The Situationist

Archive for April, 2007

The Situation of First-Person Shooters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 30, 2007

Half LifeWe have written about possible connections between playing violent videogames and violent acts (“The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Videogames” and “Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson“). In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, Amanda Schaffer of Slate examines whether Cho Seung-Hui’s apparent playing of first-person shooters may have contributed to his shootings. We excerpt portions of her article below.

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Pathological acts of course have multiple, complex causes and are terribly hard to predict. And clearly, millions of people play Counter-Strike, Halo, and Doom and never commit crimes. But the subtler question is whether exposure to video-game violence is one risk factor for increased aggression: Is it associated with shifts in attitudes or responses that may predispose kids to act out? A large body of evidence suggests that this may be so. The studies have their shortcomings, but taken as a whole, they demonstrate that video games have a potent impact on behavior and learning.

Three kinds of research link violent video games to increased aggression. First, there are studies that look for correlations between exposure to these games and real-world aggression. This work suggests that kids who are more immersed in violent video games may be more likely to get into physical fights, argue with teachers, or display anger and hostility. Second, there is longitudinal research (measuring behavior over time) that assesses gaming habits and belligerence in a group of children. One example: A study of 430 third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, published this year by psychologisCraig Andersonts Craig Anderson, Douglas Gentile, and Katherine Buckley, found that the kids who played more violent video games “changed over the school year to become more verbally aggressive, more physically aggressive,” and less helpful to others.

Finally, experimental studies randomly assign subjects to play a violent or a nonviolent game, and then compare their levels of aggression. In work published in 2000, Anderson and Karen Dill randomly assigned 210 undergraduates to play Wolfenstein 3-D, a first-person-shooter game, or Myst, an adventure game in which players explore mazes and puzzles. Anderson and Dill found that when the students went on to play a second game, the Wolfenstein 3-D players were more likely to behave aggressively toward losing opponents. Given the chance to punish with blasts of noise, they chose to inflict significantly louder and longer blasts than the Myst kids did. Other recent work randomly assigned students to play violent or nonviolent games, and then analyzed differences in brain activation patterns using fMRI scans, but the research is so far difficult to assess.

Each of these approaches has its flaws. The first kind of correlational study can never prove that video-game playing causes physical aggression. Maybe aggressive people are simply more apt to play violent games in the first place. Meanwhile, the randomized trials, like Anderson and Dill’s, which do imply causation, necessarily depend on lab-based measures of aggression, such as whether subjects blast each other with noise. This is a respected measure, but obviously not the same as seeing whether real people hit or shoot each other. The longitudinal work, like this year’s elementary-school study, is a useful middle ground: It shows that across the board, playing more-violent video games predicts higher levels of verbal and physical aggression later on. It doesn’t matter why the kids started playing violent games or whether they were already more aggressive than their peers; the point is that a year of game-playing likely contributes to making them more aggressive than they were when they started. If we had only one of the three kinds of Grand Theft Auto San Andreasstudies, the findings wouldn’t mean much. But taken together, the body of research suggests a real connection.

The connection between violent games and real violence is also fairly intuitive. In playing the games, kids are likely to become desensitized to gory images, which could make them less disturbing and perhaps easier to deal with in real life. The games may also encourage kids (and adults) to rehearse aggressive solutions to conflict, meaning that these thought processes may become more available to them when real-life conflicts arise, Anderson says. Video games also offer immediate feedback and constant small rewards—in the form of points, or access to new levels or weapons. And they tend to tailor tasks to a player’s skill level, starting easy and getting harder. That makes them “phenomenal teachers,” says Anderson, though “what they teach very much depends on content.”

Critics counter that some kids may “use games to vent anger or distract themselves from problems,” as psychiatry professor Cheryl Olson writes. This can be “functional” rather than unhealthy, depending on the kid’s mental state and the extent of his game playing. But other studies suggest that venting anger doesn’t reduce later aggressive behavior, so this thesis doesn’t have the most solid support.

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To read all of Schaffer’s article, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Life | 6 Comments »

The Situation of Our Food – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 29, 2007

// I of this series, built around Michael Pollan’s recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine . . . ended with the following observation and question from Pollan:

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Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

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This Part excerpts (immediately below) another section of Pollan’s article, which examines one of the answers – not the market, but the laws and regulations that govern the market – and suggests its connection to the still-ballooning national girth.

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For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

Image from hansonjourney.comThat’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives. And the subsidies are only part of the problem. Thebig-gulp.jpg farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.

To speak of the farm bill’s influence on the American food system does not begin to describe its full impact — on the environment, on global poverty, even on immigration.

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Part III of this series will pick up there, but there is more to say about the connection of corn subsidies to the obesity epidemic. The fact that the link between our laws the harms that those laws have contributed to requires explantion is itself a function of our general failure to see situation and to focus on disposition. That is a point that several Situationist contributors have made in other work as follows:

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Lobbying by corn processors has had an undoubted effect on the expansion of corn subsidies, but it is only the most obvious part of the story. When asked about whether he saw any link between the subsidy programs and obesity, Tommy Thompson answered as if the question were silly: “I really don’t . . . [b]ecause the subsidy programs are things // are done through Congress, much more so than trying to come up with an overall strategy as, as fars as nutrition is concerned.”

The point seems to be that because Congress did not have a disposition to contribute to the obesity epidemic, Congressional policies are not at all responsible. This dispositionism stems in part, we believe from the fact that subsidies were not “intended” to influence public health – rather, they were intended as a means of helping certain farmers – and in part because the connections to our health are situational. Farm subsidies embody especially hard-to-see situation not only because they have been around so long that they feel natural and are accepted as given, but also because understanding how they increase health problems in the United States requires dealing with a long explanation. Marching down the causal chain is hard work, and given our resistance to explanations that do not comport with our dispositionist tendencies, few regulators make the trek.


Posted in Food and Drug Law, Law, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

Unrecognized Injustice — The Situation of Rape

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

Sir Matthew HaleSeventeenth-century English Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale wrote, rape “is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved.” At least since then, that sort of thinking has been a major impediment to protecting women against sexual violence.

Of course, the impediments are many. In fact, social psychologists have discovered that one of the biggest challenges is in the way we categorize an occurrence. There is a “rape prototype” that influences what counts as a “rape” and what counts as something else — say, consensual sex or a seduction. (Legal scholar Martha Chamallas has a compelling article on that topic.) The purest form of the rape prototype, complete with racial details, includes a brutish man (usually black), unknown to the victim, bounding out of the bushes or breaking into a home and violently forcing himself on a young, innocent, white (probably blonde) woman.


Elements of this prototype can be found throughout our culture, from the cinema (see above) to political ads (see below). And that same prototype, many have argued, has interfered with our ability or willingness to recognize or respond to the harms associated with atypical forms of sexual violence, such as marital rape, date rape, same-sex rape, prison rape, and party rape.


Amesty International has just published a disturbing study about the sexual violence against Native American women in the U.S. To be sure, there are Amnesty International Report Covernumerous causal factors (including jurisdictional ambiguity, budgetary constraints, and bureaucratic indifference) behind the trends described. But, in additon to those situational factors, a less obvious causal contributor, we suspect, is the rape prototype.

In the eyes of many Americans, the brutalization of Native American women, because they do not match the prototypical victim, does not seem quite as bad and the perpetrators do not seem quite as heinous as they might, were the similar trends occuring to women in a midwestern suburb. In fact, the legacy of cultural stereotypes and historical practices might well contribute to the sexual violence against Native American women, or so the Amnesty International Report suggests. To paraphrase Justice Hale, in many contexts, rape is easily proved, but rarely prosecuted. We excerpt the summary of that Report below.

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Sexual violence against Indigenous women in the USA is widespread — and especially brutal. According to US government statistics, Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the USA. Some Indigenous women interviewed by Amnesty International said they didn’t know anyone in their community who had not experienced sexual violence. Though rape is always an act of violence, there is evidence that Indigenous women are more like than other women to suffer additional violence at the hands of their attackers. According to the US Department of Justice, in at least 86 per cent of the reported cases of rape or sexual assault against American Indian and Alaska Native women, survivors report that the perpetrators are non-Native men.

From Amnesty International

Sexual violence against Indigenous women is the result of a number of factors including a history of widespread and egregious human rights violations against Indigenous peoples in the USA. Indigenous women were raped by settlers and soldiers in many infamous episodes including during the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk. Such attacks were not random or individual; they were tools of conquest and colonization. The underlying attitudes towards Indigenous peoples that supported these human rights violations committed against them continue to be present in society and culture in the USA. They contribute to the present high rates of sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and help to shield their attackers from justice.

Treaties, the US Constitution and federal law affirm a unique political and legal relationship between federally recognized tribal nations and the federal government. There are more than 550 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes in the USA. Federally recognized Indian tribes are sovereign under US law, with jurisdiction over their citizens and land and maintaining government to government relationships with each other and with the US federal government. The federal government has a legal responsibility to ensure protection of the rights and wellbeing of Native American and Alaska Native peoples. The federal government has a unique legal relationship to the tribal nations that includes a trust responsibility to assist tribal governments in safeguarding the lives of Indian women.

Tribal law enforcement agencies are chronically under-funded – federal and state governments provide significantly fewer resources for law enforcement on tribal land than are provided for comparable non-Native communities. The lack of appropriate training in all police forces — federal, state and tribal — also undermines survivors’ right to justice. Many officers don’t have the skills to ensure a full and accurate crime report. Survivors of sexual violence are not guaranteed access to adequate and timely sexual assault forensic examinations which is caused in part by the federal government’s severe under-funding of the Indian Health Service.

amnesty-international-images1.jpgThe Federal Government has also undermined the authority of tribal governments to respond to crimes committed on tribal land. Women who come forward to report sexual violence are caught in a jurisdictional maze that federal, state and tribal police often cannot quickly sort out. Three justice systems — tribal, state and federal — are potentially involved in responding to sexual violence against Indigenous women. Three main factors determine which of these justice systems has authority to prosecute such crimes:

– whether the victim is a member of a federally recognized tribe or not;
– whether the accused is a member of a federally recognized tribe or not; and
– whether the offence took place on tribal land or not.

The answers to these questions are often not self-evident and there can be significant delays while police, lawyers and courts establish who has jurisdiction over a particular crime. The result can be such confusion and uncertainty that no one intervenes and survivors of sexual violence are denied access to justice.

Tribal prosecutors cannot prosecute crimes committed by non-Native perpetrators. Tribal courts are also prohibited from passing custodial sentences that are in keeping with the seriousness of the crimes of rape or other forms of sexual violence. The maximum prison sentence tribal courts can impose for crimes, including rape, is one year. At the same time, the majority of rape cases on tribal lands that are referred to the federal courts are reportedly never brought to trial.

As a consequence Indigenous women are being denied justice. And the perpetrators are going unpunished.

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For the full summary, click here. For the full report, click here. And to listen to an NPR (All Things Considered) story on the report, click here.


Posted in History, Law, Life, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Alone Together – The Commuter’s Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 26, 2007

New Yorker Image for Paumgarten essayNick Paumgarten has a thoughtful essay in the April 16 edition of the New Yorker, entitled “There and Back Again: The Soul of the Commuter.” We’ve excerpted some of the more situationist components of his essay below.

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Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. Recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger asked nine hundred working women in Texas to rate their daily activities, according to how much they enjoyed them. Commuting came in last. (Sex came in first.) The source of // unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.

I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is, Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller Bowling Alone, about the disintegration of American civic life.) There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.


Drivers often say they prize the time alone—to gather their wits, listen to music, or talk on the phone. They also like the freedom, the ability, illusory though it may be, to come //,GGGL:2006-23,GGGL:en%26sa%3DGand go as they please; schedules can seem an imposition, as can a crowded train’s cattle-car ambience. But the driver’s seat is a lonely place. People tend to behave in their cars as though they are alone in a room. Road rage is one symptom of this; on the street or on the train, people don’t generally walk around calling each other assholes. Howard Stern is another; you can listen to lewd evocations without feeling as though you were pushing the bounds of the social contract. You could drive to work without your pants on, and no one would know.

The loneliness quotient might also account for some of the commute tolerance in New York. On the train or the bus, one can experience an illusion of fellowship, even if you disdain your fellow-passengers or are revolted by them. Perhaps there’s succor in inadvertent eye contact, the presence of a pretty woman, shared disgruntlement (over a // or a spilled Pepsi), or the shuffle through the doors, which requires, on a subconscious level, an array of social compromises and collaborations. Train riding has other benefits. Passengers can sleep or read, send e-mails or play cards. Delays are out of their control.

Three years ago, two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, released a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that, if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as “satisfied” with life as a noncommuter is. (Their data come from Germany, where you’d think speedy Autobahns and punctual trains would bring a little Freude to the proceedings, and their methodology is elaborate and thorough, if impenetrable to the layman . . . .) The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory, at least), commute even though it makes them miserable. They are not, in the final accounting, adequately compensated.

“People with long journeys to and from work are systematically worse off and report significantly lower subjective well-being,” Stutzer told me. According to the economicAlden Couch 101 year old driver concept of equilibrium, people will move or change jobs to make up for imbalances in compensation. Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living. It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring. They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute—money, house, prestige—and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun.

“They have to trade off social goods for material goods,” Stutzer said. “This is very difficult for people. They make systematic mistakes. We are very good at predicting whether we’ll like something but not at knowing for how long.” People adapt to a higher living standard but not to social isolation. Frey and Stutzer infer that some people, even when the costs become clear, just lack the will power to change. “People have limited self-control and insufficient energy, inducing some people to not even try to improve their lot,” they write. In this regard, they say, commuting resembles smoking and failing to save money.

from analysis presupposes that commuting represents what economists call a rational choice, as opposed to a constrained choice. Postwar zoning laws aggressively separated living space from commercial space, requiring more roads and parking lots—known to planners as Euclidean zoning (after a Supreme Court decision involving Euclid, Ohio), and to civilians as sprawl. Putnam likes to imagine that there is a triangle, its points comprising where you sleep, where you work, and where you shop. In a canonical English village, or in a university town, the sides of that triangle are very short: a five- minute walk from one point to the next. In many American cities, you can spend an hour or two travelling each side. “You live in Pasadena, work in North Hollywood, shop in the Valley,” Putnam said. “Where is your community?” The smaller the triangle, the happier the human, as long as there is social interaction to be had. In that kind of life, you have a small refrigerator, because you can get to theBologna Italy store quickly and often. By this logic, the bigger the refrigerator, the lonelier the soul.

Putnam’s favorite city is Bologna, in Italy, which has a population of three hundred and fifty thousand; it’s just small enough to retain village-like characteristics. “It would be interesting to swap the citizens of Bologna with the population of New Jersey,” Putnam said. “Do the Bolognese become disconnected and grouchy? Is there a sudden explosion of malls in Bologna? How much of the way we live is forced on us? How much is our choice?”

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To read all of Paumgarten’s interesting essay, click here.

Posted in Life | 3 Comments »

The Situation of our Food – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 25, 2007

As many of our readers likely already know, Michael Pollan is an environmental journalist and educator of unparalleled eloquence and unusual influence. What many people may not realize is that Pollan is (as far as we’re concerned) also a first-rate situationist.


His best-selling and award winning books, include “The Botany of Desire” and more recently, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

This week, Pollan has a great piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled “You Are What You Grow.” The article touches on themes and sheds light on issues that have come up in previous posts, including here, here, and here.

We have excerpted the opening section of that article below.

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A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 processed-food.jpgcalories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.

This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

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For the answer, go to the full article here, or check back here next week for Part II of this series. For those interested, there are two worthwhile audio interviews of Michael Pollan on NPR’s Fresh Air, available here and here). For a longer law review article on the situational sources of obesity, by several Situationist contributors, click here. If your situation permits, take a look at the video below, in which Michael Pollan speaks (in 2002) at Berkeley about “Cannibis, Forgetting, and the Botany of Desire.”


Posted in Food and Drug Law, Life | 3 Comments »

The Situation of the NBA Draft

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 24, 2007

NBA Draft LotteryAs most fans of the National Basketball Association know, the NBA Draft lottery will be held on May 22. It will determine the draft order of the 14 NBA teams that did not make the playoffs, as those teams will be assigned a pick between 1 and 14 in the 2007 NBA Draft, which will be held on June 28. The 16 teams that made the playoffs will not participate in the lottery, but will instead select between 15 and 30 based on inverse order of record. Picks 31 through 60 in the second and final round of the NBA draft will be based on inverse record of all teams. Typically, the drop off in talent after the first five or so drafted players is quite significant, and few players selected after 15 will become NBA stars. Nevertheless, a good number of drafted players will enjoy NBA careers of at least two or three years, which for some can mean the difference between becoming a millionaire and becoming someone who doesn’t earn much doing anything.

So the lottery, and the draft in general, matter a great deal to NBA teams and prospective draft picks. Mechanically, the lottery works as follows: it features 14 ping bolls in a standard lottery machine and four are drawn at random. There are 24,024 possible combinations, but the NBA eliminates the importance of the combinations’ order, thus reducing the number of relevant combinations to 1,001, of which 1,000 are divided among the 14 non-playoff NBA teams. The number of combinations assigned to each team are weighted in favor of the NBA’s worst teams, so the team with the worst record obtains the most number of combinations and so on. To illustrate, the Memphis Grizzlies, by virtue of possessing the worst record from this past NBA season, will have a 25.0% chance of landing the first pick and a 46.5% chance of landing either of the first two picks; the Boston Celtics, holders of the second worst record, will have a 19.9% chance of landing the first pick and a 38.7% chance of landing either of the first two picks.

Greg Oden and Kevin Durant

In a draft that features two potential “franchise” players, Ohio State freshman Greg Oden and University of Texas freshman Kevin Durant, this year’s lottery has taken on extra meaning. Indeed, several teams, such as the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, have been accused of “tanking” or purposefully losing games in order to obtain a worse record and thus better odds at landing one of the first two picks. Ironically, the lottery was instituted in 1985 as a way of discouraging teams from tanking, as they would no longer be assured the first pick by virtue of having the worst record, which had been the existing procedure. This change was made after the Houston Rockets were alleged to haveHakeem Olajuwon and David Stern in 1985 purposefully lost games in the 1984-85 season in order to secure the worst record, thereby enabling them to select star center Hakeem Olajuwon from nearby University of Houston. Nevertheless, NBA teams still appear to purposefully lose games when the potential reward of a franchise player exists.

After the lottery is drawn on May 22, the draft order will be determined. Many websites, such as, Draft Express, and Chad Ford on ESPN, will then conduct “mock drafts” projecting how teams will draft on June 28. These websites also evaluate the players and assess their potential for success in the NBA. The evaluations are thorough and quite good. And we find out how correct they are when the draft is held on June 28 in Madison Square Garden.

Over the summer, the drafted players will join their respective NBA teams, and basketball commentators like ESPN’s Henry Abbott and Sports Illustrated‘s Kelly Dwyer will keep us informed as to how well these players adjust to their new situations. Some will play well, some won’t. Some will make general managers look like geniuses; others will make them look like fools. Some will be drafted into the right situation, with the right teammates, right coaches, right style of play, and, perhaps most importantly, the right opportunity to play rather than sit on the bench; others will land in a place that doesn’t suit them well, Doc Rivers and former Celtic Marcus Bankssuch as with a coach that takes a disliking or a team that has too many better players at the same position or a city that seems too far from home, and their careers will stagnate and perhaps suffer irreparable harm.

And therein lies the situation of the NBA Draft: the success of drafted players depends largely on the situation in which they are drafted. While some drafted players, like Tim Duncan or LeBron James, are likely to excel in any situation (and, conversely, some are likely to falter in any situation), many, if not most, drafted players are situationally-dependent. Put differently, the legacies of most NBA players will depend largely on the situations in which they find themselves, even though most fans will remember them from a dispositional perspective (e.g., this guy was a great player, he should have been drafted earlier; what a bust this guy was, he never should have been a lottery pick).

Last May, Eric Weiss of Draft Express evidenced these points in a wonderful article entitled, “It’s About Situation, Not Position.” We excerpt portions of Weiss’ article below.

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[S]uccess is predicated on opportunity, and opportunity is afforded to those fortunate few who find the proper situational environment for them to excel in. There are players in this league who have had great talent, but lost their moment to shine because the opportunity never came to pass. Other players have gone unnoticed and underappreciated until the right situation sprung them from the depths of anonymity and into the spotlight. . . .

[T]here are varying degrees of patience and persistence when it comes to finding opportunity and realizing potential. Players such as Ryan Gomes this past season had only to deal with the initial disappointment of an extremely low draft position and a half-season wait to prove the pundits wrong. Gomes was a highly decorated player, earning first team All-American honors during his collegiateRyan Gomes career. But, questions about his NBA position as well as a perceived lack of athleticism found this once highly thought of prospect plummeting down to pick 50 in the draft. But, injuries to Boston’s main rotation players coupled with Gomes’ relentless approach to preparation finally paid dividends and Gomes went on to earn Second-Team All-Rookie honors despite being benched for months. . . .

It’s easy to assume that a player with great natural ability will automatically realize his potential in any situation given such basics as playing time and coaching. But, the game is so much more intricate than that, just as life is more complicated than simply waking up and driving to work in the morning. The interactions and relationships one has with coworkers, supervisors, teammates and coaches are going to be the foundation elements of happiness and productivity in the workplace.

Going off the logic that simple draft position and the talent that earned it was enough to determine success, what is the explanation for players such as Jermaine O’Neal, and Boris Diaw, who realized little of their ability with their initial teams, only to blossom in different circumstances. Truly, Darko Milicic and Kwame Brown have just started to give a glimpse of similar metamorphoses as players after failing to live up to expectation and buckling under the weight of lofty draft position.

The bottom line is this: Success is predicated on variables far beyond anyone’s ability to measure with complete accuracy. No person’s true worth in any sense of the word can be summed up by a number ranked 1 through 30. Rarely do players such as Tim Duncan and LeBron James come along. Most players rely on far more than physical talent to succeed, and even those such as James are special because of the so-called intangibles they possess. At the end of the day, players are remembered for what they accomplish after they’re drafted, and the number they got selected at holds little significance. It’s the situation one gets drafted into that allows for all the rest to unfold and that is a measure yet unquantifiable.

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For the complete article, click here.

Posted in Situationist Sports | 17 Comments »

Infant Death Rates in Mississippi

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 22, 2007

Erik Eckholm had an interesting but disheartening article in yesterday’s New York Times, In Turnabout, Infant Deaths Climb in South,” about the escalating infant mortality rates in the deep south, particularly Mississippi. The article raises and briefly examines the common attributional question: Is the trend a consequence of disposition (“Some women just don’t have the get up and go”) or situation (from lack of transportation to hopelessness). We have excerpted a few pieces of the longer article below. But first, consider the following two maps depicting, from top to bottom, rates of childhood poverty and adult obesity.

Childhood Poverty - Adult Obesity Rates

* * *

For decades, Mississippi and neighboring states with large black populations and expanses of enduring poverty made steady progress in reducing infant death. But, in what health experts call an ominous portent, progress has stalled and in recent years the death rate has risen in Mississippi and several other states.


The setbacks have raised questions about the impact of cuts in welfare and Medicaid and of poor access to doctors, and, many doctors say, the growing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and hypertension among potential mothers, some of whom tip the scales here at 300 to 400 pounds.

Dr. Christina Glick“I don’t think the rise is a fluke, and it’s a disturbing trend, not only in Mississippi but throughout the Southeast,” said Dr. Christina Glick, a neonatologist in Jackson, Miss., and past president of the National Perinatal Association.

To the shock of Mississippi officials, who in 2004 had seen the infant mortality rate — defined as deaths by the age of 1 year per thousand live births — fall to 9.7, the rate jumped sharply in 2005, to 11.4. The national average in 2003, the last year for which data have been compiled, was 6.9. . . .

* * *

Most striking, here and throughout the country, is the large racial disparity. In Mississippi, infant deaths among blacks rose to 17 per thousand births in 2005 from 14.2 per thousand in 2004, while those among whites rose to 6.6 per thousand from 6.1. (The national average in 2003 was 5.7 for whites and 14.0 for blacks.)

The overall jump in Mississippi meant that 65 more babies died in 2005 than in the previous year, for a total of 481.

NYTimes Image

* * *

Dr. William Langston, an obstetrician at the Mississippi Department of Health, said in a telephone interview that officials could not yet explain the sudden increase and were investigating. Dr. Langston said the state was working to extend prenatal care and was experimenting with new outreach programs. But, he added, “programs take money, and Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation.”

Doctors who treat poor women say they are not surprised by the reversal.

“I think the rise is real, and it’s going to get worse,” said Dr. Bouldin Marley, an obstetrician at a private clinic in Clarksdale since 1979. “The mothers in general, black or white, are not as healthy,” Dr. Marley said, calling obesity and its complications a main culprit.

Obesity makes it more difficult to do diagnostic tests like ultrasounds and can lead to hypertension and diabetes, which can cause the fetus to be undernourished, he said.

Another major problem, Dr. Marley said, is that some women arrive in labor having had little or no prenatal care. “I don’t think there’s a lack of providers or facilities,” he said. “Some women just don’t have the get up and go.”

But social workers say that the motivation of poor women is not so simply described, and it can be affected by cuts in social programs and a dearth of transportation as well as low self esteem.

“If you didn’t have a car and had to go 60 miles to see a doctor, would you go very often?” said Ramona Beardain, director of Delta Health Partners. The group runs a federally financed program, Healthy Start, that sends social workers and nurses to counsel pregnant teenagers and new mothers in seven counties of the Delta. “If they’re in school they miss the day; if they’re working they don’t get paid,” Ms. Berdain said.

Poverty has climbed in Mississippi in recent years, and things are tougher in other ways for poor women, with cuts in cash welfare and changes in the medical safety net.

In 2004, Gov. Haley Barbour came to office promising not to raise taxes and to cut Medicaid. Face-to-face meetings were required for annual re-enrollment in Medicaid and CHIP, the children’s health insurance program; locations and hours for enrollment changed, and documentation requirements became more stringent.

As a result, the number of non-elderly people, mainly children, covered by the Medicaid and CHIP programs declined by 54,000 in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years. According to the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program in Jackson, some eligible pregnant women were deterred by the new procedures from enrolling.

One former Medicaid official, Maria Morris, who resigned last year as head of an office that informed the public about eligibility, said that under the Barbour administration, her program was severely curtailed.

* * *

Nicole Bengiveno for The New York Times

Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund, said: “When you see drops in the welfare rolls, when you see drops in Medicaid and children’s insurance, you see a recipe for disaster. Somebody’s not eating, somebody’s not going to the doctor and unborn children suffer.”

Visits with pregnant women and mothers in several Delta towns suggest that many poverty-related factors — including public policies, personal behaviors and health conditions — may contribute to infant deaths.

Krystal Allen, a cousin of Jamekia Brown’s, was 17 when she had her first baby. When he was 4 months old, she said, he developed breathing problems. Ms. Allen took the child to an emergency room, where he was put on a vaporizer and given an antibiotic and a prescription and they were sent home, where they slept for a few hours.

“When I woke up I thought he was sleeping, and I was getting ready for church,” Ms. Allen said. “But he was dead.”

Now 21, a mother of two with a third on the way, Ms. Allen lives in a sparsely furnished house in Hollandale with her unemployed boyfriend and his mother. Her children live with her parents.

Ms. Allen greeted visitors with breakfast in hand: a bottle of Mountain Dew and a bag of chips.

Janice Johnson, a social worker with Delta Health Partners, urged her to eat more healthily. “I’m going to change my diet one day,” Ms. Allen replied.

She had been to a doctor for one visit but had to sign up for Medicaid to get continued care. That required a 36-mile trip to an office in Greenville.

“Can’t you go this Friday?” Ms. Johnson asked.

“Well, if my mom is going to Greenville,” Ms. Allen replied, “and if she has gas in the car.”

* * *

For the complete article and additional images click here.

Posted in Life, Public Policy | 2 Comments »

Promoting Dispostionism through Entertainment – Part III

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 20, 2007

rocky.jpgIn Part I of this series, we described how Americans pursue happiness by watching heroes like Rocky Balboa and Chris Gardner pursue theirs. In Part II, we examined why the basic scripts for films like Rocky Balboa and Pursuit of Happyness–placing the individual in charge, making him sovereign, and letting power and responsibility fall to that person, while minimizing the role of the paternalistic and intermeddling “regulator” or “social program”–are the same foundational scripts employed by most influential policymakers and legal theorists today.

While these scripts are compelling, intuitive, and often affirming, social science indicates that they are upside-down. These scripts miss the power of the situation and how our schemas are primed to find (or imagine) causation and disposition in others’ behaviors and attitudes.

But there is no need to exhaustively review the social psychological evidence to make this point. All we have to do is go back to those same two films to see how, even by each movie’s own account, the bigger part of the story is about luck and situational forces that have little to do with the main character’s choices!

Remember back to the original Rocky — before it was known as Rocky I. Recall the setup. Rocky’s boxing career was done, finished, never having even reached the level of a has-been. Rock had hit bottom and found himself firmly anchored to a “never was” and more clearly, “never will be” status. Although Rocky may have shown flashes of talent as a boxer in previous years, and although he had a strong jaw and a never-broken nose when the story begins, he was also a second-rate club fighter who had just been thrown out of his locker, and his future seemed more intertwined with breaking legs for a small-time loan shark than with bustin’ face for the world title.

philly-market2.jpg Rocky was without assets, without family, without reliable friends, and without his youth. His best friend was a manipulative and self-serving alcoholic. Completely by fluke – owing nothing whatsoever to Rocky’s will, choices, preferences, or character, Apollo Creed, the world champion, arrives in Philadelphia to take on a challenger, who, at the last moment backs out because of an injury. It was to be a bicentennial bout, and canceling it was going to cost a lot of dough. Creed wanted a substitute – some local guy who the city might get behind but who posed no real threat. He thumbed through a book looking at names of local boxers and picked Rocky for one reason — a reason that had nothing to do with our hero’s talent, drive, intelligence, or merit. Creed selected Rocky simply because of his nickname, the “Italian Stallion.” The opportunity is as much the product of Rocky’s hard work as a lottery winner’s take can be attributed to good choices — more or less random luck.

Rocky MeatBut Rocky’s good fortune didn’t end there. When the opportunity arose, Rocky’s other options were bleak. At that moment, he had one foot into a dead-end life of low-level organized crime and thuggery. Had his alternative career options been more promising, the tiger’s eye may have remained dormant.

Pauly, who as friends go, left much be desired. But he happened to work at the slaughterhouse where Rock could spar against a warehouse full of bovine carcases. Rocky was also blessed to have an experienced trainer and manager, Mickey, who had immense knowledge of the sport and — owing to his age and his own star-crossed fighting career — something to prove. Mickey’s lessons were integral in Rocky’s battle with Creed.

Other sources of luck were Rocky’s idiosyncratic physical endowments. As five movies would demonstrate, Rocky had an unbreakable jaw. Rocky’s lackluster boxing skills rocky-apollo.jpgmeant that more punches landed, but his steel jaw absorbed blows that would have flattened most fighters. Similarly Rock was a south-paw, a factor that even Creed’s trainer worried about and that Mickey exploited. Fighters, if the movie is to be believed, expect power from the right side, and are taken by surprise when hammered from the southside. It was also plain luck that this aging pugilist didn’t pull a groin running steps, or break a finger glovelessly pounding cow cadavers , or otherwise injure himself from that unorthodox, treacherous, and full-on training regimen.

Rocky was also extremely lucky that his opponent, Creed, was himself situationally constrained — preoccupied as he was with the business side of the faux fight and unconcerned with the challenge Rocky posed. It’s a truism that being underestimated by one’s opponent is an enormous advantage.

Rocky and Adrian

Most important, at the very moment of Creed’s serendipitous selection, Rocky’s wooing of Adrian was just paying off. The growing mutual admiration between those two quirky and lonesome souls gave Rocky someone to impress, someone to show that he was more than he seemed. And as their love developed, Adrian provided Rocky confidence, inspiration, and someone who would be there for him win or lose.

In short, Rocky had all upside and no downside. Rocky’s situation created his disposition, not the other way around.

* * *

In our next post in this series, we will discuss the situational sources of Chris Gardner’s success.

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

Posted in Choice Myth, Entertainment, Life | 6 Comments »

The Lucifer Effect Lecture at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 19, 2007


Renowned scholar, writer, speaker and Situationist Contributor Dr. Phil Zimbardo, spoke at Harvard Law School on April 3, 2007. An unedited version of his talk is now available on the Project on Law and Mind Sciences Website, and can be accessed by clicking here. (For an article about his Harvard Law talk, click here.)

Professor Zimbardo’s lecture, like the book it was based on (The Lucifer Effect), takes its audience on a journey through the psychological processes of character transformation that are engaged when ordinary, good people turn into perpetrators of evil. The abuses and tortures of Abu Ghraib prison serve as the case study for understanding such horrors not as the work of a “few bad apples,” but rather as the consequence of a set of identifiable Situational variables and Systemic forces – “the bad barrel” and “the bad barrel makers.”

The two-hour video includes an 18 minute introduction, which can be skipped by dragging the “clip position” button the right by that amount.  (This summer, the Project on Law and Mind Sciences hopes to offer an edited version of the lecture, which will include several camera angles and clearer images.)

For a helpful summary of Phil Zimbardo’s recent “whirlwind” travels and interviews, go to the terrific blog, Psychology and Crime News.  For a look at what he is up to this week in London, visit his Lucifer Effect Website, which includes a page devoted to his interview and lecture schedule.  Finally, for an article published yesterday by BBC News, about Professor Zimbardo’s work, click here.

Posted in Public Policy, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

Industry-Funded Research

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 18, 2007

//’s/Candid%20Commercial.htmOn March 28, Richard Paddock published an excellent article in the Los Angeles Times about (tobacco) industry funding of university research. Paddock’s article, like previous postings on The Situationist, indicates some of the way that “knowledge” is situationally influenced – including the way that individual scholars and industries rely on university affiliation for credibility, and the way that they gain that affiliation by providing a scarce and valuable resource to universities and their researchers – namely, money.

Paddock’s story illustrates a common dynamic: the scientist needs the industry’s money to maintain her research and affiliation with a university and, thus, her credibility, at the same time that the industry needs that scientist’s research and that affiliation to protect its wealth against regulatory interventions and costs that might otherwise accrue. The mutual dependence all takes place under the cover of “scientific method” and “peer review,” and absent any evidence of “bad apple” scientists, as if the marketplace of ideas isn’t influenced by the very funds that the scientist craves and the industry provides. We excerpt portions of Paddock’s article below.

* * *

James Enstrom For more than three decades, epidemiologist James Enstrom has labored quietly at UCLA, studying the effect of tobacco smoke on human health. In recent years, his work has challenged the conventional view that second-hand smoke poses a serious health risk.

* * *

Enstrom once worked closely with the American Cancer Society, but today his sponsor is the tobacco industry. Over the last 15 years, he has received $1.4 million plus undisclosed consulting fees from the industry while producing research that supports industry views. One study used the American Cancer Society’s database to contend that second-hand smoke was not a serious health hazard.

Now Enstrom has become a symbol of industry influence for activists who support a proposal to bar University of California researchers from receiving tobacco industry money. The regents will take up the issue in May. Mirroring divisions elsewhere in UC, some university regents back a ban, while others oppose it on grounds of academic freedom. The 63-year-old Enstrom maintains that he is simply a scholar in “pursuit of truth.”

“If I was so corrupt, how could I survive for 33 years at UCLA?” he asks. “The effort is to smear me and libel me.”

Royce Hall UCLA campus

Unfortunately for Enstrom, much of his correspondence with the tobacco industry became public during lawsuits filed by government agencies against the companies. Some of his letters are more revealing than he would have wished.

Racketeering Case

Seven months ago, his research and correspondence were cited by a federal judge in a racketeering case as evidence of the tobacco industry’s manipulation of the scientific process. In January, the ethics of his research were called into question at a public meeting of the UC Board of Regents.

Enstrom, tall, forceful and passionate, believes the proposed ban at UC is aimed personally at him and says he is being vilified by a powerful lobby that places “political correctness” above science. He denies that tobacco money influenced his results, says no one has found errors in his calculations and contends that other studies corroborate his findings.

BMJ 2003 CoverIt’s unfortunate to end up in a racketeering lawsuit for writing an article in a British medical journal,” he said ruefully.

University officials have kept their distance from Enstrom but note that he has faced tremendous pressure from his critics.

In some sense I will stand up for Dr. Enstrom,” said Roberto Peccei, UCLA vice chancellor for research. “He’s got all these people beating on him. I’m not here to defend him, but I do think he was hit by a Mack truck.”

* * *

In 1973, [Enstrom] . . . got a postdoctoral fellowship in epidemiology at UCLA. . . .

He has remained at UCLA since, not on faculty but as a researcher in the School of Public Health. He receives no salary and has no university staff but supports himself through grants and contracts, using the money to hire part-time assistants.

During the first half of his career in epidemiology, he received funding from the [American] [C]ancer [S]ociety and collaborated with two of its top scientists. In the late 1980s, the society gave him permission to use data from a survey of 1 million Americans conducted between 1959 and 1972.

But by 1992, the society deemed his work marginal and refused to fund more research. A grant from the state’s anti-smoking fund was short-lived. Enstrom said he reluctantly turned to the tobacco industry.

If you want to do research, you have to get money from somewhere,” says Enstrom, a lifelong nonsmoker from a family of nonsmokers. “In an ideal world, I would not have taken it.”

According to documents filed by prosecutors in the racketeering case, Enstrom received $94,500 from the industry between 1992 and 1997, becoming “a key tobacco industry researcher and consultant.”

From 1993 to 1996, he also worked as a consultant for the North Carolina law firm of Womble Carlyle, analyzing other scientists’ studies for Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. He declines to say how much he was paid.


Despite his industry funding, Enstrom kept the cancer society data. In 1996, he sought industry funds to use the data to study the effect of second-hand smoke by analyzing the cause of death of survey participants who never smoked but were married to smokers.

The society had earlier rejected his plan, noting that there had been no follow-up since 1972 to learn whether subjects had remained married or changed their smoking habits.
“I told him repeatedly that the results would not be meaningful,” said Michael Thun, the American Cancer Society’s chief epidemiologist.

Without informing the society, Enstrom asked Philip Morris for funding. In a letter to the company — cited in court documents — he wrote:

“A substantial research commitment on your part is necessary in order for me to effectively compete against the large mountain of epidemiologic data and opinions that already exist regarding the health effects of ETS [environmental tobacco smoke] and active smoking.”

Enstrom says the letter was part of the normal grant process and his words were “taken out of context” by the court.

In 1997 and 1998, he received three grants from the tobacco industry totaling $700,000, most of it for his study using the cancer society database. Industry officials also lined up a coauthor, Geoffrey Kabat of the American Health Foundation in New York, court documents show.

* * *

// In 2003, Enstrom and Kabat published their peer-reviewed study in the British Medical Journal concluding that the link between second-hand smoke and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed. Since then, the tobacco industry has cited the study — and its connection to the American Cancer Society and UCLA — when arguing against local smoking bans.

“They are misusing the research process,” said Thun, “by sponsoring invalid studies and then using them as part of their public relations campaign.”

* * *

Last August, Enstrom’s ties to the tobacco industry took on a higher profile when U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler in Washington, D.C., ruled in a lawsuit that had been in court for seven years that the major U.S. cigarette companies were guilty of racketeering, a crime usually associated with the Mafia.

Kessler concluded that the companies conspired for decades to deceive the public and had manipulated research to make it appear that scientists disagreed on the effects of second-hand smoke. As evidence, she cited the study by Enstrom and Kabat.

* * *

no-smoking.jpg Enstrom’s inclusion in the lawsuit has made him Exhibit A in the continuing clash between anti-smoking activists and tobacco companies as the battle shifts to academic research, one of the last bastions of tobacco industry influence in the U.S.

Across the nation, more than 20 academic institutions have banned tobacco industry funding of tobacco research.

Within the 10-campus University of California, seven academic units attempted to ban tobacco funding in 2004, including the UCLA School of Nursing, but were overruled by UC President Robert Dynes, who said the schools lacked that authority.

No oversight

Opponents of the ban maintain that academic freedom means researchers should be free to study whatever they wish and to receive money from whomever they want.

Under UC’s code of conduct, researchers can accept money from any source to finance their work. UC does not review any research projects except to ensure that human and animal subjects are not mistreated.

There is no oversight at all,” said Peccei, the vice chancellor. Enstrom says there is no reason to restrict research money because the peer review process safeguards scientific integrity.

* * *

According to UC, scientists at four campuses — UCLA, Berkeley, Davis and San Diego — are getting $15.9 million from Philip Morris for 19 tobacco-related research projects. For a study on smoking and mortality, Enstrom is receiving $661,443.

In October, the American Cancer Society wrote to the regents, urging them to adopt the ban and accusing Enstrom of “scientific misconduct.” After a two-month inquiry, the university concluded March 22 that evidence provided by the group did not show misconduct.

Enstrom recently founded the Scientific Integrity Institute to air his views. He says it gets no tobacco money and consists mainly of a website . . . . The website mounts a spirited and lengthy defense of his life’s work.

* * *

For more web-based discussions of the criticisms and defenses of Enstrom’s work click here, here, here, and here.

Posted in Deep Capture | 5 Comments »

Havard Law Panel on Situation of NBA Players

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2007

Allen Iverson on the BenchTomorrow (Wednesday April 18), Harvard Law School’s Committee on Sports and Entertainment Law will host a panel entitled “On & Off the Court: The NBA’s Regulation of Player Expression.” The panel will discuss the new NBA age limit, new technical foul rules, the dress code, and other issues that relate to the situation of being an NBA player or prospective NBA player.

The panel will include The Situationist’s Michael McCann, who has written extensively on NBA legal issues from a situationist perspective, and the following distinguished guests: Hal Biagas, Deputy Counsel of the National Basketball Player’s Association; Maverick Carter, LeBron James’ representative and CEO of LRMR Marketing; Kurt Schoeppler, Business Manager of Vince Carter and LeBron James; and Jason Whitlock, Columnist of the Kansas City Star and AOL Sports. The panel will be moderated by Peter Carfagna, Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and former Chief Legal Counsel at IMG.

The panel will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Pound 107 (directions to HLS/campus map). It will be open to the public. For more information, please e-mail Mike Menitove at

Posted in Events, Situationist Sports | Leave a Comment »

The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent – Part II

Posted by Mahzarin Banaji on April 16, 2007

I have authored a preface for a book that is being edited by Eugene Borgida and fellow Situationist contributor Susan Fiske called Beyond Common Sense: Psychological Science in Court. For The Situationist, I am posting a two-part series derived from that preface. Earlier this month I posted Part I, which described the bounds on our ability to be who we’d like to be, and how, depending upon the situation, good people can not only be bad, but just as bad as bad people. Part II of this post highlights the “good news” associated with our moral obligation to be intelligent and indicates how Beyond Common Sense can be a guide in the fulfillment of that obligation.

* * *

Restaurant SceneThe good news comes from observations that we are flexible, sensitive to context and adapting to changing demands. As just one example, fellow Situationist contributor Susan Fiske has shown that although social groups dictate how we look at individuals, we see people as individuals rather than as members of social groups – if knowledge about their groups becomes irrelevant to the task at hand.

We change our behavior – actively, by placing ourselves at tables where the food tastes like nothing we’ve eaten before. First we spit it out, then we become addicted. Likewise, first we might shy away or fight, but if the stakes change we are equally naturally able to cooperate and help. We also change our minds, or rather our minds are changed. Phoebe Ellsworth and Samuel Gross’s analysis of radical shifts in attitude toward capital punishment is worth scrutiny not just because of what it says about that blemish but also for what it says about the very concept of attitude. So this remarkable flexibility is also a part of what we’ve discovered it means to be human. Attitudes, preferences, beliefs, values and the behaviors that reflect them aren’t fixed even though they may appear that way, perhaps because the world they reflect is relatively stable.

Death Penalty in the United States of America

In both – understanding the limits and the capacities of humans in the context of social relationships, social groups and social institutions – lies the stuff of what the law must be intelligent about. To be intelligent means many things of course. For the present purpose, I’ll underscore that intelligence is knowing how to weigh the evidence that flies in the face of steadfast assumptions. It means to know when causality can be inferred and not, to know when the weight of correlational evidence must be taken seriously, to know that a replication is worth much more than a single demonstration, to know that when new methods divulge strange truths about us and our brethren, it may be the theory that has to go. The moral obligation to be intelligent requires that we keep abreast of discoveries that require old views to be bagged and put out on the curb for recycling – every week.

Eugene Borgida and Susan Fiske have blown life into John Erskine’s idea that we are morally obliged to be intelligent. They understand that although this requirement should be everywhere, it is so much more urgent where decisions carry the authority of the law, where decisions wield justice, where the difference between suffering and happiness lies in the power given to a few and chosen to defend the many and less chosen.

Over the last decade as my own conversations with judges and lawyers has increased, I have been filled with admiration for their ability to understand large and obscure areas of knowledge they are required to for every case before them, only to learn entirely new domains required by the next one. But let me push here a bit. To understand, forChallenger Shuttle Disaster example, the technicalities of the Challenger disaster in order to assign legal responsibility, is one thing. It is quite another to develop a feeling for the tectonic movements of a science so as to be ready to anticipate and cope with the big breaks when they occur. It is this latter form of education that Borgida and Fiske’s volume offers.

The research presented in this book shows what the mind and behavioral sciences have discovered about perception, memory, judgment and decision-making; about discrimination generally, about racial profiling, harassment, and capital punishment more specifically. But these papers do more than tackle a set of topics. As a totality they also reveal a way of knowing, of a unique type of expertise that has developed iteratively about human nature and social circumstances that stands ready to be absorbed into the bones of the law.

Treat this book as a sanctuary in which to allow the mind to change its view of itself. Reading it, I was struck by the strength of the experimental evidence in some cases, the strength of the integration and argument in others, and above all the singular message it offers up: common sense may be plenty common, but it isn’t always sense.

The building blocks of concepts the law fundamentally deals with – mental states and social structures – are the topics of this volume, and in them lies much of what we are morally obliged to be intelligent about.

Posted in Book, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Robin Hood Motives

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 15, 2007


In the April issue of Nature, there is an fascinating artcle by Chistopher Dawes, James Fowler, Tim Johnson, Richard McElreath & Oleg Smirnov, titled “Egalitarian Motives inApril 12 Cover of Nature Humans.” The article summarizes research that the group did regarding just how willing individuals are to spend their own resources to equalize others’ resources.

In the study, a computer broke 120 students into groups of four and assigned a sum of money to each one. The subjects knew how much others in their group had but didn’t know precisely who had how much. They were then each given the option to so use some their own money to buy the right to have their cohort’s wealth augmented or reduced.

The subjects played the “game” five times, each with a different group of four, and each time they exhibited what one of theSummary of Results researchers calls the “Robin Hood effect.” Accordingto James Fowler, “People want to give rewards to the lowest [paid] member of the group and take away from the highest [paid] member of the group.” That is, they paid to take from the rich and to give to poor and the effect was to equalize the distribution of wealth across players. And that was true even when, in previous iterations, those same subjects had had their wealth plundered in order that it would be shared more widely.

For a Reuters story about the research, James Fowler explained that, “[i]n essence, what we found is that our taste for equality is one of the important reasons why we cooperate with each other, much more so than, say, other species of primates.”

According to Ernst Fehr, a renowned scholar at the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, those findings indicate how we feel about free riders. The results, he added, “are also interesting in view of the anthropological evidence from many small-scale societies that indicates food sharing has been widespread, and that these small-scale societies developed a kind of mini–welfare state that redistributes income through food sharing regardless of hunting success.”

Posted in Emotions, Legal Theory | 2 Comments »

Zimbardo Speaks at Harvard Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 13, 2007

Professor Phil Zimbardo on “The Lucifer Effect”

By: Summer Smith (4/12/07) for the Harvard Law Record

phil-zimbardo-lecture-image.jpgOver 35 years ago, in a now-famous study dubbed the Stanford Pison Experiment, Professor Phil Zimbardo showed that ordinary people will do extraordinarily terrible things when placed in the right situation. On April 4, in a filled-to-capacity lecture in the Ames Courtroom, he used the results of that experiment and other psychological studies as a lens through which to view the prisoner abuses in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

Zimbardo’s lecture was based on his new book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. He began with a simple assertion: the commonly held view that bad actions are a result of bad character is wrong. “I have a different view of what makes people do evil things,” said Zimbardo. More powerful than personality, situational and systemic factors are the true causes of terrible acts, according to decades of research by Zimbardo and other social psychologists.

bookcover.gifRather than viewing evil actions as stemming from the flawed character of one “bad apple,” the theory that Zimbardo advanced instead focused on the corrupting influences of an actor’s “situation,” or behavioral context – what he called the “bad barrel”; as well as broader systemic influences, such as political, economic, cultural and legal influences – what he called the “bad barrel makers.”

These situational and systemic factors struck Zimbardo as plainly evident when documentation of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib surfaced in the spring of 2004. Detailing the results of numerous psychology experiments, he sketched out the conclusion that the potential for abusive treatment of detainees was entirely predictable based on a fundamental understanding of the principles of social psychology.

Using the story of one soldier who was tried and sentenced for the abuse, Zimbardo discussed how situational and systemic forces were implicated in the atrocities. Before his assignment to Abu Ghraib, Staff Sgt. Ivan Chip Frederick had received nine medals and awards for his military service and had a stellar employment record as a guard in a small correctional institution.


In the dark confines of Tier 1-A in the Abu Ghraib prison, Frederick worked 12-hour shifts for weeks on end without a break, in an environment soaked in filth and noise and under constant attack. He was given responsibility for one thousand prisoners and was neither trained nor supervised. Situational factors such as these, said Zimbardo, along with systemic factors embodied in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, predictably resulted in evil outcomes.

Joe Darby - WhistleblowerZimbardo’s talk ended, as his book does, with the bright inverse of his theory: just as ordinary people can do horrific things, they can do heroic things. He defined a hero as someone who overcomes tremendous situational forces to perform an extraordinary moral deed, and pointed to, among other examples, the soldier who exposed the Abu Ghraib abuses.

The lecture was well received by those in attendance. “I was impressed by how animated and engaging he was,” said 2L Anne Gibson. “His comparison of the Stanford Prison Experiment to Abu Ghraib was chilling, and I was particularly inspired by his discussion of the Military Commissions Act of 2006.”

1L Justin Raphael said Zimbardo “made an excellent case that the unintended consequences created by the horrific situations inherent in a foreign occupation should give any society — and particularly its leaders — pause before sending its young people to war.” Raphael added that he would have liked to hear Zimbardo address “whether his Lucifer Effect theory plays an equally strong role in the psychology of crimes more commonplace and less extreme than torture or war crimes.”

The lecture was sponsored by Harvard Law School’s Project on Law and Mind Sciences (PLMS), Program on Law and Social Thought, ACLU-HLS, the American Constitution Society at HLS, [Unbound: Journal of the Legal Left, the Kennedy School of Government Center for Public Leadership,] and Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics.

professors-zimbardo-hanson.jpgHLS Professor [and Situationist contributor] Jon Hanson, who delivered the introduction to the lecture, said Zimbardo “did an amazing job of demonstrating some of the unsettling discoveries of social psychology and their implications for law and policy.” Hanson said feedback from the event was “incredibly positive,” and that PLMS hopes to continue to bring prominent mind scientists, as well as the legal scholars who rely on their work, to the law school.

A video of the lecture is now posted on the PLMS website and blog this week, which can be accessed at

* * *

Update (04/18/07): To view the video, click here.

Posted in Events, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 12, 2007

Georgetown Wins 2007Last month, on the eve of Georgetown University’s match-up with Ohio State University in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, we observed that many fans have questioned the ability of Georgetown players–who, since the 1980s, have almost all been African-American, and whose reputation has frequently centered on their “athleticism”–to “grasp” the “complex, precise” offense used by Princeton University’s men’s basketball team for so many years. That offense was brought to Hoyas by John Thompson III (“JT3”), son of the famed Georgetown coach John Thompson, whom Georgetown hired away from the Tigers.

We argued that the origin of these doubts can be found in the largely subconscious knowledge structures and implicit associations in our minds and reproduced andPatrick Ewing Alonzo Mourning Allen Iverson reinforced in our culture and its institutions. In other words, doubting the capacity of African-Americans to master a relatively complex and intellectually demanding playbook is not a sports phenomenon; it’s an American phenomenon expressing itself in the context of college basketball.

Yesterday, we came across a column by Dan Daly in The Washington Times that provides some support for our analysis. Daly praises John Thompson III in his column, and is particularly effusive of Thompson’s capacity to get regular, mainstream American folks to like Georgetown basketball players again. We have excerpted pieces of Thompson’s column below (between the asterisks):

* * *

John Thompson and John Thompson IIIThis is a new experience, actually liking a Georgetown basketball team — liking the way it plays, the way it conducts itself on the court. You could appreciate the teams of John Thompson the Elder, their muscle and hustle, but they were hard to embrace. Indeed, they always gave the impression they didn’t want to be loved, wouldn’t know what to do with love, weren’t all that familiar with love.

It was a pose, a lot of it — a silly pose, really, this us-against-the-world, Hoya Paranoia nonsense. But it was the program’s persona nonetheless, and it served Georgetown quite well for quite some time, especially when it was going to three Final Fours in four years in the ’80s. Hoyas basketball in those days was the hoops equivalent of Shock and Awe; John Thompson would roll out his bound-for-the NBA centers — Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning — the way Hannibal rolled out his elephants . . . and then trample the opposition.

Georgetown HoyasBefore long, Georgetown became the favored team of America’s Young Gangstas, who made Hoyas gear their official uniform. Georgetown’s chip on its shoulder, its defiance, its physicality — all resonated in the angry, might-makes-right world of the inner city. No one could have anticipated such a consequence, of course, but it was the last thing the image-challenged program needed. The Georgetown Hoyas: [notorious Washington D.C. drug dealer] Rayful Edmond’s team. Talk about a good cause turned bad.

Happily, the current Hoyas are none of those things . . . .

It’s a new era on the Hilltop, all right. The name’s the same, but so much else has changed. One of these days, I’m firmly convinced, JT3 will recruit a white All-American; it just makes sense, given the nature of the Princeton offense.

And then the transformation will be complete.

* * *

There is a lot to react to there, but we’ll focus on just a few elements. Daly’s final point, it seems, is that as Georgetown basketball players play and act more “white,” and as they further distance themselves from the “gangsta” and “us-against-the-world” attitude commonly associated with urban-based, young African-American men, the more mainstream America will like them. Sadly enough, Daly is probably right, which would seem to say as much, if not more, about us and our race associations and attributions than it does about Georgetown University or Princeton University or David Stern Allen Iversonbasketball in general.

Indeed, this same point has been raised of the NBA’s recent efforts to “reign in” its players, approximately 81 percent of whom are African-American. Spearheaded by Commissioner David Stern, the NBA has recently mandated a dress code of all NBA players, collectively-bargained an age limit that prevents 18-year-old men–or, as Stern likes to call them, “kids“–from“Greek,” “Negro,” & Chimp (skulls presented by Nott & Gliddon - 1854) (from J. Eberhardt article) entering the NBA until enough “life experience” has passed in college; and, most recently, sought to prohibit NBA players from frequenting certain nightclubs. Most believe the NBA is motivated solely by economic considerations: forcing players to appeal more to mainstream America will improve the league’s popularity and generate more revenue for the league. But why does mainstream America want NBA players to look and act “more white”?

It seems the popularity of the sport of basketball or of particular teams or players depends on the extent to which they are associated with white or black stereotypes. The old Hoyas team comes off in Daly’s article as not quite human — angry, overpowering, unlovable, and unloving brutes (or perhaps elephants) in need of some civilizing discipline and leadership — the stuff of traditional conceptions of black men.

As far as we know, Daly’s column has elicited no significant reaction or outcry from the public. In our view, however, his analysis shares something in common with Don Imus’s scandalous description of the Rutger’s women’s basketball. When Imus described the women as a group of “nappy-headed hos” (see video below) he was reinforcing a longstanding and still robust cultural stereotype.

Perhaps Daly’s paragraphs are more palatable because he seems at times to treat the gangsta attitude or “pose” as as “silly” “nonsense.” Still, in the end, his point seems to be that a complex offense requires even more “whiteness” than JT3 has been able to create with his mostly black players.

Thus both are accepting and promoting damaging negative racial stereotypes — one through a failed joke the other through a serious argument or factual claim. The point of the comparison is not to suggest that we should heap our collective scorn on Dan Daly the way that many have on Don Imus for “revealing his true (racist) disposition.” Our point is to suggest the possibility that the same sort of problematic stereotyping that has given rise to the censuring, and now the firing, of Imus are often taken very much in stride — as obvious, common-sensical, even funny truisms. For a variety of reasons, our collective ire tends to be activated by some manifestations of such stereotypes but not other. To glimpse one of those reasons, it is illuminating to take a closer look at the Imus debacle.

The thrust of Don Imus’s ten-minute apology on Monday (see video below) was that he and his comments should be judged within their “context.” “I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person, but I said a bad thing. But these young women deserve to know it was not said with malice.” In his exchange with Al Sharpton, Imus stated,

“I think what makes a difference, a crucial difference is: What was my intent? Am I some rabid, racist, vicious person whose on a rampage screaming and got on the radio and turned on the microphone and said ‘here’s what think these women are’? That’s not what I did.”

Elsewhere he’s insisted: “I am not a racist. . . . What I did was make a stupid, idiotic mistake in a comedy context.” In short, consider my situation, and don’t judge my disposition.

Many Americans aren’t buying it. Today-show personality Al Roker had this to say on his blog on Wednesday:

Don and his wife have done a lot of good things. Raising money for charity, including a ranch for children suffereing from cancer and blood disorders. Yet, Don Imus needs to be fired for what he said. . . . The “I’m a good person who said a bad thing” apology doesn’t cut it.”

Roker’s point seems to be that the words speak for themselves, and they provide all the evidence we need that Imus is, his good acts notwithstanding, a racist. Mary Ellen Schoonmaker writes today that “Imus is a bully and a bigot, no matter how many good causes he’s involved in.” Similarly, when Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson asked why Imus would make such offensive remarks, the answer was treated as obvious: “The simple answer would be — all together now — racism.” “I can accept that Imus doesn’t believe he is racist, but ‘nappy-headed hos’ had to come from somewhere.”

That “somewhere,” many assume, must be his true, racist core — in his disposition. For instance, Elmer Smith, in one short op-ed, calls Imus’s remarks evidence of his “raw racism,” “quintessential racism,” and “stone-cold racis[m].” With those dispositionist presumptions, Imus’s apologies and contrition are viewed as disingenuous — a calculated, if transparent, attempt to cover up or deny the revealed truth of the matter — and his two-week suspension was seen as too weak a punishment.

rutgers-team.jpgWe want to suggest that Imus’s despicable phrase came not so much from “somewhere” in the heart of Imus, but from everywhere: from our history, our culture, our practices, and our explicit and implicit ways of making sense of our world. As has been summarized elsewhere on this blog, racial stereotypes are all around us and within us.

Such racial and gender stereotypes are neither new nor rare. They are robust and ubiquitous. They can be detected quietly swirling about in the minds of pretty much anyone who is raised in this culture. Such stereotypes and associations are likely influencing everything from what sports we like (or not) and what teams we love (or despise) to what we expect from certain players or teams and how we construe the behavior of those individuals or groups. More important, those stereotypes are probably influencing many of the interactions and attributions that occur in our society well beyond those on the basketball court. (Those are topics to which many of The Situationist contributors, including Professors Banaji, Kang, Krieger & Nosek, devote the bulk of their scholarly energy.)

In other work, one of us has explored why our reactions to comments like those Imus made are so vehement, while our reactions to slightly less blatant manifestations of racial stereotypes (such as those by Daly) are often quite anemic. There seems to be a threshold or “line” which, once crossed, elicits a response that is vastly different in kind than our response to those behaviors that fall just on the other side of that line. When we identify a “racist” — an individual reveals himself or herself to be explicitly racist — we excoriate that person, despite the fact that many common attributions reflect the same sort of cognitive presumptions or biases, although less blatantly.

Or is it “because of”? Don Imus insists, “I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person.” Few could deny that Imus has many times behaved as if he were “a good person.” And few among us would say anything else about himself or herself. And yet the stereotypes that we purport to abhor when articulated explicitly reside within most of us unexamined and unchallenged, sometimes wielding influence on our cognitions and behavior. We are, in a way, all carriers of the same virus that was manifested in Don Imus’s remarks. Are we bad people, therefore? And, if not, why are we so eager to find that, just because “‘nappy-headed hos’ had to come from somewhere,” that somewhere must have been Imus’s racist core? (To be sure, few of us can imagine ever uttering those words in the way that Imus did, but Imus’s job is to put into words, often extreme and offensive words, feelings and inklings that many in his wide audience already have.)

In her recent post on the moral obligation to be intelligent, Situationist contributor Mahzarin Banaji observed that,

“[f]rom study after study pointing to the bounds on our ability to be who we’d like to be, in a thousand different ways, the pillar of 20th century social psychology was erected to show that good people can be bad . . . and just as bad as bad people!”

We suspect that one way to avoid that moral obligation is by fixating on “the bad people” and assuring ourselves that we are not them. Put differently, by looking for and finding occasional dispositional “racists,” we may be able to avoid taking seriously the possibility that racism is in the situation and thus within ourselves.

“Here’s what I’ve learned,” Imus said in his long Monday apology: “You can’t make fun of everybody, because some people don’t deserve it.”

Imus seems to understand what he did as wrong in this case largely because he is feeling the brunt of the same weapon that he’s been wielding. He is conceding that the Rutgers women don’t deserve to be branded with his dispositionist label and that he, the purveyor of those hurtful remarks, doesn’t deserve to branded with a dispositionist label. Imus is feeling the sting of his own venom. The sword he lives by, has stuck him in the foot (which, of course, happens to be firmly ensconced in his mouth).

Interestingly, the Rutgers Women’s basketball team press conference held earlier this week had much in common with Imus’s apology: Don’t judge us by that label. We are good people. In fact, among us are “valedictorians, musical prodigies, future doctors and, yes, even Girl Scouts.”

What Imus doesn’t seem to realize is that his entire shock-jock career has been built on satisfying that craving to dispositionalize and further marginalize the vulnerable (be they members of groups that areDon Imus by Chip East for Reuters chronically oppressed or powerful individuals who are embroiled in scandal). He trades in dispositionalizing cultural stereotypes. And just as it makes some of us laugh along as Imus has made fun virtually everybody, it brings most of us a strange sort of satisfaction to identify the racist in our midst.

But we should be troubled by both dispositionalizing tendencies. To focus our unmitigated anger on Imus is to miss the situation — not so much the situation that Imus himself would point us toward, but the situation that we ourselves are all inhaling and exhaling.

If Imus really wants to learn the lessons of this whole event, he needs to begin by understanding that his own unexamined judgment regarding who “deserves” to be laughed at or punished is likely to be terribly wrong — and that the truth is not measured by the extent to which large audiences laugh along or protest. He needs to understand that the damage is done regardless of his own perceived “intent.”

If he feels unfairly judged for having unfairly judged, he should understand that he is simply the brunt of practice that is far larger than those two events. If he believes that his comments were wrong and hurtful, as he now insists they were, then he must also understand that whether or not there was “malice,” he has a moral obligation to recognize that “good people can be bad . . . and just as bad as bad people.”

And so do we.

Posted in Entertainment, Implicit Associations, Life, Situationist Sports | 24 Comments »

Too Many To Care

Posted by Paul Slovic on April 11, 2007

Last month, I provided an excerpt from an op-ed that I published in the March issue of of edition of Foreign Policy. The op-ed, which appears below, is itself adapted from a draft article, “If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act.” My posting below is the first in a series of posts on The Situationist based on that larger project.

Photography of Mother Theresa (1978) by Eddie Adams available at

“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” This statement 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, 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.

The Greida refugee camp, south-east of the Darfur town of Nyala, Sudan. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/ReutersThe psychological mechanism that may play a role in many, if not all, episodes in which mass murder is neglected involves what’s known as the “dance of affect and reason” in decision-making. Affect is our ability to sense immediately whether something is good or bad. But the problem of numbing arises when these positive and negative feelings combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions. Psychologists have found that the statistics of mass murder or genocide—no matter how large the numbers—do not convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to trigger the affective emotion or feeling required to motivate action. In other words, we know that genocide in Darfur is real, but we do not “feel” that reality. In fact, not only do we fail to grasp the gravity of the statistics, but the numbers themselves may actually hinder the psychological processes required to prompt action.

Compassion Fatigue - from Susan Moeller BookA recent study I conducted with Deborah Small of the University of Pennsylvania and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University found that donations to aid a starving 7-year-old child in Africa declined sharply when her image was accompanied by a statistical summary of the millions of needy children like her in other African countries. The numbers appeared to interfere with people’s feelings of compassion toward the young victim.

Other recent research shows similar results. Two Israeli psychologists, Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov, asked people to contribute to a costly life-saving treatment. They could offer that contribution to a group of eight sick children, or to an individual child selected from the group. The target amount needed to save the child (or children) was the same in both cases. Contributions to individual group members far outweighed the contributions to the entire group. A follow-up study by Daniel Västfjäll, Ellen Peters, and me found that feelings of compassion and donations of aid were smaller for a pair of victims than for either individual alone. The higher the number of people involved in a crisis, other research indicates, the less likely we are to “feel” for each additional death.

When writer Annie Dillard was struggling to comprehend the mass human tragedies that the world ignores, she asked, “At what number do other individuals blur for me?” In other words, when does “compassion fatigue” set in? Our research suggests that the “blurring” of individuals may begin as early as the number two.

If this is true, it’s no wonder compassion is absent when deaths number in the hundreds ofcompassion-fatigue1.jpg thousands. But there is a difference between merely being aware of this diminishing sensitivity and appreciating its broader implications. This is especially true when you consider how difficult it is to create, let alone sustain, the emotional responses needed to spark action.

In light of our historical and psychological deficiencies, it is time to re-examine this human failure. Because if we are waiting for a tipping point to spur action against genocide, we could be waiting forever.

* * *

Readers interested in more of my thoughts regarding the genocide in Darfur can listen to an archived version of an interview I did on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC (01/03/06) or read short articles or editorials, available by clicking here, here, and here.

Posted in Politics, Public Policy | 11 Comments »

Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 9, 2007

Joshua Bell

Gene Weingarten, and a team of his colleagues, have a wonderful (situationist) cover story in this week’s Washington Post Magazine. It’s a fun read, and we highly recommend the piece in its entirety. In this post, we simply want to underscore a few of its situationist themes. First, a few preliminaries.

The photo above is of Joshua Bell, one of the world’s accomplished and most popular living violinists. Wikipedia has this to say about Bell:

Bell began taking violin lessons at the age of four when his mother discovered her son had taken rubber bands from around the house and stretched them across the handles of his dresser drawer and was plucking out music he had heard her play on the piano. His parents got him a scaled-to-size violin for their now five-year-old son and started him on lessons.

Joshua Bell made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1985 with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. He has since performed with almost all of the world’s major orchestras and conductors. As well as the standard concerto repertoire, Bell has performed new works—he is the dedicatee of Nicholas Maw‘s violin concerto, the recording of which won Bell a Grammy, and gave the world premiere of the work in 1993. He performed the solo part on John Corigliano‘s Oscar-winning soundtrack for the film The Red Violin and was also featured in Ladies in Lavender. Bell also made an appearance in the movie Music of the Heart, a story about the power of music, with other notable violinists.

Owing to his unquestioned talents (not to mention a healthy dose of good looks), Joshua is also a media darling. He’s made appearances on “The Tonight Show,” CNN, CBS, NBC News, CNBC, PBS’s “Evening at Pops” and “Live from Lincoln Center.” In addition, he’s been profiled in magazines as diverse as Esquire, Newsweek, Vogue, Gramophone, Pulse, and, of course, Strad and Strings. Interview magazine summed up Bell’s musical talents this way: His music “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”

His latest CD, “The Voice of the Violin,” has received reviews that include phrases such as “delicate urgency,” “masterful intimacy,” “unfailingly exquisite,” “a musical summit,” amd “. . . will make your heart thump and weep at the same time.”

OK, now let us remind you of one of the classic demonstrations of the underestimated role of situation and the overestimated role of disposition: the Good Samaritan experiment, conducted by Situationist contributor John Darley with C. Daniel Batson, and recently described on The Situationist in a post by contributor David Yosifon. In that experiment, Princeton seminarians on their way to give a sermon on the Good Samaritan stopped or, more often, did not stop to help a person hunched over in a doorway moaning and calling for help. The seminarians helped or didn’t depending mostly upon their situation. Those in a hurry stopped 10 percent of the time to help, while those with time to spare stopped 60 percent of the time.

Now recall our February post describing how “perceptions of the source of music and of its quality may be more closely linked than we recognize or would like to believe.”

Joshua Bell in Subway — from Washington Post Magazine

What does all this have to do with Joshua Bell?

Well, perhaps because Bell’s parents are both psychologists, he agreed to participate in a little experiment concocted by the staff at the Washington Post — an experiment that resembles the Good Samaritan classic and that again demonstrates the significance of situation in our appreciations of music. The setup was simple: Take an acclaimed virtuoso, have him play in the subway, and watch what happens.

What were the predictions?:

In preparing for this event, editors at The Post Magazine discussed how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control: In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous “what-if” scenarios abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.

Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked what would happen if a great violinist performed incognito in such a setting, and he supported that basic prediction: the music would break the flow of bustling commuters and at least a small crowd would develop to take it in.

Antonio Stradivari, by Edgar Bundy, 1893

If, without watching, you just listen to videos of Bell on the Post’s website, it’s hard to imagine any other result. Again, this was not any ordinary violinist, it was Joshua Bell. And he was not playing just any violin, he was playing one of the world’s most perfect violins – handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari – which cost Bell roughly $3.5 million. And on that Strad, Bell was playing not just any music but some of the most challenging and beautiful violin music every composed. For instance, he started his one-hour set with “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor.

Bell calls it “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won’t be cheating with some half-assed version.”

If you think that sounds effusive, consider what Johannes Brahms had to say about the same piece of music:

“On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

Guercino Painting - Saint Francis Angel with ViolinBell took his prodigious talents, his exquisite violin, his world-class showmanship, and his divine music down into the subway. So what happened? Did the situation define the music, or did the music transform the situation?

It wasn’t even even close:

Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

The whole experience through Bell for a loop.

“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

* * *

“The awkward times,” he calls them. It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord — the embarrassed musician’s equivalent of, “Er, okay, moving right along . . .” — and begins the next piece.

* * *

Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he’s not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!”

Ellsworth Kelly, 1951But the odd result is, as foreshadowed above, easy to explain in light of what social psychology has discovered about the power of situation. But one need not have a psychology degree to understand the significance of the frame. Mark Leithauser, a curator at the National Gallery explained the outcome this way:

“Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'”

When Edna Souza, a Brazilian woman who shines shoes near the point where Bell performed, was asked about the fact that no one stopped to hear the music, she was unfazed. She’d been living in the human experiment for a long time, and she knew the power of situation and had seen a real-world version of the Good Samaritan experiment. According to Souza, the fact that most people rushed was to be expected: “Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look.”

What was the only group with a sufficiently discerning ear to want to stop and listen? Children — the one group least likely to feel the power of situational forces to keep walking (that is, except for the arm-tug of their parents).

Posted in Entertainment, Life, Social Psychology | 12 Comments »

Sports, Gender, Law & Social Norms

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 8, 2007


**Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972: No person shall, “on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity”**title-ix-montage.jpg

In the 35 years since Title IX was passed, how has it been used to increase gender equity in a variety of educational contexts?

2:00-3:30: Panel 1: Title IX and Sexual Harassment/Sexual Assault

A look at the expanding uses of Title IX in combating sexual harassment and assault in schools. Panelists include, among others: Verna Williams (lead counsel on Davis v. Monroe County), and Diane Rosenfeld (Harvard Law Lecturer on Law)

4:00-5:30: Panel 2: Title IX and Athletics

Addressing the effects of Title IX on school athletic programs, and the ability of Title IX to make substantive changes in gender equity within sports. Panelists include, among others: Nancy Lieberman (former college, Olympic, and professional basketball player and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame) and Coach Roderick Jackson (a pioneer in coaches’ rights under Title IX and petitioner in Supreme Court case: Jackson v. Birmingham).

5:30- 6:30: Reception
Austin West Rotunda

7:00: Dinner at Harvard Faculty Club (by registration only)

Journal of Law & Gender

Speakers also include: Fatima Goss Graves, Holly Hogan, Baine Kerr, Linda Wharton, Terry Fromson, Jocelyn Samuels, and Ellen Staurowsky.

Moderator for both panels: Professor Deborah Brake (University of Pittsburgh School of Law)

For more information please visit the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender website.

Please email Lexie Kuznick at or Meg Ryan at with questions.


Posted in Events | 1 Comment »

The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 7, 2007


Helen Phillips of New Scientist has a fascinating article on how our brains unknowingly become addicted to different behaviors and forms of consumption, and how whether we become addicted to something depends largely on the situations in which we find ourselves rather than the choices we make. Several Situationist contributors have explored this topic in other writings, including in the law review article “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America,” and in Situationist posts “FDA Wants Informed Choice” and “The Intersection Between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Videogames.” We have excerpted pieces of Phillips’ article below.

* * *

Making Good ChoicesThere’s a common perception that overindulgence in certain behaviours is all down to individual choice. If you are overeating, oversexed, gambling away your earnings or spending all your time online, you are more likely to be considered morally abhorrent than the victim of a disease. Calling these problems “addictions” has triggered debates about whether our society or our biology is to blame, and whether people that fall foul of a behavioural obsession should be offered help and treatment rather than punishment.

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Several studies of the brain and behaviour back the idea that there’s very little biological difference between what goes on in the head of a gambling addict and that of a crack addict. A growing number of researchers believe that the same processes lie behind all addictions, behavioural or chemical, whether it’s gambling or shopping, computer gaming, love, work, exercise, pornography, eating or sex. “They have more in common than different,” says Sabine Grüsser-Sinopoli, who runs a clinic and research lab for behavioural addictions at the Charité Medical University in Berlin, Germany. “Addiction is all the same.”Addiction

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More and more people are going to clinics asking for help to control the need to shop, have sex or gamble, because their behaviour is ruining their lives, says Grüsser-Sinopoli. Technological advances, especially the rise in popularity of the internet, are increasing the opportunities we have to engage in potentially addictive behaviours. The Center for Online Addiction, an educational and treatment group founded just over a decade ago by psychologist and internet addiction specialist Kimberly Young, now of St Bonaventure University in New York, estimates that as much as 5 to 10 per cent of the US population is addicted to some kind of internet-based activity, be it gaming, gambling, or using chatrooms and email.

Problem gambling is perhaps the most harmful of these. A 2000 survey commissioned by the British National Centre for Social Research revealed that about 1 per cent of the UK adult population had a pathological gambling problem, and the repeat survey, due out in a few months, is widely expected to show a rise – especially among women. Some researchers predict as many as 10 per cent of the US population will soon have a gambling problem. Record numbers of people are signing up to online gambling sites – the industry is now worth an estimated $12 billion – prompting a new US bill that aims to tighten restrictions on the practice. Around half of the new entries in this year’s “rich list” published by The Sunday Times in London have made their money running internet gambling sites or casinos.

The debate about whether behaviour can be considered a true addiction is not an entirely new one. In 1975, psychologist Stanton Peele wrote a book called Love and Addiction, which argued that all kinds of drug and non-drug experiences, including love, could be described as addictions. At the time, this was a term only really used to describe heroin abuse, he says. But look at how we talk about a lost love, and how similar to drug withdrawal it sounds: we are unable to think of anything else or to get out of bed, we’re crying and physically in pain. “There really is no way to differentiate the behaviour of gambling, a love affair or pursuing a drug,” he says.

Addiction Brain* * *

The evidence that behavioural addictions are very similar to chemical ones is mounting from brain studies too. According to addiction specialist Eric Nestler of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, drug addictions and “natural” addictions seem to involve shared pathways in the brain. “Take a person with sex addiction, or a pathological gambler: their brains all show abnormal responses – the same reactions to drugs of abuse,” he says.

All pleasurable stimuli, natural and unnatural, act on the same “reward” circuitry in the brain. When we find something desirable, the brain chemical dopamine is released in the brain. Drugs of abuse all cause dopamine release, triggering a desire to keep taking them. Pleasurable behaviours are rewarding too and also release dopamine. The fact that behaviours and drugs of abuse converge on the same brain circuit is not enough to prove they can both be addictive, but there are more specific changes that do seem to be characteristic of addiction.

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One other compulsive behaviour that has been controversial in the discussion of addiction is eating behaviour. Whether we could actually get hooked on food is controversial, but there are signs that delta Fos B rises in animals that compulsively consume sugar, suggesting sugar might be addictive in some cases.New Scientist

Bart Hoebel, a psychologist from Princeton University, believes we can be addicted to food – at least to sugar (New Scientist, 1 February 2003, p 26). He has shown that rats bingeing on sugar release dopamine in the same way as rats given high doses of addictive drugs, and doing so can cause lasting changes in the dopamine system, withdrawal symptoms and cross-sensitisation to other drugs, including amphetamines. Very sweet foods can induce a form of dependency, he believes.

One thing that this focus on behavioural addictions highlights is that we all have the potential to be addicts, says Jim Orford of the University of Birmingham, UK, author of a report on behavioural addictions for the UK Office of Science and Technology. “Almost any of us can become behavioural addicts, given the right exposure, the right timing and so on,” he says. “But there are multiple causes: our personalities, genetics – it’s not simple.” Why some people develop addictions while others can safely dip into these activities with no ill effects is still unknown.

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Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Life | 8 Comments »

The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent – Part I

Posted by Mahzarin Banaji on April 5, 2007

I have authored a preface for a book that is being edited by Eugene Borgida and fellow Situationist contributor Susan Fiske called Beyond Common Sense: Psychological Science in Court. For The Situationist, I am posting a two-part series derived from that preface.

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John ErskineJohn Erskine, founder of Columbia University’s core curriculum in the 1920s, wrote an essay with the title I admiringly filch [The same title was used for a collection of Lionel Trilling’s essays, edited by Leon Wieseltier (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2000).] in which he poses this question:

“If a wise man would ask, what are the modern virtues? and should answer his own question … what virtues would he name? … When the wise man brings his list of our genuine admirations, will intelligence be one of them? We might seem to be well within the old ideal of modesty if we claimed the virtue of intelligence. But before we claim the virtue, are we convinced that it is a virtue?”

Throughout the essay, Erskine bemoans the English and American lack of faith in intelligence as a virtue, contrasting it with the special place accorded instead to goodness as a virtue. Although he sees some bucking of this trend (for example “we do not insist that the more saintly of two surgeons shall operate on us for appendicitis”), Erskine’s thesis remains that intelligence is not given its due in Anglo-Saxon tradition.

To be clear, neither Erskine nor I use the term intelligence to mean a general mental faculty — tapped by how fast I can type (I can type very fast) or whip through multipleRobert Sternberg and Howard Gardner 2 choice questions (we didn’t do multiple choice in India) – that 19th and many 20th century psychologists called intelligence. Instead, what I mean, with the benefit of the writings of Robert Sternberg and Howard Gardner, and what Erskine meant even without, is a broad set of competencies, skills, and knowledge.

In the introduction to his collection entitled “American Character and Other Essays,” Erskine defends criticism leveled against the central thesis of the essay in question: “I still feel that the essay says clearly what I meant – that to be as intelligent as we can is a moral obligation – that intelligence is one of the talents for the use of which we shall be called to account – that if we haven’t exhausted every opportunity to know whether what we are doing is right, it will be no excuse for us to say that we meant well.” [emphasis mine]

Speaking to Phi Beta Kappa at Amherst College, he said that “to know is to achieve virtue . . . . Between this rising host that follow intelligence [speaking of immigrants], and the old camp that put their trust in a stout heart, a firm will, and a strong hand, the fight is on. Our college men will be in the thick of it. If they do not take sides, they will at least be battered in the scuffle. At this moment they are readily divided into those who wish to be men – whatever that means – and those who wish to be intelligent men, and those who unconscious of blasphemy or humor, prefer not to be intelligent, but to do the will of God.”

GraduationPerhaps more so than in Erskine’s time, today we recognize the importance of being intelligent rather than merely earnest. But I hazard that even today we still separate intelligence from goodness of heart; we not only assume the two to be divorced, we continue to place value on the latter. We expect our judges and jurors, lawyers and prosecutors, and other guardians of the law to strive to be good, to be as pure of heart as humanly possible. We don’t set the same standards of intelligence and competence, asking as intently: what do they know, and knowing what they know, are they fit to judge?

As a science of the mind has grown, any simple separation between intelligence and goodness has become untenable, as has the privileging of either. More so than ever, to be good requires intelligence about matters that our predecessors, even those here just yesterday, not only didn’t know but couldn’t know. So the standards are indeed higher of what it means for us to be intelligent, and one reason they are legitimately higher is the vibrant presence of the mind and behavioral sciences. At every turn, the data from these sciences teach us something about ourselves so new, or challenge a view of ourselves that is so appealing (and so wrong), that it isn’t possible — not unless one is despairingly lacking in curiosity (if not goodness itself!) — to ignore the evidence.

If a proper offering of justice is a public purpose, a justice system that isn’t constantlyPresident Lincoln Fairness striving and evolving in its use of new knowledge is in trouble. To avoid it, what can we know, to start with? Modern psychology provides at least two clear messages: our minds and behavior are fallible; our minds and behavior are malleable.

First the bad news. There are known and established limits on the human ability to introspect and know, limits on the ability to compute and assess, limits placed on us by the situations of our existence, by the experiences we have, by the fact that our brains and minds evolved in the ways in which they did. I have argued that the bounds on rationality, the very ones that keep us from being smart also keep us from being good. And to avoid the problem of having to define what is good, I’ve used as the gold standard each person’s own conscious report of their preferences, beliefs, and values. If obvious deviance from our own statements of what is good and virtuous is brought to light, we are faced with a question that should be a primary motivator in the law: what are we willing to do, given our drifting from our own goals of fair and just treatment?

Craig AndersonA striking example of “we are what we see” is Craig Anderson’s review of the effects of viewing aggression on producing aggression. The length and breadth of that work is a persuasive sampling of our bounded rationality – that we mimic even unwanted aspects of our environment because of the laws of learning, because the stuff is out there. We mimic it whether we intend to or not. Why is it that science has put all the nails in the coffin of this problem but nobody is willing to perform the last rites? Most likely, because the message from the evidence on the effects of viewing aggression runs up against the first amendment. But even somebody like myself, a first amendment fanatic, believes that nowhere is there better expertise than among the great legal minds of this country to work out the issues raised by this robust body of science. If hate speech is something we have attempted to tackle alongside the first amendment, why not this?

From study after study pointing to the bounds on our ability to be who we’d like to be, in a thousand different ways, the pillar of 20th century social psychology was erected to show that good people can be bad . . . and just as bad as bad people! If this insight alone could be incorporated into the way the law intuits about humans and their situations, we’ll have catapulted ourselves into a place radically different than the primitive assumptions that show up in our thinking about the few bad apples in Enron, the bad Americans of Abu Ghraib that we can’t seem to shake off.

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Part II of this post will discuss the “good news” associated with our moral obligation to be intelligent.

Posted in Book, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | 6 Comments »

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