In other words, Hispanics disagreed with how everyone else saw their group on these attributes.
  • Asian athletes were rated high in intelligence, but very low in natural ability, emotionality, and work ethic. Again, there was high agreement among the perceiver groups on these ratings.
  • Female athletes were rated lower in natural ability than male athletes regardless of their race. Surprisingly, women rated female athletes the same way that men did. This suggests that people generally believe that women are less athletic than men.

As Claude Steele has found through stereotype threat, and as Stone and co-authors have found through their application of stereotype threat to sports, white athletes perform significantly worse than black athletes when performance is said to measure “natural athletic ability,” while black athletes perform significantly worse than white athletes when performance is said to measure “sports intelligence.” Stereotype threat in sports is a subject that one of us is presently researching in the context of the NFL Draft and the Wonderlic Exam.

brain-image.jpgIn sum, the lessons of social psychology and social cognition usefully illuminate the questions in Sean Gregory’s story. An explanation for why many people questioned how well Georgetown players would “grasp” the Princeton Offense is to be found in the largely subconscious knowledge structures and implicit associations in our minds and reproduced and reinforced in our culture and institutions. This is not a sports phenomenon; it’s a human phenomenon expressing itself in the sports context.

The Hoyas’ success has helped to challenge some of the stereotypes and prejudices in the basketball world. Perhaps if more of us understood the situational sources of such attitudes, that same success could also help to challenge the larger network of racialized attitudes and behaviors that harm some groups and help others in the “real world.”

Go Hoyas!

Posted in Implicit Associations, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 8 Comments »

Zimbardo on Daily Show – Tonight!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 29, 2007

zimbardo2.jpgTonight on Comedy Central’s Daily Show, watch Phil Zimbardo share a little situationism with John Stewart.

John Stewart

The show airs at 11:00 pm, and is replayed again on Friday March 30, 1 & 10 am and 2 & 8 pm.


Update: You can view the Daily Show Interview here.

(For a less humorous, but more detailed and illuminating interview, you can listen to Christopher Lydon’s Open Source interview of Phil Zimbardo on Thursday here or to Claudia Dreifus’s New York Times video interview  here.)

Posted in Events | Leave a Comment »

With God on Our Side . . .

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 29, 2007

Bob Dylan opened his famous 1963 song with these words:

Oh my name it is nothin’dylan-album.jpg
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side.

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.


An article published in the March issue of Psychological Science provides some new evidence confirming that old hypothesis — there exists a causal relationship between certain types of religious indoctrination and violence. The University of Michigan’s Brad Bushman and his colleagues conducted laboratory tests in which exposure to scripturally sanctioned violence tended to incresase violence, particularly among believers. A press release included this basic description of the research:

Mark Bryan, Holy Wars, available at

The authors set out to examine this interaction by conducting experiments with undergraduates at two religiously contrasting universities: Brigham Young University where 99% of students report believing in God and the Bible and Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam where just 50% report believing in God and 27% believe in the bible.

After reporting their religious affiliation and beliefs, the participants read a parable adapted from a relatively obscure passage in the King James Bible describing the brutal torture and murder of a woman, and her husband’s subsequent revenge on her attackers. Half of the participants were told that the passage came from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament while the other half were told it was an ancient scroll discovered in an archaeological expedition.

In addition to the scriptural distinction, half of the participants from both the bible and the ancient scroll groups read an adjusted version that included the verse: “The Lord commanded Israel to take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the LORD.”

The participants were then placed in pairs and instructed to compete in a simple reaction task. The winner of the task would be able to “blast” his or her partner with noise up to 105 decibels, about the same volume as a fire alarm. The test measures aggression.

As expected, the Brigham Young students were more aggressive (i.e. louder)// with their blasts if they had been told that the passage they had previously read was from the bible rather than a scroll. Likewise, participants were more aggressive if they had read the additional verse that depicts God sanctioning violence.

At the more secular Vrije Universiteit, the results were surprisingly similar. Although Vrije students were less likely to be influenced by the source of the material, they blasted more aggressively when the passage that they read included the sanctioning of the violence by God. This finding held true even for non-believers, though to a lesser extent.

The research sheds light on the possible origins of violent religious fundamentalism and falls in line with theories proposed by scholars of religious terrorism, who hypothesize that exposure to violent scriptures may induce extremists to engage in aggressive actions. “To the extent religious extremists engage in prolonged, selective reading of the scriptures, focusing on violent retribution toward unbelievers instead of the overall message of acceptance and understanding,” writes Bushman “one might expect to see increased brutality.”

According to Bushman and colleagues, the results do not indicate that religious people
are more aggressive than nonreligious people, nor do they mean that reading the scriptures leads to aggression. “Violent stories that teach moral lessons or that are balanced with descriptions of victims’ suffering or the aggressor’s remorse can teach important lessons and have legitimate artistic merit. But taking a single violent episode out of its overall context, as we did in these studies, can produce a significant increase in aggression.”

Others have studied the significance of context for such messages. In this month’s Nature, Sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, summarizes some of his research as follows: “If violence is presented as the authoritative voice of God, it can increase the possibility of more violence. But everything depends on how it is presented.” The article continues:

The same passage placed in a non-threatening, historical context might not promote aggression . . . . Nevertheless, when scriptural violence is used to promote hostility, it is extremely effective, Juergensmeyer adds. Invoking religious justification allows a political leader to believe in promises of immortality and spiritual rewards that can be powerful motivators. “Religion is not the problem,” he says. “But it can make a secular problem worse.”

Solutions won’t be easy. According to the article in Nature, Theologian Hector Avalos of Iowa State University,

has proposed a radical solution to theologically inspired violence — cut the violent passages out of the scripture. It’s a wildly controversial idea that ought not to be, he says, because spiritual leaders effectively do that on a regular basis. “A lot of churches have a series of passages that they read during the year,” says Avalos. “And usually they don’t choose the passages involving genocide.”Michelangelo’s God

Cutting out portions of the scriptures does seem controversial, which brings us back to the simpler solution that Dylan imagined:

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war.

Posted in Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

March Madness

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on March 27, 2007

George Mason and Georgia Fans 3

Watching this year’s tournament, it is difficult not to notice the profoundly passionate (mad?) fan baseDuke Fans enjoyed by so many teams. We’re not just talking about the “Go! Go! Rah! Rah! Siss Boom Bah!” of conventional cheering sections. We’re talking about camping overnight (sometimes over two nights) on cold, wet sidewalks to queue up for pricey game tickets. We’re talking about full-on body painting — face, hair, the works — to exhibit team spirit. And, in some cases, we’re talking about taunts and jeers directed at the opposing team and their equally, um, “enthusiastic” supporters. Those familiar with the “Duke Sucks” refrain know what we are talking about. Of course, this is nothing new. And, for the fans of some teams, the devotion lasts all season.

Among “true fans” there seems to be a race to excess, as the images above of Duke, George Mason and Georgia fans indicate. These fans care. A lot. True, all those teams have been eliminated in this year’s tournament, including the Blue Devils who were knocked out in the first round. Regardless, no one can say that these fans didn’t do their part to will their teams to victory — blind faith, unlimited allegiance, and some fluorescent body paint, such is the stuff of deep fandom.

Maryland Fans RiotingFew things feed the fires of madness quite like success. Otherwise ordinary (intoxicated) college students turn into “mobs” following an important team victory. To the left we see a photo of Maryland fans rioting after their team . . . won the NCAA title. “Yay us! I know, let’s burn some furniture to celebrate.”

So what is going on? How can teams do this to us? Why would John Q. Freshman and Jane Q. Sophomore go to such extremes, spending so much time, energy, money, even dignity, to root for their school? After-all, most college fans could as easily have gone to another college, even a rival college; and the students at Them University are often indistinguishable from those at Us University, except for their college affiliation and bumper stickers.

Still, to most of us, bumper-sticker distinctions are enough to justify our love for our team and our loathing for theirs. After all, Us U. accepted us, while Them U. accepted them. “It’s Us against Them! Let’s torch the sofa!”

Bluto Blutarsky and The Heights Pictorial

There are many partial explanations for this strange behavior — which is rendered particularly puzzling in light of our more general self-conceptions as individuals living in an individualistic culture. Of course, we are not just individuals doing things our own way according to our own moral compass and preferences. Our own identities are largely wrapped in group associations that are no less random than, among countless other variables, where we are born or the the acceptance and rejection letters of college admissions committees. And once we have identified in-groups and out-groups, our attributions and understanding of the world is interpreted through those distorting lenses. Thus, as Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske has written with Shelley Taylor, the categories carry their own weight: “Simply categorizing people into groups minimizes within-group variability and maximizes between-group differences”:

Categorization’s effect of reducing perceived variability is even stronger when people are considering groups to which they do not belong. A group of outsiders (an outgroup) appears less variable than one’s own group (ingroup) . . . . Minimizing the variability of members within an outgroup means that they are not being recognized as distinct individuals as much as they would be if they were perceived as ingroup members.

Social psychologists have also discovered that these groups give rise to various motivated attributions of causation, responsibility, and blame — including the “ultimate attribution error”: In-group members tend to make internal (dispositional) attributions to positive in-group behavior and negative out-group behavior, as well as external (situational) attributions to negative in-group behavior and positive out-group behavior.

It may be tempting to conclude that such tendencies of individuals to coalesce into a highly regulated and constraining collective unit is limited to just drunken, hormonally hyper, college students. No doubt, that helps. But the madness of March runs much deeper than that. Need we say more than Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees? In case you answered “yes,” consider the following two quotations from two baseball fans, who, we suspect, have much in common. First, the Yankees fan:

Down at St. Marks Ale House in the East Village, a 25-year old fan said: “The worst would be losing to Boston fans because they’re such ignorant, bitter people. They’re so used to losing, all they have is hate. There’s no humility. That’s what we want to see. We want to see humility.”

Ok, now the Red Sox fan:

“We don’t hate the Yankees because they suck at baseball, I think it’s obvious they don’t, we hate them because they are all stuck up jerks who are all over-paid just because all their fans are bad losers and they need to pay guys millions of dollars so they can win. Besides that, they are all drunken freaks on crack (well, a lot of them are).”

Kid Saying Yankees Suck!

(As objective scholars, we think it important that we remain neutral by simply pointing out the obvious: the second quotation is credible while the first one is clearly the drunken rantings of Yankee crackpot.)

Speaking of drinking, although alcohol might exacerbate the team-oriented behaviors and prejudices, it occurs among the sober as well. Indeed, one of social psychology’s best-known, classic experiments involved this phenomenon among kids at camp. Eliot Smith and Diane Mackie, two experts on group behavior, summarize the experiment in their Social Psychology Text as follows:

On June 19 1954, two groups of 11-year-old boys tumbled out of buses to start summer camp in the Sans Bois mountains near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Robbers Cave State Park, name for the hideout of he notorious outlaw Jesse James, offered a 200-acre site with fishing, swimming, canoeing, hiking, and the usual camp games and sports. The new arrivals were ordinary White, middle-class boys with no record of school, psychological, or behavioral problems. They had nothing on their minds except high hopes for a fun-filled 3-week vacation.

The camp was more than it seemed, however. Unknown to the boys, their parents had agreed to let them participate in a field study of intergroup conflict set up by Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues — a study that came to be known as the Robbers CaveMuzafer Sherif 2 experiment . . . . The boys did not know that the camp counselors and directors were social psychologists and research assistants. Nor, at first, did members of each group know that another group was sharing the campsite.

During the first week, as they took part in separate activities designed to promote group cohesion, each group developed norms and leaders. They gave themselves names, the Eagles and the Rattlers, and each group designed a flag. Toward the end of the week, the groups discovered each other. Seeing “those guys” using “our ball field” and “our hiking trails” sparked demands for a competition. The staff was only too pleased to arrange a 4-day tournament including baseball, tug-of-war, a treasure hunt, and other events. The experiments even promised the winners a fancy trophy, shiny badges, and four-bladed pocketknives. Both groups practiced hard, cheered their teammates, and roundly booed and insulted the competition. Hostilities escalated as the tournament progressed, culminating in a flag-burning when the Eagles lost the tug-of-war.

Muzafer Sherif Rattlers Eagles 3

The Eagles ultimately won the tournament, collecting the trophy and the coveted pocketknives. But while they were taking a celebratory swim, the Rattlers raided their cabins and stole the prizes. The rivalry had turned into full-blown war, and the staff was kept buys silencing the name calling, breaking up fist fights, and cleaning up after cabin raids and food fights. The experiment had transformed 22 perfectly normal boys into to gangs of brawling troublemakers, full of hostility and intent on exacting revenge for every real or imagined slight.

In short, the subjects in the Robber’s Cave experiment behaved very much like the subjects in the natural experiments in, among other places, college athletics. Randomly assigned and “normal” people can, with only the tiniest situational manipulations, readily form strong in-group alliances and robust out-group aversions.

One might be tempted to conclude that extreme “groupism” or “teamism” is limited to the irrelevant — that fans allow themselves to get swept up in, say, the NCAA tournament or the Eagles and Rattlers engaged in food fights and cabin raids solely because it’s fun, and there’s no real harm in it.

According to that account, people care so much about their teams in part because, in the grand scheme, their team’s performance matters so little. With the premise, we wholeheartedly agree: It is hard to know why it matters who makes it to the Final Four. We say that, though, not as big-dance killjoys, but as hard-core fans who actually care a great deal — though for reasons that are beyond the grasp of our conscious minds. And so it is that we have serious doubts that about the argument that our concern with sports is simply all in fun. We think it more likely that the “all in good fun” rationalization is what we offer to make sense of the disproportionate role that sports play in our lives — something akin to an alcoholic announcing that he drinks because he enjoys drinking and not because he is addicted.

Regardless, there seem to be other situations in which our team-oriented tendencies do clearly matter — do pose meaningful risk of harm to others or ourselves. And in those moments, the dynamics seem strikingly familiar. The body paints and costumes of the bleachers have much in common with the body paints and uniforms of blood feuds and battlefields. Blind faith, unlimited allegiance, and some camouflaging body paint; that is the stuff of armed combat. Team affiliation — “us versus them” — is the stuff local violence and global wars. Teams identified by schools, clans, genders, races, regions, religions, languages, nations get swept up in the excesses of “us and them,”often in ways that can only be described as irrationally self-destructive. So it is, that, particularly in retrospect, we are befuddled by the spats, fights, battles, and wars that others have fought (or that we ourselves were embroiled in previously): “Why did it matter so much? What were they thinking? Were those people mad?”

Iraq Burning 4

Sports have long been understood as a powerful means of teaching and learning lessons about life — about winning and losing, hard work, competition, and teamwork. But sports have a lot to teach us about ourselves that we seem to want to ignore and might not want to admit. Sports reflect and exploit tendencies that have both good and bad effects. Why not dwell a little lesss on the former and focus a bit more on the latter?

// Madness for all its fun and irrelevance may be a symptom of a deeper tendency — a madness of sorts — that social psychologists have long seen at the heart of intergroup aggression and conflict. Parents, teachers, coaches, universities and the like should focus on that tendency and the questions it raises such as: How is it that largely random and often insignificant variations can determine who is “us” and who is “them”? Why do we so quickly, easily, unthinkingly fall into line behind the flag of the perceived “us,” so ready to attack those who we perceive as “them.” Why are we so stingy with our empathy and so generous with our self-righteousness toward out-group members?

Our aim in raising these issues is not to take the fun out of sports, which we love; rather, it is to suggest that we might better learn about ourselves from our sports so that we might take some of the fun out of needless agression, conflict, and war. Just as Sherif and his colleagues learned a great deal about human conflict in their Robber’s Cave study, there is much that might be learned from the experiments taking place every day on the playing fields, tracks, courts, and diamonds of sports.

Those questions and topics are the focus of some of our ongoing work, and we hope to return to them in subsequent posts.

Oh, and in the meantime . . .

Go Hoyas!

Posted in Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 14 Comments »

The Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial: 60 Years Later

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 27, 2007

Nuremberg Doctors’ TrialBoston University’s School of Law and School of Public Health are co-sponsoring the university’s 3rd annual health law program conference, which will be held this Friday, March 30. The conference’s topic will be a historical reassessment of the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial. For information on attending, click here; for a complete schedule of the event and list of speakers, click here.

Some of the notable presenters will include:

~ Edmund Pellegrino, Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Medical Ethics at the Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, will deliver the keynote address entitled, “On Human Dignity.”

~ Steven Katz, Director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University, will give a talk entitled, “Misusing the Holocaust Paradigm in Today’s Culture.”

~ Michael Grodin, Director of the Bioethics and Human Rights Program and Professor of Health Law, Bioethics, Human Rights, Socio-Medical Sciences and Community Medicine and Psychiatry at the Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine, will give a talk entitled, “Mad, Bad, or Evil: How Physician Healers Become Perpetrators of Torture, Murder and Genocide.”

~ Fran Miller, Professor of Law at Boston University School of Law (cross appointments at BU’s School of Public Health and School of Management), will give a talk entitled, “The Doctors’ Trial and Contemporary Research and Genetics.”Nazi Medical Experiments

~ Sue Pauker, Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, will give a talk entitled, “Screening and Eugenics.”

~ George Annas, the Edward R. Utley Professor of Health Law, Chairman of Health Law Department at the Boston University School of Public Health, will give a talk entitled, “The Impact of the Doctors’ Trial on International Law.”

~ Robert Sloane, Associate Professor of Law at Boston University School of Law, will give a talk entitled, “The Challenge of Enforcing International Law on Physicians and Lawyers Who Break It.”

For additional background on the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial, the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law has put together an in-depth website on the topic. It includes copies of the indictments and transcript excerpts from the trial.

Posted in Events, History, Law | 1 Comment »

Coalition of the Will-less

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 26, 2007

Michelangelo - Fall From Grace - Sistine Chapel

Searle Freedom & NeurobiologyThis weekend’s Financial Times has a cursory but helpful review by Stephen Cave of three recent books all on the topic of “free will”:

John Searle‘s Freedom & Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power;Blackmore Conversations on Consciousness

Susan Blackmore‘s Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think About the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to be Human; and

Four Views on Free WillJohn Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom, and Manual Vargas‘s Four Views on Free Will.

Cave begins where many writers begin when trying to raise doubts about the nature of human will – by pointing to a couple of the now-classic experimental demonstrations of how that that “feeling of will” (what Dan Wegner aptly describes as that familiar internal “oomph” that seems to determine our conduct) is only that: a perception that we are exercising conscious control over our behavior and choices. (That “oomph,” as Jon Hanson and David Yosifon have argued, is one of the factors that leads us to put the dispositional spin on situational influences.)

Specifically, Cave loosely summarizes Benjamin Libet’s fascinating (though not uncontroversial) studies finding:

that before every such movement, there is a distinctive build-up of electrical activity in the brain. And this build-up happens about half a second before your conscious “decision” to move your arm. So by the time you think, “OK, I’ll move my arm,” your body is halfway there. Which means your conscious experience of making a decision – the experience associated with free will – is just a kind of add-on, an after-thought that only happens once the brain has already set about its business. In other words, your brain is doing the real work, making your hands turn the pages of this magazine or reach over for your cup of tea, and all the time your conscious mind is tagging along behind.

// likens this finding to discovering that, “after years of driving around in your car, . . . the steering-wheel is not attached to anything, and the car has been steering by itself.” Cave also summarizes related research finding that,

when asking [subjects] to choose to move either their left or right hands, it was possible to influence their choice by electronically stimulating certain parts of their brains. So, for example, the scientists could force the subjects always to choose to move their left hands. But despite their choice being electronically directed, these patients continued to report that they were freely choosing which hand to move.

Thus, even when someone else is driving our car, we attribute the car’s movements to our control. “Every time it turns left, you just move your toy steering wheel and think, ‘Ah yes, I want to turn left.’”

Those sorts of findings, Cave claims, have been further clarified with the aid of “modern neuro-imaging technology,” which has demonstrated that “our minds – our conscious, mental lives – are a product of activity in the brain,” and that, “even when we have the conscious experience of deciding, our brains have really already taken the decision for us. Free will is an illusion.”

That, according to Cave, is the point of departure of each of the three books: each “tackle[s] the question of whether we are free and what it means if we are not.”

Cave’s brief overviews of the three books are short enough already that we cannot do much to digest them further for our readers. But Cave’s ultimate conclusion is worth reiterating, as it corresponds closely with the premises that motivate The Situatonist and the scholarship of its contributors (among many others): [T]here is no doubt that as we learn more about the mechanics of the mind, we will need to rethink some of our deepest beliefs about ourselves and our society.”

* * *

P.S. Through Michael Meltzer’s excellent blog, Pooh’s Think, we learned an illuminating post and terrific set of comments reacting to Cave’s article on yet another superb blog, The Garden of Forking Paths.

Posted in Choice Myth, Legal Theory, Philosophy | 2 Comments »

Jury Selection

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 25, 2007


Matt Hutson, a news editor at Psychology Today, e-mailed us about an article of his in the magazine’s current issue. We thought the e-mail (and the article) worth sharing with our readers. (Thanks, Matt.)

* * *psychology-today-cover.jpg

. . . [The article] examines the methods, efficacy, and ethics ofjury selection consulting, which is sometimes branded as a science but often more closely resembles a dark art.

Legendary attorney Clarence Darrow once argued, “Almost every case has been won or lost when the jury is sworn.” In the most important trend- and precedent-setting cases, attorneys leave nothing to chance. A trial of one’s peers? Nah. Jury consulting rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, a significant portion of which goes to stacking the jury. Consultants stage mock trials, do drive-bys of potential jurors’ homes, and enlist body-language experts to intuit potential jurors’ moods, personalities, and deepest secrets. (Stealth 1995 OJ Verdict Time Coverjurors–the ones secretly plotting to push an agenda or nab a book deal, are notoriously hard to weed out.)

For this story, I interviewed the top-dollar consultants who helped select the juries for the trials involving OJ Simpson, Scott Peterson, Rodney King, Ken Lay, Vioxx, and other big clients. One of these gurus, Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, has even been personally blamed for the LA riots. Yes, the practice of jury selection is evolving, becoming more rigorous and sophisticated thanks to social scientists and statisticians–but it’s still largely based on gut and chance. And sometimes all it takes is a juror with hemorrhoids to throw off your whole game.

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For the complete article, click here.

Posted in Law | 3 Comments »

Situation Comedy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 24, 2007

Cover by Ellis Parker Butler —…John Tierney had a fun – sometimes funny (or was it?) – essay recently in the New York Times about the situational sources of laughter. We have excerpted portions of the essay below.

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So there are these two muffins baking in an oven. One of them yells, “Wow, it’s hot in here!”And the other muffin replies: “Holy cow! A talking muffin!”

* * *

Laughter, a topic that stymied philosophers for 2,000 years, is finally yielding to science. . . .

[M]ost laughter has little to do with humor. It’s an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. It’s not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along.

. . . Robert R. Provine [a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland] . . . went out into natural habitats — city sidewalks, suburban malls — and carefully observed thousands of “laugh episodes.”

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laughing-orangutang.jpgHe found that most speakers, particularly women, did more laughing than their listeners, using the laughs as punctuation for their sentences. It’s a largely involuntary process. People can consciously suppress laughs, but few can make themselves laugh convincingly.

“Laughter is an honest social signal because it’s hard to fake,” Professor Provine says. “We’re dealing with something powerful, ancient and crude. It’s a kind of behavioral fossil showing the roots that all human beings, maybe all mammals, have in common.”

The human ha-ha evolved from the rhythmic sound — pant-pant — made by primates like chimpanzees when they tickle and chase one other while playing. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Washington State University, discovered that rats emit an ultrasonic chirp (inaudible to humans without special equipment) when they’re tickled, and they like the sensation so much they keep coming back for more tickling.

He and Professor Provine figure that the first primate joke — that is, the first action to produce a laugh without physical contact — was the feigned tickle, the same kind of coo-chi-coo move parents make when they thrust their wiggling fingers at a baby. Professor Panksepp thinks the brain has ancient wiring to produce laughter so that young animals learn to play with one another. The laughter stimulates euphoria circuits in the brain and also reassures the other animals that they’re playing, not fighting.//

“Primal laughter evolved as a signaling device to highlight readiness for friendly interaction,” Professor Panksepp says. “Sophisticated social animals such as mammals need an emotionally positive mechanism to help create social brains and to weave organisms effectively into the social fabric.”

. . . . Laughter can be used cruelly to reinforce a group’s solidarity and pride by mocking deviants and insulting outsiders, but mainly it’s a subtle social lubricant. It’s a way to make friends and also make clear who belongs where in the status hierarchy.

Which brings us back to the muffin joke. It was inflicted by social psychologists at Florida State University on undergraduate women last year, during interviews for what was ostensibly a study of their spending habits. Some of the women were told the interviewer would be awarding a substantial cash prize to a few of the participants, like a boss deciding which underling deserved a bonus.bullies-laughter.jpg

The women put in the underling position were a lot more likely to laugh at the muffin joke (and others almost as lame) than were women in the control group. But it wasn’t just because these underlings were trying to manipulate the boss, as was demonstrated in a follow-up experiment.

This time each of the women watched the muffin joke being told on videotape by a person who was ostensibly going to be working with her on a task. There was supposed to be a cash reward afterward to be allocated by a designated boss. In some cases the woman watching was designated the boss; in other cases she was the underling or a co-worker of the person on the videotape.

When the woman watching was the boss, she didn’t laugh much at the muffin joke. But when she was the underling or a co-worker, she laughed much more, even though the joke-teller wasn’t in the room to see her. When you’re low in the status hierarchy, you need all the allies you can find, so apparently you’re primed to chuckle at anything even if it doesn’t do you any immediate good.

“Laughter seems to be an automatic response to your situation rather than a conscious strategy,” says Tyler F. Stillman, who did the experiments along with Roy Baumeister and Nathan DeWall.

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For a reasonably thorough and thoroghly accessible web article on “how laughter works,” click here.

Posted in Emotions, Entertainment, Life | 3 Comments »

The Perils of “Being Smart” (or Not So Much)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 22, 2007

The the current edition of Stanford Magazine, contains an excellent article (excerpted below) by Marina Krakovsky summarizing Carol Dweck’s research, which is the topic of Dweck’s fascinating recent book, Mind-Set.


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Through more than three decades of systematic research, she has been figuring out answers to why some people achieve their potential while equally talented others don’t—why some become Muhammad Ali and others Mike Tyson. The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed.

What’s more, Dweck has shown that people can learn to adopt the latter belief and make dramatic strides in performance. . . .

* * *

As a graduate student at Yale, Dweck started off studying animal motivation. In the late 1960s, a hot topic in animal research was “learned helplessness”: lab animals sometimes didn’t do what they were capable of because they’d given up from repeat failures. Dweck wondered how humans coped with that. “I asked, ‘What makes a really capable child give up in the face of failure, where other children may be motivated by the failure?’” she recalls.

At the time, the suggested cure for learned helplessness was a long string of successes. Dweck posited that the difference between the helpless response and its opposite—the determination to master new things and surmount challenges—lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed. People who attributed their failures to lack of ability, Dweck thought, would become discouraged even in areas where they were capable. Those who thought they simply hadn’t tried hard enough, on the other hand, would be fueled by setbacks. This became the topic of her PhD dissertation.

// and her assistants ran an experiment on elementary school children whom school personnel had identified as helpless. These kids fit the definition perfectly: if they came across a few math problems they couldn’t solve, for example, they no longer could do problems they had solved before—and some didn’t recover that ability for days.

Through a series of exercises, the experimenters trained half the students to chalk up their errors to insufficient effort, and encouraged them to keep going. Those children learned to persist in the face of failure—and to succeed. The control group showed no improvement at all, continuing to fall apart quickly and to recover slowly. These findings, says Dweck, “really supported the idea that the attributions were a key ingredient driving the helpless and mastery-oriented patterns.” Her 1975 article on the topic has become one of the most widely cited in contemporary psychology.

Attribution theory, concerned with people’s judgments about the causes of events and behavior, already was an active area of psychological research. But the focus at the time was on how we make attributions, explains Stanford psychology professor Lee Ross, who coined the term “fundamental attribution error” for our tendency to explain other people’s actions by their character traits, overlooking the power of circumstances. Dweck, he says, helped “shift the emphasis from attributional errors and biases to the consequences of attributions—why it matters what attributions people make.” Dweck had put attribution theory to practical use.

She continued to do so as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, collaborating with then-graduate student Carol Diener to have children “think out loud” as they faced problem-solving tasks, some too difficult for them. The big surprise: some of the children who put forth lots of effort didn’t make attributions at all. These children didn’t think they were failing. Diener puts it this way: “Failure is information—we label it failure, but it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.’” During one unforgettable moment, one boy—something of a poster child for the mastery-oriented type—faced his first stumper by pulling up his chair, rubbing his hands together, smacking his lips and announcing, “I love a challenge.”

Such zest for challenge helped explain why other capable students thought they lacked ability just because they’d hit a setback. Common sense suggests that ability inspires self-confidence. And it does for a while—so long as the going is easy. But setbacks change everything. Dweck realized—and, with colleague Elaine Elliott soon demonstrated—that the difference lay in the kids’ goals. “The mastery-oriented children are really hell-bent on learning something,” Dweck says, and “learning goals” inspire a different chain of thoughts and behaviors than “performance goals.”

Students for whom performance is paramount want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process. For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue only activities at which they’re sure to shine—and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavor. Students with learning goals, on the other hand, take necessary risks and don’t worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn. Dweck’s insight launched a new field of educational psychology—achievement goal theory.


Dweck’s next question: what makes students focus on different goals in the first place? During a sabbatical at Harvard, she was discussing this with doctoral student Mary Bandura (daughter of legendary Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura), and the answer hit them: if some students want to show off their ability, while others want to increase their ability, “ability” means different things to the two groups. “If you want to demonstrate something over and over, it feels like something static that lives inside of you—whereas if you want to increase your ability, it feels dynamic and malleable,” Dweck explains. People with performance goals, she reasoned, think intelligence is fixed from birth. People with learning goals have a growth mind-set about intelligence, believing it can be developed. (Among themselves, psychologists call the growth mind-set an “incremental theory,” and use the term “entity theory” for the fixed mind-set.) The model was nearly complete (see diagram).

* * *

The most dramatic proof [that you can change the mind-set itself] comes from a recent study by Dweck and Lisa Sorich Blackwell of low-achieving seventh graders. All students participated in sessions on study skills, the brain and the like; in addition, one group attended a neutral session on memory while the other learned that intelligence, like a muscle, grows stronger through exercise. Training students to adopt a growth mind-set about intelligence had a catalytic effect on motivation and math grades; students in the control group showed no improvement despite all the other interventions.

* * *

Unlike much that passes for wisdom about education and performance, Dweck’s conclusions are grounded in solid research. She’s no rah-rah motivational coach proclaiming the sky’s the limit and attitude is everything; that’s too facile. But the evidence shows that if we hold a fixed mind-set, we’re bound not to reach as high as we might.

* * *

But aren’t there plenty of people who believe in innate ability and in the notion that nothing comes without effort? Logically, the two ideas are compatible. But psychologically, explains Dweck, many people who believe in fixed intelligence also think you shouldn’t need hard work to do well. This belief isn’t entirely irrational, she says. A student who finishes a problem set in 10 minutes is indeed better at math than someone who takes four hours to solve the problems. And a soccer player who scores effortlessly probably is more talented than someone who’s always practicing. “The fallacy comes when people generalize it to the belief that effort on any task, even very hard ones, implies low ability,” Dweck says.

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In May, Professor Dweck will give the keynote address at the Association for Psychological Science 19th Annual Convention.

Posted in Book, Education, Life, Social Psychology | 16 Comments »

Numbed By Numbers

Posted by Paul Slovic on March 21, 2007

Foreign Policy CoverOn March 13, I published the essay excerpted below on, the online edition of Foreign Policy magazine. The essay was adapted from a draft article, “If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act.”  In weeks to come, I hope to publish a series of posts on The Situationist based on the research underlying that article.

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“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” This mother-teresa-small.gifstatement uttered by Mother Teresa captures a powerful and deeply unsettling insight into human nature: Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue “the one” whose plight comes to their attention. But these same people often become numbly indifferent to the plight of “the one” who is “one of many” in a much greater problem. It’s happening right now in regards to Darfur, where over 200,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the past four years and at least another 2.5 million have been driven from their homes. Why aren’t these horrific statistics sparking us to action? Why do good people ignore mass murder and genocide?

The answer may lie in human psychology. Specifically, it is our inability to comprehend numbers and relate them to mass human tragedy that stifles our ability to act. It’s not that we are insensitive to the suffering of our fellow human beings. In fact, the opposite is true. Just look at the extraordinary efforts people expend to rescue someone in distress,from such as an injured mountain climber. It’s not that we only care about victims we identify with—those of similar skin color, or those who live near us: Witness the outpouring of aid to victims of the December 2004 tsunami. Yet, despite many brief episodes of generosity and compassion, the catalogue of genocide—the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur—continues to grow. The repeated failure to respond to such atrocities raises the question of whether there is a fundamental deficiency in our humanity: a deficiency that—once identified—could be overcome.

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To read the balance of this essay, click here.  

Posted in Emotions, Public Policy, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 20, 2007

Jack ThompsonIn January, The Situationist featured a posting on the intersection between tort law and social psychology in violent video games. That post, which generated some wonderful reader comments, examined the legal maneuvers of attorney Jack Thompson, who has made it a personal and professional mission to prevent the sale and distribution of violent video games. The Miami-based, Vanderbilt Law-grad has initiated several tort lawsuits relating to children who harm others and who then attribute their harm-causing activities to the playing of violent video games. Thompson’sMature Rating basic contention is that video game companies owe a duty to consumers to either produce “responsible” games or to ensure that sales of violent ones go stringently regulated and be made unavailable to children—and their failure to do either should be considered negligent behavior.

Thompson’s latest attempt to stymie the makers of violent games is his threat to file a lawsuit as a private attorney general in Florida that would block the release Take Two Interactive’s Grand Theft Auto IV (available this fall for the PS3 and Xbox 360) and Manhunt 2 (available this summer for the PS2, Wii, and Playstation Portable) Both games will contain extremely violent and graphic content and while they will likely be assigned a “mature” rating by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which means that consumers are “on notice” that these games contain contain mature sexual themes, intense violence and/or strong language, Thompson contends that Take Two will not take the necessary steps to prevent children from playing them.

GTA and Manhunt 3

Thompson’s threat comes on the heels of his failed attempt last fall to secure a temporary restraining order preventing Take Two from releasing Bully for the PS2–he argued that Take Two did not take sufficient steps to ensure that the game not be purchased by minors, and at one point he filed separate lawsuits against Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, and GameStop to stop the game’s sales. (ironically, his efforts are thought to have increased demand in Bully, since it appeared “more controversial”).

But this time around, Take Two has decided to strike back. It has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida against Thompson, Bully 3arguing that his repeated failed lawsuits and public threats against the company comprise a nuisance. The company claims that Thompson’s numerous lawsuits are filed to generate publicity for himself and to damage Take Two’s business reputation, rather than to succeed on the merits. Take Two hopes the court will enjoin Thompson from bringing suit on behalf of the State of Florida to enjoin the sale of its games.

Thompson’s response? He claims that Take Two has filed a strategic lawsuit against public policy (“SLAPP” lawsuit) to intimidate and silence him, in hopes that he will abandon his mission. Here is a letter he has released to the gaming public:

“Dear Gamers and Gamer Publications on the Internet and Elsewhere:

I have been praying, literally, that Take-Two and its lawyers would do something so stupid, so arrogant, so dumb, even dumber than what they have to date done, that such a misstep would enable me to destroy Take-Two. With the filing of this SLAPP lawsuit last week, my prayers are finally answered.

This lawsuit, filed in US District Court for the Southern District of Florida, is, without a doubt, the single dumbest thing I have ever seen any lawyers do in my thirty years of practicing law–while in continuous good standing to do so with The Florida Bar, I might add, the shock radio and video game industry’s efforts notwithstanding.

We will keep you updated on these video game litigations and what social psychology might say about them. Also, if you are interested in state law proposals to regulate the video game industry, see Eric Bangeman, States Wising Up? Video Game Bills Drop Like Flies, Ars Technia, 2/13/2007.

Posted in Entertainment, Law, Life | Leave a Comment »

Why Do Lawyers Acquiesce In Their Clients’ Misconduct? – Part I

Posted by Sung Hui Kim on March 20, 2007

Ann Baskins before Congress

Ann Baskins pleads the Fifth Amendment before Congress on Sept. 29, 2006.What the many recent corporate scandals (including Enron) have shown is that lawyers are often involved in the process that ultimately enables their clients to break the law. Take, for example, the recent scandal of the Hewlet-Packard spying fiasco:

“On September 28, 2006, a visibly exhausted Ann Baskins stood before a congressional committee investigating the Hewlett Packard spying scandal. Standing before the committee, Baskins, who had just resigned as general counsel, raised her right hand and swore to tell the truth. Then, on the first question, Baskins exercised her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. While Baskins sat mute nearby, the former Chairwoman Patricia Dunn and HP CEO Mark Hurd told the committee that Baskins was to blame for the spying fiasco. They accused her of rendering bad legal advice and claimed that Baskins knew about and permitted the use of “pretexting” – using false pretenses to obtain others’ personal information from telephone companies.” [quoted from my work-in-progress, Gatekeepers Inside Out]

Of course, the story isn’t over. We do not know to what extent Ann Baskins, a respected attorney, actually “knew” that pretexting was over the line. And, of course, as a matter of criminal law, she is innocent until proven guilty. My point is not to accuse her of any legal wrongdoing.

But this scandal begs the question: how could such a capable general counsel not have prevented the pretexting? After all, there is evidence that on six separate occasions, Baskins questioned whether “pretexting” was legal. Journalistic accounts so far suggest that Baskins never pushed for a definitive answer about whether the methods used were, in fact, legal. Why not? Certainly, the red flags were there. The same kinds of questions have been posed about Mark Belnick, star litigator and former general counsel of Tyco, who sat by while the Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski was looting the company. (Belnick was ultimately acquitted in 2005 by a New York jury of criminal charges after five days of jury deliberation.)

I think the answer to this “puzzle” is a complicated one but one that can only be answered adequately by focusing on the entire situation of lawyers like Ann Baskins or Mark Belnick. The reality is: there are enormous psychological pressures to acquiesce – whether that means to turn the other way or to refrain from pressing the “issue” or to be prematurely satisfied by an easily available explanation (rationalization) that makes unethical/illegal conduct seem, well, not so bad. These psychological pressures arise from their roles as employees (subject to “obedience” pressures), faithful agents (subject to alignment pressures) and team players (subject to conformity pressures). I discuss these pressures in my article, The Banality of Fraud: Re-Situating the Inside Counsel as Gatekeeper, and plan to discuss them in greater detail in a later posting.

Posted in Law, Social Psychology | 8 Comments »

The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 20, 2007

Nomar GarciaparraAs discussed by Howard Wasserman on Sports Law Blog, David Brooks of the New York Times has a fascinating column on how baseball players “depend almost exclusively on the unconscious brain to play the game and how baseball has developed drills to reinforce those unconscious responses.” Brooks describes the work of fellow Situationist Timothy Wilson in explaining the strikingly limited capacities of the human brain to process the information it absorbs, and how baseball players’ success not only reflects strength and brawn, but also extraordinary mental processing skills. Here are some excerpts from Brooks’ piece.

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One of the core messages of brain research is that most mental activity happens in the automatic or unconscious region of the brain. The unconscious mind is not a swamp of repressed memories and childhood traumas, the way Freud imagined. It’s a set of mental activities that the brain has relegated beyond awareness for efficiency’s sake, so the conscious mind can focus on other things. In his book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia notes that the brain can absorb about 11 million pieces of information a second, of which it can process about 40 consciously. The unconscious brain handles the rest.

The automatic mind generally takes care of things like muscle control. But it also does more ethereal things. It recognizes patterns and construes situations, searching for danger, opportunities or the unexpected. It also shoves certain memories, thoughts, anxieties and emotions up into consciousness.

Baseball is one of those activities that are performed mostly by the automatic mind. Professional baseball players have phenomenal automatic brains.timothy-wilson-strangers-to-ourselves.JPG

As Jeff Hawkins points out in his book “On Intelligence,” it is nearly impossible to design a computer with a robotic arm that can catch a ball. The calculations the computer has to make are too complicated to accomplish in time. Baseball players not only can do that with ease, they can hit a split-finger fastball besides.

Over the decades, the institution of baseball has figured out how to instruct the unconscious mind, to make it better at what it does. As we know the automatic brain only by the behavior it produces, so we can instruct it only by forcing it to repeat certain actions. Jeff Kent is practicing covering first after all these years because the patterns of the automatic brain have to be constantly and repetitively reinforced.

But baseball has accomplished another, more important feat. It has developed a series of habits and standards of behavior to keep the conscious mind from interfering with the automatic mind.

Baseball is one of those activities in which the harder you try, the worse you do. The more a pitcher aims the ball, the wilder he becomes. The more a batter tenses, the slower and more tentative his muscles become.

David OrtizOver the generations, baseball people have developed an infinity of tics and habits to distract and sedate the conscious mind. Managers encourage a preternaturally calm way of being — especially after failure. In the game I happened to see here on Tuesday, Detroit Tigers pitcher Nate Robertson threw poorly, but strutted off the mound as if he’d just slain Achilles. Second baseman Kevin Hooper waved pathetically at a third struck fastball, but walked back to the dugout wearing an expression of utter nonchalance.

This sort of body language helps players remain steady amid humiliation, so they’ll do better next time.

Believe me, the people involved in the sport have no theory of the human mind, but under the pressure of competition, they’ve come up with a set of practices that embody a few key truths.

First, habits and etiquette shape the brain. Or as Timothy Wilson puts it, “One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings.”

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For more from Brooks’ excellent piece, click here.

Posted in Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 9 Comments »

From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part II

Posted by Philip Zimbardo on March 19, 2007

A Soul Brought to Heaven

Over the last month or so, I have authored a three-part series on the Situational Sources of Evil (see Parts I, II, and III). In that series, I describe how people too often miss the power of situation in explaining evil, and too often attribute “evil” to a person or group. Last week, I posted the first of a related two-part series. Part I of this series looked at some of the heavens and hells that I’ve witnessed or had a hand in creating and at how, if the situation is right, any of us can partake in what we would consider “evil” behavior. In this second part of that series, I will discuss strategies for resisting those powerful situational forces and becoming heroes.

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Good news: We can resist powerful situations and even become heroes.

We need not be slaves to situational forces. In all the research that my colleagues in social psychology and I have conducted, we find that although the majority conform, comply, yield, and succumb to the power of the situation, there are always some who refuse, resist, and disobey. They do so in part because they are more sensitive to these situational pressures, more “street wise,” and are able to engage effective mental strategies of resistance against unwanted social forces. Some of what they know intuitively is how to spot and identify wolves dressed in sheep’s garments, smiling faces of con men and slick Sherron Watkins - Enron Whistleblowersisters with hot deals concealing manipulative intent. They are also more aware than most people of how their own thinking can contribute to distorting the scene before them, and thus needs some mental correcting.

In their arsenal of general resistance strategies, the first is always trying to be mindful of their place in any behavioral context, of not going on automatic pilot that triggers scripted behavior to unfold without critical awareness. They engage in critical thinking that goes beyond accepting other peoples’ definition of the situation, asking questions about how and why, and what happens down the road if they follow the prescribed path. That means developing “discontinuity detectors,” a sense of awareness of things that don’t fit, are out of place in this setting, that don’t make sense to you. It means asking questions, getting the information you need to take responsible action. It is important also not to fear interpersonal conflict, and to develop the personal hardiness necessary to stand firm for cherished principles. Think not of getting into conflicts, but rather challenging others to support their means, their ends, and their ideology. Take nothing for granted, be a hard-headed behavioral accountant. Finally, those who resist unwanted situational influences are willing to admit mistakes, of being wrong, of cutting bait rather than sticking with prior bad decisions; thus, they do not have to rationalize away earlier commitments made without full awareness of their consequences. Our hardy band of resistors insist also on retaining their personal sense of identity and self-worth, of not allowing others to de-individuate them or to de-humanize them. (A more detailed resistance guide is available here.)

Promoting the Heroic Imagination in Ordinary Heroes

When the mass of humanity is blindly obeying unjust authorities or bending to the will of corrupt systems of dominance, the few who resist are really heroes. Heroes are not only the courageous few whose brave physical dangers to help others in distress. Heroes are all those willing to make personal and social sacrifices for the good of others or their society.

Mandela (an amateur boxer in his youth) available at

Social heroism involves putting one’s self at risk in the service of an important principle or idea. Being a hero is not simply being a good role model or a popular sports figure. Heroism in service to a noble idea is usually not as dramatic as heroism that involves immediate physical peril. Yet social heroism is very costly in its own way, often involving loss of financial stability, lowered social status, loss of credibility, arrest, torture, risks to family members, and, in some cases, death. In contrast to those whose heroism involves life-long sacrifices or ordering their lives around principles of passive resistance to injustice, such as Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr., most// heroism can be a sudden, one-time act. It can be an almost instantaneous reaction to a situation, like that of the army reservist Joe Darby, who revealed the photos of Abu Ghraib abuses to a criminal investigator, and thereby stopped those abuses.

This heroic deed of this average young man reveals what I have termed the “banality of heroism.” The idea of the banality of heroism debunks the myth of the “heroic elect,” a myth that reinforces the false notion of ascribing very rare personal characteristics to people who do something special—to see them as superhuman, practically beyond comparison to the rest of us. Just as with the psychology of evil, situations have immense power to bring out heroic actions in people who never would have considered themselves heroes. In fact, the first response of many people who are named heroes is to deny their own uniqueness with statements such as, “I am not a hero, anyone in the same situation would have done what I did,” or “I just did what needed to be done.” Immediate life and death situations, such as when people are stranded in a burning house or a car wreck, are clear examples of situations that galvanize some people into heroic action. But other situations—such as being witness to discrimination, corporate corruption, government malfeasance, or military atrocities—not only bring out the worst in people; sometimes they bring out the best in others.

I believe that an important factor that may encourage heroic action is the stimulation of the “heroic imagination”– the capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, mentally struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and consider one’s actions and the consequences. Such a mental orientation may make people more likely to act heroically when the time comes. By considering these issues in advance, the individual becomes more prepared to act when and if a moment arises that calls for heroism. It might mean stopping the cab driver as he starts telling his favorite racist or sexist joke. It could mean intervening when a relative starts slapping her child around at a family event. It should mean willingness to risk losing your job by exposing fraud and layton-book.jpgdeception as Sherron Watkins did at Enron, or even greater risks as Debby Layton did in exposing the dangers of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult in Guyana.

Strengthening the heroic imagination may help to make people more aware of the ethical tests embedded in complex situations, while allowing the individual to have already considered and to some degree transcended the costs of their heroic action. Seeing one’s self as capable of the resolve necessary for heroism may be the first step toward taking a heroic action.

Our society needs to consider ways of fostering such heroic imagination in all of its citizens, most particularly in our young. As the sophistication of video gaming grows, can the power of this entertainment form be used to educate children about the pitfalls of going along with a herd mentality? Or help them develop their own internal compass in morally ambiguous situations? Or perhaps even help them think about their own ability to act heroically? And as we plow ahead in the digital era, how can the fundamental teachings of a code of honor remain relevant to our daily human interactions?

If we lose the ability to imagine ourselves as heroes, and to understand what true heroism is, our society will be poorer for it. We need to create a viable connection with the latent hero within ourselves. It is this vital, internal conduit between the modern work-a-day world and the mythic world of super heroes that can prepare an ordinary person to become an everyday hero.

highway.jpgThere will come a time in each of our lives when three paths lie ahead. To the left, we follow the lead of others mindlessly engaged in some evil, practicing discrimination, or injustice, or abusing their fellows. That is the path of “perpetrators of evil.” To the right, we follow the lead of others who try to ignore the evil in their midst, smilingly looking the other way. That is the path of the “evil of inaction.” To the center, we make up our own mind, to act responsibly as individuals to stand up for what we believe in, to do the right thing when it is easier to do the wrong thing, or to do nothing. That is the path of “ordinary heroes.” Some day when You are faced with that decision matrix, what path will you take? Think Central, and be counted among those who represent this democratic ideal of ordinary heroes in your family, your community, and your nation.

*****See also Part I of this Series.*****

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | 6 Comments »

On the Ethical Obligations of Lawyers: Are We Snakes? Are We Supposed to Be?

Posted by David Yosifon on March 17, 2007

snake1.jpgLegal theorists can exploit and deepen the insights of situationism by deploying the situationist vantage in the analysis of specific legal institutions. A promising approach is to expose latent dispositionism in present thinking about a given institution and to consider the effects of restraining any dispositionist prejudice.

Consider the case of lawyers. Our profession often finds itself the recipient of some rather negative dispositionalizing; we are commonly thought to be snakes or sharks – creatures feared for their cunning and viciousness. More generally, we are viewed as conniving, lying, cheating you-know-what’s who are obsessed with money.

Given those stereotypes, lawyer jokes are welcome on any occasion, before any crowd. My personal favorite:

An attorney was sitting in his office late one night, when Satan appeared before him. The Devil told the lawyer, “I have a proposition for you. You can win every case you try, for the rest of your life. Your clients will adore you, your colleagues will stand in awe of you, and you will make embarrassing sums of money. All I want in exchange is your soul, your wife’s soul, your children’s souls, and the souls of all your friends and law partners.” The lawyer thought about this for a moment, then asked, “So, what’s the catch?”

Of course, we in the profession take pride in knowing that we are also on the receiving end of a more positive belief about lawyers: lawyers are noble and honorable; we are bold and principled, knowledgeable and capable. People who tell us lawyer jokes at parties usually end up asking for our cards, patting us on the shoulder, and counting us among their friends.


In truth we are neither saints nor demons, as a class. Rather, we are, like everyone else, situational characters. The world sees lawyers acting in a particular manner and draws inferences from that conduct about the dispositions of lawyers. This is just one example of the broad human tendency to draw inferences about disposition from behavior, and to presume that the dispositions are driving the behavior, with little perception or conceptualization of the broad situational influences shaping the behavior.

Social science can help to isolate those influences when they are hidden from our common-sense thinking and intuition. But some of those influences are hiding in plain site – we are aware of them, we just don’t think about them. Such is the situation with lawyers – sure we are sharp and vexatious of our enemies, fastidious and sharp for our friends: the law requires us to be! We are made by the law to play a part in a broader system, elements of which are by design highly contentious. We are fiduciaries doing business in an adversarial framework. Most everyday conversations and behavior, both in work and in family, take place against a backdrop of co-operative communicative norms. Much legal discourse, in sharp-contrast, is adversarial by design – law is the forum we turn to when co-operation is no longer working. In non-legal settings lawyers, being the situational characters that they are, act pretty much the way other folks do in those settings. The power of situation likely explains the apparent paradox in most people thinking ill of lawyers generally, but not the lawyers they know in their personal lives.

Yet what kind of situational characters are lawyers meant to be? Is it really the snake? A review of the legal and ethical obligations confronting lawyers makes it clear that, as a positive matter, the lawyer is obligated not only to her client, but also, in specific and general ways, to co-operative imperatives within our judicial system. A lawyer is not permitted, for example, to allow a client to lie on the stand, in depositions, or in interrogatories. Lawyers must turn over “discovery” to their clients’ adversaries, information which may prove harmful to the clients. In fact, co-operative injunctions pervade the legal process, and set the contours of adversarial aspects of the system at every turn. We are not just snakes and sharks, but ants and bees too, hustling on behalf of the hill and hive that is our justice system.


Yet are we living up to it? It may be that recurring complaints of improper lawyerly conduct – disregard of the rules of ethics in favor of overzealous advocacy – can be explained by the same dispositionist diagnosis. For the lawyer, the presence and interests of the client are highly salient, whereas the other imperatives of the system are very difficult to see. The lawyer’s relationship with the human person that is the client, or the client’s representatives in the entity context, undoubtedly engenders powerful affective responses favoring in-groups and despising out-groups.

The abstract co-operative requirements of the law, while they may be central to the right operation of the legal system, are unlikely to activate such schemas. Indeed, as lawyers we may tend to lose sense of the fact that we are, by trade, situational characters made to play a part in the machinery of law – we dispositionalize ourselves and come to believe that we are in it with and for the client. Such affective responses are not engendered by the broader demands of the system – after all, many aspects of the legal system, especially the co-operative injunctions, are designed specifically to restrain common sense thinking and affective impulses – indeed, restraint of the very impulse to self-help, put most broadly, but also within specific mechanics of the law, such as in the rules of evidence.

This is not to say that most lawyers do not “understand” the duties they owe to the co-operative elements of the legal system. It is merely to dwell on the situational influences which may make difficult the realization of that understanding in the lived experience of law practice. Indeed, it may suggest a reason to be concerned about how easy we can expect it to be for lawyers to adhere to the ethical demands of our system as it is presently designed. I will develop this analysis further in future postings.

Posted in Law, Social Psychology | 8 Comments »

Guilty or Not Guilty?: Law & Mind Meets Hamlet

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 16, 2007

shakespeare-in-washington2.gifImage by Peter Macdiarmid/Reuters - in NYTimesThis week the sixth-month Shakespearian Festival ongoing in Washington D.C. included a (non-speedy) jury trial of Hamlet. The age-old question — Was Hamlet criminally responsible for mistakenly killing his ex-girlfriend’s father, Polonius? — was argued by lawyers Abbe Lowell for the defense and prosecutor Miles Ehrlich before 12 jurors. Sane, pre-meditated, and guilty? Or psychotic, impulsive, and innocent? Depends on who you ask.

available at“We have an incredibly strong case,” said Ehrlich beforehand. “It is hard to find anyone in history who had a better proven appreciation for the nature of his actions.”

Lowell was no less confident about how this courtroom drama would play out. “The cry for justice, as sincere as it is, should not have us try those with mental illness as serious criminals. . . . There are an abundance of demonstrations of the actuality and sincerity of my client’s mental disorder.”

The trial was presided over by none other than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who conceived of the idea and has presided over the trial in other venues and jurisdictions. Beforehand, Justice Kennedy made no predictions about how this week’s trial would turn out and added: “Each time I hear this trial, I see something new in the play and gain new insight into the way the law of criminal responsibility works.”

To learn the outcome, listen to the All Things Considered report here.

Posted in Entertainment, Events, History | 1 Comment »

First Conference on Law and Mind Sciences

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 15, 2007


Jeff Dubner of the Harvard Law Record has an excellent recap of Conference on Law and Mind Sciences that we hosted last week at Harvard Law School. We described this conference last week, and Jeff provides some great detail of the event, which featured a number of prominent social psychologists and legal scholars. Here is his article:

Project on Law and Mind Sciences Launches

Jeff Dubner

Posted: 3/15/07

On Saturday, Harvard Law hosted the launch of a new initiative uniting legal scholars and social psychologists as the Project on Law and Mind Sciences (PLMS) held its first conference. PLMS seeks to apply the findings of social science to legal processes, bringing into the law a human element that many find lacking from the dominant analytical approaches.

The new organization is the brainchild of Professor Jon Hanson, who has argued that legal institutions should be informed by a “situationist” account of human behavior that acknowledges the countless influences that shape individual preferences and undermine the “dispositionist” model of law and economics. “The conception of the human being that we have in law,” Hanson believes, “is not accurate.” Through the conference, future events, and the Project’s blog, The Situationist, and website (both accessible at and both co-founded by Professor Michael McCann of Mississippi College School of Law), PLMS hopes to make that conception more realistic.

The conference featured presentations by several leading social psychologists and responses from members of the Harvard Law faculty. The speakers’ research explored various components of how individuals form impressions and opinions. Princeton’s John Darley began the conference by describing how judgments of what constitutes justice are in many cases “intuitive products,” rather than carefully reasoned assessments. These intuitive conclusions often prevail over the slower, more deliberative reasoned judgments. “These judgments are based on a just-deserts reaction rather than a legislative, deterrence reaction,” Darley has found.

Darley argued that the legal code should in many regards model this aspect of public morality, as a way of encouraging respect for and compliance with the law. Similarly, his co-panelist Tom Tyler, of NYU, argued that legitimacy and morality are more important factors than fear of sanction in encouraging law-abiding behavior. “Deterrence has a very small effect on compliance with the law,” according to Tyler. Tyler’s research in corporate governance and military practice support this notion that increasing the appearance of fair decision-making processes can contribute to an effective system of laws, perhaps more so than severe punishment.


Stanford’s Lawrence Bobo looked at one reason that punitive criminal policy receives so much support despite its relative inefficacy: the “large and consistent impact of racial resentment.” His studies have found that prejudice is more predictive of support for such policies than do fear of crime or the actual local crime rates.

Bobo’s colleague at Stanford, Jennifer Eberhardt, explained how this prejudice may implicitly influence policy preferences and causal attributions, even in the face of the widespread belief that discrimination is an issue of the past. Race “influences us in unsuspected and undesired ways despite our wish to be egalitarian,” according to Eberhardt. Her research has shown how “subliminal priming”-flashing images of black males too quickly for conscious recognition-increases the speed with which test subjects recognize weapons and other images related to crime. Her work on lineups and sentencing suggests that “black defendants are punished in proportion to the blackness of their physical features.” Her findings reveal an unpleasant but convincing role for implicit prejudices in forming, among other things, the intuitive justice judgments described by Darley. Professor Charles Ogletree, commenting on the application of her research, said, “these presentations were among the most depressing things I’ve experienced in my life, and I applaud you.”

In addition to Hanson and Ogletree, Duncan Kennedy, Kenneth Mack, Martha Minow, and Neil Vidmar (of Duke Law School) all brought their perspectives to the conference and discussed the obstacles to bringing social science insights into the law and the need for such an effort. “There really is no unconscious in the legal system, not to mention no implicit attitudes,” noted Minow. Instead, our doctrine and legal practices have “encased as if it were true a set of 19th-century assumptions” that poorly fit the reality of human behavior. Although at times social science research has influenced the path of the law-such as the “doll test,” [described here] famously used in Brown v. Board of Education to demonstrate how segregation instilled a sense of inferiority in black children and captured in video on The Situationist blog-such occasions have been the exception rather than the rule. There are “institutional barriers … against allowing some of these messages in the door,” said Darley.

Hanson and NYU Professor John Jost each addressed some of these barriers. Jost, graciously spending much of his wedding anniversary in Austin North, detailed his research on “system justification”: the tendency that all people have to “defend, bolster, and rationalize the systems that affect.” For example, study participants are more likely to find reports of research “convincing” and “well-conducted” when their conclusions support the American Dream than when they oppose it. In addition to depressing rates of system-implicating claims such as domestic violence and discrimination, this habit keeps out social science viewpoints that may challenge the preeminence of individual responsibility and autonomy.

Hanson looked at how the conception of individuals as choosers with stable and self-made preferences both crowds out situationist, social-science findings and justifies laws that are insensitive to the reality of how people function. The common conceit that people are wholly responsible for their choices and the resultant outcomes, Hanson argues, is belied by the great effort expended on influencing and chan neling those choices.

The project will continue next month with an appearance on campus by Phil Zimbardo, the creator of the chilling Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Zimbardo’s experiment divided 24 psychologically sound college students at random into “prisoners” and “guards” for a two-week mock incarceration; the experiment was cut short after six days due to its traumatic effects on the prisoners. Zimbardo will speak in early April.

Posted in Events, Legal Theory, System Legitimacy | 5 Comments »

The Stanford Warden Retires

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 14, 2007

Professor Zimbardo’s Final Lecture at StanfordSituationist Phil Zimbardo has been in the news quite a bit this week. This morning we discovered an article in USA Today, asking “Do we all have an evil, dark side?,” and summarizing a few of the insights in Zimbardo’s forthcoming book. And last week we came across the article excerpted below describing Phil Zimbardo’s final lecture last week at Stanford.

* * *

The retiring psychology professor who ran the famed Stanford Prison Experiment savagely criticized the Bush administration’s War on Terror Wednesday and said senior government officials should be tried for crimes against humanity.

In his final lecture at Stanford University, Philip Zimbardo said abuses committed by Army reservists at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison weren’t isolated incidents by rogue soldiers. Rather, sadism was the inevitable result of U.S. government policies that condone brutality toward enemies, he said.

Individual military personnel — those who stripped prisoners and leashed them like dogs — are only as culpable as the people who created the overall environment in which the soldiers operated, Zimbardo told undergraduates enrolled in Introductory Psychology.

“Good American soldiers were corrupted by the bad barrel in which they too were imprisoned,” said Zimbardo, 73. “Those barrels were designed, crafted, maintained and mismanaged by the bad barrel makers, from the top down in the military and civilian Bush administration.”

* * *

Past president of the American Psychology Association, Zimbardo is best known as the author of 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which 24 male college students assumed the roles of prison guards and prisoners for $15 per day.

Participants — who had no criminal records and seemed psychologically “normal” when selected — flipped coins to determine who would be a guard and who’d be a prisoner. By day two, guards were going far beyond keeping prisoners behind bars: They stripped prisoners naked, cloaked their heads with paper bags, shaved prisoners’ hair and dressed them in frilly smocks.

* * *

Decades later, Zimbardo applied his analysis to American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. He testified as an expert witness in the court martial of Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick II, the highest-ranking officer implicated in the scandal.

Frederick received a maximum eight-year prison term for abusing and humiliating detainees. He was stripped of nine medals of honor and 22 years of retirement pay.

Zimbardo — who spent months interviewing Frederick and his friends and relatives, and poring over his work history and personal background — argued that his sentence should be lessened.

Based on academic research, Zimbardo said, very few people could resist the situational pressures of Abu Ghraib — particularly Army reservists, themselves subject to hazing and abuse by active duty soldiers.

“There’s only one rung lower than reservists, and that’s the detainees,” Zimbardo said while flashing dozens of “trophy photos” of Iraqi prisoners in naked piles, being menaced by snarling German shepherds, covered in blood, or with their eyes missing.

Zimbardo, an unusual icon of both academia and pop culture also starred in the 2002 Discovery Channel reality show “The Human Zoo” and the PBS series “Discovering Psychology.”

On Wednesday, he displayed a grainy, 1971 photo of Stanford’s mock prisoners with bags over their heads, guards looking on casually — then switched to an eerily similar digital photo taken in 2003 or 2004 by one of the Abu Ghraib guards, with people in nearly identical formation and cloaks as the Stanford snapshot.


Bush characterized the abuse as an aberration. Some high-ranking military officials insisted that individuals — not Zimbardo’s amorphous “environment” — had to be held accountable.

The reactions still sting the professor.

“I gave the situational view, and of course the military totally rejects it,” Zimbardo said.

The anti-war activist emphasized that his analysis wasn’t a license to engage in wickedness. Zimbardo said he was providing context to understand people like Frederick, who helped place wires on a detainee’s hands and told him he would be electrocuted if he fell while standing on a box.

“The dialectic of human nature is good vs. evil,” said Zimbardo, whose upcoming book, “The Lucifer Effect,” summarizes his research.

Stanford professor Benoit Monin called Zimbardo — a child of Sicilian immigrants who grew up in the Bronx in the 1940s — “godfather” of academic psychologists.

“He’s been an inspiring role model,” Monin said as Zimbardo flashed a devilish grin and blasted the Rolling Stones'”Sympathy for the Devil” throughout the auditorium.

* * *

For brief coverage in Harper’s about the lack of coverage of Zimbardo’s comments, click here.

Posted in Events, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Subliminal Ads on the Brain

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 13, 2007

brain-scans-subliminal.jpggrown-man-cry.jpgWith the aid of brain scanners, researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College, London recently showed that the brain does register subliminal images even if a person is unaware they have seen them – although the images only had an impact when the brain had “spare capacity” in terms of attention.

According to Dr. Bahador Bahrami, one of the researchers, “[w]hat’s interesting here is that your brain does log things that you aren’t even aware of and can’t ever become aware of.” For short articles describing the research, click here and here.

Posted in Marketing | 5 Comments »

From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part I

Posted by Philip Zimbardo on March 12, 2007

Over the last few weeks, I have authored a three-part series on the Situational Sources of Evil (see Parts I, II, and III). In that series, I describe how people too often miss the power of situation in explaining evil, and too often attribute “evil” to a person or group. The post below begins a two-part series on how situation can lead any of us to partake in what we would consider “evil” behavior, a fact that runs in stark contrast to how we conceive ourselves as moral and good persons.

* * *

Paradise Lost

The poet John Milton gave highest praise to the human mind when he wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” I have been celebrating that mental agility for most of my life, as a research psychologist for the past fifty years, but even before that as a child of only five years. Before I describe how I helped to transform the paradise that is Palo Alto, California, and Stanford University, into a hell on earth for a group of college students that I imprisoned in a dramatic experiment, allow me first to note briefly how I also mentally transformed a living hell into my optimistic heaven.

Having developed the contagious disease of whooping cough compounded by doubleWillard Parker Hospital pneumonia, I was sent to Willard Parker Hospital, on the east side of Manhattan, to join hundreds of other poor kids suffering from every conceivable contagious disease. It was winter 1939, before the advent of wonder drugs, penicillin or sulfa, that would have helped us to survive. It was also an era before exercise was valued, so we lay in our cots day and night, never allowed to stand or stretch, or do anything that might disturb the nurses. There was no TV, of course, but also no radio or music or telephones or games or anything to do except to read comic books. Parents were restricted to visiting only a few hours on Sundays, when they were able to brave the long walk from the subway in winter storms. When they could not come, they couldn’t call to let their desperately lonely children know they would surely come next week. And naturally, we all worried that they might forget where we were. When they did come, we were separated by a huge glass wall, across which we tried to touch or kiss against before the nurses noticed and forbade this minimal moment of intimacy. Because kids were coughing and wheezing constantly, the nurses all wore masks, and had learned to harden themselves against getting emotionally involved with any of us; a kind of “detached concern” for their welfare charges.

And then night fell. Having not done anything all day but reread comic books, no one was tired, but lights were out promptly at 8 PM, and we had to pretend to sleep. It was hard to sleep, with so much noise from the constant crying and coughing, and with the black figures that slithered across the walls as the light from the nurses’ station projected scary shadows. We knew it was the Devil coming to look us over for his wicked selections. The Childrens Hospital Wardkids around my bed all agreed never to say that dumb prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” It did not matter whether we said it or not, when morning finally arrived, “Billy had gone home,” or “Johnny’s folks came to take him home.” Kids died in a game of genetic roulette, without medication or health savvy treatment. But we all formed a silent conspiracy of denial among nurses and kids, to deny the reality of death taking us one by one. It was the only way we could sustain hope of ever being released alive. We knew that “going home” was really going to your grave, but we suppressed that ominous thought and replaced it with visions of our departed friends back home riding their bicycles, playing stickball, or just having fun. And we desperately imagined that when our turn came to go home, we would really go home and not go there.

I endured this nightmare for 5 months, through Christmas, New Years, my birthday in March, and eventually, magically, I was paroled right after Easter. When my parents tried to comfort me for the suffering I endured, I accepted none of those tears and sympathy. I had erected a different frame for the picture of poor little Philip – I had a great time in that charity ward at Willard Parker Hospital! I made lots of close friends, I learned to read and write before I went to school, I learned to ingratiate myself with the nurses using compliments to get extra pats of butter or sugar, and I developed leadership skills by being able to come up with interesting group games we could play from our dozens of beds, like we were a navy sailing down the Nile in search of the magic white crocodile. In my mind, I continued to make a heaven of this hell for many years afterwards, until the spell was broken when I confronted one of my students in a hospital dying of AIDS. But that is another story, for another day.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Stanford Prison Experiment

Fast forward to summer 1971; I became Superintendent of the Sanford Prison, an experimental prison run by psychologists, not by the state. I wanted to understand better what happens when you put good people in a bad place, like prison. Who or what wins? Instead of observing what happens in real prisons that generate so much violence, I needed to separate what is usually confounded, the kind of prisoners and guards who populate prisons from the kind of forces operating in such places. To do so, it was necessary to conduct a controlled experiment, to select a group of volunteers who were normal, healthy young men with no history of crime or violence, and then randomly assign them to play the roles of prisoner or guard in a two-week long experiment in which we could observe and record everything that happened. Those assigned to be prisoners lived in their cells and on the prison yard all the time, 24/ 7; the guards worked 8 hour shifts.

Stanford Prison Experiment 2Our prison simulation tried to create a psychology of imprisonment in the minds of all participants and staff, with all-powerful guards dominating powerless prisoners. The realistic elements including actual mass arrests and booking by the city police, visits by a prison chaplain, public defender, and parents in visiting hours, parole board hearings, along with unplanned prisoner rebellions and guards’ abuse and torture of prisoners. The experiment had to be terminated after only 6 days because nearly half the prisoners had emotional breakdowns in response to the extreme stress and psychological torments sadistically invented by their guards. The situational forces had overwhelmed many of these good, intelligent college students.

Abu Ghraib Abuses

Abu Ghraib

Fast forward next to April 2004. Horror images flash across our television screens of humiliating abuses of Iraqi prisoners by young American soldiers; men and women Military Police in Abu Ghraib Prison. The military commanders condemn these criminal actions of a “few bad apples,” asserting that such abuses are not systematic in our military prisons. The images were shocking to me, but familiar because they were so similar to what I had seen in our mock Stanford Prison– Prisoners naked, bags over their heads, forced into sexually humiliating poses. Could the perpetrators of these evils be like the good apples in my prison? Could they have been corrupted by the “bad barrel” of the Abu Ghraib Prison within the bad barrel of war? To what extent was their behavior shaped by the same kinds of social psychological forces that operated in the Stanford Prison Experiment, such as dehumanization? My conclusion, after having become an expert witness for one of those military policemen, and reviewing all the evidence of the many investigations into these abuses, was that the parallels were palpable, the same psychology was at work despite different settings. One of the investigative reports by the Schlesinger Committee highlighted the fact that the “landmark Stanford study” should have been a cautionary tale for the military in preventing the Abu Ghraib abuses.

Lucifer Effect2My new book, The Lucifer Effect presents a detailed analysis of the psychological transformation of good apples immersed in bad barrels, both in mock and real prisons. Such an understanding does not excuse immoral behavior, rather it makes us aware of how the to change those features of situations, like military prison environments, that can exerts such corrosive influences on even our best young soldiers who temporarily play various roles on those stages. Historical inquiry and behavioral science have demonstrated the “banality of evil”—that is, given certain conditions, ordinary people can succumb to social pressure to commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable. Just as Lucifer was transformed from God’s favorite angel into the devil, I argue that many good, ordinary people can also be seduced by situational forces to engage in evil deeds.

I also question how well any of us really knows what we are capable of doing in new situations where we might be given authority and control over others. We want to believe that we are good folks fully aware of the inner moral constraints on our behavior, and of course different from the bad folks on the other side of the line separating good and evil. But the dangerous thought to consider is that line being permeable, like cells of our body that allow movement of chemicals across their boundaries. Any thing that any human being has ever done, that is imaginable, becomes doable, by any of us in the same situation. It is a humbling corrective to our moral arrogance of assuming superiority without fully appreciating the situational forces that may have driven others just like us to become perpetrators of evil at that time in that place.

* * *

In Part II of this series (to be posted next week) I will discuss how we can resist and overcome powerful situations to do good.

Posted in History, Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

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