The Situationist

Archive for April, 2007

Emotions, Values, and Information: The Future of Nanotechnology

Posted by Dan Kahan on April 4, 2007

dummies1.jpgDo you know very much about nanotechnology? Which do you think will predominate — its benefits or its risks?

If you either answered “yes” to the first question, or assumed answering “no” disqualified you from offering an opinion on the second, you are unusual. We (Paul Slovic, Don Braman, John Gastil, Geoffrey Cohen and I), recently did a national study of nanotechnology risk perceptions. We discovered that although 80% of our subjects reported having heard “little” or “nothing” about nanotechnology, 90% of them (without being supplied any additional information) still had a view one way or the other on whether it was on net risky or beneficial.

But in truth, that result didn’t surprise us. It’s well known that people form rapid, intuitive judgments about even unfamiliar risks. Our primary goal in the study was to find out on what basis they would form such judgments toward nanotechnology and, even more significant, how their views would be influenced by the provision of information about this novel science.

What we discovered convinced us that nanotechnology is an emotionally charged topic that is poised to generate exactly the sort of political conflict that has historically attended nuclear power and today characterizes global warming.

The study involved a demographically diverse sample of 1,850 persons. In addition to our subjects’ views of nanotechnology risks and benefits, we also collected data on various individual characteristics that we hypothesized might explain those views.

regression_affect2.gifThe study (the results of which are set forth more completely in a working paper) generated two principle findings. The first is that existing reactions to nanotechnology are affect driven. The sign (positive or negative) and intensity of subjects’ visceral or emotional reactions toward nanotechnology explained eight times as much of the variance in their perceptions of its risks as did either gender or race. The impact of affect was approximately seven times larger than the impact of confidence in government to regulate risks effectively, six times larger than the impact of education, and four times larger than the impact of perception of other environmental risks. The next biggest influence — how much subjects reported knowing about nanotechnology before the study — was less than half that of affect.

This finding, of course, begs the question, What explains variance in affect? A variety of things, we found, but among the strongest predictors of our subjects’ affective response to nanotechnology was their perceptions of other environmental risks, such as nuclear power and global warming. In sum, the subjects in our study seemed to have a gut reaction to nanotechnology, a relatively novel risk, that was informed by their attitudes toward more familiar environmental dangers.

balancedinfo.gifThe second major finding had to do with what happens when individuals learn more about nanotechnology. To address this issue, we divided our sample into two and furnished one with additional information about nanotechnology before eliciting their views. That information consisted of two, relatively short paragraphs, one setting forth potential benefits of nanotechnology and other potential risks. We then compared the views of subjects who received this information to those who didn’t receive any.

Overall, there was no difference in the views of our “no information” and our “information exposed” subjects on the relative risks and benefits of nanotechnology. Again, perfectly predictable, given the balanced nature of the information we supplied.

But when we examined the views of subgroups of respondents defined with reference to their values, we discovered something much more interesting: polarization of our subjects along cultural and ideological lines.

The theory of “cultural cognition” posits that individuals process information in a way that reflects and reinforces their general preferences about how society should be organized. Egalitarians and communitarians, for example, tend to be sensitive to claims of environmental and technological risks because abating such dangers justifies regulating commercial activities that generate inequality and legitimize unconstrained pursuit of self-interest. Individualists, in contrast, tend to be skeptical about such risks, in line with their concern to ward off contraction of the sphere of individual initiative. So do hierarchists, who tend to see assertions of environmental technological risks as challenging the competence of governmental and social elites.We evaluated our subjects’ worldviews using scales that correspond to these cultural worldviews.

In our “no information” condition, hierarchists and egalitarians, individualists and communitarians all had roughly comparable perceptions of culture_pol.gifnanotechnology risks. However, in the “information exposure” condition, subjects adopted toward nanotechnology the clashing positions persons with their respective worldviews take on environmental risks generally.

Exposure to information also seemed to excite recognizable ideological divisions. Liberals, who held a slightly more positive view of nanotechnology among the subjects in the “no information” condition, actually traded places with conservatives in the “information exposure” conduction, assuming a stance of risk concern more characteristic of their ideology.

In sum, values operated as a powerful heuristic for our subjects. Confronted with balanced competing arguments about a novel risk, they assigned more weight to the position that best fit their general cultural and political predispositions.

Does this mean that public deliberations on nanotechnology will be plagued by division and acrimony? That’s certainly a possibility. In particular, it certainly can’t be assumed that the discovery of scientifically accurate information about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology will of its own force generate societal consensus on whether and how its development should be regulated: as they do on many well-known risks — from climate change to nuclear power to handgun possession to terrorism — people with different values are predisposed to draw different factual conclusions from the same information. If anything, the polarization effects we observed in our study could be even larger in the real world, where individuals are likely to select information sources that fit their values and that supply them with information systematically skewed toward one position or other.

But I, at least, don’t think such polarization on nanotechnology is inevitable. At the same time that the study of cultural cognition is generating insights into how values shape individuals’ processing of information, it is also teaching us lessons (ones I will describe in future posts) about how information can be framed so that persons of diverse cultural views can get the same factual content from it. That obviously doesn’t mean those persons all reach the same conclusions on how to balance the risks and benefits of nanotechnology or other forms of science. But it does mean that their deliberations will be informed by the best understandings available of what those risks and benefits are — a condition they would presumably all agree is essential to enlightened democratic regulation of risk.

The bottom line is that those who favor informed public deliberation about nanotechnology should be neither sanguine nor bleak. Instead, they should be psychologically realistic. And if they are, they will see the urgent need for additional efforts to develop risk-communication strategies that make it possible for culturally diverse citizens to converge on policies that promote their common interests.


Posted in Cultural Cognition, Emotions, Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology | 6 Comments »

UCLA School of Law’s Critical Race Studies Conference

Posted by Jerry Kang on April 4, 2007

On April 13-14, the UCLA School of Law’s Critical Race Studies Program will be hosting its Inaugural Symposium titled “Mapping the Movement Across Disciplines.” On Saturday, the 14th, there will be a panel that may be of interst to Situationist readers on “Unconscious Racism and Implicit Bias.”

  • Prof. Charles Lawrence, Georgetown Law Center
  • Dr. Kristin Lane, PhD (from the Mahzarin Banaji lab, Situationist contributor)
  • Prof. Linda Hamilton Krieger, Boalt Hall (Situationist contributor)
  • Prof. Gerald Lopez, NYU Law (Visiting Prof., UCLA Law)
  • moderated by me, Prof. Jerry Kang, UCLA Law (Situationist contributor)

More information is available at the conference website.

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Public Policy, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 4, 2007


In 1992, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky demonstrated the effect of “irrelevant third options” in a simple experiment in which subjects were asked to select a microwave oven based on various product features and prices. Most of the subjects given a choice only between a low-priced Emerson and a medium-priced Panasonic preferred the Emerson model. When a high-priced Panasonic model was added to the selection, however, most of the subjects selected the medium-priced Panasonic, thus dramaticallygas-station-prices.jpg increasing Panasonic’s share of the experimental market. It is folk wisdom in the restaurant industry that every dessert menu should have at least one excessively indulgent item to make the others appear comparatively less indulgent. Similarly gas stations, it seems, are likely encouraging consumers to purchase mid-grade gasoline by including high-grade option.

More recently, Situationist contributor Paul Slovic has shown how this phenomenon, among many others, reflects what he calls the “affect heuristic” or the “risk as feelings” approach to risk perception. (For an overview of that research, click here.)

It is now well understood that adding options can alter behavior, even when the options are not chosen. Seemingly irrelevant options can actually be quite relevant because they change the situation and alter affective responses to existing options.

Yesterday’s Washington Post contains an article by Shankar Vedantam relying on those insight to discuss presidential campaign strategies. We have excerpted portions of that editorial below.

* * *

clinton-obama.jpgIf Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ever took a break from fundraising to bone up on psychology, they might realize the need to talk up . . . John Edwards.

The same goes for front-runners John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in the race for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. They ought to be drawing attention to Mitt Romney, or to “Law and Order” star Fred Thompson, who could be running third in the race if he declared.

Front-runners are usually focused on racing each other. They often do not realize that when people cannot decide between two leading candidates — and it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about politicians or consumer appliances — our decision can be subtly swayed by whoever is in third place.

Psychologists call this the decoy effect: In a perfectly rational world, third candidates should only siphon votes away from one or both of the leading contenders. Under no circumstances should they cause the vote share of either front-runner to increase. In the actual world, however, third candidates regularly have the unintended effect of making one of the front-runners look better than before in the minds of undecided voters.

* * *

john-edwards.jpgLet’s say you are a centrist Democratic voter who cannot decide between Clinton and Obama because you want a candidate who is strong on national security but also someone fresh. You like Clinton on one measure and Obama on the other. Enter Edwards, whom you see as more dovish than Obama but part of the same establishment as Clinton. Obama looks better than Edwards on both counts, whereas Clinton beats Edwards on only the national security issue.

On the other hand, let’s say you care about experience but are wary of policies such as universal health care. You like Clinton’s experience but are worried about her track record on health care. Enter Edwards, whom you perceive to be as untested as Obama but even more likely to pursue a traditionally liberal agenda. Clinton now looks better than Edwards on both counts.

What this means is that Obama and Clinton stand to gain by drawing attention to those qualities of Edwards’s that make each front-runner look much better than the other. Clever front-runners, in other words, can turn third candidates into their wingmen.

“Many people lavished hate on Ralph Nader for presumably taking votes away from the Democratic front-runner in the 2000 presidential election,” said Scott Highhouse, who has studied the decoy effect at Bowling Green State University. “Research on the decoytime-cover-perot.jpg effect suggests that Nader’s presence, rather than taking votes away, probably increased the share of votes for the candidate he most resembled.”

Suzanne Fogel, head of the marketing department at DePaul University, conducted a study of the 1992 presidential election, where Ross Perot provided the psychologist with a third candidate and a national laboratory. She and colleagues Yigang Pan and Robert Pitts found that, contrary to the conventional wisdom about which candidate Perot would hurt, undecided voters who focused on different qualities of Perot tended to gravitate toward George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton.

“People are not very thorough information processors,” she said. “People try to distill the essence from things, and if someone calls attention to one attribute or another, you make your choice based on that attribute because it is in the foreground of your attention.”

* * *

For the complete article, click here.  To read Michael Metzler’s interesting take on how the the third-option effect might be employed to sell religions or denominations, go to Pooh’s Think.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions | 7 Comments »

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

Posted by Sung Hui Kim on April 2, 2007

In my last posting, Part I of this series, I left off asserting that there are enormous psychological pressures for lawyers, in particular, “in-house” or “inside” lawyers (lawyers employed by corporations) to acquiesce in their clients’ misconduct. graphic2.jpg These psychological pressures arise from the multiple roles that in-house lawyers play – as mere employees (subject to obedience pressures), faithful agents (subject to alignment pressures) and team players (subject to conformity pressures).

In this posting, I would like to focus solely on their role as “mere employees” and the obedience pressures that arise from that role.  In a prior posting of The Situationist, Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo described the famous electric shock experiments conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s by Stanley Milgram, which provide the strongest illustration of the power of “obedience pressures.” Stanley Milgram before electric shock generator. If you are unfamiliar with these experiments, I strongly urge you to read Zimbardo’s posting,  The Situational Sources of Evil – Part I.  In short, the most common reaction of participants to the experimenter’s explicit commands (“The experiment requires you to continue to go on.  Please go on!”) was to continue administering brutal and perhaps lethal electric shocks  to the other subject (actually, a confederate) despite his desperate protests.

Zimbardo, who had known Milgram since high school, contacted Milgram and asked him whether any of the participants had even checked into the adjacent room to see if the recipient of electric shocks was in need of medical care.  Shockingly, not one of the 1000 subjects in Milgram’s experiments did so.  As explained by Zimbardo and co-author Michael Leippe, “’Stay in your seat, until I tell you that you can leave,’ is perhaps one of the most lasting lessons of our early childhood education – coming from elementary school teachers.  That behavioral rule is so internalized that it controlled the reactions of the ‘heroes,’ in the Milgram studies, who disobeyed the experimenter’s external command but totally obeyed this more deeply ingrained internal command.”

Milgram argued that in modern society, the child is socialized to obey not just mom and dad, but impersonal, legitimate authority figures, e.g., schoolteachers, police officers, bosses, who we perceive as having a right to issue commands.  Mere indications of rank – dress, diploma, title, insignia – are often sufficient to confer the status of “legitimate” authority.

Accordingly, to understand why sophisticated, educated and experienced in-house lawyers acquiesce in their clients’ misconduct, one only needs to be reminded of the banal tendency to obey superiors.  But before I talk about in-house lawyers, let me talk about obedience pressures a bit more generally. Obedience pressures played a role in Enron, WorldCom and many of the other publicized corporate scandals.  Former Enron CEO skilling.jpgJeff Skilling was sentenced last October to 24 years in jail, even though there wasn’t much evidence establishing a vivid connection between him and the Enron fraud, which, for the most part, was carried out by his subordinate, CFO Andrew Fastow. Similarly, former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years in jail even though the fraud was carried out, for the most part, by CFO Scott Sullivan. The reality is: when your boss tells you to “make the numbers” or hit the projected quarterly earnings target, you can not underestimate the enormous pressures to make it happen — even if it means violating accounting conventions and the law.

Georgetown law professor and moral philosopher David Luban was “spot on” with his description of the lessons of Milgram’s experiments: “Milgram demonstrates that each of us ought to believe three things about ourselves: that we disapprove of destructive obedience, that we think we would never engage in it, and, more likely than not, that we are wrong to think we would never engage in it.”

belnick_mark3.jpgJuries, composed mostly of employee-subordinates, appear to at least have a basic understanding of obedience pressures, which might explain why they handed down “guilty” verdicts for the bosses at Enron and WorldCom and handed down a “not guilty” verdict for one high-profile subordinate — Mark Belnick, former general counsel of Tyco who reported to CEO Dennis Kozlowski (who is sitting in prison right now for looting Tyco).  In contrast, tenured academics, who – for the most part — can’t get fired, seem to have a tougher time comprehending obedience pressures (at least that is what I have observed).

Inside counsel, as employees of the firm, are inclined to take orders and accept the “definition of the situation” (a phrase coined by Milgram) from their superiors.  These superiors happen to be a cohort of non-lawyer senior managers vested with the authority to speak on behalf of the organization and entrusted to give direction to inside counsel.  They create the reality for inside counsel: they define objectives, identify specific responsibilities for inside lawyers and, ultimately, determine whether an inside lawyer’s performance is acceptable. 

And accepting management’s “definition of the situation” means accepting management’s framing of the inside lawyer’s role and responsibilities. This framing provides that compliance responsibilities be segmented.  Although inside counsel’s duties include a prominent role in corporate compliance, it is business management that jealously guards the right to decide whether to comply with the law, which is seen as the ultimate risk management decision.  For inside counsel to challenge management’s decisions or management’s authority to make decisions would then amount to clear insubordination.

Obedience in the corporate context will be substantial, so we should not be surprised by the banal tendency to listen to superiors.  Also, given the stark financial self-interest, which is threatened by asking too many questions or being viewed as obstructionist, we should not be surprised that inside counsel regularly succumb to the situation.  To be clear, this is not to say that all inside counsel cave into obedience pressures.  Indeed, one need only look at the few reported cases in which inside counsel sued their employers for being retaliatorily discharged (for having taken an ethical stand) to see that some (albeit a few) are able to resist those pressures.  For a more thorough treatment of obedience pressures, please check out my article, The Banality of Fraud: Re-Situating the Inside Counsel as Gatekeeper.

Posted in Law, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Your Brain and Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 2, 2007

Bosch Painting

William Saletan of Slate has a thought-provoking piece on how activity in brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with social-emotional responses, indicates to what extent one will regard a belief or action as moral or immoral. Saletan’s piece is based on a fascinating study published in last week’s issue of Nature on how damage to the prefrontal cortex has been found to make one more “utilitarian,” or more caluclated in logic and less cognizant of the emotional and social implications of one’s decision-making. We have excerpted portions of Saletan’s piece below.

* * *

Imagine that killers have invaded your neighborhood. They’re in your house, and you and your neighbors are hiding in the cellar. Your baby starts to cry. If you had to press your hand over the baby’s face till it stopped fighting—if you had to smother it to save everyone else—would you do it?

If you’re normal, you wouldn’t, according to a study published last week in Nature. But if part of your brain were damaged—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—you would. In the study, people were given hypothetical dilemmas: Would you throw a fatally injured person off a lifeboat to save everyone else? Would you kill a healthy hostage? Most normal people said no. Most people with VMPC damage said yes.

It’s easy to dismiss the damaged people as freaks. But the study isn’t really about them. It’s about us. Neuroscience is discovering that the brain isn’t a single organ. It’s an assembly of modules that sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete. If you often feel as though two parts of your brain are fighting it out, that’s because, in fact, they are.

Some of those fights are about morality. Maybe abortion grosses you out, but you’d rather keep it safe and legal. Or maybe homosexuality sounds icky, but you figure it’s nobody’s business. Emotion tells you one thing; reason tells you another. Often, the reasoning side makes calculations: Letting old people die is tragic, but medical dollars are better spent on saving kids. Throwing the wounded guy off the lifeboat feels bad, but if it will save everyone else, do it.

* * *Picture of Brain

What’s moral, in the new world, is what’s normal, natural, necessary, and neurologically fit.

The catch is that what’s normal, natural, necessary, and neurologically fit can change. In fact, it has been changing throughout history. As our ancestors adapted from small, kin-based groups toward elaborate nation-states, the brain evolved from reflexive emotions toward the abstract reasoning power that gave birth, in this millennium, to utilitarianism. The full story is a lot more complicated, but that’s the rough outline.

And evolution doesn’t stop here. Look around you. The world of touch, tribe, and taboo is fading. Acceptance of homosexuality is spreading at an amazing pace. Trade is supplanting war. Democracy and communications technology are forcing governments to promote the general welfare. Utilitarians welcome these changes, and so do I. But utility unchecked can become a monster. The Internet is liberating us from visual and physical contact. Economic globalization is crushing resistance to the bottom line. Companies are sending employees to get cheap medical care abroad. Brokers are buying organs in slums. In a utilitarian world, you do what it takes. It’s all about helping people.

* * *

Posted in Emotions, Philosophy | 2 Comments »

Phil Zimbardo Brings Lucifer to Harvard

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 2, 2007




Sponsored by the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School, the 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 the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics.

For more details, click here.

or contact Carol Igoe at or 617-495-4863.

(Note: Professor Zimbardo will also give a lecture at MIT on Monday April 2. For details, click here.)



Posted in Events, Law, Legal Theory | Leave a Comment »

January Fools’ Day

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 1, 2007


Today, the first day of April, instead of playing a trick on our readers to make them feel foolish, the Situationist Staff thought it would be more fun to make our readers feel foolish by reminding them of the resolutions many of them made only three months ago, but then to give them some good news about how they might fool themselves into to good health.

So, remember those resolutions?: diet, exercise, the usual. How did that work out? If you’re like most people who resolve to improve their physical health (and some of us have wisely scaled back or cut out that tradition), you’ve discovered again in 2007 that, although the New Year’s disposition may be strong, the situation is stronger.

For the good news, we’re pasting the press release from a fascinating study, by Alia Crum and renowned social psychologist Ellen Langer, that was published in February’s issue of Psychological Science. According to their study, our health may depend less than we suppose on changing our exercise habits and more than we suppose on changing our mindset toward our habits. There may be, in other words, a placebo effect associated with perceiving our day-to-day routines as exercise (for instance, these exhausting finger and knuckle presses that I’m currently doing on my keyboardacize device).

* * *

The surgeon general recommends 30 minutes of daily exercise to maintain a healthy lifestyle. While this may be harder for those who are required to sit behind a desk for eight hours, other jobs are inherently physical, like a hotel housekeeper. On average, they clean 15 rooms per day, each taking 20 to 30 minutes to complete. According to the study, the housekeepers might not perceive their job as exercise, but if their mind-set is shifted so that they become aware of the exercise they are getting, then health improvements would be expected to follow.

The researchers studied 84 female housekeepers from seven hotels. Women in 4 hotels were told that their regular work was enough exercise to meet the requirements for a healthy, active lifestyle, whereas the women in the other three hotels were told nothing. To determine if the placebo effect plays a role in the benefits of exercise, the researchers investigated whether subjects’ mind-set (in this case, their perceived levels of exercise) could inhibit or enhance the health benefits of exercise independent of any actual exercise.


Four weeks later, the researchers returned to assess any changes in the women’s health. They found that the women in the informed group had lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their blood pressure by almost 10 percent, and were significantly healthier as measured by body-fat percentage, body mass index, and waist-to-hip ratio. These changes were significantly higher than those reported in the control group and were especially remarkable given the time period of only four weeks.

Langer writes, “Whether the change in physiological health was brought about directly or indirectly, it is clear that health is significantly affected by mind-set.” This research shows the moderating role of mind-set and its ability to enhance health, which may have particular relevance for treating diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

* * *

For a longer summary of their research, click here and here. For a draft of the paper itself, click here. It may be possible to obtain a copy of the article “Mind-Set Matters Exercise and the Placebo Effect,” by contacting Catherine West at

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

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