The Situationist

Archive for July, 2007

Person X Situation X System Dynamics

Posted by Philip Zimbardo on July 30, 2007

Lucifer Effect CoverI recently wrote the following response to APS Observer Forum criticism, “Not So Situational,” June/July 2007. This response is also published on LuciferEffect. com, the official website of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House, 2007).

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Personal criticism has been leveled against me as representing an excessive “situationist” perspective by 43 psychologists and 6 of their graduate student signatories in a letter to Observer Forum, June/July 2007. (Even more have signed on to this bandwagon on Internet list serves.) They report: “We are concerned by the message that has been conveyed to the general public regarding the power of the situation to ‘trump individual dispositions.’” That statement was never made by me, nor was the other extreme characterization that was mis-attributed to me by the author of the APS review of my book. It is his conclusion that is objectionable not only to personality psychologists, but to me even more so. The personal attack by my distinguished colleagues is based upon the summary statement in that book review which stated: “The main argument in The Lucifer Effect is that there are no bad apples, only bad barrels. That is Zimbardo’s metaphor for the power of the situation to trump individual differences.” (Wray, 2007, p. 11)

It is the reviewer who has over-simplified and distorted the set of arguments in my book, where I make evident that there are indeed some people whose extended careers as evil-doers qualify them as “evil people,” or “bad apples,” such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, serial killers, and others. However, many people who engage in actions that could be deemed evil are more likely to be ordinary people caught up in behavioral contexts that are unfamiliar, and in which their habitual response patterns and moral judgments become “disengaged.” In addition, I never said: “situations trump individual differences.” “Trump” is a term that I rarely use, in fact, used only once in more thannazipartyday_1934.jpg 500 pages in my book, The Lucifer Effect. My only use of “trumps” was in discussing the “banality of evil” in Nazi concentration camps. Sociologist John Steiner, an Auschwitz survivor, described, “how roles can trump character traits” of the Nazi guards. He reports, “that not everyone playing a brutal role has to have sadistic traits of character. Those who continued in roles originally not conducive to their personality often changed their values (i.e., had a tendency to adjust to what was expected of them in their roles).” (Lucifer, p. 287)

Most psychologists who have actually read my newest book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (2007) will readily identify my research orientation as that of a “social interactionist.” Social psychologists, like myself, follow the Lewinian tradition of studying individual and group behavior in situational-social contexts (See Ross & Nisbett, 1991). We do so because as I say up front, “People and situations are usually in a state of dynamic interaction.” (Lucifer, p. 8) I go on to define these concepts as follows: “The Person is an actor on the stage of life whose behavioral freedom is informed by his or her makeup–genetic, biological, physical, and psychological. The Situation is the behavioral context that has the power, through its reward and normative functions, to give meaning and identity to the actor’s roles and status.” (Lucifer, p. 445)

A major task of psychological science is to explain behavioral variance, often by determining the extent to which observed behavior can be attributed to internal variables, such as individual differences, to external situation-based variables, and to their interaction. A major difference between personality and social psychologists lies primarily in their emphasis on dispositional versus situational variables; rarely do they disagree on endorsing the inevitable interaction between them. But more psychologists give lip service to being interactionists than those whose research actually gathers both dispositional and situational evidence. The central issue for social psychologists is not the relative predictive power of person versus situation, rather it is the typical underestimation of situational factors and “channel factors” that lead laypeople, social scientists, policy makers, and criminal justice personnel to make erroneous predictions and misattributions of behavior whenever such external factors are operating in substantial ways.

Although I am most known for my social psychological research, I have long been engaged as well in studying both personality and individual difference contributions to a variety of behavioral outcomes. My pioneering research on shyness in adults helped to understand individual differences within cultural, familial, and school contexts in its causes, correlates, and consequences, and in the treatment zimbardo-shyness-cover.gifstrategies that Lynne Henderson and I developed and effectively utilized in our Shyness Clinic. (See Research with Jack Hilgard established the hypnotizability construct as one of psychology’s most reliable individual difference measures, with a 25-year test-retest correlation of .71. (Picione, Hilgard, & Zimbardo, 1989). Similarly, the most reliable and valid measure of individual differences in time perspective is found in the scale I developed, the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory. (Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999) A decade’s long research program on personality and politics (using the BFQ) with my Italian colleague, Gian Vittorio Caprara, always focused on the interplay of personality traits and values with political perceptions and preferences. (Caprara & Zimbardo, 2004) Finally, recent research with Al Bandura explored the role of self-efficacy in understanding the social dynamics associated with those on prison execution teams. (Osofsky, Bandura & Zimbardo, 2005)

Before turning to the criticism that is most personally distressing regarding understanding of the Abu Ghraib abuses, it is important to mention that while personality and social psychologists spar about the relative contributions of dispositions and situations, we have ignored the most significant factor in the behavioral equation–the System. “The System consists of those agents and agencies whose ideology, values, and power create situations and dictate the roles and expectations for approved behaviors of actors within its spheres of influence. “Bad Systems” create “Bad Situations” create “Bad Apples” create “Bad Behaviors,” even in good people. (Lucifer, p. 445-6) It is not possible to really understand what happened at Abu Ghraib without a comprehensive appreciation of the influences of the Military and Civilian chain of command operating top-down in that prison and other detention centers that were created as part of the “war on terror.” When understanding complex behavior in the real world, beyond our laboratories or classroom surveys and personality scale data collection, it is essential to begin with a systems level top-down analysis because that is where the real power lies. Such understanding gives us the necessity leverage to develop public health paradigms designed to change unacceptable situations as well as the perpetrators of evil functioning in those situations (See Haney & Zimbardo, In press).

Finally, my critics assert: “Our concern is that Dr. Zimbardo has misrepresented the scientific evidence in an attempt to offer a purely situational account of the antisocial acts perpetrated at Abu Ghraib.” What seems like a “situation-only” analysis by me and other social psychologists, is always a counter-reaction and our attempt at a counter-balance to the “rush to the dispositional” by authorities, lay people, and too many other psychologists who have adopted an entirely individualistic perspective. We believe that the significance of situational-environmental-context variables has been under-appreciated by our colleagues as well as the legal system. The dispositional approach ends by blaming the perpetrators for wrongdoing without sufficiently considering the situational dynamics that were in operation at the time, exerting powerful influences that can be transformative in modifying the behavior of ordinary, even good persons. It is always the tactic of the System in any scandal to blame the grunts, to pick out the few “bad apples,” thereby deflecting attention away from its complicity, and the need to change corrupt systems not merely to punish its operatives– the G. I. Joes. I tried to counter the dispositional allegation by the Military and Bush Administration spokespeople that the abusers were just “a few rogue soldiers,” or “ a few bad apples.” Instead, I offered the hypothesis that maybe they were initially “good apples” who were corrupted by the “bad barrel” in which they were forced to function—in that prison dungeon in that war zone operating under a new definition of prisoners of the war on terror that excluded those detainees from the traditional safeguards against torture.

zimbardo-lecture.jpegI have become an expert on the conditions that existed in Abu Ghraib Prison, Tier 1A and B, where the abuses occurred, and document my extensive research about the people, place, and system associated with those crimes against humanity in two detailed chapters of Lucifer. As expert witness for the Staff Sergeant in charge of those Army Reserve MPs, I reviewed all of the available investigative reports, all of the photos and videos, arranged for psychometric evaluations, did in-depth interviews with him as well as a member of the abuse investigating team, and with a senior military officer sent to repair and prevent such damages, and more. A Colonel and also the General who did the most thorough investigation of the abuses also reviewed my conclusions. Thus, my conclusions are not abstract conceptual ones as these critics assert, rather they are based on the best available evidence that highlights the role of a set of specific environmental risk factors combined with a set of systemic factors in contributing to these abuses.

“As one of the senior Criminal Investigation Division agents who saw conditions at Abu Ghraib first hand, it is clear to me that Phil Zimbardo truly understands all the factors that come into play there.” (Marcia Drewry, retired USA DISC special agent, 2007, Lucifer Effect endorsement)

One of the investigations into the causes of the abuses was conducted by Generals George Fay and Anthony Jones They identify six of seven contributing factors to the abuses as traceable to systemic or situational factors, and but one to dispositional factors. Their report then proceeds to expand on this overview by highlighting numerous systemic failures that played key roles in facilitating the abuses. They conclude: “Looking beyond personal responsibility, leader responsibility and command responsibility, systemic problems and issues also contributed to the volatile environment in which abuse occurred. The report lists several dozen specific systemic failures ranging from doctrine and policy concerns to leadership and command and control issues to resource and training issues.” (Lucifer, p. 393)

General Antonio Taguba has written me: “I received your book this weekend. From a glance, you have done such an in depth analysis which I think is difficult to refute.” And in addition: “Phil…You’ve certainly have done a magnificent job in your factual research.” (Personal email communication, July 12, 2007)

A committee headed by James Schlesinger, former Secretary of Defense, led another investigation into the Abu Ghraib abuses. The Schlesinger Report boldly proclaims that the “landmark Stanford study provides a cautionary tale for all military detention operations.” It notes, “The potential for abusive treatment of detainees during the Global War on Terrorism was entirely predictable based on a fundamental understanding of social psychology principles coupled with an awareness of numerous known environmental risk factors…. Findings from the field of social psychology suggest that the conditions of war and the dynamics of detainee operations carry inherent risks for human mistreatment, and therefore must be approached with great caution and careful planning and training.” Their report continues, “Psychologists have attempted to understand how and why individuals and groups who usually act humanely can sometimes act otherwise in certain circumstances.” Among the concepts outlined to help explain why abusive behaviors occur among ordinarily humane individuals are the following: deindividuation; dehumanization; enemy image; groupthink; moral disengagement; social facilitation, and other environmental factors. (See Lucifer, p. 402, and Notes to source of the original document)

Over and above such focus on “environmental factors,” I still make explicit that any analysis of complex human behavior demands a tri-part focus. “What I learned from the SPE [Stanford Prison Experiment] paradigm about investigating institutional abuses is the need to evaluate various factors (dispositional, situational and systemic) that lead to the behavioral outcomes we want to understand.” (Lucifer, p. 330)

In conclusion, I hope that a careful reading of what I actually say in The Lucifer Effect, and not merely the allegations of its book reviewer, or unsubstantiated rumors, will defuse some of the alarm that these colleagues have about my messages going out to the general public. But regardless, I will continue my life-long mission of trying to give to the American and International public what I consider to be sound psychological science through my text books and trade books, my PBS-TV series, Discovering Psychology, informative web sites (;;, media interviews, and my public lectures.

[A condensed version of this reply will appear in the September issue of the APS Observer. Please note that I do not have the time nor the inclination to enter into any further discussion or debate about this matter.]

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Caprara, G. V., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). Personalizing politics: A congruency model of political preference. American Psychologist, 59, 581-594.

Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (In press). Persistent Dispositionalism in Interactionist Clothing: Fundamental Attribution Error in Explaining Prison Abuse. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin.

Osofsky, M. J., Bandura, A., & Zimbardo, P.G. (2005) The Role of Moral Disengagement in the Execution Process. Law and Human Behavior, 29, 371-393.

Piccione, C., Hilgard, E. R., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1989). On the degree of stability of measured hypnotizability over a 25-year period. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 289-295.

Ross, L., & Nisbett, R. (1991). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives on Social Psychology. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Wray, H. (2007, June/July). The banality of evil. APS Observer, p. 11.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House.

Zimbardo, P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (1999). Putting time in perspective: A valid, reliable individual-differences metric. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1271-1288.

Posted in Ideology, Social Psychology | 6 Comments »

Seeing More Than Hand Gestures: Cultural Influences on Reading Body Language

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 29, 2007

Thumbs UpBody language is a bigger factor in communication than most people realize. If you don’t agree, try looking away from someone as they are trying to talk to you. Or ask anyone who is trained in interrogation; they will tell you that a person’s face and hand gestures give away more than their words. Throughout our life, we pick up this body language as much as we pick up our spoken language, though the reading of body language is on a much more subliminal level.

Hand gestures, an important factor in body language, vary widely between cultures. A thumbs up in America will be read in a positive light, but is quite obscene in some foreign countries. However, researchers also have found that our brain subliminally interprets who is making the gesture as well as the gesture itself. We react differently to a familiar gesture when made by an unfamiliar person. ScienceDaily reports on a study done by Istvan Molnar-Szakacs and Marco Iacoboni of UCLA.

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Culture Influences Brain Cells: Brain’s Mirror Neurons Swayed by Ethnicity and Culture

A thumb’s up for “I’m good.” The rubbing of a pointed forefinger at another for “shame on you.” The infamous and ubiquitous middle finger salute for–well, you know. Such gestures that convey meaning without speech are used and recognized by nearly everyone in our society, but to someone from a foreign country, they may be incomprehensible.

The opposite is true as well. Plop an American in a foreign land and he or she may be clueless to the common gestures of that particular culture. This raises a provocative question–does culture influence the brain.”

The answer is yes, reports Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, a researcher in the UCLA Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity, and Marco Iacoboni, director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center of UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Their research appears in the current issue of the journal PLoS ONE.

In their study, the researchers wanted to investigate the imprint of culture on the so-called mirror neuron network. Mirror neurons fire when an individual performs an action, but they also fire when someone watches another individual perform that same action. Neuroscientists believe this “mirroring” is the neural mechanism by which we can read the minds of other people and empathize with them.

When it comes to the influence of culture, they found that indeed, the mirror neuron network responds differently depending on whether we are looking at someone who shares our culture, or someone who doesn’t.

The researcher’s used two actors, one an American, the other a Nicaraguan, to perform a series of gestures–American, Nicaraguan, and meaningless hand gestures, to a group of American subjects. A procedure called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was used to measure the levels of so-called “corticospinal excitability” (CSE)–which scientists use to probe the activity of mirror neurons.

They found that the American participants demonstrated higher mirror neuron activity while observing the American making gestures compared to the Nicaraguan. And when the Nicaraguan actor performed American gestures, the mirror neuron activation of the observers dropped.

“We believe these are some of the first data to show neurobiological responses to culture-specific stimuli,” said Molnar-Szakacs. “Our data show that both ethnicity and culture interact to influence activity in the brain, specifically within the mirror neuron network involved in social communication and interaction.”

“We are the heirs of communal but local traditions,” said Iacoboni. “Mirror neurons are the brain cells that help us in shaping our own culture. However, the neural mechanisms of mirroring that shape our assimilation of local traditions could also reveal other cultures, as long as such cross-cultural encounters are truly possible. All in all, our research suggests that with mirror neurons our brain mirrors people, not simply actions.”

Thus, it appears that neural systems supporting memory, empathy and general cognition encodes information differently depending on who’s giving the information–a member of one’s own cultural/ethnic in-group, or a member of an out-group, and that ethnic in-group membership and a culturally learned motor repertoire more strongly influence the brain’s responses to observed actions, specifically actions used in social communication.

“An important conclusion from these results is that culture has a measurable influence on our brain and, as a result, our behavior. Researchers need to take this into consideration when drawing conclusions about brain function and human behavior,” said Molnar-Szakacs. The findings, the researchers note, may also have implications for motor skill and language learning, intergroup communication, as well as the study of intergroup attitudes toward other cultures.

Other author’s of the study included Allan D. Wu and Francisco J. Robles. Both Molnar-Szakacs and Iacoboni are members of UCLA’s Foundation for Psychocultural Research (FPR) Center for Culture, Brain and Development, which provided funding for the study.


Jenna Bush


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While hand gestures change through the ages, there are certain gestures that are fairly universal (just ask any EMT what the universal signal for ‘choking’ is). However, each culture develops its own particular hand gestures, same as language. Apparently, just like language, these become hardwired into our brain.

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Spas and Girls

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 27, 2007

Girl at Spa

We have explored the intersection between social psychology, attitudes toward beauty, and marketing on several occasions (“Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice“; “Fitting In and Sizing Up“; “Survival of the Cutest“; and “Black History is Now“). We now bring you excerpts from an article by Bonna Johnson in the Tennessean on how spas have found a growing customer base in young girls.

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When Melina Rotoni was 12, she got her eyebrows waxed for the first time. By the eighth grade, she was wearing acrylic nails.

“I started early,” said Rotoni, 28, owner of Elysium Day Spa and Cosmetics Shop in Green Hills and Brentwood.

By today’s standards, though, Rotoni would be right in sync.

Girls and tweens are showing up in larger numbers at full-scale adult spas to get plucked, waxed, massaged and moisturized, just like mom.

At Elysium, girls 9-13 can pick their skin-soothing choices from the “Spa Divas” menu — “catering to little girls transitioning to young ladies,” it says — where treatments can be a bit cheaper than adult prices. Manicures are $10, eyebrow waxes $12, mini-facials and half-hour massages $30 each.

“It’s feels good,” said 8-year-old Abbey Holzapfel of Smyrna, as strawberry-scented scrub was slathered on her smooth skin during a half-hour facial. Her favorite, though, is getting a manicure, and the hotter the pink, the better.

Little princesses are also choosing the spa instead of the roller rink for birthday parties.

“My kids loved it. It was great,” said Debbie White of west Nashville, who treated both her daughters to sweet-13 birthday parties at Apropos in Green Hills.

“It was their dream. They’d never been to a spa before,” said White, whose daughters are active in pageants and modeling. “It’s in every fashion magazine they read.”

But one social psychologist worries that spa outings early in life may condition children into believing happiness comes from looking pretty.

“I can see how on the surface it can appear to be all fun and games, especially if it’s packaged as a birthday party, but we do need to be careful about the message we’re sending,” said Sabina Gesell, a research coordinator for Vanderbilt’s Pediatrics Department.

Bonding over facials

Family outings to the spa was one of the hottest trends last year, according to the International Spa Association, introducing more children to the pampered life.

Among parents who go to spas, about two-thirds have brought along teen daughters, a report last year by the spa group said. Teens are most interested in getting their nails done, followed by full-body massages, facials and waxes.

Such outings can be bonding moments for busy moms and their daughters, said Celeste Hilling, CEO of Skin Authority, a San Diego-based skincare company, and a board member of the International Spa Association.

Mother and Daughter at Spa“That bonding time that used to happen over dinner is now happening over manicures and pedicures,” Hilling said.

The craze . . . shouldn’t be surprising. Girls are growing up a lot faster than a generation ago with their cell phones, micro-minis and 24/7 exposure to the well-groomed, from party girl Lindsay Lohan to the more wholesome Emma Roberts.

At the same time, more people are starting to view the spa business as more of a wellness necessity, not an occasional luxury, said Shauna Rae Samograd, co-owner of Bodyworks Emporium in Hendersonville and Magnolia Spa Cosmetics Yoga in east Nashville.

“Parents are directing kids to spas, but teenagers also are much more sophisticated, savvy and concerned about their appearance, health and diets, and they’re willing to explore different options,” Samograd said.

A learning opportunity

Moms may need spa days to de-stress or battle wrinkles. Now that the kids are coming along, they’re great places to teach youngsters about proper skin care, especially at a time when they are prone to breakouts, said Tami Sprintz Hall, owner of Escape, a day spa in the Belle Meade area.

“I want her to be able to feel better about herself,” said Trisha Elcan, who recently started making appointments for her 12-year-old daughter Lauren for brow waxes and teen facials at Escape.

Growing up too fast?

Teens spend some $9.7 billion a year on beauty products, and cosmetic and beauty aids are among the most advertised in teen magazines.

Vanderbilt’s Gesell is afraid that exposure to beauty treatments at too young an age pushes girls to be older before their time.

“The key message that children need to receive at any age is that they are whole and beautiful as they are,” Gesell said. “It’s not their physical appearance that makes them whole and beautiful, it’s who they are as an individual. It’s their character traits, accomplishments and efforts.”

Research shows that children as young as 4 are affected by our appearance-obsessed culture, Gesell said. Pressure from parents and peers can result in negative body image and low self-esteem, she said.

Dr. Sharon Albers, a dermatologist with Pediatric Specialists of Nashville, sees no medical benefit in kids going to the spa, and, in some cases, thinks it can be harmful.

She worries that children’s skin can get burned with waxings and that teens may wrongly get their pimples popped during facials. That can lead to infections and scarring.

“Spas do play a role,” said Albers, who often fields questions from parents about whether to permit facials. “If it relaxes you and you have the money to spend, fine.”

She too worries children are being sent the wrong message in a time when the media is filled with images of skinny models.

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To read the rest of the article, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Life, Marketing | 2 Comments »

A Baseball Fantasy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 26, 2007

It is safe to say that we live in a sports-crazed society. Americans share a passion for all levels of play, from big league to little league. Even on The Situationist, we’ve entered the sporting fray a time or two (or three or four). This enthusiasm is typically healthy, particularly in encouraging kids to get outside and run around, work together as part of a team, and develop important social skills. Fantasy Baseball Magazine Cover In recent years, as if the world of sports weren’t unreal enough, a new pastime has emerged for athletes and non-athletes alike: “fantasy sports.” The original game of this genre, and still the most popular, is fantasy baseball, from big league to imaginary league.

Fantasy baseball is essentially a community of baseball team managers. Every individual selects and manages his or her own team, and only performs as well as the chosen players, based on those players’ actual statistics. Now-a-days, these games are typically played on-line, often between friends and acquaintances. Many of those who play take it seriously, not only because Major League Baseball’s 7-month, 162-game season requires foresight and care, but also because they may have money or at least pride on the line.

As people devote more and more time to their fantasy teams, psychologists and others are asking more questions about these games. Below we have excerpted a article on the related research of University of Wisconsin psychologists Erica and Rich Halverson.

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Erica and Rich Halverson aren’t just spending the summer running their fantasy baseball teams. The University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professors are also studying fantasy leagues, including their own, in a new research project aimed at understanding how both expert and novice players approach the game and what it can teach us about how people learn.

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Fantasy baseball is the ultimate model for a game type Erica Halverson, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and part of the GLS program, calls “competitive fandom,” a rapidly growing area of interactive participation for people who are passionate experts in a given subject or field. “You name it and there’s a fantasy version of it,” she says.

Fantasy Baseball stats

Sports reign supreme in this genre and fantasy baseball does it best, Erica Halverson says. And the game – where players have access to huge amounts of data and the ability to manipulate those numbers with relative ease – shows some parallels with other fields, such as the stock market.

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Fantasy baseball was the obvious answer when they began looking for games that are not console-based that involve “lots and lots of learning,” says Rich Halverson, an assistant professor in educational leadership and policy analysis and part of the UW-Madison’s Games, Learning and Society research group in the School of Education.

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The current version of fantasy sports games have emerged from a collision of new and old media. Players nowBox Scores rely on technology, such as the fantasy game sites operated by companies like Yahoo and ESPN, rather than poring over box scores in the newspaper.

It’s an area ripe for study. Sixteen million adults played fantasy sports in 2006, spending an average of just under $500 a year and generating an economic impact of more than $1 billion a year, according to the Fantasy Sports Industry Trade Association. The majority of those first began playing the game offline and spend about three hours per week managing their teams, according to the trade group.

“Not only is it something we love, but this is a huge market of gaming that’s going on where people are spending thousands and thousands of hours playing,” Erica Halverson says. “As a research group, we’re fundamentally interested in what people learn from gaming and what gaming has to offer education. This is sort of a subset of gaming that’s a new avenue to explore.”

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The heart of the Halversons’ research is their own fantasy league, a group of friends and superfans that has played together for six years and consider draft day equivalent to Christmas morning.

“In order for the game to feel powerful for people, you have to feel connected to the community of people that you play with,” Erica Halverson says. “We know each other’s idiosyncrasies.” I trust Fantasy Baseball

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The study will look at how three different fantasy baseball leagues organize themselves, their rules for play, how they compete and how players feel about their play. Participants will also complete surveys that seek to get at where they rank on fandom and competitiveness.

Along with their own league, the pair’s research includes a league made up of their colleagues from the Games, Learning and Society group, people who like to play computer-based games, but don’t necessarily know a lot about baseball.

One player from that league asked during the fantasy draft, “what does the shortstop do?” At one point, she managed to move into first place in the league and had no idea why, the researchers say.

The third league is made up of mostly former minor league baseball players who are spread out all over the country. Their goal for play is to create a set of rules that mirror rule baseball as closely as possible.

Erica Halverson says the members of that league “spend tens of hours before the draft arguing over how much should a single be worth” How much should a double be worth?”

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The goal for the study is to include both novices and experts, find out their strategies for play and what they get out of the game. The differences between beginners and longtime players become apparent when discussing how they play, Erica Halverson says. “A novice would say ‘Well, here’s all my pitchers who’ve won 20 games so those must be my best pitchers, I’m going to choose from those,’ ” she says. “Where an expert would say ‘Well, winning a baseball game as a pitcher is really dependent on a lot of other things … so I’m going to group my pitchers based on their ratio of strikeouts-to -walks.” Fantasy Baseball Cartoon

“We’re trying to figure out how can we cast a net over something like fantasy baseball to figure out what kind of learning goes on here,” Rich Halverson says. “What are the structures that orchestrate the learning” What are the outcomes””

One initial finding: their baseball novice colleague reports participating in the fantasy league has caused her to become more of a fan of the game and listen to games on the radio.

“If you’re thinking about this as a game structure that gives people the opportunity to become more invested in a given set of content, it’s kind of a nice insight,” Erica Halverson says. “You’ve hooked people in a way that maybe they’re not hooked before.”

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To read the complete article, click here. For another Situationist post about sports and their fans look at the July 5th post,The Origins of Sports Team Fandom.” If you are interested in legal issues relating to fantasy sports, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Life, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Some Groups Affect Kids More Than Others

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 25, 2007

Saved by the BellAccording to the old expression, one bad apple can spoil the bunch. But people aren’t apples. If they were, there would be another expression: a barrel of good apples can sometimes revive a rotten one.

To change metaphors: if it is true that birds of a feather flock together, isn’t it also true that flocking with certain kinds of birds changes one’s feathers?

It is widely understood that the groups we belong to influence who we are or what we do. But little is known about exactly how and how much different kinds of groups influence their members.

Wendy Ellis and Lynne Zarbatany of the University of Western Ontario recently set out to examine those questions among children. Science Daily reports on the press release.

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Status of Adolescent Peer Groups Plays Role in Understanding Groups Influence on Early Teen Behavior

Researchers found that the peer group a child belongs to has differential effects on deviant, aggressive, and prosocial behavior. A study of 526 children in grades 5 through 8 revealed that children in the “cool” group were more likely influenced by their friends than children in groups that are well-liked.

The findings imply that being a part of the popular group may have some benefits, but also may increase risky behavior and social aggression. Children who are part of the cool group are more likely to be influenced by their friends than children who are friends with peers who are kind, nice, and well-liked.

Acknowledging that by early adolescence, peer groups have a significant influence on children’s behavior, researchers at the University of Western Ontario sought to determine whether some peer groups are more influential than others. Specifically, they contrasted the effects of two types of peer group status on youngsters’ deviant, aggressive, and prosocial behavior. The first type of group (group centrality) had children who were cool and popular. The second type (group liking) was made up of the kind, nice children everyone likes.

The researchers looked at 526 Canadian children in grades 5 through 8 who reported on their deviant behavior (such as theft and skipping school) and identified peer groups in their grade. The children also were asked to nominate classmates in their grade who were physically aggressive (children who started fights), social aggressive (children who excluded others), prosocial (children who were kind to others), and whom they liked the most and the least. The children, whose average age was 12, identified 116 peer groups.

Over a three-month period, the researchers found that the children generally tended to become more similar in behavior to the others in their group. However, this occurred to a much greater extent in popular groups than in well-liked groups. Children’s strong desire to belong to a popular group, together with pressure from group members to conform to group norms, may account for the profound influence of such groups. Group liking affected adolescents’ behavior only when groups were disliked; members of deviant disliked groups became more deviant over time, the researchers found.

“Our results have important practical implications,” suggested Wendy E. Ellis, assistant professor of psychology at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario and the study’s lead author. “Although being a member of a popular group may bring benefits such as positive social behavior and esteem, potential costs include higher rates of risky behavior and social aggression. Preservation of popular status may propel group members beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and high motivation to belong to popular groups may cause group members to resist adult intervention attempts.

“In the long-term, however, popular group members may fare better than disliked children in deviant groups who have little exposure to prosocial behavior models and poor social relationships.”

South Park

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Follow this link to read more about Ms. Ellis and Zarbatny’s research. This post is one in a series tracing the influence of situaitonal influences on the development of children from youth into adolescence. To read other posts on this topic, go to “Role-Playing Helps Adolescent Emotional Learning,” “Jock or Nerd?: Where Do You Sit at the Dinner Table?,” “Biology and Environment Affect Childhood Behavioral Development,” or “Growing up in a Sexualizing Situation.”


Posted in Life, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Judging – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 25, 2007

Former Justice Sandra Day O’ConnorOn Monday, Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke at the National Governors Association Conference (held in beautiful Traverse City, Michigan). She called on the state executives to help do something to protect and reinforce judicial independence. “Judicial independence does not happen all by itself,” she said. “It’s tremendously hard to create and easier than most people imagine to damage or destroy.”

This is a cause that Justice O’Connor has championed for years — not just for U.S. courts but also for the courts of other nations. Independent Judges, she has argued, are going to disappoint and anger some people or some institutions almost all of the time. Some of those individuals or entities will be very powerful. Lest the judges wind up serving the powerful, judicial independence is necessary. As O’Connor once put it: “We have the power to make the president or Congress really, really angry. . . . In fact, if we do not make them mad some of the time, we probably aren’t doing our jobs. Our effectiveness, therefore, relies on the knowledge that we won’t be subject to retaliation for our acts.”

At yesterday’s conference, the former justice indicated that the solution was in education — in teaching American kids to respect the judiciary. She pointed out that, according to some surveys, more young people can name the three stooges than can name the three branches of the federal government.

Three StoogesNo doubt, improving our education system is in order. Our own sense, however, is that the troubles are deeper than educational; they are situational (and we suspect that Justice O’Connor would agree).

In 2006, Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and Adam Benforado wrote an article, “The Drifters” for the Boston Review. In broadest terms, the essay’s thesis was that the situation of judging matters. One point it made was that the methods by which judges take the bench, or maintain their position on it, influences what and how they judge:

For example, . . . . most judges on state courts—which handle the vast majority of America’s judicial traffic—are elected, which leaves them more vulnerable to external influence than federal judges. As the legal historian Jed Shugerman has written, “Judicial elections clash with the basic—and perhaps naive—notion that judges are supposed to interpret the law and pursue justice, regardless of party or public opinion.” Instead, they have “injected popular and partisan politics into legal deliberations” since “the slavery debates and the class struggles of the nineteenth century.”

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There is also recent evidence that state courts to which judges are elected rather than appointed have been powerfully transformed by campaign financing. A study by Texans for Public Justice, for example, found that the ten Texas Supreme Court justices elected or reelected between 1994 and 1998 raised over half of their $12.8 million in campaign money “from lawyers, law firms and litigants who filed appeals with the high court during this same period.” The study also found that, although the Texas Supreme Court declines to hear nearly 90 percent of the cases for which appeal petitions are filed, “the more money that a petitioner contributed to the justices, the more likely they were to accept a given petition.” For example, the court was ten times more likely to accept the petitions from petitioners who made campaign contributions of more than $250,000 than they were of those of non-contributing petitioners. Trends in decisions have also shifted over the same time period decidedly in favor of corporate defendants, and it seems likely that a major factor in that drift is the lack of the same independence-bolstering structures enjoyed by judges in the federal system.

If the states want to do something to enhance judicial independence, they might begin by revisiting the process by which their judges obtain their robes.

For a PBS Frontline website on “Justice for Sale,” click here. To download the “New Politics for Judicial Elections Report for 2006,” by the Justice at Stake Campaign, click here. For an NPR interview (audio) of Justice O’Connor about judicial independence by Nina Totenberg, click here. For a PBS interview (transcript, audio, or streaming video) of Justices O’Connor and Breyer on the topic of judicial independence, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Law | 1 Comment »

Role-Playing Helps Adolescent Emotional Learning

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 24, 2007

ShakespeareIt’s standard advice: if you want to be something, act like you already are. Smile if you are sad, and you just might turn that frown upside down (for real). Act like you have confidence, and you will have confidence. Fake it ’til you make it. The message is explicit and implicit in drama. Ben Affleck in Boiler Room tells his sales staff to “act as if.” Even Shakespeare had Hamlet’s act of craziness draw him deeper into insanity. And actors the world over, become their characters, at least for a while.

Of course, a basic lesson of social psychology and related fields is that we all occupy role schemas (doctor, customer, flight attendant, officer, and so on), have person schemas for those we know, and create self-schemas or narratives for ourselves to help make sense of who we are. Role-playing is everywhere, though typically it is only implicit.

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign researchers Reed Larson and Jane Brown recently followed a group of high school students in a situation with many new roles to play: a theater program. They found that not only did the experience force the students to deal with complex emotions, but discussing them with others helped them to develop emotionally. ScienceDaily carries the report.

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High School Theater Program Helped Strengthen Adolescents’ Emotional Development

A unique study found that adolescents’ emotional skills were strengthened through a high school theater program.

hs-oz.jpgA study conducted among adolescents in a high school theater program demonstrated how teens learned about how to employ positive emotions to motivate their work. Students also used strategies to manage their own and others’ negative emotions. The research was conducted through interviews with the students during a three-month period of rehearsals. This study demonstrates how schools and programs can support the development of “emotional intelligence” of adolescents.

Adolescents face formidable challenges in emotional development. To become functional adults, they must learn to manage the emotions that unfold in complex social interactions, including those in collaborative work groups. Yet little is known about the day-to-day circumstances of adolescents’ emotional development.

Researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign conducted open-ended interviews and observations to gain an in-depth understanding of one setting–a high school theater program. Ten teenagers were interviewed every two weeks over a three-month period while the theater group rehearsed a musical.

Two adults who led the production also were interviewed biweekly. In addition, the researchers observed the rehearsals weekly. During the rehearsals, teenagers reported frequent emotional experiences, including disappointment, anger, anxiety, and exhilaration. The program provided a culture that helped them learn to respond constructively to the events and feelings associated with these different emotions, the researchers found. The adults provided models and helped the teens cultivate strategies to manage strong emotions. The youth learned from repeatedly using these strategies to employ positive emotions to motivate their work; they also learned how to manage their own and others’ negative emotions.

High School MusicalThe theater setting supported this process by putting the youth in situations in which emotions were likely to occur because the expectation of hard work created stress and tension. Moreover, intense emotions were accepted and discussed openly with a climate of concern for others. The adults and youth alike stated shared beliefs about the importance of emotional experience, and the adolescents drew on the models and ideas of the culture as they learned about the dynamics of emotions in themselves and in groups.

The researchers also found that the young people were very actively engaged in the process of emotional learning. In the theater setting, they were proactive in learning to manage emotional situations, evaluated experiences and put to use the insights they gained, and actively drew on the ideas and assistance of adults and peers.

“The development of ’emotional intelligence’ is important to adult work and family life, but many young people arrive in adulthood with incomplete emotional skills,” according to Reed W. Larson, professor of human and community development at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the study’s lead author. “These preliminary findings suggest how, under the right conditions, adolescents strengthen these skills. Although further research is needed, youth programs and schools that provide these conditions may be more likely to facilitate emotional learning.”

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Follow this link to read more about Reed Larson and Jane Brown’s findings. This post is one in a series tracing the influence of situational influences on the development of children from youth into adolescence. To read other posts on this topic, go to “Jock or Nerd?: Where Do You Sit at the Dinner Table?,” “Biology and Environment Affect Childhood Behavioral Development,” or “Growing up in a Sexualizing Situation.”

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

A (Relatively) Situationist Account of Sarbanes-Oxley

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 23, 2007


Since its passage a half decade ago, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has been the target of growing criticism. Many in the business community view it as a costly, unnecessary regulatory overreaction to a largely self-correcting problem. But some of the more thoughtful scholarship on the topic has been more positive (or at least less negative) about the Act’s effects. In our view, probably the best legal-academic article summarizing and sorting through the basic economic issues is John Coates‘s (Winter, 2007) piece in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, The Goals and Promise of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. More recently, Donald Langevoort, another first-rate corporate law scholar, published a terrific (relatively) situationist article on the meaning and effect of Sarbanes-Oxley. We have excerpted the larger part of Langvoort’s introduction to that article below. The entire article (published in The Michigan Law Review) is available here.

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do-it-or-else.gifThe meaning of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (“SOX”) is still being contested even though it is now nearly five years since its enactment. This is not to say the words and phrases that make up the statutory mandates and implementing regulations are hopelessly muddled. Though there are plenty of ambiguities for lawyers and their clients to worry over, most of the requirements are clear enough as “law on the books” to expect at least formalistic compliance with them. But simply because something is enacted into law does not tell us much about how strongly it will influence economic behavior. At the very least, there is the rational calculus of likelihood of detection and magnitude of sanction. Most of SOX’s implementation and enforcement is left to the discretion of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and other public agencies. We therefore should estimate what the regulators will do—which will bring into play an interesting mix of external politics and the agencies’ own beliefs. Courts, too, will play a role in saying what SOX means when they review the Commission’s rules and enforcement actions, as will Congress in its continuing legislative oversight.

Socio-legal researchers tell us, however, that even the coupling between official legal interpretations and social behavior is fairly loose—that absent unusually high rates of detection and prosecution, compliance decisions are based at least as much on the perceived legitimacy of the law and prevailing norms in local context as any deliberate risk calculation. Business people form their own beliefs about SOX independently from official interpretations, and they act accordingly. So do other groups like lawyers, accountants, investors, media, and politicians. These groups’ perceptions influence each other as to appropriate corporate governance and behavior. This is more than just a political battle, although the political dimension is surely potent. SOX has a cultural dimension as well, which political muscle alone cannot easily override.sox-for-dummies.jpg

The viewpoints in competition range from the idea that the Act ought to be firmly embraced for stopping a threatened market meltdown by restoring trust between companies and investors to the notion that it is a quack cure for an overblown problem and a $1.4 trillion debacle for investors and the economy. The more interesting questions are who is debating and why. Rent seeking is palpable, but far from the whole story. The economics and ideology of manager-investor relationships and the United States’ law-making competence in the global economy are also in play.

The closer one looks at SOX and its origins in the financial scandals of the early 2000s, the blurrier the picture, which lets commentators see what they want to see and draw inferences accordingly. That is why social construction is so crucial. My aim in this paper is to illuminate the social nature of SOX’s diffusion into practice. I will leave to the reader the judgment about whether this has been or will be good or bad, and for whom. If I seem to challenge SOX’s critics more than its supporters, it is because the critics have been more venomous than is fair. Venom aside, the bite still deserves attention.

A reasonable concern is that we should not worry about something as fuzzy as social construction. We can observe how SOX has influenced behavior since its adoption, and that is what is important–not what self-interested parties say or think about the law. Numerous empirical studies in law, accounting, and finance have tested SOX’s effects. These studies, however, are preliminary—because the rule-making process takes time, many of the Act’s mandates did not go into effect until very recently, and implementation of certain provisions for some affected parties is still being delayed. They also suffer from their own methodological challenges, because the events surrounding SOX were very noisy. Quite apart from the legislation itself, political attitudes and investor expectations also shifted in response to the financial reporting scandals. Determining whether reactions were to the legislation itself or these other effects is hard. Finally, we cannot assume that first reactions to any law will necessarily be sustained: there can be an overreaction in the first instance that calms as the interpretation of the law shifts both officially and unofficially.

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To read all of Professor Langevoort’s article and how he takes up those challenges, click here. For related Situationist posts regarding the regulation of corporate misbehavior, see Sung Hui Kim’s posts: “Why Do Lawyers Acquiesce In Their Clients’ Misconduct?” Part I & Part II.

Posted in Law, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

Biology and Environment Affect Childhood Behavioral Development

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 21, 2007

James DeanThey’re the kids who every parent loves to hate. The childhood delinquents. The ones whom you hope your kids never start hanging out with, much less become. For whatever reason, they fell through the cracks and and seem destined for tribulation. They do poorly in school, get into fights, shirk the rules, and end up on the wrong side of the law. They “live fast and die young.”

Their problems have generally been attributed to disposition — theirs or their parents. Perhaps the nogoodnicks have learning disorders or, were never properly disciplined, or more likely, are just bad apples.

A recent study by Daniel Hart at Rutgers University suggests a more situational cause: stress response. By measuring neurological responses to external stimuli, Prof. Hart was able to find a spectrum of responses to these stresses placed on youths. Amy Norton of Reuters reports.

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Stress response tied to kids’ behavior problems

A combination of nature and nurture may make some children more likely to develop behavioral problems, new research suggests.

In a study of 138 children, researchers found that it wasn’t only the children’s exposure to stress, but their bodies’ reactions to the stress, that affected their future behavior.

Young children who had both a stressful home life and an exaggerated nervous system response to stress were more likely than their peers to develop behavioral problems over the next six years.

The findings suggest that family life and biology combine to shape a child’s personality development, the researchers report in the journal Psychological Sciences.

In the case of children who are surrounded by stressful conditions and have a stronger physiological response to stress, the combination may set them on a course toward an “under controlled” personality, according to the study.

Young people with this personality type have difficulty adapting their behavior to different circumstances, tend to be plagued by negative emotions, and often have behavioral problems such as fighting with their peers.

The findings suggest that children with greater nervous system reactivity have a particular need to be shielded from chronic stress, lead study author Daniel Hart told Reuters Health.

“What some kids can shrug off (may) be harmful to others,” explained Hart, a psychologist at the Center for Children and Childhood Studies at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey.


He and his colleagues based their findings on a six-year follow-up of 138 children who were in kindergarten through third grade at the study’s start. At that time, the researchers measured the children’s autonomic nervous response to stress.

The autonomic nervous system regulates involuntary bodily functions like heart rate and digestion. Hart’s team gauged the children’s autonomic responses to stress using a test that measures sweat production on the palms. The children were tested after seeing a short, emotionally neutral film, and after seeing a more stressful scene where a lamp triggers a fire in a girl’s room.

The researchers also estimated the children’s risk of having a stressful home life based on family income and mothers’ education; children from low-income, less educated families were considered to be at risk of living under stressful conditions.

In general, the study found, children who had both a high risk of family stress and exaggerated responses to the stressful film were more likely to develop behavioral problems over the next six years.

But while the findings suggest that nature is important in a child’s personality development and likelihood of behavior problems, nurture may win in the end.

In their ongoing research, Hart said, he and his colleagues have found that when children who are prone to greater stress reactions do not have chronic stress in their lives, they “may really flourish.”

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Understanding how interior and exterior situation (nature and nurture) influence development will help create an environment where fewer kids will ‘slip through the cracks’. If you are interested in reading Prof. Hart’s study, his paper is available for purchase here.


Posted in Life, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Group Membership

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 21, 2007

First Meeting 2Whenever one joins a group, he or she often feels reluctant to immediately express strong views or otherwise “rock the boat.” A new study in the Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin examines such behavior and explores why groups tend to resist the ideas of newcomers while applauding the very same ideas offered by longtime members. Below we provide a press release accompanying the study.

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Virtually everyone who joins a new group is sensitive to the fact that, as a newcomer, he or she must tread carefully for a while, keeping a low profile until becoming sufficiently integrated into the group. When they do offer their ideas, criticisms, and suggestions, existing group members typically resist their contributions. Why does that happen and what can be done to overcome that resistance” Research published in the July issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB), from SAGE, explores those questions.

The studies, authored in PSPB by Matthew J. Hornsey, Tim Grice, Jolanda Jetten, Neil Paulsen, and Victor Callan (all at University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia), examined how groups responded to identical criticisms of the group presented by both newcomers and old-timers. In every instance, the newcomers’ statements aroused less agreement and more negativity than the same comments delivered by long-term members. As a result, old-timers were more influential in persuading others than the newcomers were.

The authors conclude that the resistance to newcomers occurred because they were perceived as being less attached to their group member identity than long-term members, leading others to question whether they had the group’s best interests at heart. “Newcomers should have greater influence to the extent that they show commitmeBoard Meetingnt to their identity as a group member,” write the authors. “Newcomers who seemed to relinquish their attachment to a community to which they formerly belonged were more influential in their new group.”

Newcomers face an uphill battle to have their criticisms and recommendations for change accepted and this research can help them bring about positive change in the groups they join.

The article, “Group Directed Criticism and Recommendations for Change: Why Newcomers Arouse More Resistance than Old-Timers,” published by SAGE in the current issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, an official publication of The Society for Personality and Social Psychology, is available at no charge for a limited time at this link.

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For a couple of other Situationist works relating to group membership, see “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball” and “The Young and the Lucky.”

Posted in Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Heart, Brain, or Wallet…How Do You Vote?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 20, 2007

Vote RepublicanWith 2008 fast approaching, America is shifting into election mode. Clinton and Obama are the topic of much conversation and speculation. Regardless of how potential voters feel about the specifics of those candidates’ proposed policy reforms, both candidates stir emotional responses based on the mere fact that they look different from previous presidents or presidential hopefuls. In fact, emotions, good and bad, are stirred by all the candidates for one reason or another.

Do such emotional responses play a significant role in who gets elected or do most voters seek rationally to maximize their personal interests in deciding how to vote? Or does some other calculus or process ultimately determine who wins and who loses?

Psychologist Drew Westen — currently the go-to scholar among democratic strategists — believes that emotion comes first. The New York Times article excerpted below explains Weston’s role in the upcoming election, and his take on why and how people make the decisions they do.

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Nearly every campaign season there is someone with “the big idea” — the brilliant brainstorm that everyone seems to believe will get some lucky candidate elected president. And nearly every campaign season there is a long line of consultants, party leaders and scholars, each of whom is convinced that he’s the one.

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Westen BookThis year, among Democrats, one such contender is Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta and the author of a new book called “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” (Public Affairs). Dr. Westen takes the unlikely position that the Democratic Party should, for the most part, forget about issues, policies, even facts, and instead focus on feelings.

What he calls “the dispassionate view of the mind which has guided Democratic thinking for 40 years” is deeply flawed, Dr. Westen argues. What decides elections, he maintains, are people’s emotional reactions, even if they don’t know it.

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Erica Payne, a political strategist, said of Dr. Westen, “This is the ‘it’ guy for the season.”. Dr. Westen appeared at one at the Regency Hotel in New York in February. Fearing that, like some academics, he might ramble on too long, Ms. Payne worked out a signal — a pull on her ear — to tell Dr. Westen to wrap up quickly. So Ms. Payne pulled, and Dr. Westen announced that he would skip ahead because he was running out of time. “The whole audience said, ‘NO-O-O-O,’ ” Ms. Payne recalled. The crowd was enthralled: there was, she said, “this ‘a-ha’ moment.”

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“The Political Brain” takes a different tack than, say, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” by Thomas Frank or Al Gore’s “Assault on Reason,” which try to explain voter behavior in terms of self-interest and factual analysis.

Spin the Democrat

“My message is the exact opposite,” Dr. Westen said. They’re explaining “why we should be more rational” instead of “why we should bring more passion into politics.”

In recent years, studying the psychological roots of political affiliation has become something of a growth industry among academics, particularly since brain imaging became widely available.

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In his book, Dr. Westen describes an experiment he conducted in the fall of 2004 on committed Democrats and Republicans. Subjects had their brains scanned while they viewed slides containing pairs of contradictory statements from their favored candidate (George W. Bush or John Kerry). The subjects found ways to deny that there was any significant contradiction, and calm returned.

“The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs” — even false ones — that would eliminate the distress each subject was experiencing, he writes. Meanwhile, the reasoning centers of the brain — the part to which writers like Mr. Gore appeal — were quiet.

What’s more, the neural circuits responsible for positive emotions turned on as soon as the subject found a way to resolve the contradictions — reinforcing the faulty reasoning. Dr. Westen summed it up: people think with the gut.

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This is not to say that political choices are completely irrational. As the renowned neurologist Antonio Damasio has shown, the brain’s emotional systems are an essential part of logical thinking.

But when it comes to swaying voters, Dr. Westen insists that triggering the right emotional network — that unconscious bundle of ideas, images, words, memories, feelings — is much more important and effective than appealing to reason.

Consider the associations that are likely to appear when a city dweller hears the word “gun”: handguns, murder, mugging, robbery, killing and crime. But for rural residents, Dr. Westen says, “gun” is likely to activate an entirely different network that includes: my daddy, my son, gun collection, rifle, deer, buddies, protecting my family, my rights.

gun control= crime controlSo stop talking about “gun control,” Dr. Westen advises, since the word “control” suggests curtailing freedom, and instead look for ways to tap into a network that helps your cause. Democrats, he says, should link to the network of fear that guns in the hands of terrorists and criminals trigger.

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As Dr. Westen sees it, the decision to keep quiet when confronted with negative attacks or difficult and controversial subjects like race, abortion and gay rights is always a mistake. “Democrats run from every issue where there’s passion involved,” he complains. “If you don’t say anything, you are giving them” — your opponents — “the right to define the public’s feeling.”

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Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, said, “Reasoning, when we do it, is mostly to find justification for what we already believe.”

Many of Dr. Westen’s indictments of previous Democratic advertisements, speeches and strategies — from the failure to strike back to the mind-numbing lists of statistics to the lack of emotional power — are not new. Yet even those who agree with his analysis may criticize Dr. Westen for using the same kind of manipulative techniques that he takes Republicans to task for.

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Yet there is a more fundamental question: Without relying on reasoned analysis, what is the basis of one party’s claim to have a superior agenda to their opponents?

“I would pose the issue as one between two competing value systems, not between competing plans or policies,” he said, and that is what does and should determine their choices.

Ultimately what led Dr. Westen to write about others’ political passion was his own. “I couldn’t stand where the country was going,” he said.

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To read this article in its entirety, click here. For a previous Situationist post discussing Westen’s book, see “Your Brain on Politics.” For previous Situationist posts about the 2008 presidential election, see “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns.”

Posted in Book, Emotions, Politics | 7 Comments »

An Apathy Epidemic

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 18, 2007

Jessica McClure RescueSituationist Contributor Paul Slovic recently contributed a post, “Too Many To Care,” about how the human mind quickly becomes numb to suffering as the number of people suffering grows. Show us one girl trapped in a well or one hiker lost on a mountain, and watch our nation turn to help. Show us hundreds of thousands homeless or starving and watch our nation turn the channel. It’s the cruel law of large numbers.

Baltimore is coping with two problems these days. First, a homicide epidemic: the murder rate, which started high, has only increased in recent years. Second, an apathy epidemic: as the killings escalate, public concern about them has waned. Recognizing the possible connection between increasing crime rates and increasing public indifference has led editors at the Baltimore Sun to try to connect their readers to what is happening in their community — to make personal and real what otherwise seems statistical and abstract. We have excerpted portions of Paul Moore’s recent column discussing this challenge.

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How to get Sun Readers Connected to Crime Epidemic

As Baltimore’s perennially high murder rate has risen ever higher this year, The Sun is using more of its resources to cover this dangerous trend. The economic and social consequences of the epidemic shadow the entire region while threatening the revitalization of urban neighborhoods.

Baltimore Murder Map 2006The stakes are so high that exploring the roots of the problem and identifying possible answers are vital. But connecting readers to this ugly story is requiring newsroom creativity because reports of the relentless succession of murders can start to seem all too commonplace. And because it’s a tragically painful issue with no easy solutions, readers themselves can start to become numb.

To keep readers focused, the newspaper is using an array of journalistic options: stories that give a fuller-than-usual description of the personal tragedies involved; stories that explain in detail the challenges to the courts and police; stories that describe the effects on neighborhoods and businesses. These pieces are being produced with the label Confronting Crime: the Battle for Baltimore’s Future.

A box with this year’s murder count and a brief report on the most recent homicides also now appears prominently on the Maryland section front. In recent years, The Sun had published this figure once a month on the Opinion/Commentary page, reflecting the newspaper’s apparent ambivalence about reporting these disturbing numbers. This is no longer the case.

City editor Howard Libit explains: “The daily homicide box is crucial to reminding our readers of the violence that is happening every day in our city. It takes homicides that might otherwise be short crime digest briefs or police blotter items, and puts them front and center for our readers. This issue of violence is something that demands to be at the top of the agenda for politicians and residents, not just in the city, but the entire region.”

This and other efforts illuminate an interesting truth about newspapers in America. Informing readers about a challenging social problem risks alienating some readers and businesses, but it is vital to the newspaper’s leadership role.

The first part of a continuing series, titled “Losing the Streets,” was published July 1. It was designed to provide an overview of the increase in killings thisbaltimore-homicide.jpg year in Baltimore – interspersing details about the human cost of violence with reports on social and economic factors, public attitudes, law enforcement practices and demographic breakdowns. Written by Doug Donovan and Sumathi Reddy with contributions from a number of reporters and graphic artists, it was a well-executed but ultimately incomplete effort to explain this large and complicated problem.

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Since then, two other “Confronting Crime” front-page articles have been published: Nicole Fuller’s July 2 piece about the effect of increasing crime in the Charles Village and Remington neighborhoods, and Julie Bykowicz’s July 8 piece about the very heavy (and growing) workload of the unit for the State’s Attorney’s office that investigates and prosecutes nonfatal gun crimes in Baltimore.

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In my view, The Sun’s reporting on crime – whether investigative, breaking news or police blotter briefs – has generally been good, and sometimes excellent. But as Baltimore remains on track to surpass 300 homicides a year for the first time this decade, the coverage needs to be broader and deeper, focusing more attention on possible answers.

The Sun’s series on crime and the decision to allocate additional newsroom resources are important steps.

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Posted in Conflict, Emotions | 1 Comment »

David Vitter: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on July 17, 2007

David and Wendy VitterSenator David Vitter achieved much of his success by professing steadfast allegiance to “traditional family values” and punitive intolerance for those who violate them. Consider, for instance, his campaign statement on protecting the “sanctity of marriage”:

This is a real outrage. The Hollywood left is redefining the most basic institution in human history, and our two U.S. Senators won’t do anything about it. We need a U.S. Senator who will stand up for Louisiana values, not Massachusetts’s values. I am the only Senate Candidate to coauthor the Federal Marriage Amendment; the only one fighting for its passage. I am the only candidate proposing changes to the senate rules to stop liberal obstructionists from preventing an up or down vote on issues like this, judges, energy, and on and on.

Similarly, Vitter once told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that “infidelity, divorce, and deadbeat dads contribute to the breakdown of traditional families.” That’s extraordinarily serious, says Vitter, because “marriage is truly the most fundamental social institution in human history.”

In part because of his squeaky-clean, straight-arrow, red-state-values image, Rudolph Giuliani selected Vitter as his Southern campaign chairperson. Vitter was to be the personifying proof that social conservatives could trust Giuliani. Vitter was even seen by some Republicans as a future presidential candidate himself.

As recent revelations make clear, Vitter was more committed to family values in his preaching than in his practicing. According to CBS News:Deborah Palfrey

On Monday, Vitter acknowledged being involved with the so-called D.C. Madam [Deborah Palfrey], hours after Hustler magazine told him his telephone number was among those she disclosed. A day later, new revelations linked him to a former madam in New Orleans [Jeanette Maier] and old allegations that he frequented a former prostitute resurfaced, further clouding his political future.

Vitter’s apology read as follows: “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling.”

With his public admission coming only after tJeanette Maier by Alex Brandon for APhe his dirty laundry was about to be aired publicly, Vitter comes off looking like quite the scoundrel. Many commentators see him, not simply as unfaithful to his family but, worse, hypocritical regarding his purported family values.

We Americans like to see people in terms of their dispositions, and we despise those who pretend to have one disposition when in fact they have another. We can’t stand hypocrites! And Vitter is nothing if not a hypocrite.

Although we share the indignation, there are two related problems with this reaction. First off, it misses the fact that, in important ways, most of us are hypocrites.

Surely many of our leaders are. Prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to preach fidelity while practicing “philandery.” Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich are good examples of the political balance. Moreover, “sinning against God” seems all too common even among the anointed — from Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker to untold numbers of Catholic Priests.


In all cases, the critics relish the opportunity to point to the flaws of their opponents. And, true to form, it seems that no one in this case is eager to attribute blame or responsibility to anyone other than Vitter — and everyone sees his use of “escorts” as a reflection of nothing other than his true disposition. As we’ve suggested, most commentators, and particularly those who are not close to him politically, portray him as a hypocrite. But even politicians closer to him are noticeably dispositionist in their reactions.

Rudolph Giuliani, for instance, responded to questions about his Southern campaign chairperson by emphasizing that the revelations reflected something about Vitter, butRudy Giuliani Judith Nathan David Vitter nothing about Giuliani: “Some people are flawed.” “I think you look at all the people I appointed — a thousand or so – sure, some of them had issues, some of them had problems, the vast majority of them were outstanding people.” The implication is that Vitter is among the minority of Giuliani appointees who are flawed and are not “outstanding people.”

It’s a strange distinction coming from Giuliani, who, if the measure is adultery, seems similarly “flawed” and less than “outstanding.” There is, in other words, hypocrisy among those who seek to distance themselves from this hypocrite.

Many of us, upon close examination might discover a similar tension. American attitudes toward adultery are sort of like American attitudes toward unhealthy, highly-caloric food. We claim to not want that “junk,” and sometimes manage to avoid it; still, most of us find ourselves eating something we wish we hadn’t from time to time — perhaps most of the time. In America, we curse our cake and eat it too. And also in America, we blame the obesity epidemic on the bad choices and dispositions of the obese.

Poll Americans and you’re likely to find that roughly 90 percent believe adultery is morally wrong. Meanwhile, ask Americas about whether they have engaged in an extramarital affair, and you’ll discover that many more than 10 percent have. In fact, according to one study, 25 percent of wives and 44 percent of husbands have extramarital intercourse. In other words, there seems to be a gap between what many people say is Marital Problemsmorally wrong and what many people do.

There’s another way of illustrating how we overestimate our own sexual righteousness. Numerous studies have shown that people are far less able to act according to their own explicit attitudes, goals, and standards when confronted with fairly intense drive states such as hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, moods, emotions, physical pain and sexual desire. According to George Loewenstein, such “visceral factors” tend to “crowd out” all goals other than that of mitigating the visceral factors themselves. As summarized elsewhere:

If you find that difficult to understand, try holding your breath for two minutes or dropping an anvil on your toe, and see what significance your other goals and attitudes have in your behavior before the pain subsides.

Of course, responding to such intense bodily reactions makes perfect sense and is not, in itself, problematic. People should prioritize the acquisition of oxygen when it is scarce. And people should attend to their acute injuries before checking to make sure the anvil is ok. The problem stems from the fact that people often behave, in response to visceral cues, in ways that contradict their view of how they should behave, and sometimes even their own volition. And that problem occurs, according to Loewenstein, because of the second key feature of visceral factors, which is that “people underestimate the impact on their own behavior of visceral factors they will experience in the future”: “Unlike currently experienced visceral factors which have a disproportionate impact on behavior, delayed visceral factors tend to be ignored or to be severely underweighted in decision making. Today’s pain, hunger, anger, and so on are palpable, but the same sensations anticipated in the future receive little weight.”

In one experiment, for example, two groups of male subjects were shown photographs and then asked to imagine how they would behave in the context of a date-rape scenario. The group that had been shown sexually arousing photographs reported a much greater likelihood of behaving aggressively than the group that had been shown non-arousing photos. Without being aroused by the photographs, the second group seemed less able to imagine what they would do when aroused on a date.

There is plenty more evidence we could offer to make this point, but more details are unnecessary. Our goal is not to excuse Vitter’s behavior or justify Vitter’s policy positions (at least some of which, frankly, make us proud to be from Massachusetts). Instead, we hope simply to suggest that few of us are without similar “flaws” — or put differently, none of us are moved solely by disposition, much less our professed values.

And that brings us to a larger point. The human tendency to see hypocrisy will often reflect the fundamental attribution error — the tendency to overestimate the influence of a person’s disposition and to underestimate the influence of his situation — as well as our own motivations to see hypocrisy in the “others” that we would not be motivated to see in ourselves or in our in-groups.

Situations commonly lead us to behave in ways that are inconsistent with our expectations, ambitions, attitudes, principles, and self-image. A basic lesson of social psychology and related fields is that, just as the spirit is often weaker than the flesh, the disposition is often weaker than the situation.

By attacking Vitter’s disposition, many of his critics may be missing an opportunity to make a bigger point to the sorts of conservative politicians who Vitter typifies. It is the hard-core conservatives who too much of the time are attributing solely to people’s disposition what should be attributed significantly to the their situation. “Tough on crime,” for instance, means “tough on criminals,” not tough on the situations that tend to produce criminal behavior. “Personal responsibility” means attributing personal bankruptcies to the flawed choices of those declaring bankruptcy and disregarding, say, the unexpected medical costs or layoffs experienced by families trying to make ends meet. “Common sense” means blaming the obesity epidemic on the laziness and bad food choices on the part of the obese and dismissing any role that situational forces might have played. And so on.

Bill O’Reilly and Homelessness

We want to see sinister motives and evil intent in our enemies, just as we are subconsciously eager to see deficient character or lack of merit in those who are worse of than ourselves. Too often, though, the distinctions between “us” and “them” are more or less group- and system-affirming fabrications.

Instead of leaping at the opportunity to paint politician after politician after politician with the brush of hypocrisy, perhaps these instances might be used as teaching tools — examples to the Vitters of the world that although the disposition may be strong, the situation is often stronger. If we could stop pretending that people’s behavior and their condition in life is a product solely of their character or preferences, then perhaps we could begin to have more meaningful debates about topics that really matter.

Put differently, the dispositionist search for bad apples and hypocrites harmfully eclipses a deeper discussion that we could be having if we were to acknowledge the extent to which we are all situational characters rather than dispositional actors. With a different mindset, perhaps citizens and politicians would begin to take seriously ways of examining and altering the situation that is otherwise altering us.

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments »

The Reality of Fist Fights

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 16, 2007

Fight ClubOne of the more popular films of the last decade is Fight Club, which stars Brad Pitt and Edward Norton and revolves around an underground fighting network for regular guys. The film’s fights, many of which are depicted as brutal and bloodied, are thought to reflect a way for otherwise disaffected men to feel meaningful–to feel like “men.”

Just as noticeably, the film depicts regular guys as being able to absorb a barrage of blows to the face in the quest of winning. In doing so, however, the film, like many other films, television shows, and video games, glosses over the unexpectedly severe, sometimes fatal, damage that may be caused by just one punch to the face. Michael Stetz of the San Diego Union-Tribune examines facial injuries caused by punches and whether Hollywood’s glorified depictions of hand-to-hand combat motivate people to engage in fist fights, under the false impression that such fights are not life-threatening. We have excerpted portions of his article below.

* * *

The human hand, when made into a fist, can do considerable damage. It can be deadly.

The May killing of a La Jolla surfer reportedly started as a one-on-one fistfight. Nobody had a gun, knife, pipe or baseball bat. It still turned very, very ugly.

* * *

Even a single punch can be as lethal as a bullet.

“I’m not certain if 20-something kids realize how much damage they can cause,” said Chris Cross, who does happen to know.

Cross teaches defense tactics for the San Diego Regional Public Safety Training InstiUltimate Fighting Championshiptute. Delivered with enough force, blows to the head, neck, spine, kidney and groin can cause serious damage, even death, he said.

Brian Walsh, a former Navy pilot, has two permanent metal plates in the left side of his face. Walsh can’t chew food on that side. He suffers headaches.

All from a punch to the face.

On July 4, 2005, Walsh and a fellow Navy pilot were barbecuing in the front yard of their rented La Jolla house as several cars driven by young men went speeding past.

Walsh, 27, a lieutenant then based at North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado, said he was “sick of it. So I sprayed a car with my garden hose and hollered, ‘Slow down!’ I figured I’d done my civic duty for the day.”

The enraged driver stopped, walked up to Walsh and shocked the pilot by punching him in the face. The blow shattered Walsh’s left eye socket and crushed his sinus cavity.

Walsh had been in the process of becoming an intelligence officer, but even if he wanted to go back to flying, he couldn’t. Walsh said he lost about 40 percent of vision in his left eye in the assault.

* * *

Guns far and away remain the top lethal weapon in America. More than 10,000 killings in 2005 involved firearms, according to FBI statistics.

Fists can kill and do, but there has been no increase in the number of people dying from weapon-less fights. In 2005, 892 such deaths were tallied nationally, compared with 927 in 2000.

Assaults are another matter. Their numbers aren’t growing dramatically, but in 2005, 25 percent of the 860,000-plus cases involved fists and feet.

There seems to be a growing popularity of no-holds-barred fighting in American culture. On the Internet, recorded fistfights are a popular posting.

Young people also seem to be fascinated by mixed-martial-arts fighting, which critics say is too brutal. Ultimate Fighting Championship events have outperformed baseball in TV ratings among men 18 to 34.

The La Jolla killing isn’t an isolated incident, said Robert Brager, a clinical psychologist who is referred clients through the San Diego courts for anger-management therapy. Brager regularly sees people in their 20s and 30s who have poor impulse control and are prone to violence.

“It reflects something unfortunate about the state of affairs of our culture,” Brager said, Def Jam Vendettanoting that many influences exist, from violent video games to movies.

It is anybody’s guess as to why men several years removed from high school were taking part in random assaults, picking fights and getting booted from bars – all the things that members of the Bird Rock Bandits have been accused of doing.

One explanation gaining traction is that cultural forces are causing a delay of adulthood. Young people are taking longer to finish college, start a career, get married, have children – pursuits that have maturing benefits.

“To this generation, independence is not a significant value,” said Jane Adams, a social psychologist and author of “When Our Grown Kids Disappoint Us” and other books. “Being happy is.”

* * *

To read the rest of the article, click here. To read about similar concerns regarding first-person shooter video games, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Life | 13 Comments »

The Physical Pains of Discrimination

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 15, 2007

African Americans HealthThe intersection between race and social psychology has been examined in several posts on The Situationist, including by Jon Hanson and Michael McCann in “Black History is Now” and “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas,” by Jerry Kang in Implicit Bias and Strawmen,” and by the Staff in “The Situation in New Olreans.” In today’s Boston Globe, science writer Madeline Drexler studies a different dimension to this intersection: how being discriminated against because of one’s race increases one’s chances for physical ailments, and how forthcoming studies on the human brain may further illuminate that connection. Below we have excerpted portions of Drexler’s piece.

* * *

Four years ago, researchers identified a surprising price for being a black woman in America. The study of 334 midlife women, published in the journal Health Psychology, examined links between different kinds of stress and risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Black women who pointed to racism as a source of stress in their lives, the researchers found, developed more plaque in their carotid arteries — an early sign of heart disease — than black women who didn’t. The difference was small but important — making the report the first to link hardening of the arteries to racial discrimination.

The study was just one in a fast-growing field of research documenting how racism literally hurts the body. More than 100 studies — most published since 2000 — now document the effects of racial discrimination on physical health. Some link blood pressure to recollected encounters with bigotry. Others record the cardiovascular reactions of volunteers subjected to racist imagery in a lab. Forthcoming research will even peek into the workings of the brain during exposure to racist provocations.

Scientists caution that the research is preliminary, and some of it is quite controversial, but they say the findings could profoundly change the way we look at both racism and health. It could unmask racism as a bona fide public health problem — just as reframing child abuse and marital violence as public health concerns transformed the way we thought about these ubiquitous but often secret sources of suffering. Viewing racial discrimination as a health risk could open the door to understanding how other climates of chronic mistreatment or fear seep into the body — why, for instance, pregnant women in California with Arabic names were suddenly more likely than any other group to deliver low birth-weight babies in the six months after 9/11.

Most striking, researchers note, is how consistent the findings have been across a wide range of studies. The task now, they say, is to discover why.

“We don’t know all the internal processes,” said James Jackson, director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. “But we can observe an effect, and we need to find out what’s going on.”

The burgeoning research comes at a time when lawmakers and government officials are increasingly focused on the problem of racial disparities in health. African-AmericansWhite Serve Whites Only today, despite a half century of economic and social progress since the civil rights movement, face a higher risk than any other racial group of dying from heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and hypertension. In the United States, affluent blacks suffer, on average, more health problems than the poorest whites. Spurred by statistics like these, dozens of states and cities have been passing legislation intended to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in health.

* * *

For decades, experts have agreed that racial disparities in health spring from pervasive social and institutional forces. The scientific literature has linked higher rates of death and disease in American blacks to such “social determinants” as residential segregation, environmental waste, joblessness, unsafe housing, targeted marketing of alcohol and cigarettes, and other inequities.

But the new work draws on a different vein of research. In the early 1980s, Duke University social psychologist Sherman James, introduced his now-classic “John Henryism” hypothesis. The name comes from the legendary 19th-century “steel-driving” railroad worker who competed against a mechanical steam drill and won — only to drop dead from what today would probably be diagnosed as a massive stroke or heart attack. In James’s work, people who churn out prodigious physical and mental effort to cope with chronic life stresses are said to score high on John Henryism. James showed that blacks with high John Henryism but low socioeconomic position pay a physical price, with higher rates of blood pressure and hypertension.

Racism, other research suggests, acts as a classic chronic stressor, setting off the same physiological train wreck as job strain or marital conflict: higher blood pressure, elevated heart rate, increases in the stress hormone cortisol, suppressed immunity. Chronic stress is also known to encourage unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking and eating too much, that themselves raise the risk of disease.

In the 1990s, Harvard School of Public Health social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger pushed the hypothesis further. She confirmed that experiences of race-based discrimination were associated with higher blood pressure, and that an internalized response — not talking to others about the experience or not taking action against the inequity — raised blood pressure even more. A controversial finding at the time, it has since been replicated by other investigators: The suppressed inner turWoman in Flagmoil after a racist encounter can set off a cascade of ill effects.

Jules Harrell, a Howard University professor of psychology, said he was moved this spring by a photo of the Rutgers University women’s college basketball team, sitting together with dignified expressions, after radio talk show host Don Imus had labeled them with a racist epithet.

“The expressions on their faces,” said Harrell. “All I could think was, ‘Good God, I’d hate to see their cortisol levels.’ ”

Collectively, these studies of the racism-health link have tied experiences of discrimination to poorer self-reported health, smoking, low-birth-weight deliveries, depressive symptoms, and especially to cardiovascular effects. In the mid-1980s scientists began to take advantage of the controlled conditions of the laboratory. When African-American volunteers are hooked up to blood-pressure monitors, for example, and then exposed to a racially provocative vignette on tape or TV — such as a white store clerk calling a black customer a racist epithet — the volunteers’ blood pressures rise, their heart rates jump, and they take longer than normal to recover from both reactions. Perhaps, scientists reasoned, the effort of a lifetime of bracing for such threats prolongs the effect.

* * *

To read the rest of the piece, click here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Life, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Al Gore – The Situationist

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on July 11, 2007

al-gore.jpgDemocrats are feeling pretty confident these days. To begin with, the opposing team is beleaguered. George W. Bush, seven years after taking the Presidency, is not wearing well. His approval ratings are at an all-time low, and there is growing hostility and increasing defections from among erstwhile Bush supporters. Hard-core Republicans no doubt hope that someone else might be able to pick up the pieces and build a viable alternative vision and constituency. So far, however, their most promising presidential prospects seem to be stumbling out of the gate.

Meanwhile, on their own team, the Dems appear to have, not one, not two, but three plausible candidates. Clinton, Obama, and Edwards all bring impressive political pedigree to the starting gate. In terms of political horseracing, this seems like a good moment to bet on the donkeys.Democrats Republicans

Nonetheless, there remains a largely unspoken sense of disappointment among many Democrats that, although they may enter the winner’s circle in 2008, they might do so on the wrong horse.

To be sure, the prime contenders would be seen as an improvement over the status quo. Still, many moderates and liberals seem to believe that Al Gore would be best able to lead the U.S. in the right direction domestically, internationally, and globally.

There are many reasons why Al Gore is the focus of so much political buzz — counterfactual imaginings of what might have been in the 2000 election, two best-selling books, an outspoken, courageous, and prescient opposition to the war in Iraq, an Academy-Award-winning documentary, and Nobel Prize rumors are some of the key factors that have turned Gore from a wooden wonk into a charismatic prophet.


But there is something else that separates Gore from the field that we think is worth underscoring. Specifically, Al Gore is — dare we say it? — a situationist.

Situationism is devoted to gaining as realistic an understanding as possible about what is moving us, our institutions, and environs and, where necessary, challenging incorrect (albeit affirming) “common sense” or, as Gore might put it, “convenient falsehoods,” and re-imagining policy in light of what reason and science have to teach, no matter how discommodious. Doing so means looking at larger, systemic, root causes and avoiding the temptation to seize on seemingly clear, simple answers through myopic analysis. It means distrusting the naked eye and learning what one can from the telescope and the microscope, the zoom lens and the wide-angle lens. It means getting beyond the present and taking seriously the past for lessons, and the future for priorities. It means looking to the situation and not simply to the salient. Those, in our view, are the characteristics of Gore’s approach to policy, particularly in contrast to the norm among policymakers.

This is not just our opinion. It seems to be the implicit opinion of many who have written about him in the last several years.

Consider, for instance, Ryan Lizza‘s recent piece in The New Republic. As Lizza explains, behind Gore’s environmental and political positions are an uncommon attention to structure and systems:

Gore thinks in terms of systems. Gore . . . isn’t content merely to describe a problem but rather tries to understand the underlying structures that enable it. This was true of his early forays into ecology, his reinventing government effort in the Clinton years, and his strategic thinking on arms control and foreign policy generally. . . .

Lately, Gore has also taken a systems view of the Bush years. The story of the structural dysfunction behind the last six-and-a-half years begins, according to Gore, with a brief history of the relationship between the press and democracy. . . . “American democracy was intended to be a robust and vigorous multi-way conversation that individuals could join freely without any significant barriers. . . .”

“I don’t think the modern campaign process facilitates a genuine exchange of ideas. It’s multiple overlapping games of gotcha, and who can read the polls and the focus groups most skillfully and discern some new manipulative option that can be quickly parlayed into a couple of percentage points in the next poll and parlay that into great fund-raising totals by the end of the next reporting period.”

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recently described Gore’s penchant for addressing big questions and his distaste for simplistic answers this way:

Mr. Gore is passionate about the issues he is focused on — global warming, the decline of rational discourse in American public life, the damage done to the nation over the past several years. And he has contempt for the notion that such important and complex matters can be seriously addressed in sound-bite sentences or 30-second television ads, which is how presidential campaigns are conducted.

To be sure, many disagree with Gore regarding his data, reasoning, or conclusions (for one example of such disagreement, see video below).

Still, NPR’s Science Correspondent Richard Harris recently explained, for a non-scientist, Gore “does get the big picture very well. Most scientists say he really can see the forest for the trees.” In any case, our point is less that Gore is correct in the details and more that his agenda and his approach to policy questions is, as Robyn E. Blumner wrote in the St. Petersburg Times, driven by “science, facts and reality.”

As a situationist, Gore is reluctant to blame the individuals involved, and he is eager to point out influence of institutional dynamics that surround politicians currently enmeshed in the system. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne writes:

[W]hen Gore is asked if any of the Democrats running for president were changing the system he holds in such low esteem, he pulls no punches. “They’re good people trapped in a bad system,” he says, “and I think it’s the system that needs to be changed and I don’t see them changing it.”

Thus, the problem is less about the dispositions of the individuals involved, who”are good people,” and more about the “bad system.” Similarly Lizza writes:

It’s almost as if [Gore] feels sorry for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the others, as if they are hamsters locked in the cage of a broken political process, a cage that Gore is all too familiar with and does not seem to miss.

[In Gore’s words, the political system] “is often a manipulative exercise utilizing the tools of persuasion that were developed by advertisers of commercial products in conjunction with psychologists and researchers who plumb the inner workings of our thought process . . . .”

“Both parties failed the country,” . . . . Once again, though Gore presents his critique in terms of a broken system, rather than bad actors. “I do not point fingers at individual senators or members of Congress or party leaders for their failure to speak up,” he says. I focus in [Assault on Reason] on the structural changes that made it more likely than not that they could get away with being silent.” He cites the pressure to spend time raising money and other factors that have led to the decline of real debate in the Senate and, again, the related problem of voters being isolated from a robust national conversation.

Relatedly, one reason that Gore has been willing and able to take a relatively situationist approach to policy issues is itself a consequence of his situation, free as he now is from the constraints of the political system. According to E.J. Dionne,

It’s entertaining to talk to Gore these days because he’s so clearly enjoying himself . . . During a 40-minute telephone interview yesterday, he did not speak as if there were focus-grouped sentences dancing around in his head. Nor did he worry about saying things that some consultant would fret about for weeks afterward.

Putting those points together might help explain Gore’s reluctance to enter the Presidential contest for 2008. Gore understands that one’s ability to lead the country in new directions is significantly limited by the powerful situational forces that determine which candidate wins an election and what a President can accomplish in office. He understands, in other words, that changing politics and public policy is less about putting the right person in a particular position than it is about altering the situational forces surrounding that position. Futhermore, he recognizes that his own ability to focus on situational concerns and his success in persuading others to do the same is dependent on his current situation outside the system.

Gore may be doing his supporters a big favor, then, by staying out of the race. If the situation is “leading” politics and politicians, then it may be more fruitful for Gore to change the situation than to become part of it. And, by that same token, Gore supporters might do him a big favor by looking less to the man and more to his message.

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To read about Martin Luther King’s situationism, click here.

Posted in Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology | 10 Comments »

When Thieves See Situation

Posted by Kate Hill on July 10, 2007


A recent New York Times article by Charles Duhigg reports that tech savvy thieves are employing the market research of major corporations to accomplish an old crime: cheating the elderly.

Con artists living across the globe can now access the names and telephone numbers of thousands of Americans, categorized by age, sex, and household income, and use the information to operate banking scams without ever entering the United States. According to Duhigg, older Americans lose hundreds of millions of dollars each year as victims of consumer fraud.

Publicly held companies, such as InfoUSA and its subsidiary, Walter Karl, compile and sellInfoUSA lists of consumers. Con artists purchase the lists from the companies’ websites, then pose as telemarketers in order to obtain senior citizens’ bank account numbers. Finally, the thieves use unsigned checks to steal money from the accounts.

One would think that images of crooks robbing Grandpa and Grandma would cause public outcry and spur government regulators into action. But efforts to stop the scams remain lukewarm. After all, these scams can only work if senior citizens choose to hand over their banking details to the telemarketers. Government and society’s half-hearted response might be due to our view of the elderly as dispositional actors giving out critical information to strangers over the phone, something we would never do ourselves.

This view of senior citizens causes us to miss a lot of the situational factors that allow these scams to succeed, and that cause thieves to target the elderly in the first place. Many senior citizens spend the day at home alone, without the company and protection of family. They are available to talk to telemarketers, and as Duhigg explains, even eager for the calls, in some cases. Some seniors fear losing their independence, so they are reluctant to ask for help with financial record-keeping and bill payment, a silence the con artists rely on.

By recognizing the situational as well as the dispositional forces at work, we see that senior citizens are not alone in helping the scam to operate effectively. The list brokers market the elderly as attractive targets (placing them in categories that suggest where they might be vulnerable to persuasion), making them an attractive target for thieves. Meanwhile, the banks fail to implement proper security measures while continuing to profit on transaction fees from illegal withdrawals.

A quick visit to the Walter Karle website demonstrates just how accessible the list brokers have made their product for the general public, including criminals. Create a user name, click past a disclaimer, and you too can purchase the name and contact information of thousands of consumers, conveniently classified by demographic information. A keyword search for “elderly” or “senior” returns the “Upscale Senior Database,” described as “a growing market that has the time and money to enjoy themselves” and “About Seniors with Pets,” advertised as “older people who regard their pets as family and give them the best care their owners can provide.”

atty generalThe FTC prohibits list brokers from knowingly doing business with criminals, and the Federal Reserve has recently increased regulations for banks accepting unsigned checks. To be sure, the criminals who are caught are punished and sent to jail, but cregulations are hardly foolproof. The majority of the responsibility for stopping these scams still rests on the elderly victims themselves. The banking reforms only occurred after most state attorney generals urged the Fed to end the unsigned-checks system altogether, a step the federal government has not taken. And Duhigg reports that despite federal regulations, the attitude among list brokers is that they are not responsible if someone else commits a crime. Major corporations, such as Wachovia and InfoUSA, have been warned by government investigators that they are assisting criminals, but the companies continue to do business with the con artists.

Lax corporate regulation not only threatens the financial security of our senior citizens, it also perpetuates our stereotypes about the competence of the elderly, a phenomenon discussed in previous posts. Criminals, list brokers, and even banks want us to see the elderly as dispostional actors making bad financial decisions. Otherwise, the scams would fail, or the corporate entities would be held responsible. In reality, many seniors face overwhelming situational odds in dealing with the con artists.

By shifting responsibility from situationally vulnerable senior citizens to large institutions, we can shift the “choices” to individuals who are better situated to make them and remove incentives to exploit those who aren’t. With a little more accountability on the part of list brokers and banks, our elderly citizens can hold onto their money and their independence.

Posted in Choice Myth, Life, Marketing, Public Policy | 2 Comments »

Jock or Nerd? Where Did You Sit at the Dinner Table?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 9, 2007

Children in families are often labeled, such as the “brainy one” or the one with the best personality or the athletic one. Those labels clearly influence the behavior of the child labeled as well as those around him or her. But what happens when the child becomes an adult–does the label still matter?

Interestingly, adults often try to shed their former skin, creating a different identity than the one their family molded them into. Below we excerpt a New York Times article that examines the ways childhood identities affect middle-age, and the ways individuals deal with their present lives.

* * *

A recent study, which found that eldest children end up, on average, with slightly higher I.Q.’s than younger siblings, was a reminder that the fight for self-definition starts much earlier than freshman year. Families, whatever the relative intelligence of their members, often treat the firstborn as if he or she were the most academic, and the younger siblings fill in other niches: the wild one, the flirt.

* * *

But there are other ways to see these alternate identities: as challenges that can sharpen psychological skills. In a country where reinvention is considered a birthright, many people seem to treat old identities the way Houdini treated padlocked boxes: something to wriggle free from, before being dragged down. And psychological research suggests that this ability can be a sign of mental resilience, of taking control of your own story rather than being trapped by it.

Middle Age Reinvention

Psychological studies suggest that seeing past labels from a distance not only reduces the sting of the memory but can also reinforce the sense that you have changed, have grown up and out of those old clothes.

A more obvious outlet to expand identity — and one that’s available to those who have not or cannot escape the family and community where they’re known and labeled — is the Internet. Researchers have found that many people who play life-simulation games, for example, set up the kind of families they would like to have had, even script alternate versions of their own role in the family or in a peer group.

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Decades ago the psychologist Erik Erikson conceived of middle age as a stage of life defined by a tension between stagnation and generativity — a healthy sense of guiding and nourishing the next generation, of helping the community.

In a series of studies, the Northwestern psychologist Dan P. McAdams has found that adults in their 40s and 50s whose lives show this generous quality — who often volunteer, who have a sense of accomplishment — tell very similar stories about how they came to be who they are. Whether they grew up in rural poverty or with views of Central Park, they told their life stories as series of redemptive lessons. When they failed a grade, they found a wonderful tutor, and later made the honor roll; when fired from a good job, they were forced to start their own business.

Cat’s Mirror Image

This similarity in narrative constructions most likely reflects some agency, a willful reshaping and re-imagining of the past that informs the present. These are people who have taken control of the stories that form their identities. While most people can leave their family niches, schoolyard nicknames and high school reputations behind, they don’t ever entirely forget them.

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And that’s one reason why I.Q., that most loaded label of them all, is such a sore point for so many. It’s too narrow a test, and too arbitrary — especially when differences are slight, as they were in the recent study — to mean the difference between Ms. Studious, and Mr. Screw-Up, to further cloud identities that are already difficult enough to build.

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To read this article in its entirety, click here. For past Situationist posts about constructing a personal narrative, look at the June 18th post, “First Person or Third?” For more on family dynamics, look at the May 30th post, “Car Bonding.”

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

The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 6, 2007

In February, we examined the “Internet disinhibition effect,” the tendency of the human brain to feel less restrained in online communication than in face-to-face or telephone communication. We now bring you an excerpt from Jack Malvern’s piece in the Times Online on “the etiquette pitfalls” that arise when you don’t want on-line “friends,” such as the folks who find you on Facebook or MySpace and who want to get to know you better.

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The huge expansion of online social networking sites has opened up an etiquette minefield, complete with snubs, awkward faux pas and ample opportunity to give and take offence.

With networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace expanding expedientially, the rise of cyber friendships has brought with it a new set of social niceties, conventions and potential embarrassments.

Such sites are designed to set up an online network of friends to keep in touch and to exchange gossip but, as in all social situations, the results can be fraught. How can you separate friends from mere online acquaintances? How do you tell someone that you don’t want to be their friend? What do you do when you discover that you suddenly have countless “friends” whom you either don’t know or don’t like?

Stephen Fry, whose portrayal of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves gave the impression that he could extricate himself from any social situation, discovered the social pitfalls this week when he was forced to hide his Facebook profile from would-be friends.

As everyone who joins the networking website eventually discovers, the problem is not having too few people wanting to call themselves your friend but too many. Within a week of joining, Fry began to receive 150 requests a day from admirers hoping to be accepted as friends – a status that would allow them to view his full profile and receive updates on his life. “I only joined last week,” an exasperated Fry told The Times. “I closed down my pages to new friends and visitors [this week], so I managed five days of hectic, exponential build-up before I saw that it was pointless to continue.”

Fry was caught in a classic Facebook double bind – he did not want to offend people by rejecting their requests but knew that accepting all invitations would render his membership useless. Facebook works by giving users updates on their friends’ activities. If that list of friends expands by 20 an hour, interesting updates will be lost in an ocean of small-talk.

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Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics, said that snubbing people on Facebook differs from real-world snubs because it takes place in a sharply defined moment. “We’re used to snubbing people. We don’t call them back. We don’t answer their holiday postcards. We say we’ll meet up with them for a drink when we have no intention of doing so. But here there is a very evident decision moment.”

Rejecting friendship applications is more stark than offline friendship because decisions are made without explanation, Professor Livingstone said. “You cannot say, ‘I would love to have a drink with you but you cannot see my holiday snaps’.” If the new social awkwardness created by Facebook is turning people off the idea of social networking, it is not reflected in the amount of time people spend on the website. Facebook’s members dedicate an average of 143 minutes a month to the site – more than MySpace’s users but less than Bebo’s.

Professor Livingstone’s research into the social networking habits of 13 to 16-year-olds suggests that Facebook has a reputation as the place to join when Bebo and MySpace users have grown up, but this perception may be short-lived. Research published last month by Parks Associates declared that users are “chronically unfaithful”. Some 444,000 Britons are members of all three sites, according to Nielsen. Friendster, once a hot social network with 20 million users, is now used by fewer than a million.

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For the rest of the article, click here.

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

The Origins of Sports Team Fandom

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 5, 2007

Red Sox GirlWe have examined sports fandom at various times on The Situationist, including “The Unlucky Irish: Celtics Fans and Affective Forecasting,” “Red Sox Magic,” “March Madness,” and “Think you’ve got magical powers?.” Below is an excerpt of a piece by John Jeansonne, who covers sports for Newsday, that examines the origins of how one becomes a fan of a sports team.

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The search continues, meanwhile, to determine the very beginnings of fan-ness. It could be that scientific advances in decoding the human genome “someday may allow us to isolate the ‘fan’ gene,” said Xavier University professor Christian End, who studies fan behavior. For now, though, “as a social psychologist, I’m obviously biased toward the nurture side” of the fan’s formation.

End pointed to the “socialization process.” In some cases (as with Wisconsin native End’s young son, who was showered with Green Bay Packers tchotchkes by various relatives at birth), connections to teams “happen even before a kid understands what sports are.”

Or young schoolchildren gravitate to a team based on maintaining popularity status among peers, to avoid “missing out on normal conversations.”

“One of the universal needs we have is to belong to groups,” End said. “So if you live in Chicago and everyone in the family is a Cubs fan, you don’t come down to breakfast in White Sox gear. You either become a Cubs fan or leave home.”

Passikoff referred to “access and opportunity” shaping the fan. That could be the result of geography (rooting for the home team). Or maybe – in End’s example – it could be living in Nebraska but constantly seeing the Yankees on the televised Game of the Week.Patriots Fans Tailgaiting Whatever, hardcore fans clearly relish the badge of identification that ties them to their teams and to fellow fans, their “tribe.”

“And if you go down that route,” said [Robert Passikoff, founder and president of the Manhattan-based Brand Keys research consultancy], “you have to talk about killing the meat and cooking it over the fire. And if that doesn’t sound like tailgate parties, I don’t know what does.”

The idea of subsequently switching clans, then, or even straddling two worlds by supporting two teams in the same sport, is widely unacceptable. “When [Hillary] Clinton was running for Senate,” Passikoff said, “and was asked, ‘Which team?'” – the Cubs of her native Chicago or the Yankees of her New York constituency – “she said, ‘Both.’ Eeehhhh! Wrong answer.”

There is such a thing as bandwagon-jumping in good times and the loss of fringe followers when teams’ records go south – which is why teams seek out companies such as Brand Keys. But compared to the Clinton flip-flopping and waffling, “real” fans see the shifting sands of on-the-field success or failure as far less treacherous.

“There is the idea that you affiliate with winners so that when they’re successful, you can sort of claim that,” End said. “And following losses, you experience a threat.”

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For the rest of the article, click here.

Posted in Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

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