The Situationist

Archive for May, 2007

Justice Thomas and the Conservative Hypocrisy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 4, 2007

supreme-discomfort.jpgKevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, both journalists with The Washington Post, are on tour with their new biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas. The book’s webiste includes this brief overview :

Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher . . . crafted a haunting portrait of an isolated and bitter man, savagely reviled by much of the black community, not entirely comfortable in white society, internally wounded by his passage from a broken family and rural poverty in Georgia to elite educational institutions to the pinnacle of judicial power. He has clearly never recovered from the searing experience of his Senate confirmation hearings and the “he said/she said” drama of the accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill.

Supreme Discomfort tracks the personal odyssey of perhaps the least understood man in Washington, from his poor childhood in Pin Point and Savannah, Georgia, to his educational experiences in a Catholic seminary and Holy Cross, to his law school years at Yale during the black power era, to his rise within the Republican political establishment. It offers a window into a man who straddles two different worlds and is uneasy in both—and whose divided personality and conservative political philosophy will deeply influence American life for years to come.

clarence-thomas2.jpgNPR has two worthwhile interviews of the authors — one from Fresh Air (27 minutes) and the other from All Things Considered (8 minutes).

Both interviews highlight themes of the book involving complexities, tensions, even hypocrisies in the life and policy positions of Justice Thomas.

Translated into the language of this blog, some of those tensions and hypocrisies involved Justice Thomas’s focus on his own situational impediments (and victim status) while admonishing African Americans to turn in their victim mentality in exchange for a “no-excuses” disposition. On the other side of the coin is Thomas’s weak memory of the the numerous ways in which he was situationally advantaged by affirmative action policies in the past while eagerly cutting back those policies today.

Such tensions were the subject of the following op-ed by Situationist Contributors Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson, originally published in the Baltimore Sun in December of 2005:

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The Conservative Hypocrisy

When it comes to Supreme Court nominees, conservatives are in agreement: Situation matters.

Pundits on the right shouted down Harriet E. Miers over concerns that her evangelicalHarriet Miers backbone would whither under Washington winds. Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. stepped into her spot seeming of far more stalwart vertebrae, but as his backers have stressed recently, he is a creature of situation as well.

Responding to liberal criticism over a 1985 document in which Judge Alito championed the position “that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion,” conservatives quickly pointed out that the assertion was made in the context of an “advocate seeking a job” and thus could offer no insight into how Judge Alito would behave as a justice confronting an actual abortion case.

What makes all of this confusing is that conservatives are more or less devoted to a legal system and a policymaking approach that assumes situational influence is, in the vast majority of circumstances, trivial and irrelevant. Get the government out of our lives so that we can be “free to choose,” the argument goes. Unchain markets so that people can pursue their own ends as they see fit.

According to those extremely influential policy scripts, the consumer is sovereign and the outcomes of market transactions are good – no matter the nutritional content of the food, no matter the racial composition of the neighborhood, no matter the annual interest rate of the credit card, no matter the distribution of wealth. People choose freely and have no one no-excuses.jpgbut themselves to blame for any adverse consequences.

As Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – dubbed “America’s leading conservative” by The Weekly Standard – wrote in his essay “Personal Responsibility,” in the 1999-2000 Regent University Law Review, “Success (as well as failure) is the result of one’s own talents, morals, decisions and actions.”

Many of the most basic conservative policy scripts in our ownership society are thus built on a conception of the person as independent and autonomous – the stuff of individualism and personal responsibility. The environment isn’t the problem; focus on the bad acts of a bad actor.

The poor, the overweight, the unemployed, the discriminated-against need to stop blaming others; they need to get to the gym, get to work and get busy. Just do it. The law owes them little more than a few more options and the knowledge that they will bear the consequences of, and full liability for, their choices. The situation is given and immaterial. Just ignore it. Again quoting Justice Thomas’ essay, there needs to be “much less of an emphasis on victimage.”

Similarly, when it comes to proper judging, the right approach is to “apply the law” and “stick to the Constitution” as originally written, as if the document has a clear disposition. Conservatives urge judges to ignore the context and focus on the plain meaning of the words. To venture beyond the “plain meaning” is to engage in politics. Situational considerations are to be shunned.

“But, again, the right does sometimes underscore the importance of situation. According to the conservative narrative, the situational force that is most harmful and significant is that of the “intellectual class” and the institutions where its ideas are developed, employed and advanced.

Elite academic institutions, by this reckoning, are a danger. The New York Times is a menace. And the Supreme Court, too, poses a threat. As Robert H. Bork put it in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, “the left-liberal liberationist” ideology promoted by such groupsRobert Bork is leading to “moral anarchy.” The liberal intelligentsia that has seduced so many justices is, with those justices’ help, deeply influencing our lives. As a result, according to Mr. Bork, “the struggle over the Supreme Court is not just about law; it is about the future of our culture.” We are, by this account, being victimized by a victim culture.

Hence, the same individuals who are eager to point out how Supreme Court justices are vulnerable to situational manipulation – who suggest that our country is being destroyed because of the powerful influence of liberal elites over our culture and, in turn, our culture over us – are otherwise adamant in denying the role of situation in the lives of consumers, workers, voters, parents, criminals and any justices who happen to be strict constructionists. Situation, in their view, is critical in some contexts and irrelevant in others.

In the end, it should trouble us that those who lament the malleability of judicial behavior to situational forces are simultaneously calling for judges who will, for the most part, ignore the importance of situation.

Acknowledging the truth – that we humans, even the most autonomous among us, are situationally pliant – only when it serves our interests is nothing new, but it is deeply distorting. And it is particularly harmful when we acknowledge it only for the most highly educated, politically connected and powerful members of our country, leaving the weak, the forgotten and the voiceless to fend for themselves through “free choice.”


Posted in Book, Law, Public Policy | 2 Comments »

Women’s Situation in Economics

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 3, 2007

Time 2005Several recent articles that all seem interestingly related to women in Economics are worth highlighting.

First, a story in The Observer this week summarized a study on the effect of feminine names:

Parents are being warned to think long and hard when choosing names for their babies as research has discovered that girls who are given very feminine names, such as Anna, Emma or Elizabeth, are less likely to study maths or physics after the age of 16, a remarkable study has found.

Both subjects, which are traditionally seen as predominantly male, are far more popular among girls with names such as Abigail, Lauren and Ashley, which have been judged as less feminine in a linguistic test. The effect is so strong that parents can set twin daughters off on completely different career paths simply by calling them Isabella and Alex, names at either end of the spectrum. A study of 1,000 pairs of sisters in the US found that Alex was twice as likely as her twin to take maths or science at a higher level.

pygmalion.jpgAccording to David Figlio, the economist who authored the study, the effect of names is largely the consequence of the expectations created by a name. This is old news, revealed in a new way. At least since Rosenthal & Jacobson’s famous 1968 study, described in their book, The Pygmalion in the Classroom, social psychologists (among others) have recognized the powerful effect of expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom. In that classic study, the act of labeling some students “bloomers” dramatically influenced their performance on I.Q. tests. What this more recent study suggests is that there is a labeling effect in our names. “Anna” just doesn’t say “math bloomer” the way that “Chris” does.

As if that story weren’t depressing enough, the online version had nestled within it the following advertisement (linking to here).



Apparently, the advertising department saw opportunity in the story on stereotypes. For any “Isabella” reading the article, some advice on keeping men will seem that much more valuable.

Fortunately, there has been some recent, promising news about women – even those with feminine names – achieving great things in Economics. As reported in the HarvardDr. Susan Athey Gazette this week:

The American Economic Association has announced [last week] that Susan Athey, professor of economics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) at Harvard University, is the 2007 recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal. Harvard Economist Susan Athey won the highly distinguished John Bates Clark Medal. Widely considered one of the most prestigious awards in the field of economics, the biannual award goes to an economist, under the age of 40, who has made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge. Athey is the first woman to receive the medal.

Additionally, the Rice Sallyport reports in its current issue some great news about the journal, Feminist Economics, which has been an important contributor to increased dr-strassmann.jpgawareness of gender bias in math- and science-related fields like Economics:

Since Feminist Economics was named the best new journal in 1997, it’s been obvious the publication fills a need—and does it well. A recent report of a jump in the journal’s citation rankings adds more proof.

Founded by Diana Strassmann, a Rice professor of the practice in humanities, the journal was ranked 35th—up from 135th last year—among 172 economics journals in the ISI Social Science Citation Index, the most prestigious index for scholarly social science journals. Among women’s studies journals, it placed third out of 27.

Congratulations to Dr. (Susan) Athey and Dr. (Diana) Strassmann! We can only hope that such trends will continue and that, eventually, “Emily” will have as good a shot at becoming a scientist, mathematician, or economist as “Alex” – and that neither will be focused on “Creating ATTRACTION So Intense He Never Leaves You.”

Posted in Life, Marketing | 9 Comments »

Gross & Evil

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 2, 2007

Terry Gross and Phil Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect


On the May 1 edition of NPR’ Fresh Air, you can find a terrific (18 minute) interview of Situationist Contributor, Phil Zimbardo regarding his best-selling book, The Lucifer Effect. For other audio-video recordings of Professor Z. on his book tour go to here and here.

Posted in Events, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Survival of the Cutest

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 1, 2007

cute-baby-chimp.jpgThrough the bottleneck moments of the evolutionary process, cuteness may have played a significant role in helping our species survive. And, though some of us might like to believe that we are “looks-blind,” it seems, to the contrary, that there is a great deal of prejudice based on looks. Naomi Miles posted an interesting article on this week, discussing some research regarding the situational causes and consequences of cuteness. We have excerpted portions of her article below.

* * *

Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian ethnologist, looked into the science of cuteness in the 1940s. He compiled a list of the esthetic and behavioural characteristics we are particularly attracted to, and found that we are drawn to relatively large heads, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheeks, short and thick arms and legs, springy elastic skin, and clumsy movements.

Typically, these are the attributes of a child. Juveniles are not simply miniature adults; they have distinctive body proportions. A newborn has a large head in relation to the restBy Jérome Maison for the New York Times - of its body, stubbier arms and legs and tiny hands and feet. As a baby grows up, the relative head size diminishes, the jaw gets bigger and the limbs become longer and leaner. A baby’s esthetic proportions are instantly recognisable, and we are hardwired to regard them as ‘cute’.

Lorenz noted that childish characteristics trigger a parental instinct. Cute things make us feel warm and exhilarated and we want to look after them. They awaken affection and feelings of nurture, making us want to pet and coo.

But when and why did our instinctive responses to cuteness develop? How has cuteness been an advantage in human development?

A couple of million years ago, human brain size began to increase. Childbirth became more painful, as fitting a bigger-brained baby through a narrow birth canal was a dangerous squeeze. Birth limited how big our brains could become.

Nature’s solution was for human babies to be born with highly undeveloped brains. Unlike other mammals, our grey matter does about 75% of its growing outside of the womb.

Since human babies are born helpless and take so long to develop, they are totally dependent upon adult care for everything. It takes about 17 months for newborns to become as independent and mobile as chimpanzees are at birth, and so we have an extremely extended childhood. For years, we rely on the love, attention and goodwill of our parents. If they abandon us, we don’t stand a chance.

But what would inspire parents of these immature babies to invest such a high level of care? Cuteness seems to play a major role.

* * *


. . . Jeffrey Kurland, an associate professor of Biological Anthropology and Human Development from Penn State University, believes that our responses are truly innate, inherited from our primate ancestors. Kurland thinks that babies evolved to be cute, their cuteness perhaps conveying biological information about strong genes and good health. Women developed an appreciation of cuteness and, choosing to lavish more care on the cuter babies, gave them the best chance of survival.

According to scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada, good-looking babies have a definite advantage. A research team lead by Dr Andrew Harrell found that parents of cute newborns were more responsive and affectionate than mothers of less attractive babies. Gorgeous children also seemed to receivebaby-ronald.jpg more notice from teachers and other adults as they grew up.

* * *

Our imagination and abstracting tendencies mean that we also find animals, pictures and even concepts cute. For years, market research has looked into the images that people find appealing and has found that cuteness sells.

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To read the entire article, click here. For a 2004 article in describing research finding that even babies prefer to look at attractive faces, click here. Dr. Andrew Harrell (from the University of Alberta, Canada) has found evidence suggesting that even parents discriminate among their children based on looks. For a brief description of the “halo effect,” and the way in which “good looks” generally advantage individuals, click here.

Growing public awarness has led to the somewhat hopeful trend of some commerical interests cleverly highlighting the role of other commercial interests in defining and exploiting unrealistic conceptions of beauty. For instance, the following ad, aptly titled “evolution,” is part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.


Posted in Emotions, Life, Marketing | 7 Comments »

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