The Situationist

Archive for June, 2007

New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 30, 2007

Divine sparkIt’s a common experience. You’re watching a movie where the main character is in a fight, or falls from a great height, or suffers a knife wound. Even if you’ve never experienced the exact method of injury, you flinch and even feel, to some extent, the pain that you imagine them to be feeling. Alternatively, the dorky hero is finally about to get that first kiss from the head cheerleader; our hearts race and a smile crosses our faces. Of course, physical and emotional empathy are an important means by which people relate to one another — feel each other’s pain or share one another’s joy. Still, no one would claim that they experience the same level of suffering or happiness as those that they witness. Exactly how we feel empathy and how much are questions that neuropsychologists are only beginning to try to answer.

Recent research led by Dr. Jaime Ward and Michael Banissy at the University College London have looked at what they term ‘mirror-touch’ synesthetes, people who experience physical touches they witness on others (which to some degree may be most of us). These new experiments might help illuminate how we experience empathy. A story by Reuters reporter Julie Steenhuysen is excerpted below.

* * *

Study May Explain Roots of Empathy

When people say “I feel your pain,” they do not mean it literally, but certain people really do feel something that appears to be an extreme form of empathy, British researchers said on Sunday.

They said watching someone being touched triggers the same part of the brain as actual touch, and this connection helps explain how we understand what other people are feeling.

People who experience a tactile sense of touch when they see another person being touched — something called mirror-touch synesthesia — was first studied in 2005 in one person.

But researchers at University College London have now studied 10 people with the same condition.

“It suggests there is a link between certain aspects of the tactile system and empathy,” said Michael Banissy of the university’s department of psychology, whose work appears in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Banissy and colleagues first did a series of experiments to authenticate peoples’ claims that they felt something when they saw someone else being touched.

They asked the 10 people with mirror-touch synesthesia to identify when they were being touched on their own body while watching someone else being touched on the cheek.

The actual touch was sometimes in the same spot as the person they watched being touched, and sometimes it was on the other side.

“The idea was to see whether synesthetic and actual touch were confusable in any way,” Banissy said in a telephone interview.

He said people with this mirror-touch capability were faster when the touch they saw was in the same location as actual touch.

“When actual touch and synesthetic touch were in different locations, sometimes they would confuse the two and report they were touched on both cheeks,” he said.

This confusion did not occur in 20 people without synesthesia who performed the same experiments.

The mirror-touch people also scored higher than others on a questionnaire that measured empathy.

“We often flinch when we see someone knock their arm, and this may be a weaker version of what these synesthetes experience,” Dr. Jamie Ward, who led the research team, said in a statement.

Other studies have suggested a link between empathy and mirror systems, but Ward said this was the first to suggest empathy involves more than one mechanism: an emotional gutfrightened-moviegoers.jpg reaction — which appears exaggerated in the mirror-touch synesthetes — and a cognitive process that involves thinking about how someone else feels.

“This appears to be the emotional component of empathy,” Banissy said. “It was purely gut instinct.”

* * *

The researchers are studying this empathy connection further and trying to determine how prevalent mirror-touch synesthesia is.

“It does appear to be more common than we first thought,” Banissy said.

* * *

For other worthwhile summaries of the research, go to Wired Science, or Neurophilosophy, or LiveScience.


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

Our Soldiers, Their Children: The Lasting Impact of the War in Iraq

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 28, 2007

Iraqi BoyOver the past few months, we have grown accustomed to articles in newspapers and magazines addressing the psychological problems our veterans are dealing with. No matter whether or not we support the war in Iraq, all Americans empathize with the soldiers, hoping that they receive the care necessary to have a promising future. However, there is relatively little attention paid to the psychological impact the war has had on the Iraqi people, particularly the children. Their suffering is less salient and, as an “outgroup,” many Americans may subconsciously trivialize their suffering.

Our disappointment with the fact that the returning U.S. veterans are receiving too little care offers perspective on the amount of help the war-torn Iraqi state can offer their children, who have been exposed to all sorts of violence since Shock & Awe. Iraqi’s are beginning to question what lies in store for the future of Iraq and what this will mean when today’s youth becomes tomorrow’s leaders? A Washington Post article, excerpted below, examines these important questions.

* * *

Marwa Hussein watched as gunmen stormed into her home and executed her parents. Afterward, her uncle brought her to the Alwiya Orphanage, a high-walled compound nestled in central Baghdad with a concrete yard for a playground. That was more than two years ago, and for 13-year-old Marwa, shy and thin with walnut-colored eyes and long brown hair, the memory of her parents’ last moments is always with her.

* * *

Iraq’s conflict is exacting an immense and largely unnoticed psychological toll on children and youth that will have long-term consequences, said social workers, psychiatrists, teachers and aid workers in interviews across Baghdad and in neighboring Jordan.

“With our limited resources, the societal impact is going to be very bad,” said Haider Abdul Muhsin, one of the country’s few child psychiatrists. “This generation will become a very violent generation, much worse than during Saddam Hussein’s regime.”

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, 4 million Iraqis have fled their homes, half of them children, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Many are being killed inside their sanctuaries — at playgrounds, on soccer fields and in schools. Criminals are routinely kidnapping children for ransom as lawlessness goes unchecked. Violence has orphaned tens of thousands.Iraqi Boys playing soccer

* * *

Short and lean with a square jaw, Abdul Muhsin started to focus on children only last year. Like many of the estimated 60 psychiatrists who remain in Iraq, he treated only adults before the invasion. Back then, he said, children with psychological problems were a rarity.

In the past six months, he has treated 280 children and teenagers for psychological problems, most ranging in age from 6 to 16. In his private clinic, he has seen more than 650 patients in the past year.

In a World Health Organization survey of 600 children ages 3 to 10 in Baghdad last year, 47 percent said they had been exposed to a major traumatic event over the past two years. Of this group, 14 percent showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In a second study of 1,090 adolescents in the northern city of Mosul, 30 percent showed symptoms of the disorder.

* * *

Today, toy weapons are among the best-selling items in local markets, and kids play among armored vehicles on streets where pickup trucks filled with masked gunmen are a common sight. On a recent day, a group of childrenIraqi Children gathered around a US tank were playing near a camouflage-colored Iraqi Humvee parked in Baghdad’s upscale Karrada neighborhood. One boy clutched a thick stick and placed it on his right shoulder, as if he were handling a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He aimed it at cars passing by, pretending to blow them up. Two soldiers pointed at the children and laughed.

Many of the children Abdul Muhsin treats have witnessed killings. They have anxiety problems and suffer from depression. Some have recurring nightmares and wet their beds. Others have problems learning in school. Iraqi children, he said, show symptoms not unlike children in other war zones such as Lebanon, Sudan and the Palestinian territories.

* * *

Three months ago, Abdul Muhsin treated his most horrific case. A 13-year-old girl had been kidnapped in Baghdad’s Mansour neighborhood and held for a week in a house with 15 other girls. Some were raped in front of her, another was fatally shot. The girl was released after her parents paid a $6,000 ransom. “She was in a terrifying condition,” recalled Abdul Muhsin. “She was shouting. She abused her parents verbally and physically.”

He and other child specialists say as many as 80 percent of traumatized children are never treated because of the stigma attached to such ailments. “Our society refuses to go to psychiatrists,” said Abdul Sattar Sahib, a pediatrician at Sadr General Hospital in Sadr City.

Many children live in remote or dangerous areas, sliced off from Baghdad by insurgents, bombings, and checkpoints. “Some parents just call me by telephone, and I try to advise them,” Abdul Muhsin said.

At Sadr General, as many as 250 children arrive for treatment every day, nearly double from last year. “We only treat the first 20 children who arrive and then we run out of drugs,” Sahib said. There is no child psychiatrist on staff.

* * *

UNICEF officials estimate that tens of thousands children lost one or both parents to the conflict in the past year. If trends continue, they expect the numbers to rise this year, said Claire Hajaj, a UNICEF spokesperson in Amman, Jordan.

While many children at the orphanage have lost one or both parents, others have been abandoned or sent here because their parents can no longer afford to care for them.

“The tragedy is that there’s an upswing in number of children who are losing parents, but you see a decrease in the ability of the government, the community and even the family to care for separated and orphaned children because of violence, insecurity, displacement, stress and economic hardship,” Hajaj said. “These kids are definitely the most vulnerable around.”

* * *

At a primary school in the Zayuna neighborhood of Baghdad, three teachers sat in the head office lamenting how Iraq’s sectarian strife had affected their classrooms. A quarter of their students had left for safer areas. Some parents were too scared to send their children to school, fearing attacks.

Map of Iraq divided into 3 regions“Now, the young students when they enter the school, they ask their classmates whether they are Sunni or Shia,” said Nagher Ziad Salih, 37, the school’s principal. Salih said children quarreling on the playground now invoke the names of armed groups. “The child would say: I’ll get the Mahdi Army to take revenge,” she said. “The other kid would say back: My uncle is from the [Sunni] resistance and he’ll take revenge against you.”

The third teacher, Um Hanim, spoke up. “Now the kid whose parent is killed by a Sunni or a Shia, what will be his future?” she said, also insisting that her full name not be used. “He will have a grudge inside him.”

Child psychiatrists are noticing the sectarian divide affecting their young patients. Mohammed Quraeshi, a doctor at Ibn Rushed, recalled the day he treated two boys — one 6, the other 9 — who were suffering from anxiety.

“They faced harassment from children at their school. They demanded to know if they were Sunni or Shia.” Quraeshi said. “This is too terrible to think that this can happen at this age.”

* * *

Twenty-year-old Yasser Laith, cannot sleep at night. When a rocket crashed into his family’s house in the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya in November, he crawled into the kitchen and curled up in fear.

“Whenever I hear an explosion, I start trembling,” mumbled Laith, as he waited at Ibn Rushed hospital for a 10-day supply of anti-psychotic drugs.

Another day, intense clashes erupted on his street, and U.S. combat helicopters hovered over the area. Laith grabbed an AK-47 assault rifle, rushed to his roof and began firing into the sky.

“My father is ashamed of me. I wanted to show that I was a good as the others,” Laith said with a half-crazed smile. “After that I felt satisfied.” “I had the desire to seek revenge,” Laith said, smiling again.

When Laith left the room to go to the bathroom, his 57-year-old mother, Sahira Asadallah, said she was scared that her son would commit a crime or join an insurgent group. She wondered how long Laith would have to take the drugs, then answered herself: “This will only end with the end of the war.”

* * *

To read this article in its entirety, click here. To follow up on themes addressed in the article, specifically those examined in the last section regarding the young man turning to war, look at the series, “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War.” To read the most recent post in that series, which contains link to all the previous posts of the series, click here.

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Politics, Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

A Penny for your Thoughts May be the Deal of the Century

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 27, 2007

JournalWe’ve all had those moments in life where everything seems to be falling apart. A relationship has ended, a loved one has passed away, or a particularly intense fight has left us feeling as if there’s no good left in the world. Many people try to internalize it, find a way to deal with it themselves, while their friends and loved ones try to get them to talk about it. “You’ll feel better if you just get it out in the open.” Most people use this time, if they decide to open up, to get advice and gain perspective on the situation. Others use their diary or journal as a therapeutic device to explore their emotions.

Recent studies, however, suggest that labeling and talking about it — literally, just getting it out in the open — can help us deal with intense emotional experiences. Matthew D. Lieberman, Naomi Eisenberger, Molly Crockett, Sabrina Tom, Jennifer Pfeifer, and Baldwin Way of UCLA use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyze the way that our brains deal with emotions and labeling them. The press release from the University of California – Los Angeles, below, provides some additional details.

* * *

Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects In The Brain

Why does putting our feelings into words — talking with a therapist or friend, writing in a journal — help us to feel better? A new brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists reveals why verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger and pain less intense.

When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger. Scientists see a robust amygdala response even when they show such emotional photographs subliminally, so fast a person can’t even see them.

But does seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face change our brain response? The answer is yes, according to Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience.

“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” said Lieberman, lead author of the study, whichAngry appears in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.

The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences. It has also been implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions, but exactly what it contributes has not been known.

“What we’re suggesting is when you start thinking in words about your emotions –labeling emotions — that might be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for,” Lieberman said.

If a friend or loved one is sad or angry, getting the person to talk or write may have benefits beyond whatever actual insights are gained. These effects are likely to be modest, however, Lieberman said.

“We typically think of language processing in the left side of the brain; however, this effect was occurring only in this one region, on the right side of the brain,” he said. “It’s rare to see only one region of the brain responsive to a high-level process like labeling emotions.”

Many people are not likely to realize why putting their feelings into words is helpful.

“If you ask people who are really sad why they are writing in a journal, they are not likely to say it’s because they think this is a way to make themselves feel better,” Lieberman said. “People don’t do this to intentionally overcome their negative feelings; it just seems to have that effect. Popular psychology says when you’re feeling down, just pick yourself up, but the world doesn’t work that way. If you know you’re trying to pick yourself up, it usually doesn’t work — self-deception is difficult. Because labeling your feelings doesn’t require you to want to feel better, it doesn’t have this problem.”

Thirty people, 18 women and 12 men between ages of 18 and 36, participated in Lieberman’s study at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. They viewed images of individuals making different emotional expressions. Below the picture of the face they either saw two words, such as “angry” and “fearful,” and chose which emotion described the face, or they saw two names, such as “Harry” and “Sally,” and chose the gender-appropriate name that matched the face.

Lieberman and his co-authors — UCLA assistant professor of psychology Naomi Eisenberger, former UCLA psychology undergraduate Molly Crockett, former UCLA psychology research assistant Sabrina Tom, UCLA psychology graduate student Jennifer Pfeifer and Baldwin Way, a postdoctoral fellow in Lieberman’s laboratory — used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study subjects’ brain activity.Amygdala

“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” Lieberman said. “When you attach the name ‘Harry,’ you don’t see the reduction in the amygdala response.

“When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala,” he said. “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”

As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad.

This is ancient wisdom,” Lieberman said. “Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can get them to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better.”

The right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex undergoes much of its development during a child’s preteen and teenage years. It is possible that interaction with friends and family during these years could shape the strength of this brain region’s response, but this is not yet established, Lieberman said.

One benefit of therapy may be to strengthen this brain region. Does therapy lead to physiological changes in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex” Lieberman, UCLA psychology professor Michelle Craske and their colleagues are studying this question.

* * *

Follow this link to read more about the study, including their research into Buddhist teachings and their effect on human cognition and even physiology.



Posted in Emotions, Life, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

What’s Eating David Ortiz?

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on June 26, 2007

David Ortiz ComplainingOn Sunday we witnessed one of our favorite players, David Ortiz, throw down his bat, helmet, and batting gloves in disgust. Apparently, he didn’t agree with the homeplate umpire’s called third strike. As Red Sox fans who watch many of the team’s games, we’ve noticed that Ortiz has complained about umpiring more often and more vehemently this season than in the past.

Sometimes the disagreement is expressed with mere body language: a roll of the eyes, a shake of the head, or just a longish stare in umpire’s direction. Other times Ortiz resorts to verbiage, some of it quite colorful. Ortiz has recently taken to pedantically explaining the strike zone’s size to an unreceptive and often agitated umpire. Taken together, his recent histrionics seem to be morphing Big Papi into something closer to Big Baby or, perhaps, Malcontento Grande.

Ortiz’s tantrums have come at a cost, both to him and his team. A few weeks ago, for instance, he was ejected from a game while arguing a called strike, and drew additional criticism for his ill-advised post-game comments about the quality of Major League umpiring.

We’re not the only Red Sox fans to notice what has become Ortiz’s escalating petulance. On the Sons of Sam Horn message board, for instance, a poster named AZBlue recently created a thread called “David Ortiz v. the Umpires: Time for David to Cool it?,” and wrote:

In addition to the ejection of David Ortiz Saturday, there have been quite a few occasions during the past two weeks when it was clear that David was disgusted with the size of the strike zone when he was batting. He has made post-game comments that were very critical of the strike zones of at least two umpires. . . .

Does David really think that the strike zone is going to shrink because he expresses distress about called strikes? If anything, human nature being what it is (and the attitude of the typical umpire being nasty and confrontational), the strike zone will expand even more. Does David think that other umpires on a crew will respond well to his verbal complaints and negative body language? Does he think other umpiring crews will not give him “special attention” when they work Boston games?

He can help himself and the team more by simply focusing on the next pitch (or walking to the dugout if it is strike three). If nothing else, he will be batting five times a game instead of sitting on the bench after an ejection.

The mystery is heightened by Ortiz’s teddy bear reputation, as one of the league’s most adored players. While his teammates are stretching during pre-game warm ups, Big Papi can usually be found mixing it up with his pals on both teams. And what other player ends a pickle with a bear hug of a shortstop? Little wonder that this big hearted D.H. is sometimes referred to as “Big Puppy.”

So why the sudden surliness at the dish? What has happened to the man behind the face of the Red Sox? Don’t get us wrong, Ortiz’s recent cantankerous mood is still relatively mild. His machinations at the plate pale in comparison to those of “Crazy” Carl Everett when he played for the Sox several years ago. Still, Big Papi is not the loveable player he used to be. So what gives?

We suspect several related attributional biases are at work. The first is the fundamental attribution error (FAE), the tendency to attribute to disposition that which should be attributed to situation. The second is the self-serving bias, a partial exception to the FAE, when an individual takes disproportionate credit for his or her own successes, and disproportionately blames his or her situation for his failings.

What do those biases have to do with David Ortiz’s season? To answer that, it is helpful to review what has happened to Ortiz over the last several David Ortiz celebrationyears. Those have been (to borrow a phrase from fellow Situationist contributor Emily Pronin) magical seasons.

Four years ago, David Ortiz was released (or, for you technical types, non-tendered) by the Minnesota Twins when no other team was interested in trading for him. His career in the bigs was all but over, when the Red Sox decided to give him a chance. Fast forward to the World Series in 2004, and Ortiz’s timely slugging put an end to the Curse. In 2005, Ortiz finished 2nd in the voting for the American League Most Valuable Player in 2005 (a feat made even more impressive given that he is the designated hitter and, thus, generally plays no defensive position). Last year, Ortiz broke the Red Sox single-season home run record a year ago with 52 homers. But even that doesn’t capture the magic of his hitting–with a total of not more than 4000 major league at bats, Ortiz has hit ten “walk-off home runs” (a dinger that wins and instantaneously ends the game in the ninth inning). The most walk-off taters that any player has ever had is 12 — The Babe and Mickey managed that many each in over 8000 at bats. As if he lacked in nicknames, some fans refer to Ortiz as Senor Octubre, in recognition of his amazing clutch hitting.

Little wonder that Senor Papi attracted crowds not just at Fenway but at all the ballparks, and he was often showered with “MVP” chants. Papi’s big, warm smile validated the belief that there was something about him–about his disposition–that drove his extraordinary abilities at home plate. His off-field accomplishments, such as raising thousands of dollars through the Boston-based charity Good Sports and authoring a well-received autobiography, “Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits,” only amplified his legendary status. Just as impressive, Ortiz did what so few players do now-a-days: he took a hometown discount to remain with his team, his teammates, his city, his fans, his people, everyone in Boston and New England. The guy seemed almost superhuman. In fact, just to add to the list, a few of the Red Sox faithful refer to Papi as God.

si-cover-ortiz.jpgThat is the context in which this season has unfolded. David Ortiz has been immortalized as perhaps the greatest clutch hitter of all time. But this season Ortiz has seemed mortal. Sure, the numbers are still largely there–as of today, his on-base plus slugging statistic of 1.016, 3rd best in the American League, is only a hair short of last year’s 1.049, and he is also ranked 2nd or 3rd in three other major statistical categories–on-base percentage, base on balls, and slugging–and 10th in home runs. Not bad. But not God. It’s not just that his stats are a bit closer to Earth and his bat seems a bit cooler than it did, it’s also that the hits he has had seem a bit less powerful, pivotal, and dramatic.

This brings us back to the attributional biases we mentioned above, sort of. A famous study in 1985 found that over 90% of NBA fans believe in the “hot hand” – that after making two or three shots, a player is more likely to make his next shot – and that teammates should therefore “feed the hot hand.” The same study found that, despite the widespread faith in streak shooting, the evidence suggests that “streaks” occur no more than is predicted by chance and that the proportion of shots any single player makes is unrelated to how many shots that player had either hit or missed prior to that. This “hot hand” phenomenon has received considerable scholarly attention since then (indeed, there is an excellent blog devoted to it) and there is some controversy about the details, but many now agree the perception of a hot hand is largely a fallacy. Assuming that’s true, it raises the question, why does the fallacy persist? On that question, too, several printer cartridges have been depleted.

We’ll spare our readers a summary of the various causes, but we do want to emphasize one that we think is relevant to Ortiz’s recent conduct. Specifically, the hot hand fallacy is partially a reflection of the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to see disposition – in this case the temperature of the player’s hand – and to miss situation – here, random chance or luck. We suspect that a similar phenomenon likely accounts for a good deal of Big Papi’s success. We see nothing but disposition – “MVP,” “Senor Octubre,” and “God” – where we should be seeing mostly situation – luck, chance, random variation, happenstance, and perhaps, at times, some at-the-plate confidence for Ortiz or some on-the-mound jitters that is generated by Papi’s hot-bat reputation.

Now consider the situation from Papi’s perspective, in light of the attributional biases that we mentioned above. When he was breaking all the records, he had a strong self-serving motive to attribute that success to “Big Papi.” Game-winning hits: “me” or “chance”? That’s an easy one — particularly given that no one was tempted to attribute them anything else (any more than Red Sox fans were interested in attributing the loss of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series to anyone or anything other than Bill Buckner).

This season, Ortiz is similarly motivated by the self-serving causal attributions to explain his performance. But this year he’s motivated to offer a story that doesn’t compromise the hero disposition that he’s been enjoying but that does explain his cooling bat. This is no time for Papi to admit that his last few years were merely statistical fluke and that we should understand that the other side of the coin has come up — no one wants to hear that. Nor is it time to “make excuses” like a nagging hamstring injury.

So Papi is providing a different sort of situational explanation (one that he no doubt completely believes). The problem this season is not Big Papi’s disposition; rather, it’s the umpires’, who are routinely making bad calls thus undercutting David’s success at the plate. The problem is not the temperature of Ortiz’s bat; the problem is in the skewed judgment of the home plate umpires.

Of course, this is a tendency that we are all subject to — a motive to which most of us succumb much of the time. When was the last time you declined an invitation by attributing your decision to your disposition (“No, I would really prefer not to attend your party”) rather than your situation (“Oh, unfortunately, that’s the same day as my daughter’s recital.”)

Yes, Red Sox fans are beginning to murmur a bit about terrestrial performance this year. But what Ortiz may want to take big-papi.jpegconsider is that this simplistic situational excuse doesn’t play well among journalists or fans. In a way, Ortiz is missing the bigger situation of his reputation: he may believe that his success is fixed and a function his clutch hitting, when in fact, it is malleable and partially dependent on how he is perceived as a person. Hot bat or not, fans will not continue to adore a player who is blaming his failure to meet expectations are the result of unfair or inept umping. It not only lacks plausibility, it is a prototypical example of “bad sportsmanship.”

Big Papi’s new “disposition” is beginning to turn fans off. By throwing his helmet and pointing at umpires, Ortiz is transforming himself from a teddy bear into a whiney brat. As Barry Bonds’ recent experience indicates, even homerun hitters can be despised.

* * *

To read other posts describing similar attributional errors, see “The Situation Tort Reform(ers),” “Race Attribution and Georgetown University Basketball,” and “Promoting Dispositionism Through Entertainment.”

Posted in Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 7 Comments »

Pervasive Developmental Disorders and the Formation of Stereotypes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 23, 2007

autism-ribbon.jpgPervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs) are a grouping of five related disorders that are marked by impaired social interaction, impaired communication, and repetitive interests and activities. Autism is by far the most common and familiar of these disorders. Conservative estimates place the incidence between 1 and 6 per thousand individuals (NIMH), and an upward trend in the diagnosis has been seen since the ’90s; although some of that trend might be attributed to increased awareness and improved diagnostic measures, most experts believe that the incidence of afflicted individuals accounts for much of that increase.

Individuals with autism show a decreased ability to understand the emotional states of others and individualize their own desires, beliefs, and feelings from others. It has been theorized that the processes behind this individualization and recognition of mental states were related; in turn, it would follow that autistic individuals would have similar ‘impairments’ towards forming stereotypes. However, a recent study done by Lawrence Hirschfield of the New School for Social Research, Elizabeth Bartmess of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Sarah White and Uta Frith of UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience have found that this is not the case. The following press release summarizes their findings.

* * *

Autistic Children Recognize Stereotypes Based on Race and Sex, Study Suggests

Science Daily — Children with autism, who are unable to grasp the mental states of others, can nonetheless identify with conventional stereotypes based on a person’s race and sex, researchers recently reported in Current Biology.

“Even with their limited capacities for social interaction and their apparent inability to orient to social stimuli, these autistic kids pick up and endorse social stereotypes as readily as normally developing kids,” said Lawrence Hirschfeld of the New School for Social Research in New York. “One take-away point is that stereotypes are very easy to learn and very robust. They don’t require higher order attention, or apparently even attention to social stimuli, to develop. Stereotypes can be learned even in the face of damage to the ‘social brain’ and under extraordinarily constrained conditions.”

Dr. Seuss Japanese war cartoon

The profound inability of children with autism to engage in everyday social interaction, as well as impairments in verbal and nonverbal communication, had been attributed to a severe delay in “theory of mind” (ToM) development–the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own. If the use of stereotypes and mental states were part and parcel of the same underlying cognitive process, then autistic children would have similar difficulties with both.In fact, the researchers found that autistic children who have a verbal age between 6 and 7 years–and who fail ToM tasks–know and use gender and race stereotypes just like normal children. Hirschfeld said he suspects the stereotypes originate within subtle and seemingly incidental messages that saturate the culture–for example, through advertising or biased attention by the media. The kids might also learn about stereotypes from parental behaviors, such as locking car doors when in certain neighborhoods, even if parents carefully monitor what they say about race to their children.

Stereotypes are not inherently negative, he said. “We wouldn’t be able to think without social categories,” he said. “Stereotypical roles are important for navigating everyday interactions. Finding a plumber would be difficult if we thought of people only as unique individuals. Getting through the check-out line would be unwieldy if we didn’t have simple scripts about the roles that both shoppers and cashiers play.”

The results suggest that different kinds of social reasoning occur through independent mechanisms in all people. The autistic children’s surprising ability to recognize broad categories of people might also lead to new methods for helping them improve their ability to function in society, he said.

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

Pride, A Deadly Sin. Or Is It?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 22, 2007

“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”~Bible (Proverbs)

“The peril of every fine faculty is the delight of playing with it for pride. Talent is commonly developed at the expense of character, and the greater it grows, the more is the mischief.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Pride sullies the noblest character.” ~Claudianus

“Pride grows in the human heart like lard on a pig.” ~Alexander Solzhenitsyn

“You can’t change what you’ve done, so you might as well just take pride in it.” ~Takayuuki Ikkaku, Arisa Hosaka & Toshihiro Kawabata

Its ubiquity notwithstanding, we seem to have, at best, mixed feelings about pride. It’s one of the seven biggies — up there with sloth and gluttony. There are all types of pride — school pride, national pride, gay pride, and other sorts of group-based pride. There’s self pride and false pride; there’s pridepride-flag.jpg and prejudice; there’s a pride of lions; and there’s something called pride fighting. People don’t just have pride, they are filled or pumped up with pride. And it’s easier to show pride than to swallow it. With so much focus on pride, you’d expect that we would know a great deal about it — that it would be the topic of extensive scholarly study. Not so — at least not until very recently.

Jessica Tracy, an assistant Professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia is among the first researchers to do an in-depth study of pride, examining the different ways people respond to it as well as the way expressions of pride cut across cultures. An article from, which is excerpted below, summarizes some of her findings.

* * *

The Bible got it wrong. Pride only goes before a fall when it’s hubris — excessive pride that veers into self-aggrandizement and conceit. This emotion can be a deadly sin or a healthy part of human expression, says psychology researcher Jessica Tracy (Credit: Martin Dee)

But otherwise, this emotion is fundamental to humans and healthy self-esteem, “There’s good pride and there’s bad pride,” says Psychology Asst. Prof. Jessica Tracy.

* * *

Tracy and co-investigator Prof. Richard Robins, University of California, Davis, have established that pride has two faces: hubristic and authentic. “The two different facets show us that hubristic pride reflects feelings of arrogance, grandiosity and superiority,” says Tracy.

An example she gives of hubristic pride is of someone finishing a task and instead of focusing on their achievement, will think, “I’m a really great person.” By contrast, authentic pride reflects achievement and mastery, a sense of: “I worked really hard and deserve that praise.”

Tracy says the latter has positive outcomes, while “hubristic pride is associated more with narcissism, which can lead to inter-personal conflicts.”

* * *

She measures through a self-report scale that offers the respondent a selection of words to describe feelings and views on pride. “Arrogant,” “conceited” and “egotistical” would indicate hubristic pride while “achieving,” “accomplished,” “productive,” “confident” and “fulfilled” indicate authentic pride.

Native American Chief

These various shades of pride are important when it to comes to better understanding and treating people for such issues as low self-esteem, says Tracy.

“Shame correlates with pride. If present, pride may be able to reinforce peaceful and productive behaviours,” notes Tracy. “Its absence, caused by humiliation or ego threats, could provoke aggression or other antisocial behaviours.”

* * *

She says pride has received little research attention in the past since it didn’t fit easily into the category of “primary emotions” such as fear or joy. Instead, pride is categorized as a “self-conscious emotion,” which develops out of social interaction with others.

What particularly fascinates Tracy is how this emotion has evolved through time and continues to shape human social dynamics. For example, the darker side of pride may have evolved out of the age-old human desire for status.

“Authentic pride might motivate behaviours geared toward long-term status attainment,” says Tracy, “whereas hubristic pride provides a ‘short-cut’ solution, granting status that is more immediate but fleeting, and in some cases, unwarranted.”

* * *

Another area of Tracy’s work explores how pride is immediately recognizable to others when translated into body language. To test her theory about the universality of the pride expression, Tracy conducted research between 2003 and 2005 in Toussiana, a rural village in Burkina Faso.

The villagers spoke only their native African language, Dioula, and could not read or write. Working with a translator, Tracy asked them to describe what they saw in the photographs of male and female white Americans and West African, who displayed different emotions.

Looking at the photos, the villagers identified pride along with the other six basic emotions — anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.

“We saw that recognition of the pride expression does cut across cultures.”

* * *

Click here to read this article in it’s entirety. Click here to explore an article about Tracy’s and Robin’s earlier research on the physical manifestations of pride. Click here to read an abstract of an earlier study by Tracy on children’s capacity to recognize.

Posted in Emotions, Life, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on June 21, 2007

War 2

“Sure, this robe of mine doth change my disposition.”
~William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale

Phil Zimbardo, in his great book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, describes “how a simple change in one’s external appearance can trigger dramatic changes in overt behavior.” The term of art is “deindividuation,” and the evidence for its powerful effects is as strong as it is disturbing.

For instance, Zimbardo reports one Milgram-like experiment in which “women in the deindividuation condition delivered twice as much shock to . . . victims as did the comparison women” who were not anonymous. It didn’t’ matter what the deindividuated women had previously felt about their shock victims. Regardless, they “increased shock time . . . over the course of twenty trials, holding their finger down ever longer on the shock switch as their victims twisted and moaned right before them. In contrast the individuated women discriminated between . . . likable and unpleasant targets, shocking the pleasant woman less over time than they did the unpleasant one.”

Zimbardo also reports the findings of anthropologist, R.J. Watson who found that of twenty-three societies for which data was available, the warriors for those societies changed their appearance significantly in fifteen.

“They were the societies that were the most destructive: fully 80 percent of them . . . brutalized their enemies. By contrast, in seven of eight of he societies in which the warriors did not change their appearance before going into battle, they did not engage in such destructive behavior. . . . [Put differently,] 90 percent of the time when victims of battle were killed, tortured, or mutilated, it was by warriors who had first changed their appearance and deindividuated themselves.”

Why does this happen? Zimbardo attributes the change of behavior to the fact that deindividuation “creates a unique psychological state in which behavior comes under the control of immediate situational demands and biological, hormonal urges.” “With inner restraints suspended, behavior is totally under external situational control; outer dominates inner.”

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (see clip of 1990 video above) captured the effect of deindividuation when Jack puts on a mask, which transforms him and, in turn, his young cohorts, as he admired his creation in the water’s reflection:

[Jack] looked in astonishment, no longer at himself but an an awesome stranger. He . . . leapt to his feet, laughing excitedly. Beside the pool his sinewy body held up a mask that drew their eyes and appalled [the other boys]. He began to dance and his laughter became a blood-thirsty snarling. He capered toward Bill, and the mask was a thins on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness.

From that moment forward, of course, all hell broke loose. According to Zimbardo, there is, unfortunately, a large quantity of real-world evidence further demonstrating that deindividuation plays a significant role in encouraging or permitting particularly heinous behavior. That brings us to today’s news.

Seung Hui Cho

The increased ability to engage in brutal acts behind a deindividuating facade may have played some role in the Virginia Tech massacre. In today’s Washington Post, Sari Horwtiz has a fascinating piece on Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who, on April 16, shot and killed 32 students and faculty members and wounded 25 others. (For an NPR, Here and Now audio interview of Washington Post editor Mike Semel on this topic, click here.) According to investigators, Cho, among other things, radically changed his identity in the days and weeks leading up to the shooting. “Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives . . . think Cho mentally and physically tried to transform himself . . . before his rampage.” His identity modifications included:

  • When Cho was ready for his shooting spree, he wrote “I am Ax Ishmael,” an identity thought to be based on the biblical figure Ishmael, who lived as an outcast.
  • Taking pictures of himself in poses associated with other persons, including those where he mimics the appearance of Jesus Christ on the cross and where he depicts himself as a soldier.
  • Eliminating any traces of his identity as Seung Hui Cho from his computer, such as by deleting his Hotmail account and removing his hard drive.
  • Methodically obtained weapons and clothing, such as the cargo pants he wore during the rampage, to become a “soldier.”

Of course, there is much more to the story, but one crucial piece of it seems to be this metamorphosis that separated his actions as “Ax Ishmael” from the “inner restraints” that might have existed in Seung Hui Cho.

* * *

For a post about the possible influence of Cho playing of first-person shooters on computers and video game systems, click here. For related posts on the consequences of deindivduation, go to Maintaining Army, Internet Disinhibition, and March Madness.

Posted in Conflict, Social Psychology | 8 Comments »

Some (Interior) Situational Sources of War – Part VII

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 20, 2007


This series is devoted to highlighting some of the psychological tendencies that encourage individuals and groups to enter conflicts and wars that they later regret. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. Part IV and Part V in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Part VI contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts,” which gives special emphasis to the role of system justification.

In this installment, we post a video created and narrated by psychologist Roy J. Eidelson, Executive Director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The video is entitled “Resisting the Drums of War.” In it, Eidelson focuses on five core human concerns — vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness — that “profoundly influence our personal and collective lives.” The video contains an impressive collection of speech and interview excerpts, which it employs to show how the current administration manipulated (and is manipulating) those concerns to justify initiating, maintaining, and expanding the war. Eidelson’s video also offers suggestions on how to counter appeals to the five core concerns.

* * *

Posted in Conflict, History, Politics, Public Policy | 5 Comments »

The Situationist Named Best Social Psychology Blog

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 19, 2007

We are honored that PsyBlog has named The Situationist the best social psychology blog in its recent Guide to Psychology blogs:

Best social psychology blog

The Situationist explores the importance of the situation in human behaviour and thought. It covers social psychology, social cognition, and related fields, but it is associated with Harvard Law School and therefore has a broad subject-area. It has both original writing and interesting excerpts from relevant pieces in the media.

PsyBlog is authored by Jeremy Dean, a barrister and a graduate student in psychology at University College London. We appreciate his kind words, and recommend reading about the other on-line publications honored.

We also appreciate you, our readers. When we launched The Situationist in late January we had no expectation of so quickly attracting such a loyal and often interactive readership. We hope you continue to read our writings and comment with thoughts and reactions.

Posted in Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

Your Brain on Politics

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 18, 2007

The Socialist Brain of a Liberal Democrat

Drew Westen is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His research focuses on personality and personality-related disorders, which special focus on the cognitive and emotional processes that are essential to interpersonal relationships. Together with his collaborator Jonathan Shedler, Westen has developed the Shedler-Westen Assessment Procedure to help fellow practitioners diagnose and analyze personality types and disorders. In conducting an experiment on people’s mental processes when discussing their political beliefs, Westen discovered that it was, in fact, the ’emotional’ portions of the brain were activated, instead of the “reasoning” portion. His upcoming book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation, discusses those findings. Michael Tomasky recently discussed this new book in his article for the New York Review of Books entitled “How Democrats Should Talk” excerpted below.

* * *

The Political BrainWhat [Frank] Luntz [ed. Republican ‘spin doctor’] does understand that many Democratic consultants do not is that language used by a politician sets off a network of associations in voters’ minds. These associations, even for people who follow current events closely, are more likely to be emotional than rational, and voters “reason” their way toward emotionally biased conclusions. This is “the political brain” of Drew Westen’s new book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation, and Westen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, has set out to show Democrats how to connect to it.

Westen’s central insight is both obvious and simple: Democrats, he writes, have generally assumed that voters make their choices based on reason, and this leads to failure because “the political brain is an emotional brain.” The Democrats’ belief in “the dispassionate vision of the mind” has an honorable lineage going back to the Age of Reason and is useful for other purposes in life. But Westen suggests that electorally, it’s a total loser:

Republicans understand what the philosopher David Hume recognized three centuries ago: that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around. With the exception of the Clinton era, Democratic strategists for the last three decades have instead clung tenaciously to the dispassionate view of the mind and to the campaign strategy that logically follows from it, namely one that focuses on facts, figures, policy statements, costs, and benefits, and appeals to intellect and expertise.

In his early chapters Westen discusses the physiology of the brain and the different ways in which we respond to rational and emotional stimuli. Whatever the views of other experts on these neurological matters may be, I can say that, for electoral politics, Westen’s analyses almost always seem to me correct and something that Democrats need desperately to hear.

Their devotion to the rational mind has prevented Democrats from doing two main things: presenting their own affirmative case in the most convincing way and responding to conservative attacks. On the first matter, Westen (a liberal himself) cites numerous examples of the disastrous ways Al Gore and John Kerry each relied excessively, indeed pedantically, on pending legislation, empirical data, and the like instead of simple and forceful language in making their case. To a question in a 2000 debate about gay and lesbian rights, Gore began his answer by citing “a law pending called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.” In another debate, Gore muffed a question about “character” after Bush cited the attack on Gore during the Clinton presidency for allegedly fishy campaign-finance practices, including the famous fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles. In response, Gore did no more than pledge his support for the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill. Gore also explicitly refused to respond directly to Bush’s other attacks. It’s the Democrats’ fear of a fight, and their constant appeals to “get back to discussing the issues” and such talk, that really get under Westen’s skin.

In a perceptive section on terrorism and the Bush administration’s manipulation of fear after September 11, Westen draws on research showing that intimations of mortality shift most people’s reactions to the right politically, and he demonstrates how Demo-crats, in trying to sound as “tough” as Bush, were unwittingly reinforcing Bush’s worldview. His discussion of the Kerry camp’s response to the Swift-Boaters is especially sharp. He describes a weak, and entirely rational, letter—sent three weeks after the attacks—by Kerry’s campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill to Ken Mehlman, her Bush-campaign counterpart, urging Mehlman to persuade Bush to denounce the attacks and return to the issues. Westen writes:

If the letter hadn’t been signed by Cahill, I would have wondered if it had been written by Rove himself. It sent virtually every message you wouldn’t want to send under these circumstances. First, from a symbolic standpoint, you don’t send your mother out to fight for you when another boy bullies you in the schoolyard. Kerry’s response should have been man to man, and it should have been live, on the air, not in print. Second, the form and goal of the letter had a groveling, beseeching quality, which gave Bush the power to do with it what he wanted…. Third, instead of making the entire incident a condemnation of the president’s character, it gave Bush the opportunity to look magnanimous….

Republican Elephant

* * *

What should Democrats do differently? This is where the fun starts. Usually, books like these end with one somewhat perfunctory prescriptive chapter. But The Political Brain has many examples, filling chapter after chapter after chapter, describing how Democrats could have made in the past, and could make in the future, strong emotional appeals that are rooted in truth. Westen’s recommended language—on issues ranging from abortion to gay rights to terrorism to taxes to race to the nature of modern conservatism—is at least an improvement over what the Democrats say currently and at best exhilarating to imagine. For example, he thinks that the Democrats could have reframed the debate over the Iraq war resolution in 2002 by gathering en masse on the steps of the Capitol and issuing a statement along the following lines:

The Republicans are demanding that we vote for this resolution without discussion, without knowing whether a deployment of troops to Iraq would prevent us from finishing the job in Afghan-istan where Osama bin Laden is still at large, and without knowing whether fighting a war on two fronts will require reinstatement of the draft.

The resolution we are being asked to vote for demands that we abridge the Constitution that our founding fathers so artfully crafted, which gave Congress the sacred duty to provide oversight over the executive branch, not only in times of peace but also in times of war, when American lives are most at stake. And the reason we are being asked to sign this resolution now—the reason it cannot wait until the facts are more clear —is not national security. This resolution is designed for no other purpose than the partisan interests of the Republican Party….

I recall no more than a small handful of Democrats who said anything remotely like this. It would have altered the tenor of the debate considerably if more had done so. Nor have either Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi since adopted similar language.

Political Brain

In recent years, a small number of experts on language and rhetoric have been touted as the Democrats’ savior. None of these panned out. The cognitive linguist George Lakoff was supposed to lead the Democrats in from the wilderness, and Lakoff produced good insights into the contrasting approaches to moral questions of liberals and conservatives; but when he engaged in actual political work, as he did with House Democrats in 2004, the result couldn’t have been more banal because his descriptions of conservatives’ and liberals’ moral systems did not lead to clear strategic conclusions.

Many people are therefore skittish about anyone being heralded as the next source of advice. But Westen’s analyses and suggestions speak precisely to Democrats’ greatest tactical failures of the last quarter-century, and they do so without descending to the level of “Mission Accomplished” banners and the “death tax.” It will be fascinating to see how The Political Brain is received among the Democratic political professionals, who are for the most part insular and arrogant and have an explanation for everything. But Westen’s explanations sound better than the ones that have long been circulating in Washington.

* * *

The Political Brain will be released on June 25th in hardcover to all major booksellers. Words That Work, Dr. Frank Luntz’s seminal work on linguistics in politics, is available at all major booksellers. To read the entire article, click here. For related posts on the brain and emotions, see “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns,” “The Situation in New Orleans,” and “The Big Game: What Corporations are Learning about the Human Brain.”

Posted in Book, Emotions, Politics, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

First Person or Third, How Would You Tell Your Story?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 16, 2007


Over the past few years, memoirs have continually been at the top of the best seller lists. Americans love to hear about the lives of others. Whether to comfort themselves about the state of their own lives or simply for a better understanding of a public figure, most humans are interested in finding out how and why people do the things they do. Yet they rarely ask the question of themselves in the same context. A recent article from the New York Times, written by Benedict Carey, is excerpted below. It examines the way people choose to express their memories as a narrative, thus affecting how they live in the present and how they move into the future.

* * *

For more than a century, researchers have been trying to work out the raw ingredients that account for personality, the sweetness and neuroses that make Anna Anna. They have largely ignored the first-person explanation — the life story that people themselves tell about who they are, and why.

* * *

The tone, the lessons, even the facts in a life story can all shift in the changing light of a person’s mood, its major notes turning minor, its depths appearing shallow. The way in which we visualize each scene of our lives not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave, new studies find.

“When we first started studying life stories, people thought it was just idle curiosity — stories, isn’t that cool?” said Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of the 2006 book, “The Redemptive Self.” “Well, we find that these narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.”

Image by Otto Steininger for New York Times

Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent.

* * *

YouTube routines notwithstanding, most people do not begin to see themselves in the midst of a tale with a beginning, middle and eventual end until they are teenagers. “Younger kids see themselves in terms of broad, stable traits: ‘I like baseball but not soccer,’ ” said Kate McLean, a psychologist at the University of Toronto in Mississauga. “This meaning-making capability — to talk about growth, to explain what something says about who I am — develops across adolescence.”

* * *

In analyzing the texts of life-story interviews, the researchers found strong correlations between the content of people’s current lives and the stories they tell. Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail.

By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh.

Iraq Vets against the war

In broad outline, the researchers report, such tales express distinctly American cultural narratives, of emancipation or atonement, of Horatio Alger advancement, of epiphany and second chances. But the point is that the narrative themes are, as much as any other trait, driving factors in people’s behavior, the researchers say. “We find that when it comes to the big choices people make — should I marry this person? should I take this job? should I move across the country? — they draw on these stories implicitly, whether they know they are working from them or not,” Dr. McAdams said.

* * *

The research so far suggests that people’s life stories are neither rigid nor wildly variable, but rather change gradually over time, in close tandem with meaningful life events.

Jonathan Adler, a researcher at Northwestern, has found that people’s accounts of their experiences in psychotherapy provide clues about the nature of their recovery. In a recent study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in January, Mr. Adler reported on 180 adults from the Chicago area who had recently completed a course of talk therapy.

Mr. Adler found that in fact those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being — who had recovered, by standard measures — told very similar tales about their experiences. They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.

Those in the study who scored lower on measures of psychological well-being were more likely to see their moods and behavior problems as a part of their own character, rather than as a villain to be defeated. To them, therapy was part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle.

* * *

To better understand how stories are built in real time, researchers have recently studied how people recall vivid scenes from recent memory. They find that one important factor is the perspective people take when they revisit the scene — whether in the first person, or in the third person, as if they were watching themselves in a movie.

In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students’ essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.

What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you’re feeling upset,” instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study’s lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.

* * *

The way people replay and recast memories, day by day, deepens and reshapes their larger life story. And as it evolves, that larger story in turn colors the interpretation of the scenes.

Psychologists have shown just how interpretations of memories can alter future behavior. In an experiment published in 2005, researchers had college students who described themselves as socially awkward in high school recall one of their most embarrassing napoleon_dynamite.jpgmoments. Half of the students reimagined the humiliation in the first person, and the other half pictured it in the third person.

Two clear differences emerged. Those who replayed the scene in the third person rated themselves as having changed significantly since high school — much more so than the first-person group did. The third-person perspective allowed people to reflect on the meaning of their social miscues, the authors suggest, and thus to perceive more psychological growth. And their behavior changed, too.

Recordings showed that members of the third-person group were much more sociable than the others. “They were more likely to initiate a conversation, after having perceived themselves as more changed,” said Lisa Libby, the lead author and a psychologist at Ohio State University. She added, “We think that feeling you have changed frees you up to behave as if you have; you think, ‘Wow, I’ve really made some progress’ and it gives you some real momentum.”

Dr. Libby and others have found that projecting future actions in the third person may also affect what people later do, as well. In another study, students who pictured themselves voting for president in the 2004 election, from a third-person perspective, were more likely to actually go to the polls than those imagining themselves casting votes in the first person.

* * *

It is unclear whether such scene-making is more functional for some people, and some memories, than for others. And no one yet knows how fundamental personality factors, like neuroticism or extraversion, shape the content of life stories or their component scenes.

But the new research is giving narrative psychologists something they did not have before: a coherent story to tell. Seeing oneself as acting in a movie or a play is not merely fantasy or indulgence; it is fundamental to how people work out who it is they are, and may become.

* * *

“The idea that whoever appeared onstage would play not me but a character was central to imagining how to make the narrative: I would need to see myself from outside,” the writer Joan Didion has said of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her autobiographical play about mourning the death of her husband and her daughter. “I would need to locate the dissonance between the person I thought I was and the person other people saw.”

* * *

To read the entire article, click here. For related posts on how people understand themselves and the difference it makes, see “Self-Serving Biases,” “The Perils of ‘Being Smart’ (or Not So Much),” and “Promoting Dispositionism Through Entertainment” (Part I, Part II & Part III). Situationist Contributor, Timothy Wilson, has written extensively about how we conceive of ourselves — our identities. Roughly, Wilson finds that the adaptive unconscious — our non-cognitive filter that gathers, interprets, and evaluates information and emotions — provides the mental processes that we unknowingly use to assess the world, establish goals, and initiate action, while our consciousness focuses on other matters to which we (often mistakenly) ascribe importance. Consequently, Wilson writes in his outstanding book, Strangers to Ourselves, “we don’t know ourselves—our potentials, feelings, or motives,” but instead “have developed a plausible story about ourselves that is out of touch with our adaptive unconscious.”

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

Can You Turn the World on With Your Smile?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 14, 2007

Mona Lisa smileHumans have long expressed positive feelings with smiles and laughter. Some people light up the room their smile, others not so much. When you’re smiling, the whole world is said to smile back.  And laughter is similarly infectious. Of course, not all smiles are alike. Because of her smile, if that is what it is, the Mona Lisa’s expression has bewitched us since da Vinci painted her in the 16th century. And the meaning of a smile is context dependent. The Situationist last week looked into cultural influences on facial expressions.

Some studies have shown that smiling and laughter profoundly influence our emotions and health. Several researchers have suggested that laughter really is the best medicine, or at least a darn good one. But how much can laughter really cure? Do people who laugh more really heal faster? The power of the smile has been a topic of research for scientists and marketers alike. The following excerpts, drawn from several articles, illustrate some of the directions and bending questions facing laugh researchers.

* * *

Judging a Smile

Monkey!In their research, [Julie] Woodzicka and [Steven] Martinenza conducted mock job interviews with 101 college students, videotaping and coding the duration and intensity of participants’ smiles using a facial-action coding system that relies on a combination of mouth and eye movements to determine fake smiles from genuine ones. They hoped to find out why people fake smiles and gauge their awareness of it.

So far, based on preliminary results, Woodzicka and Martinenza find women tend to fake smiles more than men do and are more aware of these inclinations.

The reason? “Women smile more to appease,” Woodzicka posits. “When they become uncomfortable, they put on a smile to show that they will do whatever they need to get through the situation.”

For example, they were likely to report reasons for a fake smile such as they were trying to please the interviewer, according to their preliminary findings. Men, however, tended to be less other-focused when smiling, reporting that they “wanted to appear like a nice person,” or that they were amused at something that was said.

* * *

Smile…like you mean it

by Shannon Proudfoot

Matthew Ansfield was fishing with a group of high school buddies with too many lures in a small area. Suddenly, a hook sliced through his hand.

His friends helped him, of course – but only after they’d picked themselves up off the ground and gained control of their laughter.

harold-lloyd-help.jpgThe incident led Ansfield into a new area of study. “I started wondering if everyone did that, or if my friends were just freaks,” says the associate psychology professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

His research revealed that many people — especially men — react to distress by smiling, and the more upset they are, the more they grin. That’s because people know on some level that “putting on a happy face” makes them feel better. Smiling can be a coping mechanism adopted under duress.

In Ansfield’s study, published in the June issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 80 men and 80 women watched a selection of amusing, neutral or disgusting videos. The amusing videos included stand-up comedians, the neutral ones documentaries and the upsetting ones footage such as the autopsy of a human eyeball or a tribe attacking a cow with bows and arrows, then drinking the blood spurting out of its neck.

Oddly, volunteers smiled 22 per cent of the time while viewing the disturbing segments – just as often as they showed a disgusted expression. Men smiled twice as much as women (30 per cent compared to 15 per cent), and they grinned even more (46 per cent of the time) while watching the upsetting footage with another man in the room.

Previous studies showed women smile more than men in almost every other situation, Ansfield says. Social expectations or “display rules” dictate that women are more emotionally expressive than men, so it’s acceptable and even desirable for them to smile more. But in upsetting situations, men are expected to “be stoic” and smiling may provide a psychological release valve that allows them to keep their distressed feelings under wraps, he says – especially in the presence of another man.

The irony is that smiling while upset might make people feel a bit better inside, but the “inappropriate” reaction causes others to view them as less socially acceptable and even less likable, according to Ansfield’s research.

“Often people will say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, I would never do that.’ And they may be right – they would never do that, they would cry, perhaps,” says Dr. Howard Book, an associate professor of psychiatry who specializes in emotional intelligence at the University of Toronto. “But they’re not really understanding what’s going on in that person’s mind at a deeper level.”

When it comes to grieving, funeral service professionals learn to promote the idea that “everything is normal,” says Sue Lasher, manager of Foster’s Garden Chapel in Calgary. They see families laughing and joking their way through plans for a loved one’s funeral, sobbing inconsolably or swinging wildly between the two, she says, and they don’t judge any of it.

“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘You must think I’m terrible because I’m laughing.’ And we say, ‘No, you do whatever you need to do,'” she says. “We just have to make families understand that whatever they’re going through is completely normal, and it’s OK.”

* * *

Subliminal Smiles Can Sway You

Subliminal images of smiling faces may make consumers more willing to try new things, new research suggests.

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego found people were more likely to be interested in a “mystery beverage” if they’d just looked at a series of photos including fleeting glimpses of smiling people. Subliminal images of frowning faces, meanwhile, made the subjects less interested in the drink.

The findings suggest that the human mind is much more attuned to facial expressions — including ones barely noticed — than people might realize, said study author Piotr Winkielman, an associate professor of psychology.

“Our mind becomes very practiced at picking up these cues, whether it’s smiling or frowning,” Winkielman said. Smiles “can activate a process in your brain that basically makes you more positively predisposed to whatever comes next.”

Winkielman and his colleagues designed two experiments to force students to focus their thoughts on a mystery beverage — actually a concoction of water, sugar and lemon-lime Kool-Aid.

Before each experiment, the students looked at photos of a series of neutral faces. Smiling or frowning faces were also embedded in the photos, but were displayed too fleetingly for subjects to consciously notice. The researchers had previously tested the students to make sure they couldn’t detect the subliminal photos.

The idea was to see whether the smiling and frowning faces primed the students to be more willing to try something new.

Winkielman presented his findings May 26 at the American Psychological Society annual meeting, in Los Angeles.

In the first experiment, 39 undergraduate students were allowed to drink as much of the unnamed beverage as they wanted. Thirsty subjects drank twice as much after viewing the happy faces as those who looked at unhappy faces, Winkielman reported.

Coca Cola ad - Smile

In the second experiment among 29 students given a sip of the beverage, the thirstiest subjects primed by a smiling face wanted to spend 38 cents for a full drink, while those primed by a frowning face only wanted to spend 10 cents.

Since people have been accustomed to reading faces since infancy, it makes sense that they’d be fine-tuned to these expressions, Winkielman explained. “Your brain has maybe learned to use those cues and adjust your behavior without you realizing it,” he said. “You can think of it as happy faces being a general ‘go’ signal.”mcdonalds-logo.jpg

Craig A. Smith, an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, said the findings suggest that people don’t always consciously feel the emotions that actually influence what they do or buy. “You’re not aware that you’re feeling angry or sad, yet you behave in ways that are consistent with that feeling,” Smith said.

By providing evidence of “unconscious” emotion, the study adds more support to the idea that emotions have a physical basis in the brain, he said.

Posted in Emotions, Life | 1 Comment »

Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part VI

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 14, 2007

Sami-ul-Haq - AP/Wide World Photos

This series is devoted to highlighting some of the psychological tendencies that encourage individuals and groups to enter conflicts and wars that they later regret. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. The previous post, Part IV and Part V, in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. This Part contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts.” It highlights many of the same themes that have been noted by other posts in this series, but gives special emphasis to the role of system justification.

* * *

My research suggests that when a system is threatened, proponents of that system tend to respond defensively, almost instinctively, to bolster support for the central tenets of the system. In part, this is what has happened in the case of last week’s terrorist attacks: some Islamic fundamentalists are fighting a holy war against the U.S. allegedly to defend the existence and purity of their system against what they perceive to be our military, economic, and cultural imperialism. Of course, this does not justify the attacks (nothing could), though it may help to explain it.

Opinion polls suggest that most Americans will accept uncritically whatever the government does next. Perhaps this is also a defensive reaction to our system being attacked so viciously, in both symbolic and material terms. But we must avoid the trap of allowing our pain and fear to have the final word in handling this crisis. Why? Certainly the desire for revenge is understandable. I think that there are two main reasons why we need critical analysis, perhaps now more than ever.

First, good decision-making requires the capacity to scrutinize possibilities, evaluate consequences, and identify potential problems and shortcomings associated with specific courses of action. In short, there is a general need to examine the evidence in a manner that is as unbiased as possible. This requires the consideration of diverse perspectives, which is one reason why the success of our response depends upon careful consultation with, among others, leaders in Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. History suggests that unquestioning conformity of opinion can lead to disastrous decision-making outcomes. In this case, any wrong move virtually guarantees that terrorism will become part of daily life in the U.S. Or worse.

The second reason, which is even more crucial, pertains to issues of influence and legitimacy, which are intertwined. The broader and more diverse our base of international allies is, the more legitimacy we will have to “root out” terrorism. Our long-term legitimacy is especially dependent upon the support of Arab nations and moderate Islamic groups that are willing to denounce terrorism. Bush has been widely criticized, especially in Europe, for having spurned international cooperation in environmental and arms limitation treaties. Now that he is the de facto leader of the worldwide response to terrorism, he must establish and maintain complex, international coalitions, and he must win cooperation and consent from a wide variety of diverse constituencies. His ability to influence our potential allies is directly tied to the legitimacy of his requests and the reasons behind them. Many, including opinion leaders in Afghanistan and China, are calling for evidence directly implicating Osama bin Laden in the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Regardless of the reasons for this request, it is a legitimate one.

If we wish to distinguish clearly between the motives for the terrorists’ actions and the motives for ours, and if we wish to convince ourselves and others that our foreign policy is based more on reason than on rationalization, then our collective response — whatever it is — must involve careful analysis and searching debate rather than a swift confirmation of our Godliness and the righteousness of our wrath. Even if some debates are necessarily held in private, it is essential to the democratic process and to maintaining the trust of internal and external constituencies that the administration offers proof that a wide range of opinions are being fairly and thoroughly considered.

Although there has been no formal declaration of war, the Bush administration has framed these attacks from the start as “acts of war” rather than “crimes against humanity.” Framing the crisis in terms of “America’s New War” (as CNN is marketing it) is highly consequential because it implicitly delineates categories of legitimate and illegitimate action. In war, it may be unfortunate, but it is both legitimate and inevitable that innocent civilians will be killed. In the policing of crime, of course, it is far from legitimate to kill innocent bystanders in the process of apprehending a criminal. At the moment, Great Britain and other key European allies have accepted the “war frame,” but the consensus on this could unravel, and some of the U.S. actions could lose their legitimacy in the context of other frames.

In polarized conflicts such as this one, legitimacy is generally a zero-sum, distributive resource. Thus, the legitimation of one system implies the delegitimation of its opposite, and the delegitimation of one system similarly implies the legitimation of its opposite. Right now, the U.S. enjoys vast legitimacy on the world stage only because its adversaries have acted illegitimately. We must be extremely careful to insure that our actions are well-conceived, based on reason and evidence, fair and proportionate, and consensually endorsed by most of the international community, or we will not only lose our credibility, we will be helping our enemies in the struggle for legitimacy. If we are perceived (now or in the future) as indiscriminately killing innocent Arabs, then we will have delegitimized our cause, squandered our influence, and — worst of all — legitimized future generations of terrorists.

Posted in Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 2 Comments »

Slips, Falls, and the Situation of Tort Reform(ers)

Posted by Goutam Jois on June 13, 2007

From time to time, the issue of tort reform comes to the fore in the legal and policy discourse. Sometimes, tort reform is highlighted by a presidential panel on the subject. At other times, it is highlighted by a leading tort reform advocate’s slip-and-fall accident. As has been making the rounds on the internet (for example, see here, here, and here), Robert Bork slipped and fell last year when approaching the dais at the Yale Club of New York. A year later, he is suing the Club for $1 million dollars in compensatory damages and unspecified punitive damages, according to the recently filed complaint Normally, such a lawsuit would be nothing unusual; after all, there are thousands of lawsuits filed each year. What makes this lawsuit noteworthy — as others have noted — is that the plaintiff is a long-standing advocate of tort reform. In a 2002 law review article (25 Harv. J. L. & Pub. Pol’y 849 (2002)), Judge Bork wrote:

The present tort system poses dangers to interstate commerce not unlike those faced under the Articles of Confederation. Even if Congress would not, in 1789, have had the power to displace state tort law, the nature of the problem has changed so dramatically as to bring the problem within the scope of the power granted to Congress. Accordingly, proposals, such as placing limits or caps on punitive damages, or eliminating joint or strict liability, which may once have been clearly understood as beyond Congress’s power, may now be constitutionally appropriate.

Id. at 865-66. And in 1995 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Theodore Olson cited a letter from Judge Bork letter to Newt Gingrich (reproduced at pages 43-45 of the hearing transcript), saying “that ‘abusive litigation’ and ‘excessive damage awards’ are ‘national problems’ that fall within [Congress’s] commerce [clause] power because they are ‘having a profoundly adverse impact on interstate commerce.’” (It may be worth noting that Olson’s current firm is the one representing Judge Bork). So what gives? Has Robert Bork suddenly had a change of heart, such that he thinks that the tort system should favor plaintiffs and that tort reform is unnecessary? Is he just a hypocrite, arguing, as DailyKos suggests, “Tort reform for thee, but not for me”? Has the high-powered corporate law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher decided to get into the personal injury field — a practice area that, at least as of today, is not listed on their website.

People may have their own answers to these questions, but a basic situational analysis suggests another answer: Bork is not a hypocrite — he is just moved by his situation. A phenomenon known as the “actor-observer effect” is well documented in the psychological literature. In short, when bad things happen to us, we attribute them to our situation. When bad things happen to other people, we attribute them to their disposition. For example, in one study, young drivers who drove recklessly offered situational explanations for their own behavior (they were in a hurry or running late) but dispositional explanations for their friends’ behavior (the friends were trying to show off or act cool).

This seemingly intuitive finding goes a long way toward explaining Judge Bork’s experience: when someone else trips and falls, we see assumption of risk, personal responsibility, and a frivolous lawsuit. However, when we trip and fall, we see ourselves as a victim of situation: others had control over the arrangements, the dais was “unreasonabl[y] h[igh],” and the Yale Club “wantonly, willfully, and recklessly fail[ed] to provide a safe dais and stairs.”

Indeed, the commentators who attribute Bork’s lawsuit to hypocrisy or inconsistency themselves make the fundamental attribution error or what Situationist Friend Dan Gilbert calls the correspondence bias — our tendency to attribute a person’s actions to his disposition (hypocrisy, inconsistency) rather than his situation (a sense of outrage, a feeling of being wronged, and so on). Judge Bork’s own former colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, going straight to the Judge’s disposition, has called the lawsuit “embarrassingly silly.”

Our (adversarial) tort system is useful, among other reasons, because (as Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson teaches his first-year students) it allows for the airing of multiple attributional accounts. Predicting the future is a delicate business, but it is a near guarantee that the Yale Club’s answer to Judge Bork’s complaint will argue that he assumed the risk, should have been more careful, or should have taken it on the chin (or knee, as it were) and not filed such a frivolous lawsuit. In short, in response to Judge Bork’s lawsuit blaming the situation, the Yale Club will answer and blame the Judge’s disposition.

As Situationist contributor Tom Tyler points out in a variety of articles, people will obey the law if they believe it to be a legitimate institution. In turn, people think of the law as legitimate if (among other things) they have an opportunity to tell their side of the story, are judged by a neutral decision-maker, are given reasons for an adverse decision, and are treated with (perceived) respect. At least in theory, our tort system is designed to provide exactly those elements.

In short, then, Judge Bork’s lawsuit is not surprising, and it may be frivolous. Like most of us, when his situation changed — when he felt wronged — he wanted a forum for redress of his (perceived) wrong. His claim might be legitimate or not; that is for Judge Buchwald (and her clerks) to decide. In any event, social psychology teaches us that when we feel slighted, we want a forum to vindicate that anger, but also that we are likely to misjudge others when they feel the same way. Law generally would do well to learn from those insights — and Judge Bork (whom we wish a speedy recovery) would do well to remember those insights when he is next asked to opine on tort reform.

Posted in Choice Myth, Law, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

The Magic of Jonathan Papelbon’s “Knuckle Knock”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 12, 2007

Reverse the CurseOn a couple of occasions, we have examined how people sometimes claim magical powers—and thus personal responsibility—for events that they couldn’t possibly have controlled (see “Red Sox Magic” and “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?“). Be it through willing a certain event to happen, or voodooing it not to occur, many of us regard seemingly innocuous rituals as meaningful.

This phenomenon is particularly apparent with sports fans, who sometimes believe that their completely unrelated activity may in some way influence a game or a player’s performance. Back in October 2003, when the Boston Red Sox were enjoying a playoff run that would ultimately end on an Aaron Boone home run, many Sox fans believed that the clothing they wore and food they ate influenced the Sox’s chances. Donovan Slack and Anne Barnard of the Boston Globe wrote about such fans:

The same clothes, the same food, the same beer. They had to sit in the same order on the couch. And, when the Red Sox scored, they rose to their feet and cheered the same way they did during Games 3 and 4.

At a house party in the Fenway last night, guests tried to repeat every move they had made on Saturday and Sunday.

“After every good play, we do a high five, and then I hold up this,” said Patrick Labadia, pointing to a Red Sox sign on the coffee table.

Some might call it behavior bordering on obsessive-compulsive, but, across the region last night, little rituals and big anxieties took hold, as fans seemed to hang their entire sense of identity on the team’s fortunes.

Why do fans believe that they make a difference? As fellow Situationist Contributor Emily Pronin has written, people crave the illusion of control:

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.

But fans aren’t the only ones who believe in magic. Players can be justKuncukle Knock as, if not more, superstitious. Take Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, one of the best closers in baseball and the subject of a Suzanne Smalley article in today’s Boston Globe. Papelbon and police officer Billy Dunn, who provides security in Fenway Park, have developed a routine called the “knuckle knock” for whenever Papelbon is called into the game. We excerpt portions of the article below.

* * *

Billy Dunn is a paunchy veteran cop from the streets of Dorchester. Jonathan Papelbon is a strapping young fireballer from the deep South.

The former protects the Red Sox bullpen at Fenway Park. The latter protects Red Sox leads. In the course of their work, the unlikely pair have formed an improbable friendship and originated a good-luck ritual that brings thousands of Fenway’s bleacher creatures to their feet.

It goes like this: In the late innings with the Sox clinging to possible victory, manager Terry Francona walks to the pitcher’s mound and motions with his right arm to summon his All-Star closer. Rock music fills the park . Dunn flings open the bullpen gate and Papelbon steps onto the field. Papelbon and Dunn then square their fists and knock knuckles to the delight of Red Sox fans everywhere.

Papelbon Pump FistDunn shuts the bullpen door. It’s then up to Papelbon to slam the door on the opposing team.

The knuckle knock started last season when an especially pumped-up Papelbon bumped fists with Dunn on a whim. After he had a good outing, the 26-year-old pitcher said, he told Dunn, “All right Billy, now we’ve got to do it every time.”

“I think it’s his way of giving me a little recognition, to say thanks,” says Dunn, a former Marine who has two large tattoos etched into his meaty forearms: “Born to Raise Hell” and “USMC.”

With the Red Sox boasting the best record in the majors, the knuckle knock has captured the imagination of Sox fans from the bleachers to the blogosphere.

Red Sox Nation likes to speculate about the workaday guy who has become a big-league good luck charm. “Papelbon giving that cop a high-five on his way out of the bullpen is one of my favorite things in baseball,” one Sox blogger recently mused. “That cop must be a god to his friends and family.”

* * *

For the rest of the article, click here. For additional examples of rituals by pro athletes, check out this Ralph Wiley column on ESPN2.

Posted in Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 6 Comments »

A Look Into the Way Culture Affects Facial Expression

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 11, 2007

Tom Kat SmileAs Americans, we are accustomed to the broad smiles of our actors and politicians. In part, it is because of those smiles that people are drawn to them. As election season draws nearer, maybe we should take our cues from the Japanese and examine Hillary’s eyes for that inner truth rather than her smile. According to a recent study by Masaki Yuki, a social psychologist at Hokkaido University, culture plays a role in what part of the face people look to interpret facial expression, and while Americans look to the mouth, the Japanese look at eyes. This day in age, this does not only come across on the television screen and on paper, but in the days of emoticons, through the computer as well ☺. Yuki’s study was the focus of an article from, which is excerpted below.

* * *

Culture is a huge factor in determining whether we look someone in the eye or the kisser to interpret facial expressions, according to a new study.

For instance, in Japan, people tend to look to the eyes for emotional cues, whereas Americans tend to look to the mouth, says researcher Masaki Yuki, a behavioral scientistJapanese Guy at Hokkaido University in Japan.

This could be because the Japanese, when in the presence of others, try to suppress their emotions more than Americans do, he said. Japanese people tend to shy away from overt displays of emotion, and rarely smile or frown with their mouths, Yuki explained, because the Japanese culture tends to emphasize conformity, humbleness and emotional suppression, traits that are thought to promote better relationships.

* * *

So when Yuki entered graduate school and began communicating with American scholars over e-mail, he was often confused by their use of emoticons such as smiley faces :) and sad faces, or :(.

“It took some time before I finally understood that they were faces,” he wrote. In Japan, emoticons tend to emphasize the eyes, such as the happy face (^_^) and the sad face (;_;).

* * *

Intrigued, Yuki decided to study this phenomenon. First, he and his colleagues asked groups of American and Japanese students to rate how happy or sad various computer-generated emoticons seemed to them. As Yuki predicted, the Japanese gave more weight to the emoticons’ eyes when gauging emotions, whereas Americans gave more weight to the mouth. For example, the American subjects rated smiling emoticons with sad-looking eyes as happier than the Japanese subjects did.

Interestingly, however, both the Americans and Japanese tended to rate faces with so-called “happy” eyes as neutral or sad. This could be because the muscles that are flexed around the eyes in genuine smiles are also quite active in sadness, said James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who was not involved in the research.

Research has shown that the expressive muscles around the eyes provide key clues about a person’s genuine emotions, said Coan.

* * *

To read the entire article, click here. To find out more about Japanese and emotion, take a look at our posting from last month, “The Loss of Empathy in Japan?

Posted in Emotions, Life, Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part V

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 9, 2007

This series is devoted to highlighting some of the psychological tendencies that encourage individuals and groups to enter conflicts and wars that they later regret. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. The previous post, Part IV, in this series contained the first half of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Echoing the previous posts in this series, it focused on a few of the many reasons to be worried about individual biases This post contains the second half of that essay and focuses more on some of the problematic dynamics of group deliberations.

* * *

Count to Twelve: Some Lessons from Social Cognition Theory – Part B
by Jon Hanson (written several days after 9/11/01)


When one remembers that a great deal of the thinking and decision making is being done by groups — the President and his National Security Advisors on one hand, and the American citizenry on the other — the cause for concern is heightened. In effect, all of the problems plaguing individual decision making just reviewed are amplified in group settings when group members are like-minded. (Conversely, those problems are often tempered when group members disagree and are free to express dissenting viewpoints.)

Social psychologists call one version of this problem “groupthink” — a phenomenon that scholars have demonstrated was partially responsible for numerous national tragedies. It’s illuminating to consider the factors that some scholars say give rise to groupthink:

1. An illusion of invulnerability, shared by most or all group members, that leads to overoptimism and excessive risk taking;

2. Collective efforts to rationalize or discount warnings;

3. An unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality;

4. Stereotyped views of adversaries as too evil to make negotiating worthwhile;

5. Pressure directed at any group member who dissents from the majority view;

6. A shared illusion of unanimity;

7. Self-censorship of deviations from the apparent group consensus; and

8. Self-appointed “mindguards” who protect the group from information that might challenge the group’s complacency.

Of course, none of us can know what is going on behind closed doors, as President Bush and his advisors plan the details of their strategy for counterattack. But we know enough to be concerned. After all, the meetings are taking place behind closed doors (a point, which taken alone, is neither objectionable nor surprising), among a group of like-minded individuals for whom the possibility that there will be a major military offensive is, and has been from the very beginning, a foregone conclusion. Although that group is carefully considering various options — the underlying purpose and basic approach of those options seems to be roughly the same: to punish and to send a message to “evildoers,” mostly by military means.

National Security Council Oct. 2001 AP/Worldwide Photos

And when one considers the tone of the sorts of things that President Bush and his spokespeople are saying, it is hard not to see symptoms of predictable cognitive failures. Before any of us had begun to comprehend the enormity of what happened, and before we knew our enemy’s identity, or what could have motivated such horrendous acts, we learned we are “at war,” that this is a “crusade,” a “monumental struggle of good versus evil,” that we “will use all our resources to conquer this enemy,” that “we will rally the world,” that “we’ll be focused, and we will be steadfast in our determination,” that “make no mistake about it: we will win,” that “we will rid the world of the evildoers,” and that “good will prevail.”

And, at the same time, nations around the globe were learning that they are “either with us or . . . not,” that America would “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” that America would engage in a “global assault against terrorism in general,” that we would “remov[e] the sanctuaries, remov[e] the support systems, and end[] the states who sponsor terrorism,” and that America was going to “lead the world to victory” in this war on terror.

Similarly, there is reason to worry about the thinking of the American citizenry, who President Bush hopes and needs to placate. In many ways, it is marvelous that American citizens of all ages, incomes, races and ethnicities are coming together, and that politicians from all parties are working together, in ways not seen for at least a generation. But, from a decision-making perspective, some aspects of the solidarity is deeply troubling. We are acting (and calling for action) out of the same rage that distorts our ability to see how regrettable such actions may turn out to be. The polls reveal, unsurprisingly, that Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of swift and forceful retaliation, even if it means casualties; there is talk of “bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age,” and stories of hundreds of “Arab-looking” Americans being beaten and spat upon, of people displaying flags in an effort to avoid harassment, of large, intimidating demonstrations outside of mosques, of “Kill All the Arabs” graffiti, and of an Islamic community center being splattered with pig’s blood.

Moreover, President Bush appears to be drumming up support — now, while we are in the throes of our most passionate anger — for a plan that we know nothing about to solve a problem that we know even less about.

It has probably occurred to most readers that the cognitive distortions that I’ve claimed appear to be influencing the American psyche are certainly plaguing the thinking of our presumed attackers. That must be right. And that insight helps to explain the seemingly senseless, endless cycles of retaliatory violence that we have witnessed in other parts of the world. More important, it also provides strong evidence for why we and our leaders should not act on our collective zeal.

The warning signs are there. As some pundits have argued, there is a real chance, that any major military intervention may backfire. That makes sense from the perspective of social cognition theory. Indeed, it should be easier for us to understand after last week how violence that is perceived to be illegitimate may only fan the flames of hatred and retaliation for those who commit it. How can that not be, unless we expect our victims to be bigger than us?

But even putting that risk aside, there is also the concern that we are mental prisoner’s not only of our retaliatory rage, but also of the first type of response that came to mind. Our general commitment to a primarily military response may be ill founded, but at this point it’s difficult for us to imagine alternative responses — a form of “belief perseverance.” On this topic, too, commentators have been issuing unsettling warnings. They urge us to focus less on annihilating those whose hate for America is most extreme, and more on attempting to understand and, perhaps, address the causes of such hatred held in less extreme forms by many people the world over. Reducing the threat of terror, in other words, may be better accomplished through reducing the presence of hate. Similarly, we can expect that our anger and hampered cognitive processes to shield us from the unpleasant thought that some of the anti-American sentiment around the world is understandable or even well founded and that some of our own stereotypes and attributions are false.

None of this is meant to suggest that severely punishing heinous terror mongers through military and economic means is necessarily the wrong approach. This is not a call for pacifism or for caving to the demands of suicidal terrorists; this is a call for making the best decisions we can in order to increase our chances of generating meaningful, lasting solutions.

So what sorts of things might be done to reduce the chances that we, and our children, may regret our next move? Very broadly, social cognition theory teaches that the best hope for making good decisions is to approach the underlying question from many different perspectives. With that basic insight in mind, here are a few suggestions: We should begin by recognizing the limits of our reason and the dangers posed by our understandable rage. We should initiate a national debate on what the role of this country is around the world — what effects, direct and indirect, do our policies, lifestyles, world views have on other people in other cultures on this planet. We should learn about how we’re perceived around the world and why. We should educate our children and ourselves on the nature and history of the cultural and economic differences between the West and the East. We should engage in searching, honest introspection and do our utmost to see the world from other people’s vantage points. The media and educators should encourage greater understanding, greater dissent, and greater humility. The President should include on his strategy team individuals who believe any solution to terrorism requires more than just economic and military sanctions and individuals who see this country as partially responsible for the growing Anti-American sentiment (which, by the way, is very different than saying, “responsible for the terror”). More generally, President Bush should seek the advice and counsel of thoughtful dissenters and critics of his viewpoints and proposals.

Finally, for all the reasons described above, the most important thing we can do right now is to take a breath, allow the dust to settle, grieve, and hope that some of our blinding rage will subside.

The United States has been very badly and unfairly stung. We are only being human when we want more than anything to strike back. But before foolishly making things worse, let’s do the hard thing. Let’s count to twelve, be still, and not move our arms so much.

Posted in History, Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part IV

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 8, 2007

This series is devoted to highlighting some of the psychological tendencies that encourage individuals and groups to enter conflicts and wars that they later regret. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. This Part includes the first half of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. The essay has not previously been published — and should be read with its context in mind.

* * *

Count to Twelve: Some Lessons from Social Cognition Theory – Part A
by Jon Hanson (written several days after 9/11/01)

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.

~ Pablo Neruda

At times, we all seem to recognize that violent acts borne of retaliatory fervor lead to significant regret. And those times, unfortunately, are when we least need the wisdom of the truism. When we are not ourselves feeling the pull of outrage or the pressure of hate’s grip, we dispassionately call for peace and restraint in other countries, whose violence has ebbed and flowed for generations, and we shake our heads in disbelief that those involved don’t see how fruitless each side’s insatiable hunger is to settle the score. We remember with shame the lynch-mob “justice” that stains this country’s history. We are moved by even the dramatized cycles that killed Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and, more recently, Sondheim’s Shark and Jet. We look with pride upon our legal system that is, albeit imperfectly, designed to discourage retaliatory self-help and to offer those who might otherwise be victims of vicious scapegoating some protective shelter. We nod with knowing affirmation when we read the wisdom of our wisest leaders, such as Ghandi’s, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” And we purport to embrace religious teachings that seem to call us toward peace and peacemaking — even in the face of aggression.

Lord Leighton Frederic, The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets

There are several reasons why that basic message is so central and so commonly repeated and reinforced by our leaders and institutions (both cultural and political). First, people who don’t abide by it usually regret that they don’t. Thus, it is an extremely valuable message, one that will save people much pain, if only they can follow it. Second, because of the cyclical and social nature of vengeful violence, the regret often extends beyond the one individual who initially retaliates, giving social institutions a stake in our personal decisions. And, third, the message is far easier to deliver than it is to heed — easier said than done, easier preached than practiced. Institutions, narratives, authorities repeatedly call on us to do the hard thing in an effort to help bolster whatever flimsy resolve individuals can muster on their own. On why those things are true “social cognition theory,” the burgeoning field of psychology that examines how we understand ourselves and others, has much to teach us.

Photo © Scott Camazine from www.ScottCamazine.comThink of the physical response associated with, say, being stung by a bee. There is an urgent desire to end the suddenly inflicted pain, and an unexamined and unconscious assumption that if the little bastard who caused it can be discovered and killed, then the pain can be significantly lessened. The greater the pain is, the greater is the urgency of the search-and-destroy mission and the greater the willingness to strike out wildly with flailing arms in an effort to stop the stinging. That response is automatic, not reasoned. And very few of us can will ourselves to be still and maintain our concentration when being stung by a bee. Our natural response is adaptive; it generally is good to jump and swat and thereby attempt to end intense pain quickly. Nonetheless, its reflexive nature means that it can often cause more pain than it eases. So it is, for example, that being stung by a bee while driving a car is extremely dangerous — not just for the bee. Steering and flailing don’t mix.

Such a topical sting is in some ways analogous to the deeper emotional (and often physical) sting that an individual feels following a tragedy in which the culprit has acted maliciously. And, again, our reflexive reaction to strike out against the harmdoer can often hinder our ability to make good decisions for ourselves. The problem with the analogy is that, with the emotional sting, our ability to see the harmful effects of our flailing arms is seriously compromised. It is as if we lose sight of the hazards on the road and perceive violent retaliation as the most logical and appropriate course. How does that happen?

First, the sting leaves us with what social cognition theorists call a “directional goal” — which, loosely, means that we access beliefs, rules, and evidence that permit us to “reason” to our preferred conclusion. Such “motivated reasoning,” as it is sometimes called, is rampant in human decision making and leads to a host of well-documented cognitive distortions, including optimism bias, confirmatory bias, and perseverance bias. Psychologists studying the confirmatory bias have shown that people often interpret evidence as providing support for their preferred conclusion, even if the evidence provided is ambiguous or, indeed, even if it objectively supports the opposite conclusion.

In a classic experiment students who supported, and students who opposed, the death penalty were asked to read the same stack of articles — containing arguments and evidence both for and against capital punishment. Strikingly, whatever a student’s initial position (for or against), that position was strengthened by the articles. In other words, the students saw what they wanted to see in the evidence. Although most of us tend to be quick to identify such biases in other people’s thinking, we rarely identify it in our own. Probably the clearest recent examples of the phenomenon to occur on a national scale, was during the Bush-Gore debates of last year. Polls following those debates showed, time and again, that individuals who favored Gore (Bush) going into the debate were very likely to believe that Gore (Bush) was more effective during the debate. And, of course, legal scholars and commentators have suggested that the same sort of phenomenon explained the Supreme Court’s notorious 5-4 split in the decision that ultimately decided that election.

Although the distorting effect of directional goals can be found virtually anywhere there is human reasoning, it appears to be especially acute when that reasoning takes place within a certain mindset. Loosely speaking, the “deliberative” mindset, which people adopt when assessing their various options, strategies, or approaches, leads people to obtain and process information in a relatively thorough and neutral manner. The “implemental” mindset, which people adopt once they have decided on a general strategy, leads people to pick and choose among the information in a way that suits their goal and to gain a false sense of optimism that their goal can be achieved. In other words, the choice to implement a strategy or take a particular approach to a problem, creates a strong motive in the individual and has a significant effect on that person’s reasoning. And the evidence reveals that individuals adopting an implemental mindset more seriously exaggerate the extent to which they can control uncontrollable events and more seriously underestimate their own vulnerability to risks.

Of course, there are limits to how far a directional goal can influence an individual’s reasoning process — we are, in the words of one social cognition theorist, “unreasonable within reason.” But it is also true that the greater a person’s motivation (or the more Photo from Boston Heraldintense the sting) and the more clearly that people are acting within an implemental mindset, the more willing they are to engage in self-serving judgments or to act with nearly blind disregard for evidence that contradicts their preferred view. Indeed, at times motivational factors are so strong that we act in conscious disregard of our own preferences — against our own will.

The basic lesson of that sort of evidence is simple: we are not as rational, logical, and reasoned as we think we are. And that problem, and our self-deceit, is particularly acute when we have a powerful, visceral, affective urge to reach a certain conclusion and to act in response to that plan.

Those insights have powerful implications for understanding how we are thinking about and responding to last week’s terrorist acts. Our rage and our desire to retaliate — to “smoke out” the perpetrators, capture them, and bring them back, “dead or alive” — all contribute to our inability to make good decisions. We should be very worried that instead of acting according to reason, we are simply generating reasons to justify our preferred actions.

The sting of vengeful anger also weakens what social cognition theorists call “accuracy goals” of reasoning — that is, the goal of coming to the most accurate assessment and justified conclusion possible. The accuracy goal comes into play when the decision maker feels accountable to others and leads decision makers to search more extensively for better reasoning strategies and to invest more in the judgment-making process. Such efforts have been shown generally to improve judgments — meaning, in part, that the judgments are based less on first impressions, stereotypes, and cognitive biases.

A problem with the shared rage that characterizes this country right now is that any concern about accountability seems to counsel in favor of swift and dramatic retaliation. Emotion and accountability thus point in the same direction, reducing the need for accuracy. In addition, the felt urge for punishing the wrongdoers, like the desire to squash a stinging bee, is immediate — greatly curtailing the ability to engage in deliberations. Evidence reveals that such urgency, and the pressure it creates for coming to a decision (“the closure goal”), tends to stifle our thinking processes as soon as we arrive at the first seemingly palatable conclusion.

What is more, all of these factors lead us to rely more heavily on false stereotypes and exhibit more clearly a general phenomenon that social psychologists refer to as “actor-observer bias.” Broadly speaking, when something bad happens to a person, that person is more likely to attribute it to external or situational factors than she otherwise would. And when something good happens to the person, she is more likely than otherwise to assume that internal or dispositional factors were the cause. In a sense, people tend to take credit for the good, but not for the bad, in their own lives. That tendency is reversed when we consider the good and bad experienced or exhibited by other people. We tend to attribute bad things that happen to them to dispositional factors and the good things to situational factors. This bias is, in part, simply a function of motivated reasoning — a desire to see ourselves in a relatively good light. But the bias is also the consequence of the fact that it typically takes a significant cognitive investment to try to understand the situational factors that might partially account for another person’s behavior. When a person’s scarce cognitive resources are already heavily taxed, as they tend to be when the person is feeling outrage, the chances for misunderstanding the underlying causes — and, hence, generating effective solutions — are greatly diminished.

Those are a few of the many reasons to be worried about how we are, as individuals, “thinking.”

* * *

The second part of this essay will look at the way group thinking can enhance biases and contribute further to bellicosity.

Posted in History, Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology | 8 Comments »

Lil’ Poison: A 9-Year-Old Life’s as a Star Videogame Player

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 7, 2007

Lil' PoisionWe have examined violence found in videogames on several occasions (e.g., “The Situation of First-Person Shooters“; “The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Videogames“). Bruce Lambert of the New York Times has an interesting story today on nine-year-old Victor M. De Leon III, better known by fellow videogame players as Lil’ Poison. Lil’ Poison is the world’s youngest known professional videogame player. He has earned thousands of dollars in tournaments across the globe, playing and excelling at games like the violent first-person shooter Halo 2. His success has drawn him much attention, as he has appeared on 60 Minutes, hired a publicist, and, in recent months, been the subject of a filmmaker’s documentary–all of which can be read about on his official website. Lambert’s story reflects on the possible pressures Lil’ Poison faces and examines the role of his father’s enthusiasm. We excerpt portions of the story below.

* * *

Victor’s aptitude for video games surfaced at age 2, as he begin mimicking his father’s play. Mr. De Leon, 31, who markets and sells warehouse equipment, was an early adopter himself, having started at 8 with such quaint games as Pac-Man.Halo 2

But Halo is a violent, shoot-’em-up game, the type that has stirred much debate about effects on youngsters since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, where the killers were frequent players of the computer game Doom.

Many researchers caution that excessive gaming displaces exercise, socializing and creative play, and that video games like Halo can promote aggressive feelings and actions. “It’s not enough,” said Joanne Cantor, a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for “a parent to just tell a child that the video violence is not real.”

Anna Akerman, a developmental psychologist at Adelphi University on Long Island who specializes in media and children, said that it was not that simple to disentangle cause and effect, and that some violent people might be drawn to gory games because they are already predisposed to violence.

To critics who suggest that he is ruining Victor’s childhood, Mr. De Leon shrugs like his son, and notes that when not training for a specific competition, his Xbox time averages about two hours a day. Away from the screen, he said, Victor is a typical third grader who likes to bike and sLil' Poision 2wim and plays the violin.

“If they don’t live here, they don’t know what we do,” Mr. De Leon said at his home here. “I’m not overdoing it, and he’s not overdoing it.”

Although Mr. De Leon helps manage his son’s career and accompanies him to contests around the nation, he insisted he is not the digital version of the archetypal stage mother. Victor’s mother, Maribel De Leon, runs a day care center and shares custody with his father.

Before Victor enters a competition, his father said he always asks, “Do you want to do it?”

Mr. De Leon said he never pushed his son to play video games in the first place, but welcomed his interest.

* * *

To read the rest of the story, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Life | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Interrogation and Marketing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 6, 2007

Marathon Man and Rambo

An interesting interview of a veteran Air Force interrogator, Steven Kleinman, by Newsweek writer Dan Ephron is available on the Newsweek website.

Portions of the interview are excerpted below. But before turning to the interview, our readers should be alerted to several situationist themes that the interview underscores. Most obviously, the interview picks up on issues raised by Situationist Contributor Philip Zimbardo, who’s series “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes” (Part I, Part II), and new book “The Lucifer Effect,” are devoted significantly to situational forces influencing interrogation and torture. But there are still other themes that the interview usefully highlights.

First, according to Kleinman, the “art of interrogation” is or should be based on the art of persuasion. Apple doesn’t sell iPods through coercion. Second, people’s behavior varies by situation in ways that would surprise us – and a key to effective interrogation is in understanding and altering the situation of those being interrogated. Third, coercion is often counterproductive – a theme that social psychologists, such as Situationist Contributor Tom Tyler, have discovered in their research on the causes and effects of legitimacy. Tyler has summarized that research briefly in the following abstract:

Legitimacy is a psychological property of an authority, institution, or social arrangement that leads those connected to it to believe that it is appropriate, proper, and just. Because of legitimacy, people feel that they ought to defer to decisions and rules, following them voluntarily out of obligation rather than out of fear of punishment or anticipation of reward. Being legitimate is important to the success of authorities, institutions, and institutional arrangements since it is difficult to exert influence over others based solely upon the possession and use of power. Being able to gain voluntary acquiescence from most people, most of the time, due to their sense of obligation increases effectiveness during periods of scarcity, crisis, and conflict. The concept of legitimacy has a long history within social thought and social psychology, and it has emerged as increasingly important within recent research on the dynamics of political, legal, and social systems.

The insights of social psychology should not have us worried just about the inefficacy of current interrogation practices of the U.S. It should also, in our view, raise serious questions about the seemingly legitimate practices of most of our “political, legal, and social systems,” including everyday marketing practices, although that topic is too big to bite off in this post.

* * *

For two years now, a group of experts on interrogation has been helping intelligence agencies formulate new rules for grilling terrorism suspects. Comprising psychologists and other specialists, the group has completed one long report and is working on another. Both volumes describe the techniques the United States has used on Iraqi and Al Qaeda suspects since the attacks of September 11, 2001, as outdated and often ineffective. Steven Kleinman is one of the study’s contributors. A former Air Force interrogator and trainer, Kleinman grilled prisoners in several conflicts, including the current war in Iraq. While doing graduate work in the late 1990s, he researched the interrogation of senior Nazi officials by Americans during World War II. Kleinman spoke recently to NEWSWEEK’s Dan Ephron.

[Kleinman was asked about how “interrogations today differ from the World War II programs you studied” and he explained that there was an elaborate process of determining who was interrogating and who did the interrogating. For instance, the interrogators] “were not 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds. These were people who came off the college campus as professors, as lawyers, successful business people. They had all traveled overseas, spoke flawless German, understood the culture, the history of the European continent, just some really bright people—not pure military folks, but people who had responded to the call.”

* * *


The standard was for every hour spent interrogating, the interrogator and his team would spend four to six hours in preparation. So they knew exactly what they wanted to do, and exactly how they were going to go about it. And they were reasonably patient. The “how” was presented to them in a series of lectures by a gentleman named Sanford Griffith, who had been an army interrogator in World War I and had worked in the advertising industry in the interwar years, studying psychology and marketing and persuasion. And so he delivered this incredible series of lectures.

What was his philosophy?
No. 1, he said, you bait the hook to catch the fish, meaning you have to understand, really truly understand, what that POW is all about—what their interests are, what their hopes, their fears, their desires, their interests. And that in itself will help you find a way to build either a rapport with them or some kind of working relationship. Then technically, if you encounter resistance …then you deal with it. You just literally put it to sleep. If they have complaints, you address them; if they have—whatever it is, you either address it, or you make it appear that you are in the process of addressing it . . . .

I’m not sure I understand what you mean. What kind of resistance, and how would you address it?
Well let’s say, for instance, all [somebody] wants to do is complain about their treatment. This is how I adapted it: somebody would complain about their treatment. And I would say, “OK, what do you mean?” And maybe they’d say they needed another blanket—and that’s really all they wanted to focus on. … I would go way past that, I would say, well OK, is that all? Is there something else? Are there too many people in your cell, is the food [OK]? We can’t offer you too much, but are you getting enough of this? And just go on and on and on until they’re finally almost embarrassed because they can’t think of anything more. And I find that’s a really effective way of exhausting a certain resistance posture, because the opposite just never works; if you just keep trying to ignore it, or—this is the common route for many young interrogators—“Wait a second, I’m the interrogator, I’ll be asking the questions.” If you’re an interrogator in a cell, or in an interrogation booth with a prisoner, and you have to remind the source that you’re the interrogator, you’ve already lost.

* * *

Was there any use in this World War II program of what are now called coercive forms of interrogation?
Absolutely not. That [would] only stiffen someone’s resolve. You immediately create an adversarial relationship and they’re going to fight tooth and nail to resist. Interrogators and people who manage interrogation programs need to understand the whole concept of the laws of war. At some point even this war will come to an end, and nations will have to live together and trade together and live side by side. So you have certain standards of what you will or will not do so that you don’t have these lingering animosities. When you treat people in a coercive fashion, they’re going to remember that. Just think about how many Americans still remember, 60 years later, how the Japanese treated allied POWs during World War II.

But maybe you’re comparing apples and oranges? In WWII we were dealing with one kind of enemy, maybe less resolved, less extreme ideologically, less willing to die for the cause. Can you really pry open Islamic militants by being friendly and establishing a rapport?
I think it’s important to remember the depths of Nazi fanaticism during World War II. . . . [T]he Nazi military forces were well known for saying they would rather die before capture, that death would be glorious in the service of the Reich. There are some very striking parallels. Ultimately, though, once people are in the interrogation room, so much of what happens is counterintuitive. How people act in other circumstances, how they respond in their daily life is really no indicator of how they’ll respond in that room. Because No. 1, from the moment of capture they’re cut off from all the information that’s available to the average adult. They don’t know what’s going on in the outside world other than what the interrogator shares with them. It’s almost like a parallel universe where the rules are provided by the interrogator.

You mentioned establishing a rapport. How do you leverage that rapport for information?
One of the challenges for the interrogators is to be able to literally have a certain degree of empathy, sympathetic common sense. You don’t fall in love with these people. You realize you’re not there as some sort of humanitarian effort. But if you’re unwilling and unable to let some of these people touch you in a way, you won’t be effective. Some of these people we were interrogating when I was in Iraq were brought up under Saddam always looking over their shoulders. Maybe their family members had been tortured by Saddam’s regime, all sorts of horrible things that you and I have never experienced. You have to let that kind of touch you—at least to the point where you can understand why this person acts as they do. What is it that they might want? How can you relate to them in a way that will make them feel comfortable talking to you?

* * *

cialdini-influence.jpgYou mentioned that interrogators also have something to learn from the advertising industry. What would that be?
There’s a book called “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” by Dr. [Robert] Cialdini. The marketing industry has used this extensively. He’s identified approximately six principles of persuasion, such things as scarcity—things that are suddenly unavailable to us, we have more interest in attaining. Likeability—how difficult it is to say no to someone you really like. Reciprocity—you give me something and there’s something hardwired in our brain that makes me want to give you something back. It’s just fascinating how you can apply those to interrogations. They’re persuasive and they’re cross-cultural in most cases. The authority principle, you see on commercials—where they have someone who appears to be a doctor talking about some kind of pharmaceutical. Whether he’s a doctor or not, people respond. I use the same thing in terms of information dominance. I present myself as knowing even more about a topic than my source does, which make him more likely to comply with my questions ‘cause they have the sense that this authority figure knows more.

What about deception? Is there room for deception in the interrogation room?
In a word, yes. All war is based on deception. If I want to establish a rapport with someone—what I call an operational accord, where we find some reason to work together—I find it [so] much easier if someone is a husband and father of three children, for example, that I tell him I have that same family experience, whether I do or I don’t. In the military setting, I may adjust my rank so that I’m closer to his.

* * *

When Iraqis learn people had been abused, those who supported the occupation will shift to neutral, those who had been neutral will shift to supporting the insurgency and those who supported the insurgency will become insurgents. We all like to be right, but in this case I wish I had been wrong. Abu Ghraib has probably been the most effective recruiting campaign that the insurgency and even Al Qaeda at large had ever experienced.

* * *

Then how is it not common knowledge that coercion will always be counterintuitive?
In America, just about everyone has seen an interrogation on television and in movies and they think they understand it. It seems so simple and it’s wrapped up in a 30-minute episode. And that, honestly, has influenced sometimes some very senior policymakers in that they think they get it, they understand it. They don’t take that same position with something like signals intelligence or imagery intelligence. … The debate about the use of coercion is always the moral and legal elements of it and even those who are against it seem to accept as a given that it shouldn’t be used but obviously it would work. There’s no science behind that. There’s no evidence it works. It’s purely anecdotal.

* * *

For the complete Newsweek interview, click here. To listen to an NPR interview of Steven Kleinman, click here. For the full report by the National Defense Intelligence College, titled “Educing Information,” click here. For an article about the report, click here. For an article on how there has been a rise in torture scenes in the media, click here. For Bill O’Reilly’s take on the effect of coercive interrogation techniques, view the video below.

Posted in Politics, Public Policy, System Legitimacy | 1 Comment »

%d bloggers like this: