The Situationist

Archive for May, 2007

Car Bonding

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 30, 2007

Family in CarLast month, we wrote about the unhappiness and unhealthiness associated with commuting by car. Today we bring you a more positive take on the situation of driving: how cars facilitate family discussions. Alison Roberts of the Modesto Bee has the story, and we excerpt portions of it below.

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According to the 2005 American Time Use Survey from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans in households where the youngest kid is 6 to 17 spend more time engaged in “travel related to care of household children” (to the doctor, school, sports or other activities) than any other childcare activity. The SC Johnson Family Taxi Survey conducted by Opinion Research Corp. found that 80 percent of parents reported spending in the neighborhood of 10 hours a week in the car with kids under 18.

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The car is often an easier place to talk than at home, because driving tends to put the brakes on the multitasking that distracts us from one another elsewhere.

“When you’re in the house, there’s always something to do,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist who has written many parenting books, including “Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day.”Kids in Backseat

“When you’re in the car, there’s nothing you can be doing. Given the way most of us live, the sanctuary of the car is the ideal place to talk,” Newman says, speaking from New York.

For families with more than one child, the car can provide rare one-on-one time. It’s a great place to offer up praise without siblings overhearing and feeling that favoritism is at play, Newman says.

When more than one kid is in the car, it can be a great place to engage in a little constructive collective bargaining — over what music to listen to, what stops to make and what to eat for dinner.

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Driving in the car is strangely conducive to tackling tough topics. Staring out the front window, not having to look each other in the eye, can make it easier — for kids and parents alike. Don’t be surprised if kids ask questions about the facts of life in the car, when you can’t see them blushing.

“It becomes less personal when you’re not having that eye contact, and it’s less threatening; it’s Mom talking to the windshield,” Newman says.

When you’re having those touchy-topic conversations, especially with older kids, it’s crucial to stay matter-of-fact and on the road, advises Susan Smith Kuczmarski, a professor of education who writes extensively about family life, including the book “The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide To Stepping Back and Letting Go.”

“To be direct and open and to the point, I think the car facilitates that. And teenagers love you to be very direct,” she says, speaking from Chicago, where she lives.

Kuczmarski says driving muffles parental drama in a way that helps keep the conversation two-way. It’s hard to do a lot of finger-waving, and the lecturing that goes with it, when you’re steering.

“I’m a real believer in not having any fear of bringing up certain topics,” she says.

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To read the rest of the article, click here.

Posted in Life | Leave a Comment »

Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 30, 2007

Vichy Lustra AdIn a previous post, “Black History is Now,” Jon Hanson & Michael McCann discussed how shades of skin color play a surprisingly significant role in how we assess ourselves and others. As they described, studies have found, for instance, that dark-skinned Blacks are more than ten times more likely to experience frequent racial discrimination than their light-skinned counterparts and “dark-skinned Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans continue to face higher levels of discrimination in the labor market.”

Of course, because there is money to be made in exploiting such stereotypes and prejudices, the invisible hand of the market finds ways to do so (as we have highlighted in posts such as “Womens’ Situation in Economics” and “Survival of the Cutest.” And as we have also noted in a previous post, a favorite way for marketers to manipulate the typical consumer (who wants to believe that she or he is in control and acts according to her or his own preferences) is to tell her or him that such a person would want their product. That is, marketers commonly exploit the gap between who we are in fact (situational characters) and who we like to believe we are (dispositional choosers) by assuring us that, with their product, we will be the latter. In doing so, they typically reinforce the same stereotypes and prejudices that their techniques tap into, further enhancing their situational grip.

Today’s New York Times has an article by Heather Timmons entitled, Telling India’s Modern Women They Have Power, Even Over Their Skin Tone, that brings all of those themes together. We have excerpted portions of her article below and inserted videos of advertisements for some of the skin-lightening products discussed in the article.

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The modern Indian woman is independent, in charge — and does not have to live with her dark skin.

That is the message from a growing number of global cosmetics and skin care companies, which are expanding their product lines and advertising budgets in India to capitalize on growth in women’s disposable income. A common thread involves creams and soaps that are said to lighten skin tone. Often they are peddled with a “power” message about taking charge or getting ahead.

Avon, L’Oréal, Ponds, Garnier, the Body Shop and Jolen are selling lightening products and all of them face stiff competition from a local giant, Fair and Lovely, a Unilever product that has dominated the market for decades.

Fair and Lovely, with packaging that shows a dark-skinned unhappy woman morphing into a light-skinned smiling one, once focused its advertising on the problems a dark-skinned woman might face finding romance. In a sign of the times, the company’s ads now show lighter skin conferring a different advantage: helping a woman land a job normally held by men, like announcer at cricket matches. “Fair and Lovely: The Power of Beauty,” is the tagline on the company’s newest ad.

Not surprisingly, the rush to sell skin-lightening products has drawn some criticism, with people saying that the products are at best unsavory and that they reinforce dangerous prejudices.

When Unilever markets Fair and Lovely, it “doesn’t cause bias,” but it does make use of it, said Aneel G. Karnani, a professor with the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan who earned a business degree in India.

Global cosmetics companies — which also sell skin-lightening products throughout Asia and in the United States, where they are marketed as spot or blemish removers — argue that they are just giving Indian women what they want.

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Sales of Fair and Lovely have been growing 15 to 20 percent year over year, Mr. Venkatramani said.

Skin-lightening products are by far the most popular product in India’s fast-growing skin care market, so manufacturers say they ignore them at their peril. The $318 million market for skin care has grown by 42.7 percent since 2001, says Euromonitor International, a research firm.

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There’s no denying that the notion of “fairness,” as light skin is known in India, is heavily ingrained in the culture. Nearly all of Bollywood’s top actresses have quite pale skin, despite the range of skin tones in India’s population of more than a billion people.

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vichy.jpgIndia is hardly alone in its pursuit of “fairness.” Korea, Japan and China are big markets for skin-whitening products. And the United States is not exempt. Ebony magazine ran similar ads relating to full-face “skin brightening” or “skin whitening” creams aiming at African-American consumers through the 1950s and 1960s, said Jeanine Collins, communications director for Ebony. Those ads changed their message during the 1970s and 1980s to talk about removing spots or blemishes, she said.

In India, advertisements for L’Oréal-branded products and the company’s Garnier line generally feature a pale model, and focus on the ingredients in the product, using take-action language like “YES to fairer and younger looking skin” or “Against inside cell damages.”

L’Oréal’s super-high-end Vichy line is more direct: the main advertising image in Asia shows a woman unzipping her blemished, darker face to reveal a light, even-toned one within.

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To read the entire article, click here. For an interesting, recent article in The Guardian on the marketing of skin-lightening products, click here. And for a hard-hitting critique (from 2005) of skin-lightening marketing, click here.

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Update 6/6/2007: For a fascinating analysis of New Jersey’s “vanity tax,” which is a tax aimed at those who undergo medical procedures to improve their appearance, see Frank Pasquale’s excellent post on Concurring Opinions

Posted in Choice Myth, Life, Marketing | 11 Comments »

The Unlucky Irish: Celtics Fans and Affective Forecasting

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 28, 2007

Celtics PosterFor Celtics fans, last week was a lousy week. On Tuesday night, the NBA conducted its draft lottery, and the Celtics wound up with the worst possible outcome: the 5th pick in next month’s draft. (To watch the lottery and some conventional commentary about it, click on the video below.) So, no Greg Oden and no Kevin Durant for the same franchise that was robbed of Tim Duncan 10 years ago by the very same lottery system (which we discussed at length last month).

Because they have already faced a series of unfortunate events, and because the Boston sports community tends to put great faith in “faith,” many Celtics fans assumed that it was their turn for some good fortune. In light of those high expectations, the ping pong balls delivered news that has been received with disbelief and despondency. Take comments by Jeff Clark, who runs the most widely-read blog devoted to an NBA Team, Celtics Blog:

Waking up this morning, I don’t feel any better. I feel a little sick in my stomach. I’m sure Celtics fans all across the world feel the same.

The funny thing is that yesterday I was so very excited. It was like I was 10 again and it was Christmas morning. I was giddy. It hadn’t even occurred to me that this could really go this wrong. I mean, logically, sure, I knew we could miss out on 1 or 2. But that’s not what my heart said. My heart believed. I was completely sold. We weren’t just going to get a top 2 pick, we were going to get Oden at number 1. It was going to happen.

The first hint was the Bucks at 6. “That doesn’t seem right.” My head said. “Shut up, you’re overthinking this” my heart said. Then he pulled out the Celtics logo and my heart stopped. Dumbstruck I couldn’t even react. Out of nowhere, my dreams were shot, Christmas was cancelled, and my team was doomed to another 10 years of failure.

I thought about it a lot last night and this morning and I’ve had time to ponder the implications. You’d think that after that I would have a better perspective. Sorry. I don’t. I’m still depressed.

Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge

Maybe Danny can still turn things around, but even good GMs need a lot of luck. Aside from drafting, Danny hasn’t proven that he’s good. Doc is still the coach, and I can’t say that I’m very excited about that.

We have a pick in a “deep” draft. Well who cares how deep it is? If Oden/Durant are perfect 10’s, and there are a bunch of 5’s in the draft, that means we still end up with a 5. So maybe we’ll have a decent 2nd round pick. Yippee.

I don’t know what I want the team to do now. I haven’t figured it out. Part of me wants to fire Danny, trade Pierce, and start over. Part of me wants to package the pick, Gerald, Theo, and whatever else to get a player to put next to Paul. All of me wants to sit on the couch and go into a coma until the games start. It’s going to be a long, long offseason.

In response to Clark’s comments, ESPN’s Henry Abbott, a diehard fan of the Portland Trailblazers–the team that defied long odds and won the lottery–reminded Celtics fans that all is not lost:

  • It’s a lottery. The nature of all lotteries is to be randomly cruel to some and randomly generous to others. The system might look awful on any given night, but it evens out, in theory, over time.
  • Us Blazer fans know what it feels like to fall in the draft. We were tied for the worst record in the league last year and ended up picking fourth. But it turned out we got two of the best three or four players in the draft.
  • Things happen in strange ways. It would not be at all surprising to me if neither Durant nor Oden proves to be the rookie of the year. The Florida players, for instance, are older and far more experienced. Not to mention, of these top players, you know some will be injured at some point. Maybe your luck comes in another way.

We at The Situationist suspect that Henry Abbott is onto something that will indeedGreg Oden help to bring Celtic fans out of the doldrums — as much as it brings Blazer fans back to earth. There are many interior situational features that lead us to adjust far more quickly than we anticipate and to countenance outcomes that might seem unfair or unjust. Situationist contributor John Jost has written about the sytem-justifying effects of “sour grapes” and “sweet lemons” rationalizations, for instance. Oden and Durant will probably disappoint anyway. Who says Greg Oden “is about to own the game?” For all we know, the fifth draft pick may turn out to be the best of all in this deep draft–a draft that will include highly touted and immediately ready-for-the-NBA prospects like Jeff Green of Georgetown University and Al Horford of the University of Florida.

Furthermore, even if Oden and Durant live up the hype, we’ll be fine. As Situationist contributor Tim Wilson and Situationist friend Dan Gilbert have shown, most of us tend to exaggerate (in intensity and duration) just how happy or sad different positive and negative outcomes will leave us.

That literature has been summarized (by still other Situationist contributors) as follows:

The best evidence about our ability to predict (or even remember) our emotional states reveals that we are often poor judges of our own well-being. The problem is not so much that we do not know what will bring us pleasure or pain. People typically are correct to assume that a new car will elicit some happiness and that a bad accident will generate unhappiness. The problem is that, owing to our ineffective forecasting, we vastly overestimate the intensity and duration of our emotional reactions to such happenings.

Winning the lottery, landing a good teaching job, and falling in love all may bring us some joy. Losing a bet, a job, Lotto Ballsor a lover will certainly bring sadness. But none of these events will affect us as much as we tend to imagine. Because of this impact bias, “common events typically influence people’s subjective well-being for little more than a few months, and even uncommon events — such as losing a child in a car accident, getting cancer, becoming paralyzed, or being sent to a concentration camp — seem to have less impact on long-term happiness than one might naively expect.”

In one study, for example, associate professors were asked to estimate what their overall happiness would be if they made tenure, or were denied it. The study found that, in the short term, those who received tenure were less happy than they expected, and those who were denied tenure were happier than they predicted. Another study asked student respondents who were involved in committed, long-term relationships to estimate what their happiness levels would be if they suffered a break-up. Their happiness estimates were far lower than the actual reported happiness levels of other students who had recently suffered a break-up.

Our pattern of poorly forecasting our affective states has been demonstrated in a number of studies of political events. One version of the study asked Republicans and Democrats how happy or unhappy they thought they would be the week following the 1996 presidential election if Bill Clinton were reelected. A week after the election, Democrats who had predicted that they would be substantially happier if Clinton won in fact reported overall happiness levels that were no different than before the election. Republicans were only slightly less happy overall than they were before the election, although they had predicted that they would be substantially less happy. Even in ordinary circumstances that we experience repeatedly — such as consumer or employment decisions — we continue to make the same affective forecasting errors again and again. There is apparently too much working in favor of the maintenance of our dispositionism for it to be compromised by evidence of it failing us.

The basic lesson of affective forecasting research is clear. Despite our overly optimistic and overly pessimistic predictions, the truth about ourselves is, as Daniel Gilbert and his co-authors put it: “Most people are reasonably happy most of the time, and most events do little to change that for long.”

So cheer up Celtics fans — you’re going to soon enough anyway. How ’bout those Sox!

Posted in Entertainment, Situationist Sports | 6 Comments »

Your Group Is Bad at Math: Quick, What’s 748,659 – 7,298?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 25, 2007

// Situationist Posts have discussed some of the implications of stereotype threat, which loosely can be thought of as the (often self-fulfilling) fear that one’s behavior or performance will confirm an existing stereotype associated with one’s identity groups. For examples, see “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball” and “Don W-Ho?.” Other Situationist posts, including “Women’s Situation in Economics,” have looked at the role of stereotypes on women’s performance in male-dominated fields.

A recent study, lead by Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago, sheds additional light on some of the sources and consequences of stereotype threat. We have pasted below the bulk of a press release summarizing the results of that study.

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A popular stereotype that boys are better at mathematics than girls undermines girls’ math performance because it causes worrying that erodes the mental resources needed for problem solving, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

The scholars found that the worrying undermines women’s working memory. Working memory is a short-term memory system involved in the control, regulation and active maintenance of limited information needed immediately to deal with problems at hand.

They also showed for the first time that this threat to performance caused by stereotyping can also hinder success in other academic areas because mental abilities do not immediately rebound after being compromised by mathematics anxiety.


“This may mean that if a girl takes a verbal portion of a standardized test after taking the mathematics portion, she may not do as well on the verbal portion as she might do if she had not been recently struggling with math-related worries and anxiety,” said Sian Beilock, Assistant Professor in Psychology [at the University of Chicago] and lead investigator in the study.

“Likewise, our work suggests that if a girl has a mathematics class first thing in the morning and experiences math-related worries in this class, these worries may carry implications for her performance in the class she attends next,” she added.

The results of the study appear in the paper “Stereotype Threat and Working Memory: Mechanisms, Alleviation, and Spill Over,” published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology . . . . Co-authors are Robert Rydell, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Allen McConnell, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Miami University.

Researchers have been aware that stereotypes can undermine achievement in schools in many ways, but little research has focused on the specific mental processes that prompt this response.

math-exam-pepperdine.jpgIn order to examine those mental processes, the team selected a group of college women who performed well in mathematics. They were then randomly assigned to two groups, with one set of women being told that they were being tested to see why men generally do better on math than women, and the other group being told simply that they were part of an experiment on mathematics performance.

The information that men do better in mathematics than women undercut performance drastically. The accuracy of women exposed to the stereotype was reduced from nearly 90 percent in a pretest to about 80 percent after being told men do better in mathematics. Among women not receiving that message, performance actually improved slightly.

The researchers asked the women exposed to the stereotyping message what they were thinking during the tests and many of them reported being distracted by thoughts such as “I thought about how boys are usually better than girls at math so I was trying harder not to make mistakes” and “I was nervous in the last set because I found out that the study is to compare mathematical abilities of guys and girls.” Women not exposed to stereotyping had fewer such thoughts of inferiority.

math-anxiety-books.jpgFurther tests showed that the verbal portion of the working memory was the portion of the women’s mental resources that was most strongly undermined by the anxiety. The researchers showed that women experiencing mathematics anxiety found it more difficult to do problems when they were written out horizontally than when they appeared vertically. Previous findings show that solving horizontal problems relies heavily on verbal resources.

In order to see if mathematics anxiety had any lasting impact on performance in the short term, the researchers again had women solve math problems, with half being told they were part of a test to determine why men generally do better in mathematics than women and the other half being told only that they were being tested for mathematics performance.

They then gave the women a standard memory test involving verbal information and found that the women did less well on that test if they were exposed to the mathematics stereotyping.

“We demonstrated that worries about confirming a negative group stereotype may not only impact performance in the stereotyped domain, but that this impact can spill over onto subsequent, unrelated tasks that depend on the same processing resource the stereotype-related worries consume,” Beilock and her colleagues wrote.

Posted in Education, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

Self-Serving Biases

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 24, 2007

Person Looking in MirrorKyung M. Song of the Seattle Times has an interesting article on how we tend to think that we are better than we are. We have excerpted portions of the article below.

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David Dunning played the cello seriously as a teen — and he thought himself quite talented.

Then Dunning heard a recording by Jacqueline du Pre, the late English cellist who was renowned for playing with a brilliant ferocity. “So that’s what you do with that instrument,” a chastened Dunning, now professor of psychology at Cornell University, recalls thinking. “I had no clue that you could do that with the cello.”

Dunning’s epiphany was a classic example of a phenomenon familiar to social psychologists: flawed self-assessment. People — as researchers have documented again and again — systematically misjudge their competence, virtues, relevance and future actions. And those erroneous views can, researchers say, endanger health, ruin relationships, dent finances and cause other misery.

People generally consider themselves smarter, luckier, better-looking and more important than they really are. They regard themselves as exceptional and believe that they will avoid the divorces, premature deaths or weight gains that befall everyone else.

Self-serving biases permeate people’s perceptions. They claim credit for good deeds and successes but shift blame to others for their failures. A Toronto motorist captured this tendency on an insurance form: “A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.”

“Most of us have a good reputation with ourselves,” says David Myers, a professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who wrote the textbook Social Psychology.

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People’s high self-regard tends to be unjustified, social psychologists say. The link between people’s personal estimations and the not-so-flattering reality is sometimes perilously weak.

In a 1977 study, 94 percent of college professors ranked themselves as above-average, even though by definition only 50 percent can be in the top half.

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Some social psychologists argue that shortcomings in self-assessment in laboratories are inconsequential or artificial. But researchers amassed persuasive data showing that people — at least North Americans — commit systematic errors in perceptions that can jeopardize their health or sabotage careers.

People with unrealistic optimism are less likely to say they intend to get a flu shot. They are more likely to chance high-risk sex or disregard doctors’ orders. They also risk wasting money on gym memberships by overestimating how often they will work out, Dunning says, or by miscalculating how carefully they will monitor their cellphone minutes.

Employees with flawed self-views might reject their supervisor’s valid, but negative, reviews. Then they feel cheated with their “paltry” raises. Husbands and wives separately tallying how much each contributes to household chores produce estimates that add up to more than 100 percent.

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External feedback is critical because recognizing your own biases is intrinsically difficult.

“It’s like trying to scratch an itch in the middle of your back,” says Chip Heath, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University. “You can do it, but it’s easier for someone else to help you out.”

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To read the rest of the article, click here.

Posted in Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Blake, Jordin, and the Situation of American Idol

Posted by Goutam Jois on May 23, 2007

idol logo

On the American Idol finale, Judges Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell reminded us repeatedly, lest we forget, that American Idol is a singing competition first and foremost. Blake Lewis and Jordin Sparks are the two finalists this year, suggesting that they are the two best singers (under the age of 29) in the country. Makes sense, right? Not so fast. Beneath the surface, myriad situational factors conspire to suggest that for all American Idol is — pop culture phenomenon, money-making machine, and career maker for Simon Cowell — it is not a meritocratic selection process that reliably delivers up the best singer each year.

First, think of the auditions: Isn’t it odd that we see thousands of people waiting to audition, even though there are only a few days of auditions in each city? Conservatively estimating, about ten thousand people auditioning for thirty seconds each means about 5,000 minutes — almost a week’s worth of auditions, even if the judges worked for twelve hours a day. Are Randy, Paula, and Simon burning the midnight oil auditioning hopefuls? Of course not: Idol contestants first audition — off-camera — in front of panels of the show’s staff. And because of the overwhelming number of aspirants, many cities ban contestants from camping out overnight. Thus, because of the high demand, even if you show up at the appointed place at the appointed time, “there’s still no guarantee you’ll actually get to audition. How do we know the next Fantasia or Taylor wasn’t eliminated merely by virtue of timing?

Even if you were a contestant who got to audition, you would realize that you’re called, three or four at a time, to audition for about fifteen seconds in front of a panel of three of the show’s producers. Again, notice the invisible situational influence: if the others you’re teamed up negatively color your performance, even the most talented singer could be sent packing, without so much as an, “Atrocious!” from Simon.

Those who pass the first audition in front of the show’s producers go on to a second audition in front of the show’s executive producers, and about 100 to 200 of these (twice-successful) contestants go on to round three, auditioning before the show’s trio of celebrity judges — that is, what we in the TV audience think of as the “first” audition. But as everyone knows, despite Randy’s and Simon’s insistence, Idol is not just a singing competition; as Simon has explained elsewhere, the point of the international Idol franchise was to make money for the various shows’ parent corporation. So when the first 98% or 99% of contestants are eliminated by the show’s producers, they are looking, not just for the best singer, but for the most marketable contestant so that the company can maximize its profits in the marketplace. Again, this situational element goes largely unmentioned. After all, it is far sexier to say that Carrie or Kelly is the best singer in
America than it is to say that she was the best moneymaker the producers found.×435.jpg

Also notice that the audition process takes several days. Although there are many who would love to take the time off from school or work (assuming they are in school or at jobs) to audition, there are many who simply cannot afford to do so. The “neutral” audition process thus serves to exclude all of those who — no matter how talented — cannot manage to sacrifice several days’ worth of wages or classes for their shot at stardom. Idol, then, involves a self-selection process, through which only those with the financial, social, and emotional capital to invest in such a long audition process even bother to show up.

On other websites, several people take issue with the way their auditions were portrayed. For example, contestants allege that the show’s producers spliced audition tapes or coached contestants to say or do embarrassing things for the benefit of the show’s ratings. But even if these stories of deliberate manipulation are false, it is clear that the audition process involves lots of more subtle — but equally important — situational manipulation.

For example, at the audition in front of the celebrity judges, the market’s situational factors pervade the process. How many times have we seen a judge tell a contest that she not skinny enough, or attractive enough, or charming enough, to make it as a pop star? If the show is a singing competition first and foremost, why did Simon tell the Maynard Triplets in Season Four that they were overweight and thus wouldn’t be able to move on to Hollywood? The reply might be that Simon was just being honest; he was informing the triplet (and others) of what the market would bear. But for all of its power, surely Idol has the power to affect the situation; if Idol’s star judges say a girl can sing, she will gain at least some publicity and success. Indeed, the year before Simon dismissed the triplets, the Idol, Reuben Studdard, was no model of physical fitness himself. In rejecting the triplets, Simon reinforced gender stereotypes and caved to market pressures in a show that — lest we forget! — is all about one’s singing talent.

But what about the vote? After all, in a variety of contexts, from governmental elections to contests for corporate control, the vote is held up as an almost-sacred form of legitimacy: if “the people” (or the shareholders, or the Idol viewers) chose it, it must be good, right? Well, sort of. First, the voting on Idol does not begin until the top 24 contestants are chosen — that is, until after the producers and executive producers panels’ have cut about 99% of the contestants at the first two auditions, and after Randy, Paula, and Simon have cut the remaining crop (usually between 150 and 200) down to 24. In other words, the “choice” that viewers have is remarkably limited: about 100,000 people auditioned for season six, and viewers could only choose among twenty-four. It does not take much of a leap of the imagination to think that those twenty-four were chosen for qualities that had at least something to do with factors other than musical ability.

Still, at least we can choose among the final twenty-four, right? Even if the field was narrowed for viewers, perhaps the show’s judges and producers served a useful function; after all, even if each Idol voter wanted to pick the best contestant, surely she would not have the time or patience to wade through 100,000 hopefuls. after the top 24 are selected, the judges’ roles become interesting. The judges’ views theoretically carry no more weight than yours or mine — all they can do is vote like the rest of us — so why do they exist at all? Perhaps the judges make for good ratings, but perhaps there is more to it. Sanjaya, this season’s lovable loser, managed to make it to the final seven. He was voted through week after week — until Simon’s comment on April 17 that he had had a good run and it was probably his time to go. It was not clear that Sanjaya’s performance was much worse on April 17 than it was, say, on April 10.  Why was he voted off?

Instead, it is probably the case that Simon’s comment served as a framing effect. Even though there was probably little changes in the “merit” of Sanjaya’s singing or his “disposition” between weeks, even relative to other contestants, Simon’s comments on the 17th altered the voters’ situation, such that Sanjaya’s storied run came to an end the next night. In the same vein, the judges comments from week to week exert a similar situational influence on the voters, focusing them on certain singers, framing their perception of the singers’ qualities, or suggesting that certain contestants were (or were not) safe, thus leading people to believe their votes would be irrelevant.

The list of situational factors goes on: some contestants are voted off because they couldn’t pull it out on Country

Music Night, or ‘80s Night, or Bon Jovi Night — even though we all know that few if any pop stars are that versatile. The finale’s “songwiter’s choice” piece was “neutral” in that it was the song performed by both finalists, but it clearly served to showcase Jordin’s voice more than Blake’s style. The judges and producers thus exert significant influence, direct and indirect, conscious and subconscious, on the voters’ “choices” — even though these votes are supposed to be paramount.

In any event, one thing is undoubtedly clear: Blake Lewis and Jordin Sparks are tremendously talented performers, and  both will go on to have great careers. However, it is equally true that, for all it is, American Idol is — as markets generally are — as much about packaging, behind-the-scenes manipulation, and situation.  Jordin might be the next American Idol, but she, Blake, and the rest of us are all situational characters.

Posted in Choice Myth, Entertainment, Events, Marketing | 6 Comments »

Dare To Depend

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 22, 2007


The inaugural Mind Gym Academic Award for new thinking in practical psychology was awareded to Brooke Feeney, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon. (Mind Gym’s mission involves helping people succeed with the aid and insights of rigorous psychological research.)

In our individualistic, strict-father, tough-love, dispositionist world, “dependence” is a major stigma. God forbid we should let on that we are anything other than self-made, self-motivated, self-reliant and, well, selfish. “See those bootstraps, loser? Start pulling!”

Brooke Feeney’s fascinating findings (which, in February’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, she calls the “dependency paradox”) challenges the conventional wisdom regarding how to respond to another’s dependence. That article describes two studies exploring how people can sometimes cultivate a greater sense of independence in their relationship partners by providing support to the partner – and accepting their dependence – when needed.

John Naish, for The (London) Times, summarized the research this way:

* * *

[Feeney’s] study of 115 volunteer couples over six months stuffs the notion of stiff upper lips. Instead it suggests that people with needy partners can create a beneficient cycle: by offering constant support the partners start to feel more confident that they can live without stabilisers.

Feeney asked her volunteer couples about each other’s needs and support levels. She then observed them interacting naturally, and in lab experiments when they were encouraged to seek support from each other. She followed the couples for six months to ascertain their levels of dependencyYellowstone by J. Hanson or independence and found that, in general, the greater the spousal support, the greater the independence. “It is much easier for people to do things that enhance their personal growth – such as accepting challenges, trying new things and taking risks – when they know that someone is available to comfort and assist them if things go wrong,” says Feeney, who flew to Britain to accept her prize this week.

“Just as an individual driving a car without an insurance policy may be reluctant to drive long distances or to take unnecessary risks because there will be a heavy price to pay if something goes wrong, so, too, are individuals reluctant to take independent excursions away from a partner who does not provide good ‘coverage’ in an emergency.”

Feeney believes that her findings have broad potential for relationship counselling: “Simply telling people about the important role they play in promoting their partners’ wellbeing is likely to make them more mindful of their behaviour and of the impact it has on others.”

* * *

For Naish’s entire article, click here. For an earlier post discussing the situational factors influencing whether we respond to others’ needs, see “Thinking the Situation into Legal Theory.” To read about the research that took second place in the Mind Gym competition, see “First Dates and Feeling Good.”

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Loss of Empathy in Japan?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 21, 2007

That is a question examined in “It’s All About Me: Have Today’s Japanese Lost Their Empathy?,” an article published in Sunday’s Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest circulating newspaper. We have excerpted portions of the article below.

* * *

There is widespread concern today that traditional Japanese modes of behavior and thought are breaking down.

The government’s Education Rebuilding Council considers the collapse of ethical standards among students to be one of the biggest problems facing the country. In response, it is likely to propose that ethics be taught as a regular subject at school.

However, traditional mores are faltering in other ways, too, and the public has various opinions on how to rebuild them. In this article we look at some examples of moral decline, as well as people’s efforts to rebuild the high ethical standards that they feel have been lost.

* * *

Pianist Izumi Tateno, 70, had lived in Finland for years. But he returned to Japan for the first time in 40 years after suffering a stroke in 2002. He came back to Tokyo for rehabilitation, but was shocked by the changes to the megalopolis.

When he walks along a crowded Tokyo street, the pianist finds that he is never offeTokyo Rush Hourred help, despite his obvious difficulty moving his right leg, which was partially paralyzed due to the stroke.

Most Tokyoites have headphones clamped over their ears, he notices, as if trying to build barriers around themselves as they listen to their favorite music.

“Tokyo has become a society where emotional ties between people are very weak,” Tateno said.

* * *

The Japanese once were said to hold altruism in high regard, but that may no longer be the case.

Yoshimasa Nakazato, professor emeritus at Toyo University, has been researching altruism among the Japanese.

In one of his experiments, Nakazato, a social psychologist, has measured the degree of compassion for others by getting primary school students to play a game, then studying how winners used the game chips they gained.

Japanese Children Playing GameReviewing the records of such experiments going back to the mid-1980s, he says 80 percent of winning students used to give some of the chips that they won to the losers. However, after the late 1980s, the percentage suddenly dropped to the 40 percent level.

“My concern in those days was that our society would become a very brutal place in the future if we left such problems unattended–and I see signs that this is coming true,” Nakazato warns.

* * *

To read the rest of the article, click here. For other writings on The Situationist that examine empathy, see “March Madness” and “The Young and the Lucky. And, for a sample of postings looking at situational influences on empathy or compassion, see “Too Many To Care,” or “Situational Sources of Evil, Part III.” And, for a sample of posts discussing how situation influences ethics, see “Industry-Funded Research,” “On the Ethical Obligations of Lawyers” and “Why Do Lawyers Acquiesce in Their Clients’ Misconduct, Part I and Part II.”

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

Crazy Little Thing Called Love

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 19, 2007

Queen sang it this way:

thing-called-love.jpgThis (This Thing) called love
(Called Love)
It cries (Like a baby)
In a cradle all night
It swings (Woo Woo)
It jives (Woo Woo)
It shakes all over like a jelly fish,
I kinda like it
Crazy little thing called love

There goes my baby
She knows how to Rock n’ roll
She drives me crazy
She gives me hot and cold fever
Then she leaves me in a cool cool sweat

I gotta be cool relax, get hip
Get on my track’s
Take a back seat, hitch-hike
And take a long ride on my motor bike
Until I’m ready
Crazy little thing called love

With Valentine’s Day months behind us, it is now possible to take a situationist look at this crazy thing called love.

Have you ever been obsessed with, wild for, smitten by, hot for, or crazy about someone? What about a crush or an infatuation? Do you recall how you were unable to think of anything but that other person? How ’bout the mood swings from euphoria to despair? Do you recall feeling addicted or the way separation only amplified the longing? Do you recall the depression, frustration, and embarassment associated with an unreciprocated crush? What about the craving for union and the possessiveness?

If so, then you know first-hand something about this crazy little thing called “love.” It is sweet and bitter both – a craving we won’t let go of and that won’t release us even if we want it to. That intense romantic focus provides a sense of complete and permanent devotion (which turns out to be inaccurate in fact) – even as it generates immense pain when it is unrequited or otherwise impossible. What creates this wonderful source of pain, this ache of passion – Cupid’s hurts-so-good arrow piercing the heart?

Earlier this year, the Washington Post’s Neely Tucker attempted to shed some light on those questions in an article titled “An Affair Of the Head: They Say Love Is All About Brain Chemistry.” We have excerpted portions of the article below.

* * *

It’s all about dopamine, baby, this One Great True Love, this passionate thing we’d burn down the house and blow up the car and drive from Houston to Orlando just to taste on the tip of the tongue.

You crave it because your brain tells you to. . . .


God’s little neurotransmitter. Better known by its street name, romantic love.

Also, norepinephrine. Street name, infatuation.

These chemicals are natural stimulants. You fall in love, a growing amount of research shows, and these chemicals and their cousins start pole-dancing around the neurons of your brain, hopping around the limbic system, setting off craving, obsessive thoughts, focused attention, the desire to commit possibly immoral acts with your beloved while at a stoplight in the 2100 block of K Street during lunch hour, and so on.

“Love is a drug,” says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.” “The ventral tegmental area is a clump of cells that make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and sends it out to many brain regions” when one is in love. “It’s the same region affected when you feel the rush of cocaine.”

Passion! Sex! Narcotics!

Why do we suspect this isn’t going to end well?

Because these things are hard-wired not to last, all of them. Short shelf lives. The passion you fulfill is the passion you kill. The most wonderful, soaring feeling known to all mankind . . . amounts to no more than a narcotic high, a temporal state of mania.

“Being in love, having a crush on someone is wonderful . . . but our bodies can’t be in that state all the time,” says Pamela C. Regan, a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and author of “The Mating Game: A Primer on Love, Sex and Marriage.” “Your body would fizzle out. As a species, we’d die.”

Some of these love chemicals in the brain, scientists measure by the picogram, which is a trillionth of a gram.

How fragile, this [crazy little] thing called love.

* * *

// her most recent research, Fisher and colleagues gave 32 love-struck subjects an MRI scan while they viewed a picture of their beloved.

Boy, did their brains light up!

There are two shrimp-size things on either side of your brain called the caudate nuclei. This is the gear that operates bodily movements and the body’s reward system: “the mind’s network for general arousal, sensations of pleasure, and the motivation to acquire rewards,” Fisher writes. And when the test subjects looked at their sweeties, these things started singing “Loosen Up My Buttons” with the Pussycat Dolls!

This, then, kicked the party over to the tiny ventral tegmental area, a little peapod-size thingy that sends dopamine bopping around your head.

This is what scientists call lots of fun.

A separate study by Italian researchers several years ago showed something else.

Serotonin, another neurotransmitter in the brain associated with obsession, depression and racing thoughts, was greatly affected — right down to the molecular level — by romance and surging dopamine. People newly in love and people with obsessive-compulsive disorder showed the same lowered levels of the “platelet 5-HT transporter.” In other words, dopamine appears to suppress serotonin, which in turn triggers obsessive-compulsive thought patterns.

You can’t stop thinking about Dave. No wonder! Dave’s hiding under a wet flap of cortex!

Your brain is officially in love, and it officially is driving you crazy.

* * *

Cupid can’t last, you know.

Oxytocin and other chemicals kick in, running around your brain to make you bond with your lover, producing a mellower, more sustainable relationship.

* * *

Dopamine leaves the scene of the affair, now running off into the nucleus accumbens, the insular cortex, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, research by Fisher and others shows. Jilted lovers’ brains now light up in these areas when they look at pictures of their former flames — this brain matter is associated with taking big risks, addiction, physical pain and obsessive-compulsive disorders. This is why, researchers theorize, people become obsessed with lost love, and are driven, in extreme cases, to stalking, suicide, homicide, rubber tubing.

Regan, the California researcher, notes that such cases are rare, and may have more to do with existing mental issues than simple unrequited love. Still, she says, passion is destined to end . . . . Given this, she wonders if “we do our self a disservice by glorifying passionate love so much.”

“The search for eternal passion is very misguided,” she says. “It’s the search for the perfect high that keeps people discarding relationships right and left . You don’t feel the same way you did; people want to break up, instead of seeing it as normal.”

And so, alas. Even neurologists, to go with Shakespeare’s priest, now tell us passion is true love’s fool’s gold, a flamboyant dead end on the evolutionary chain of primate happiness.

The only problem with this insight is that no one pays it any mind. Doomed passion may not make us right, and it may not even make us very happy.

It only makes us human. It only makes us who we are.

* * *

Understanding something about what leads to our romantic love, unfortunately, does little to protect us from Cupid’s overwhelming power. Good luck lovers. Remember, you “gotta be cool . . . relax.”

For the complete article, click here. To watch a lengthy but fascinating lecture by Professor Fisher on the “Drive to Love,” click here. A shorter talk by Professor Fisher, providing an overview of her research on romantic love can be viewed in the video below:

P.S. Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Professors Blog makes an excellent criticism of this post, specifically with respect to the inclusion of the images and cartoon video, here. She asks: “how can the clip of a ‘Pepe Le Pew’ cartoon at the end of this post represent anything except extremely coercive, unwanted sexual contact?” That seems right to us, so we’ve removed the video. We’re grateful to be reminded of what should have been obvious, but we regret that it was even necessary.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Life, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Well-Being Is a Walk in the Park

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 18, 2007

Central Park - from

This post is based on a press release issued by University of Sheffield on May 16.

* * *

Researchers at the University of Sheffield have found that parks rich in species are not only beneficial for the environment but also for people´s general well-being. They have shown that the psychological benefits gained by visiting urban green spaces increase with the levels of biodiversity.

The world’s human population is becoming concentrated into cities, increasingly isolating people from nature. Urban parks, therefore, form the arena for many people’s daily contact with nature. These `green´ environments have a number of quality of life benefits, from reductions in crime rates to improving general health. However, little is known about the importance of the `quality´ of these green spaces for benefits to a person´s well-being.

boston-area-urban-park.jpgDr Richard Fuller and colleagues from the University´s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, and De Montfort University in Leicester, have been able to show that biologically complex surroundings appear to enhance a person´s well-being more than those spaces less rich in species.

The researchers were also able to demonstrate that green space users can accurately assess how many different kinds of species live in urban parks, particularly when looking at plants. Their results indicate that successful management of urban green spaces should emphasize biological complexity to enhance human well-being, in addition to biodiversity conservation.

Dr Richard Fuller said: “Our research shows that maintaining biodiversity levels is important in our increasingly urbanised world, not only for conservation, but also to enhance the quality of life for city residents.

“The quality of green spaces, therefore, needs to be considered to ensure that it serves the multiple purposes of enhancing biodiversity, providing ecosystem services, creating opportunities for contact with nature and enhancing psychological well-being.”

Posted in Emotions, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

First Dates and Feeling Good

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 17, 2007

First DateWe recently published a post entitled “Survival of the Cutest.” It suggested some ways in which “good looks” may have helped our species survive and how we subconsciously judge others based on their attractiveness, even though some of us might consciously believe that “looks” shouldn’t matter.

We now bring you news of new research on the positive emotional power of first dates–an occasion when we typically try to look our best. The study was conducted by Elizabeth Dunn and Jeremy Biesanz of the University of British Columbia Department of Psychology and two of their students, Stephanie Finn and Lauren Human. According to their research, we feel unexpectedly good when we try to act good, as we generally do on first dates. Their research will be published next month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Below is the press release issued by the University of British Columbia on the research.

* * *

Treating Longtime Partner Like a First Date Can Boost Morale and Well-Being

By acting as if they’re on a first date, they’ll likely put their best face forward and end up having a better time, says investigator Elizabeth Dunn, an assistant professor at the UBC Dept. of Psychology.

“We make an extra effort when meeting strangers because we want them to like us,” saysVan Gogh Cafe Terrace at Night Dunn. “And by trying to be more pleasant, we end up actually feeling better – but we tend to overlook this benefit.”

Dunn’s co-investigators are UBC Psychology Asst. Prof. Jeremy Biesanz and former University of Virginia students Stephanie Finn and Lauren Human. Human is now a graduate student at UBC.

Last month, their research won second prize and $4,000 at the largest international contest for pioneering psychology research, sponsored by the London-based Mind Gym, a consulting and publishing company that uses psychological research to help corporations and individuals function better.

The study, Misunderstanding the Affective Consequences of Everyday Social Interactions: The Hidden Benefits of Putting One’s Best Face Forward, will be published in the June 4, 2007 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers asked 31 couples to interact with either their romantic partner or a stranger of the opposite sex and asked them how they felt about this. They found that the volunteers significantly underestimated how good they would feel after meeting a stranger, compared to interacting with their romantic partner.

In a subsequent study, the researchers asked long-term couples to interact with theirUnhappy Couple partners as though they had never met, and found that the participants’ sense of well-being rose significantly.

Dunn says when people interact with close friends, family or romantic partners, they know they can get away with acting unpleasant, blasé or bored. But by making an effort to seem pleasant — as people typically do when interacting with strangers or acquaintances — their mood will naturally elevate.

The study also recommends meeting new people to elevate mood.

* * *

For a pdf version of the manuscript, “Misunderstanding the Affective Consequences of Everyday Social Interactions: The Hidden Benefits of Putting One’s Best Face Forward,” click here.

Posted in Emotions, Life | 4 Comments »

Fitting In and Sizing Up

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 16, 2007

model-image.jpgIn February we published a post about a recent report by the American Psychological Association (APA) examining the proliferation of sexualizing and objectifying images of girls and young women in the media. The report summarizes evidence of how those images may have a variety of negative consequences for girls as well as for others in our culture.

Bradley Bayou has made a fortune counseling women on how to look fabulous and designing clothes for fabulous-looking women. All was fine until he recently discovered that his own daughter, in an effort to squeeze into his clothes, succumed to the binging and purging of bulimia. Not so fabulous.

CBS had a story last week on Bayou’s changed perspective, now that some of the harmful effects of the fashion industry have hit home. We’ve excerpted portions of the story below.

* * *

Once called “the man for all sizes,” Bayou rose to the top by mastering the art of concealing a woman’s flaws and revealing her beauty.

But even the man for all sizes knew that skinny sells. Thin was in.

Bradley BayouBayou’s oldest daughter, Alexis Bayoud, noticed.

“I never fit into any of his sample sizes,” she says. “As a teenager and as a young adult, I thought I should be able to fit into his certain size (the tiny sample sizes) … because I was his daughter. And I just — didn’t.”

Bayou observes that the message the fashion industry “is sending to everybody is, ‘If you’re not thin, you’re not going to be happy.'”

“I wanted to be thin,” Alexis recalled. “I wanted to fit in. You know — I wanted to be beautiful. . . . I’ve always been so proud of him, and I always . . . I always kind of wanted to fit into his world.”

Bradley Bayou Fashions

When Alexis started college, she started taking diet pills — binging and purging.

To Bayou, she looked great: “All of a sudden, like, she was like she could wear my clothes. She was like model thin.”

“I was like, ‘You know I’m working out,’ ” Alexis says. “I’m eating right. And really — no — that was a lie.”

The truth came out when Alexis had a breakdown, and had to tell her father she was bulimic.

“She was literally collapsed on the floor, and was hysterical, like, out of control, and saying things like, ‘I want to die,’ ” Bayou remembers.

“It was that serious,” Alexis says. “And I think, if it had kept progressing, it would havebulimia.jpg been really bad.”

Alexis . . . is like millions of other women striving for the unattainable image of beauty created by skinny models.

“Potentially, tens of thousands of girls may develop an eating disorder because of the fact that they’re trying to live up to this,” observes Sean Patterson, president of the famous Wilhelmina Models in New York, the setting of the reality show called “The Agency.”

Patterson says the show’s scenes of models being pressured to be thin are “pretty real. . . . If we don’t find the models that fit into the clothes . . . we go out of business. We can’t exist. . . . And the talent that a designer’s looking for is going to be a size zero or a size two, at the most.”

* * *

Bayou and Patterson assert that recommendations the Council of Fashion Designers of America . . . issued this year, calling for healthy snacks and for designers to look for signs of eating disorders in their models, won’t fix the problem.

Says Patterson, “I don’t believe, necessarily, that having a guideline that says, ‘Have healthy snacks’ backstage at the show is gonna change the fact that the girls have to get on to that runway and squeeze into size zero dresses.”


Adds Bayou, “I think we have to do more, because it’s not gonna change with those guidelines.”

Bayou has written “The Science of Sexy” and now he’s telling aspiring designers it’s up to them to take the initiative and use larger models.

“Just because a small, elite group has told us that thin — skinny, forget thin — emaciated is in doesn’t mean it’s in,” he declares.

Alexis, says Bayou, “is one of many, many, many people out there — millions — who have this problem . . . where they don’t feel like they fit in . . . and that can be changed.”

* * *

[Bayou] says he’d like to see models pass a physical to prove that they’re eating properly. That’s what they started doing in Italy, but doctors in the United States say eating disorders are so complex, with so many physical and mental elements, there’s no simple, reliable way to diagnose them, at least for now.

Bayou also points out that, if the average woman is around a size 12, there’s a huge market out there that is underserved, with lots of money to be made designing clothes in larger sizes.



* * *

To read the entire story, click here. To read some related stories click on the following titles: Do thin models warp girls’ body image?; Skinny models banned from catwalk; and Looking Beyond the Runway for Answers on Underweight Models.

To view “Bones of Contention,” a well-done (17-minute) report regarding whether “size 0” models should be banned from the catwalk, click here.

Posted in Life, Marketing | 7 Comments »

Banner Ads Really Work

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 15, 2007

Banner Ads

We have written about the effects of advertising on consumers on several occasions (e.g., Industry-Funded Research – Part II; The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain; Another Reason Not To Watch Drug Commercials). A new study by Xiang Fang of Oklahoma State University, Surendra Singh of the University of Kansas and Rohini Ahluwalia of the University of Minnesota finds that even when only momentarily seen, banner ads tend to make one more favorable towards the advertised item, particularly when there are repeated exposures to the banner ad. The study appears in the Journal of Consumer Research, and we have excerpted a synopsis by the United Press International.

* * *

A U.S. study finds even incidental exposure to advertising may have a positive impact on consumer attitudes.

The researchers noted the majority of advertising exposure occurs while the audience’s attention is focused elsewhere, such as when flipping through a magazine or browsing a Web site. However, the new study revises existing theories of exposure advertising, specifically repeated views of Web-based banner ads.

“Effects of mere exposure are expected to grow in a marketplace where consumers’Bush Survey attention is often focused elsewhere,” write Xiang Fang of Oklahoma State University, Surendra Singh of the University of Kansas and Rohini Ahluwalia of the University of Minnesota.

“Regardless of measured click-through rates, banner ads may still create a favorable attitude toward the ad due to repeated exposure,” they wrote.

“Our research could have important theoretical and practical implications.

“Theoretically, it enhances our understanding of the process underlying the mere exposure effect,” the authors said. “Practically, it provides some useful guidelines for advertisers to develop more accurate measures of banner ad effectiveness.”

* * *

The “mere exposure effect” refers to a set of the extremely interesting studies by Robert Zajonc and his co-authors in the late 1960s and ’70s. As the late Ziva Kunda summarized the basic findings, “the mere repeated exposure to an ideograph-examplegif.gifobject suffices to increase one’s liking for it.” Subjects in the experiments (who did not speak or write Japanese) were shown Japanese ideographs. Some subjects were exposed to the images a few times, while others were shown them numerous times. When later shown cards one at a time and asked to identify their favorites, the subjects had strong preferences for those that they had seen many times. The influence was situational in the sense that subjects were wholly unaware of the this effect and, as usual, attributed their preferences to dispositional factors — offering attribute-oriented reasons and personal tastes as their explanation. It should be no surprise that marketers would quickly find ways to exploit that tendency — as they have.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Emotions, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

The Situation in New Orleans

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 14, 2007

katrina_survivors.jpgWhen Katrina’s flood waters had barely ebbed, President Bush was interviewed by ABC’s Diane Sawyer (on video below). In that interview, the President confidently reassured his audience about the future of New Orleans and about the lives of those who had been devastated by the storm. In the short run, Bush explained, “there is a lot help coming.” In the longer run, he added, there is “[n]o doubt in my mind . . . that New Orleans is going to rise up again as a great city. . . . This is a compassionate nation. It’s got a lot of resources at its disposal. And we’re going to help those people.” His closing remarks included this: “I just want the people of New Orleans to know that after we’ve rescued them, and stabilized the situation, there will be plans in place to help this great city to get back on its feet.”

At the time, the Nation’s focus was on the devastation and suffering. Furthermore, there was a strong dissonance created by the images and stories coming out of New Orleans that this was all about something more than just wind, water, and gravity. The faces of the most desperate – and there were many of them – seemed mostly poor and black.

katrina_survivors2.jpgWas this “racism” or something else? Could it be that the disappointing short-term response of FEMA (among other governmental institutions — federal, state, and local) or the longer-term policies that created this situation somehow revealed a less-than-colorblind system of policies and policymakers?

Could it be, as Kanye West asserted in his controversial and widely aired ad-lib, that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”?

It was with such images, dissonance, and accusations in the air that President Bush offered these comforting assurances during his speech from Jackson Square some weeks after the storm landed:

In the aftermath, we have seen fellow citizens left stunned and uprooted, searching for loved ones, and grieving for the dead and looking for meaning in a tragedy that seems so blind and random. We have also witnessed the kind of desperation no citizen of this great and generous nation should ever have to know — fellow Americans calling out for food and water, vulnerable people leftbush-at-jackson-square-september-16.jpg at the mercy of criminals who had no mercy, and the bodies of the dead lying uncovered and untended in the street.

* * *

[V]ictims of the hurricane and the flood . . . . need to know that our whole nation cares about you, and in the journey ahead you’re not alone. . . . And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.

* * *

Our . . . commitment is this: When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.

President Bush’s speech was well received. He said things that we all apparently wanted to hear. That was then, when suffering was raw and the sense that many innocent people had been victimized was widely shared. That was then, when many Americans were acknowledging the possibility that race — perhaps racism — played a causal force in that victimization. That was then, when President Bush’s vulnerabilities were just becoming significant.

This is now. Today, most of the devastation remains, but its cognitive and affective significance is much reduced. Our limited attention is focused elsewhere. The size of the challenge has only come to seem greater with time, perhaps leaving us even less willing to look at it closely. The possibility that “race” matters in this country has slipped back into comfortable (for many) realm of unspeakable taboo. And President Bush’s problems have only been amplified. With that, our attention, our sympathy, our resources, and our commitments have all, like Katrina’s waters themselves, largely evaporated.

So what has happened and what is now happening in New Orleans since the Katrina story lost its legs? That is the question that the Kaiser Family Foundation hoped to begin to answer in their recent study and report, Giving Voice to the People of New Orleans. According to the Report,

One year after Hurricane Katrina . . . , the Kaiser Family Foundation sent a team to the New Orleans area to conduct a comprehensive in-person survey. The aim of the project: to offer residents and the reconstruction effort a window into the changing shape and changing needs of the area’s population, and to give people a channel to express their views of the rebuilding process as it moves forward. Another critical purpose of this and all of Kaiser’s work in New Orleans is to help keep the facts about the challenges still present in the city and the surrounding region before the nation.

The 101-page report is too long and detailed to summarize well here. Instead, we have pasted below several of the Report’s more telling tables.



From such findings, the study’s authors concluded that

the survey points to the immense, immediate needs of the area’s population, particularly African Americans living in the city and particularly in the area of access to quality health care. As city and regional planners look to the best ways to provide for long-term success in the area of service delivery, it is worth highlighting the fact that many needs are pressing in the nearer term as well.



“This is a compassionate nation. It’s got a lot of resources at its disposal. And we’re going to help those people.”  “We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.”  (To review the entire Kaiser Family Foundation Report, click here.)

Posted in Emotions, Law, Life, Public Policy | 2 Comments »

Applied Quirkology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 12, 2007

QuirkologyRichard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, UK, and author of a new book “Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives,” has a guest article in New Scientist on “quirkology,” which he defines as “the use of scientific methods to study quirky human behaviour, or quirky methods to probe weightier topics.” Wiseman’s article describes his eight favorite studies that relate to quirkology. One of those is by Stanley Milgram, whom we have regularly discussed on The Situationist, and another is by fellow Situationist John Bargh. We have excerpted those two portions of Wiseman’s article below.

* * *

Take a letter US psychologist Stanley Milgram is probably best known for his 1960s experiment at Yale University showing people’s willingness to follow orders from someone in authority – even to the extent of giving seemingly lethal electric shocks to innocent victims [most recently discussed on The Situationist by Jon Hanson and Michael McCann in their post, “The Situation of a ‘Volunteer’ Army“]. Less celebrated is the ingenious method he devised in the mid-1960s for gauging public opinion without conducting a formal poll. Milgram and his research assistants “accidentally” dropped 300 stamped and addressed envelopes in phone boxes, shops and on pavements all over New Haven, Connecticut. The addresses were identical apart from the first line, which read either “Medical Research Associates”, “Friends of the Nazi Party” or “Friends of the Communist Party”. Milgram predicted that people’s likelihood of picking up and posting the envelopes would depend on how much they were in sympathy with the values implied by the recipient. The people of New Haven turned out to have little taste for extreme politicalStanley Milgram views: they returned about 70 per cent of the envelopes for the Medical Research Associates, compared with 25 per cent for either of the Party Friends. The technique was not without problems – such as helpful passers-by frequently spotting an envelope being dropped and handing it back to the researcher – so Milgram experimented with different methods. Once he hired a light aircraft to drop envelopes over Worcester, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, many of the envelopes ended up on rooftops, and others put the plane in danger when they were swept into the ailerons of its wings. Despite such setbacks, the envelope-dropping method has stood the test of time and is still employed by social psychologists to ascertain public opinion. Recent drops have examined attitudes to abortion, President Clinton’s impeachment and Arab-Israeli relations. In 1999, school student Lucas Hanft dropped 1600 letters in Manhattan and Nassau County, addressed to fictitious organisations that supported or opposed gay marriage. Hanft discovered city inhabitants were more liberal than suburbanites but was also threatened with arrest for littering.

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The power of positive thinking Psychologists and neuroscientists are fascinated by the power of the subconscious over our conscious thoughts and behaviours, but it is unclear just how strong these effects are, and whether, as the self-help books claim, they can be harnessed in any useful way. Two studies suggest that the subconscious can indeed have some profound effects. In 1998 psychologists Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, asked half a group of volunteers to carry out a simple mental exercise that involved imagining the mindset of a typical university professor. The other half imagined a football hooligan. All then had to answer some general-knowledge questions. The professor group got 60 per cent of their questions right, while the hooligan group got only 46 per cent. John BarghFocusing on the body rather than the mind, John Bargh and his colleagues at New York University asked their volunteers to do a mental task involving words relating to old age, such as “wrinkled”, “grey” and “bingo” (see Pigeonholed). A second group were shown words unrelated to old age. The researchers then said the experiment was over and secretly recorded the time each participant took to walk down the long hallway to the exit. Those with old age on their mind took significantly longer to walk down the corridor. So it seems that a just a few moments’ thinking time can prime you to perform either better or worse than normal at both mental and physical tasks. Maybe some of those self-help gurus are onto something.

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To read all of Wiseman’s article, click here. To watch a demonstration of Quirkology, check out the Youtube video below:

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book, Choice Myth, Life, Social Psychology, Video | 1 Comment »

Industry-Funded Research – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 11, 2007


In April, we posted excerpts from an Los Angeles Times article about James Enstrom (at U.C.L.A.) and the relationship of his research to tobacco-industry funding. Enstrom’s research, and the controversy surrounding it, is current.

But there there is nothing new about the role of industry (and, particularly, the tobacco industry) in influencing, among other variables, what academics study, how they study it, who does the studying, if and where the research is published, and how that published research is then publicized. (For a collection of postings on those topics, click here.)

Below we have pasted an essay, “Tracing the Cigarette’s Path from Sexy to Deadly,” written by Howard Markel, M.D. for The New York Times on March 20, 2007. It provides a cursory overview of the tobacco industry’s manipulations of how the world’s deadliest (and least regulated) product was perceived in the 20th Century.

* * *

For many Americans, the tobacco industry’s disingenuousness became a matter of public record during a Congressional hearing on April 14, 1994. There, under the withering glare of Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, appeared the chief executives of the seven largest American tobacco companies.

Each executive raised his right hand and solemnly swore to tell the whole truth about his business. In sequential testimony, each one stated that he did not believe tobacco was a health risk and that his company had taken no steps to manipulate the levels of nicotine in its cigarettes.

Thirty years after the famous surgeon general’s report declaring cigarette smoking a health hazard, the tobacco executives, it seemed, were among the few who believed otherwise.

brandt-cigarette-century.jpgBut it was not always that way. Allan M. Brandt, a medical historian at Harvard, insists that recognizing the dangers of cigarettes resulted from an intellectual process that took the better part of the 20th century. He describes this fascinating story in his new book, “The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America” (Basic Books).

In contrast to the symbol of death and disease it is today, from the early 1900s to the 1960s the cigarette was a cultural icon of sophistication, glamour and sexual allure — a highly prized commodity for one out of two Americans.

Many advertising campaigns from the 1930s through the 1950s extolled the healthy virtues of cigarettes. Full-color magazine ads depicted kindly doctors clad in white coats proudly lighting up or puffing away, with slogans like “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”

Early in the 20th century, opposition to cigarettes took a moralmore-doctors-smoke-camels.jpg rather than a health-conscious tone, especially for women who wanted to smoke, although even then many doctors were concerned that smoking was a health risk.

The 1930s were a period when many Americans began smoking and the most significant health effects had not yet developed. . . .

The years after World War II, however, were a time of major breakthroughs in epidemiological thought. In 1947, Richard Doll and A. Bradford Hill of the British Medical Research Council created a sophisticated statistical technique to document the association between rising rates of lung cancer and increasing numbers of smokers.

The prominent surgeon Evarts A. Graham and a medical student, Ernst L. Wynder, published a landmark article in 1950 comparing the incidence of lung cancer in their nonsmoking and smoking patients at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. They concluded that “cigarette smoking, over a long period, is at least one important factor in the striking increase in bronchogenic cancer.”

Predictably, the tobacco companies — and their expert surrogates — derided these and other studies as mere statistical arguments or anecdotes rather than definitions of causality.

Dr. Brandt, who has exhaustively combed through the tobacco companies’ internal memorandums and research documents, amply demonstrates that Big Tobacco understood many of the health risks of their products long before the 1964 surgeon general’s report.

He also describes the concerted disinformation campaigns these companies waged for more than half a century — simultaneously obfuscating scientific evidence and spreading the belief that since everyone knew cigarettes were dangerous at some level, smoking was essentially an issue of personal choice and responsibility rather than a corporate one.

In the 1980s, scientists established the revolutionary concept that nicotine is extremely addictive. The tobacco companies publicly rejected such claims, even as they took advantage of cigarettes’ addictive potential by routinely spiking them with extra nicotine to make it harder to quit smoking. And their marketing memorandums document advertising campaigns aimed at youngsters to hook whole new generations of smokers.

In 2004, Dr. Brandt was recruited by the Department of Justice to serve as its star expert witness in the federal racketeering case against Big Tobacco and to counter the gaggle of witnesses recruited by the industry. According to their own testimony, most of the 29 historians testifying on behalf of Big Tobacco did not even consult the industry’s internal research or communications. Instead, these experts focused primarily on a small group of skeptics of the dangers of cigarettes during the 1950s, many of whom had or would eventually have ties to the tobacco industry.

Dr. Allan Brandt“I was appalled by what the tobacco expert witnesses had written,” Dr. Brandt said in a recent interview. “By asking narrow questions and responding to them with narrow research, they provided precisely the cover the industry sought.”

Apparently, the judge, Gladys Kessler of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, agreed. Last August, she concluded that the tobacco industry had engaged in a 40-year conspiracy to defraud smokers about tobacco’s health dangers. Her opinion cited Dr. Brandt’s testimony more than 100 times.

Dr. Brandt acknowledges that there are pitfalls in combining scholarship with battle against the deadly pandemic of cigarette smoking, but he says he sees little alternative.

“If one of us occasionally crosses the boundary between analysis and advocacy, so be it,” he said. “The stakes are high, and there is much work to be done.”

* * *

To watch Harvard’s Allan Brandt fascinating, one-hour lecture on his book, view the video below.

Posted in Deep Capture, Food and Drug Law, History, Marketing, Public Policy | 2 Comments »

The Situation of a “Volunteer” Army

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on May 10, 2007


In March, Situationist Contributor Phil Zimbardo posted (as part of a larger series on the situational sources of evil) on some of the basic lessons of the human-behavior studies, including Milgram’s famous obedience experiments. According to Zimbardo,

Milgram crafted his research paradigm to find out what strategies can seduce ordinary citizens to engage in apparently harmful behavior. Many of these methods have parallels to compliance strategies used by “influence professionals” in real-world settings, such as salespeople, cult and military recruiters, media advertisers, and others.

Zimbardo then included the following list of ten strategies:


Prearranging some form of contractual obligation, verbal or written, to control the individual’s behavior in pseudo-legal fashion. In Milgram’s obedience study, subjects publicly agreed to accept the tasks and the procedures.


Giving participants meaningful roles to play — “teacher,” “learner” — that carry with them previously learned positive values and automatically activate response scripts.


Presenting basic rules to be followed that seem to make sense before their actual use but can then be used arbitrarily and impersonally to justify mindless compliance. The authorities will change the rules as necessary but will insist that rules are rules and must be followed (as the researcher in the lab coat did in Milgram’s experiment).


Altering the semantics of the act, the actor, and the action — replacing unpleasant reality with desirable rhetoric, gilding the frame so that the real picture is disguised: from “hurting victims” to “helping the experimenter.” We can see the same semantic framing at work in advertising, where, for example, bad-tasting mouthwash is framed as good for you because it kills germs and tastes like medicine.


Creating opportunities for the diffusion of responsibility or abdication of responsibility for negative outcomes, such that the one who acts won’t be held liable. In Milgram’s experiment, the authority figure, when questioned by a teacher, said he would take responsibility for anything that happened to the learner.


Starting the path toward the ultimate evil act with a small, seemingly insignificant first step, the easy “foot in the door” that swings open subsequent greater compliance pressures. In the obedience study, the initial shock was only a mild 15 volts. This is also the operative principle in turning good kids into drug addicts with that first little hit or sniff.


Having successively increasing steps on the pathway that are gradual, so that they are hardly noticeably different from one’s most recent prior action. “Just a little bit more.”


Gradually changing the nature of the authority figure from initially “just” and reasonable to “unjust” and demanding, even irrational. This tactic elicits initial compliance and later confusion, since we expect consistency from authorities and friends. Not acknowledging that this transformation has occurred leads to mindless obedience. And it is part of many date rape scenarios and a reason why abused women stay with their abusing spouses.


Making the exit costs high and making the process of exiting difficult; allowing verbal dissent, which makes people feel better about themselves, while insisting on behavioral compliance.


Offering a “big lie” to justify the use of any means to achieve the seemingly desirable, essential goal. (In Milgram’s research the justification was that science will help people improve their memory by judicious use of reward and punishment.) In social psychology experiments, this is known as the “cover story”; it is a cover-up for the procedures that follow, which do not make sense on their own. The real-world equivalent is an ideology. Most nations rely on an ideology, typically “threats to national security,” before going to war or suppressing political opposition. When citizens fear that their national security is being threatened, they become willing to surrender their basic freedoms in exchange. Erich Fromm’s classic analysis in Escape from Freedom made us aware of this trade-off, which Hitler and other dictators have long used to gain and maintain power.

The June issue of The Atlantic contains a terrific article, “The Army We Have,” by Brian Mockenhaupt. It opens with this teaser: “To fight today’s wars with an all-volunteer force,The Atlantic June 2007 Issue the U.S. Army needs more quick-thinking, strong, highly disciplined soldiers. But creating warriors out of the softest, least-willing populace in generations has required sweeping changes in basic training.”

In effect, Mockenhaupt’s article is quite similar to the human-behavior experiments. It is a study on how the American military transforms “soft” civilians who have “volunteered” for duty into killing machines provides and therefore provides an implicit test of Zimbardo’s thesis. Reading Mockenhaupt’s piece, we were struck by the extent to which that thesis is confirmed: the volunteer army experiment is a yet another real-world rendition of Milgram’s obedience studies.

Mockenhaupt writes:

Turning civilians into soldiers and teaching them to kill has always been difficult work, but these new challenges and demands have made it harder still, so the Army has made sweeping changes in the basic combat training that every recruit must go through. “

The first trick, of course, is to enlist “volunteers.” The word “volunteer,” itself invokes images of individuals stepping forward to offer themselves toward the cause. One might even imagine a line of would-be soldiers hoping to get in — trying to serve their country — while military officials select only those who are healthy, strong, tough, smart, and otherwise possessing the right stuff or having what it takes.

No doubt the wagon-circling wake of 9/11, the true volunteer was not uncommon. Today, with wagons on fire, the mission in flux and in doubt, the dangers evident, and patriotic fervor dimmed, lower standards and increased recruitment efforts is now the norm.Military Recruiter According to Mockenhaupt,

“the Army has in recent years added thousands of recruiters, more than doubled certain elistment bonuses to $40,000 and granted more enlistment waivers for medical problems, past drug and alcohol abuse, and criminal records. . . . The Army has doubled its admittance of recruits who score between the 15th and 30th percentiles on the Army aptitude test . . . .

* * *

For every potential soldier a recruiter sends to training, he’ll talk to 150 to 250 people. He’ll find them by making hundreds of cold calls, visiting high schools, and walking through malls. Of these contacts, the recruiter will conduct 20 face-to-face interviews. Four of those applicants will take the Army aptitude test and physical exam. Just over half will score in the top half on the aptitude test. Fewer than half will pass the physical. So by the time recruits make it to training, the Army is keen to keep them there.

So, how to keep them? The “overwhelming need for more solders puts limits on how tough its training can be. . . . The Army’s answer . . . for now . . . is to offer its recruits a less hostile environment that won’t scare off as many people or make them quit: less shouting, less running, more encouragement, more understanding.”

That’s all fine. Need to keep the trainees “volunteering” and staying, but the main problem remains: how does the military turn a bunch of kids who, as Colonel Keven Shwedo, the director of operations for the Army’s Accessions Command puts it, have grown up in a world of soccer ethics in which you “get a trophy, whether or not you everwent to practice or ever won a game” — how to turn that bunch into “THE FINEST SOLDIERS THE WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN.”

That’s where the situation comes in. No more individualistic, dispositionist, me-first egoism so common in our culture. Joining the military transforms one’s schemas. Or, as Mockenhaupt makes the point:

Joining the military shocks the system. And the further society drifts from the ideals of the Army—shared hardship, individual sacrifice for the collective good, institutionalized adherence to notions of integrity, loyalty, and duty—the more alien the world of military training becomes. Recruits on their first day shuffle through a line—everything from now on will involve lines—and into the barber shop, where they sit in a chair for about two minutes and rise without hair. It’s the quintessential shedding of civilian identity: Now they look like everyone else. Soon they’ll be dressed alike. And once they learn the jargon and lingo, they’ll sound alike, too. There are no more choices, only following. They’ll live so close together—showering, eating, and sleeping next to each other—that they’ll soon forget what privacy means. They’ll be given a weapon, and they’ll marvel at the power they hold. They’ll stab dummies with bayonets and subdue each other in hand-to-hand combat. They’ll slowly unlearn one of society’s cherished mantras: Sometimes, they’ll come to understand, violence is the answer.

The rituals of deindividuation and disconnection to social and cultural norms are ubiquitous. Mockenhaupt describes, for instance, a rite of passage for young recruits (“frowned upon at higher levels,” but still practiced at lower levels) known as the the “shark attack.” The rite, according to many, is “a key step in snapping bonds to the civilian world. “If we go easy on them here, it would be catastrophic over there,” explains one basic-training commander. “They expect these guys to be hard on them, and we owe it to them.”

At the battalion barracks, where the recruits will live for the next three and a half months, a dozen drill sergeants station themselves at intervals along the wide walkway that runs from the road to the company area. They pace and wait. Three trucks pull up and disgorge the recruits. The chaos starts at once. “Let’s go! Let’s go! Get off the bus! Get your butt over there, private! Hurry up, you!” The 220 recruits scramble, frantic, knocking into each other,Marine Boot Camp reaching for bags from a pile dumped beside the road. They sprint up the walkway, some with bags, others without. Then they form up in three rows, facing a long cement stairway that leads up to the company formation area. They stand at attention, chests heaving, sucking down air in ragged gasps. Some tremble. Their eyes dart. Many faces show terror. The drill sergeants stalk up and down the lines, their faces fixed in hard masks. They stop behind recruits, inches from their ears, and yell. Every command given today will be many decibels too loud. “What is wrong with you? Why are you moving? Answer me! Why? Don’t think, private! Why are you moving? Is it because you can’t stand still?” “No, Drill Sergeant,” the recruit says, his voice soft and breaking. “Then why are you moving? Don’t frigging move!”

Most of the recruits clutch duffel bags to their chests, straining from the effort. Inch by inch, the bags drop lower. “Hold the bag up! Hold it up! Get it up, you turd!”

And so it goes. Once the recruits broken into platoons, the drill sergeant steps forward to offer an initial lesson in thunderous voice: “Discipline is the key to success here! Discipline is doing what you are told, when you are told, no questions! Do you understand?”

But how does the military lead its recruits to “volunteer” to be good soldiers. According to Mockenhaupt, the “core methods are simple”:

You must look like everyone else. You must act like everyone else. You must perform like everyone else. If you don’t, you will be punished. Or worse, the group will suffer for your mistakes. To instill this obedience, the Army taps into young people’s basic desire for acceptance, and their abhorrence at being singled out for punishment or critique.

The threat of collective punishment for individual infractions is one of the most powerful motivators in military training. I learned this lesson early, and repeatedly, in my own basic training. One night as we slept, just a few days into our training, two recruits left the barracks and walked toward town, looking for a convenience store. A drill sergeant driving home picked them up a short distance from the barracks. We were awakened, told what had happened, and told we would be dealt with later. We fell back asleep knowing the morning would bring pain.

* * *

“So you want to play games?” one of our drill sergeants said. “OK, we will play games.” He ordered us to squat and hold out our arms. The two recruits stood in front of the formation, watching us and looking sheepish. “Don’t be mad at me; be mad at your friends standing up here,” the drill sergeant said. He spoke in quick, clipped sentences, through a heavy Puerto Rican accent. “I am not doing this to you—they are doing this to you. Are you tired? Do your legs hurt? You can look toward the sky and say, ‘God, why is this happening to me?’”

* * *

The other platoons filed past, stealing glances, on their way to breakfast. We groaned and gritted our teeth. Sweat soaked our clothes. “I want you to be pissed at your friends. They did this to you. They don’t want to be part of the team,” the drill sergeant barked. “Now you are in Afghanistan. Twenty of you are dead inside your security perimeter. Another 20 of you are prisoners of Osama bin Laden, because two soldiers who were supposed to be on guard duty decided they wanted to go get something to eat.” The morning dragged on like that, for what seemed a very long time.

To maintain a volunteer army, then, attributions must be carefully framed, ideologies must be taught, and consent must be manufactured. As the Army is proud of pointing General John Schofieldout, it was Army Major General John Schofield (1831-1906) who said (in a speech to West Point cadets), that “the discipline which makes the Soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. . . . It is possible to impart instruction and to give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the Soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and desire to disobey.”

Milgram, Zimbardo and others have shown us that whether or not we are inclined to obey is not a good measure of whether or not we should. Similarly, whether or not we perceived ourselves to have moved freely is not a good measure of whether or not we did. Whatever one thinks about this war and the “volunteers” who bravely risk their lives to fight in it, no one should assume that because some of our best and brightest have “chosen” to serve that the cause is necessarily a good one. And our harsh judgments toward those seeming bad-apple soldiers linked to Abu Ghraib and the like should be tempered by an understanding of the situation — including the situational forces and systems that led to their being transformed from civilians into soldiers.

Posted in Choice Myth, Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 1 Comment »

Neuroscience and the Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 9, 2007


Last month, Dean Mobbs, Hakwan Lau, Owen Jones & Christopher Frith (from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL) published a thoughtful article in Plos Biology entitled “Law, Responsibility, and the Brain.” The article summarizes some of the recent discoveries of neuroscience that may have “implications for the way government institutions, including education and legal systems, operate.”

Although the article is itself quite accessible both in substance and length, we are pasting a helpful overview provided by Moheb Costandi, the sole blogger behind Neurophilosophy:

The authors . . . briefly review how damage to various parts of the frontal or temporal lobe is correlated with anti-social behaviour patterns. To summarize, frontal lobe damage is now generally assumed to result in “acquired sociopathy” – it is associated with increased aggression or violence . . . . On the other hand, damage to the amygdala, a structure found on the medial surface of the temporal lobe, is associated with an impaired ability to recognize emotions in others, which often leads to impaired social and moral reasoning.

The authors of the essay note that neuroimaging studies suggest a link between brain damage and some forms of criminal behaviour, and discuss the legal implications of these findings. They are skeptical of the use of neuroimaging data in the courtroom, and suggest that such “evidence” will only be reliable after research provides us with a better understanding of the neural correlates of criminality. They believe that advances in our understanding of brain function will eventually change our views of responsibility, free will and culpability, and could have a major impact on how the American and British legal systems treat and punish criminals.

And, unlike most considerations of this topic, which have focused on the criminal, they emphasize that neuroscience also provides a possibility of gaining insight into the cognitive processes of judges and jurors, and of learning more about the limitations of eyewitness testimonies.

Popular Science 7/1939 from

To read the entire article, click here. For a related Situationist post on “Law & the Brain,” click here.

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

The Situation of Our Food – Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 8, 2007

WWII posterThis three-part series is based on Michael Pollan’s recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Part I describe the puzzling fact that a hyper-processed and heavily packaged hostess Twinkie is cheaper than a bundle of “yanked from the soil” carrots. Part II helped to solve that puzzle by summarizing the role of the “farm bill” on prices and incentives — showing how “market outcomes” are contingent on the seemingly irrelevant but highly determinative regulatory backdrop — and their ill-health consequences on the American populace.

This Part (excerpting the last portion of Pollan’s article) looks at the still-broader untoward effects of such laws and briefly considers what is being, and might still be, done in response.

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Given all [its harmful effects], you would think the farm-bill debate would engage the nation’s political passions every five years, but that hasn’t been the case. If the quintennial antidrama of the “farm bill debate” holds true to form this year, a handful of farm-state legislators will thrash out the mind-numbing details behind closed doors, with virtually nobody else, either in Congress or in the media, paying much attention. Why? Because most of us assume that, true to its name, the farm bill is about “farming,” an increasingly quaint activity that involves no one we know and in which few of us think we have a stake. This leaves our own representatives free to ignore the farm bill, to treat it as a parochial piece of legislation affecting a handful of their Midwestern colleagues. Since we aren’t paying attention, they pay no political price for trading, or even selling, their farm-bill votes. The fact that the bill is deeply encrusted with incomprehensible jargon and prehensile programs dating back to the 1930s makes it almost impossible for the average legislator to understand the bill should he or she try to, much less the average citizen. It’s doubtful this is an accident.

But there are signs this year will be different. The public-health community has come to recognize it can’t hope to address obesity and diabetes without addressing the farm bill. The environmental community recognizes that as long as we have a farm bill that promotes chemical and feedlot agriculture, clean water will remain a pipe dream. The development community has woken up to the fact that global poverty can’t be fought without confronting the ways the farm bill depresses world crop prices. They got a boost from a 2004 ruling by the World Trade Organization that U.S. cotton subsidies are illegal; most observers think that challenges to similar subsidies for corn, soy, wheat or rice would also prevail.


And then there are the eaters, people like you and me, increasingly concerned, if not restive, about the quality of the food on offer in America. A grass-roots social movement is gathering around food issues today, and while it is still somewhat inchoate, the manifestations are everywhere: in local efforts to get vending machines out of the schools and to improve school lunch; in local campaigns to fight feedlots and to force food companies to better the lives of animals in agriculture; in the spectacular growth of the market for organic food and the revival of local food systems. In great and growing numbers, people are voting with their forks for a different sort of food system. But as powerful as the food consumer is — it was that consumer, after all, who built a $15 billion organic-food industry and more than doubled the number of farmer’s markets in the last few years — voting with our forks can advance reform only so far. It can’t, for example, change the fact that the system is rigged to make the most unhealthful calories in the marketplace the only ones the poor can afford. To change that, people will have to vote with their votes as well — which is to say, they will have to wade into the muddy political waters of agricultural policy.

Doing so starts with the recognition that the “farm bill” is a misnomer; in truth, it is a food bill and so needs to be rewritten with the interests of eaters placed first. Yes, there are eaters who think it in their interest that food just be as cheap as possible, no matter how poor the quality. But there are many more who recognize the real cost of artificially cheap food — to their health, to the land, to the animals, to the public purse. At a minimum, theseTemescal Farmers’ Market, Oakland eaters want a bill that aligns agricultural policy with our public-health and environmental values, one with incentives to produce food cleanly, sustainably and humanely. Eaters want a bill that makes the most healthful calories in the supermarket competitive with the least healthful ones. Eaters want a bill that feeds schoolchildren fresh food from local farms rather than processed surplus commodities from far away. Enlightened eaters also recognize their dependence on farmers, which is why they would support a bill that guarantees the people who raise our food not subsidies but fair prices. Why? Because they prefer to live in a country that can still produce its own food and doesn’t hurt the world’s farmers by dumping its surplus crops on their markets.

The devil is in the details, no doubt. Simply eliminating support for farmers won’t solve these problems; overproduction has afflicted agriculture since long before modern subsidies. It will take some imaginative policy making to figure out how to encourage farmers to focus on taking care of the land rather than all-out production, on growing real food for eaters rather than industrial raw materials for food processors and on rebuilding local food economies, which the current farm bill hobbles. But the guiding principle behind an eater’s farm bill could not be more straightforward: it’s one that changes the rules of the game so as to promote the quality of our food (and farming) over and above its quantity.

Such changes are radical only by the standards of past farm bills, which have faithfully reflected the priorities of the agribusiness interests that wrote them. One of these years, the eaters of America are going to demand a place at the table, and we will have the political debate over food policy we need and deserve. This could prove to be that year: the year when the farm bill became a food bill, and the eaters at last had their say.

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Situationist eaters of the world, UNITE!

The following video provides an illuminating (56-minute) panel discussion – “Fast Food World: Perils and Promises of the Global Food Chain” — sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. The panelists, who were asked to assess the impact of globalization on food production and consumption, include Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Vandava Shiva, and Carlo Petrini.

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

Red Sox Magic

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on May 6, 2007

Red Sox FansBack in February, fellow Situationist Contributor Emily Pronin wrote a great post about her recent research with Daniel Wegner, Sylvia Rodriguez, and Kimberly McCarthy on how people sometimes claim magical powers—and thus personal responsibility—for events that they couldn’t possibly have controlled. This phenomenon is quite apparent in sports fandom. We can be sure, for instance, that on last Thursday night countless Dallas Mavericks’ fans were wishing and voodooing their team to a playoff victory against the underdog Golden State Warriors (unfortunately for them, we know some wishes don’t come true).

In her article “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?,” Pronin described how, although most people do not believe that their thoughts alone can cause external events, they also, in certain situations, claim responsibility for events that they had only willed to occur. As to why we believe in the power of situational magic, Pronin wrote:

Belief in magic gives us hope, causal explanations, and the illusion of control – all of which we tend to crave – at times when any of those things might be hard to come by. Fears can be assuaged, threats can be tamed, stress can be eased, physical constraints can be transcended, and smoldering embers of hope can be rekindled when magic is possible.

Breaking the CursePronin’s findings certainly hit close to home for Boston Red Sox fans (a.k.a. Red Sox Nation), of which at least two Situationists are full-fledged members. Just go back to 2004, when the Sox, by winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, reversed what many thought was an 86-year “curse” (resulting, of course, from the team selling the contractual rights to Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920). Many commentators attributed the victory in part to the “faith” of Sox fans–their faith in the team, their wishing, their believing–it all mattered in helping to break the curse.

And on one level, there may be some truth to the idea that passionate fans in a ballpark, especially one as close to the field and as always sold out as Fenway Park, can make a difference in the outcomes of games. That’s because these fans likely raise the stress level the-twelth-man.jpgof the opposing team’s players, perhaps through good natured poking; perhaps through obscenity-laced tirades. Their encouragement might also help the home team’s players do well — perhaps by creating expectations of success.

In football, such effects are called “The 12th Man,” which might be defined as the capacity of fans collectively to enhance the playing situation of the home team and to diminish that of the opposing team. To the extent the 12th Man can matter, it can also benefit the Sox away from Fenway, as many diehard Sox fans travel to cheer their team in other ballparks. When there, they presumably mute the opposing team’s 12th Man. (However, as the video below — taken by a Red Sox fan — suggests, the presence of Red Sox fans at Yankee Stadium may actually stoke the the ugly groupist passions of the Yankees’ 12th.)

But what about fans who merely wish? Does wishing make a difference? And if not, why would they still wish? Pronin’s research, again, indicates that wishing satisfies our urge for control at those times when actual control over outcomes we care about is in short supply.

This phenomenon was certainly apparent in the buildup to Red Sox victory in 2004. Fenway ParkConsider the classic thread “Win it For” on the popular Red Sox fan messageboard Sons of Sam Horn (also known as “SoSH,” of which principal owner John Henry and ace pitcher Curt Schilling are members). The thread was started by high school teacher and diehard Sox fan Shaun Kelly right before Game 7 of the Sox-Yankees American League Championship Series. By urging fellow fans to dedicate the game to “the special people in their lives who had loved the team through thick and thin,” Kelly hoped that he would create some “mojo” for the Sox. He concluded his message with the following:

Most of all, win it for James Lawrence Kelly, 1913-1986. This one’s for you, Daddy. You always told me that loyalty and perseverance go hand in hand. Thanks for sharing the best part of you with me.

Kelly’s comments, and particularly his endearing conclusion, prompted a massive // of similar comments from other members of Red Sox Nation:

Win it for my Grandfather (1917-2004) who never got to see the Red Sox win it all but always believed. And for my Dad who watches each and every game wishing his Dad was there to watch with him.

Win it for my boss, a dear friend who lost his dad unexpectedly in March of this year. More than once this season, I’ve seen him glance at the phone after a game, half-expecting his father to call to commiserate, rejoice, or just shoot the breeze — I’ve also seen the sadness in his eyes as he realizes that the call isn’t coming. Win it for his dad, a lifelong fan who never had the opportunity to witness his beloved team taking it all.

Win it for my 10-year-old son Charlie who fell asleep listening to Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS assuming the Sox would win. When he awakened the next morning, he asked me, eagerly, “Did we win, Dad?” When I told him, gently, No, we did not win, his anguished moan startled me. I knew I had raised him as a Red Sox fan and I began to question whether that was a good thing.

The “Win it For” thread would eventually become a book, “Win it For . . . : What a World Championship Means to a Generation of Red Sox fans.” It wasn’t alone in representing the spirit of Red Sox Nation. Many other books and videos were published celebrating Sox fans as much as Sox players. Of course, there is the 2005 love story, Fever Pitch, in which Jimmy Fallon’s character plays a devout Red Sox fan(atic) who must learn to temper his life-long zeal in order to maintain his relationship with Drew Barrymore’s character. Then there was the video “Faith Rewarded” and the book “Faithful,” which was co-authored by horror writer and diehard Sox fan Stephen King. King had examined Red Sox foxlore earlier in his career, as in 2000 he published “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” a novel about a young girl lost in the woods of Maine finding solace and, dare we say it, “faith,” in the pitching of then Sox closer Tom Gordon. We now learn through Michael Fleming of Variety Magazine that the “faith” of Red Sox fans will be featured in an upcoming HBO miniseries based on King’s book. We apparently can’t get enough of these stories.

So maybe there is something magical about the Sox. Or at least something profitable.

David Ortiz Wins Game

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