The Situationist

Archive for August, 2007

Some Situational Sources of Longer Life

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 31, 2007

new-york-live-longer-cover.jpgIn the latest edition of New York Magazine, Clive Thompson has a fascinating article, “Why New Yorkers Last Longer.” Below we have excerpted portions of the article which includes several situational explanations — from “smart public policy and sheer luck” to “the very structure of the city.”

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Last winter, the New York City Department of Health released figures that told a surprising story: New Yorkers are living longer than ever, and longer than most people in the country. A New Yorker born in 2004 can now expect to live 78.6 years, nine months longer than the average American will. What’s more, our life expectancy is increasing at a rate faster than that of most of the rest of the country. . . . When these figures came out, urban-health experts were impressed and slightly dazed. It turns out the conventional wisdom is wrong: The city, it seems, won’t kill you. Quite the opposite. Not only are we the safest big city in America, but we are, by this measure at least, the healthiest.

The “average life expectancy” of a city is a statistically curious number. It’s not really a prediction about how long you’re going to live. It’s an average of how long everyone here lives—and thus it forms a good barometer of the overall health of the city. . . .

And this is precisely what the city has done, through a combination of smart public policy and sheer luck. All the boons of the nineties—the aggressive policing, the dramatic drop in crime, the renaissance of the city’s parks and street life, the freakish infusion of boom-time wealth—played a part.

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Homicide, AIDS, and drugs are characteristically New York ways to die young, of course, so it’s no surprise that when we sharply decreased the fatalities they caused, we caught up with the rest of the country. But here’s the thing: It’s not just that we’ve conquered these urban blights. Cancer and cardiac arrest are down, too. The number of people in the city dying from heart disease has dropped by a third in the last twenty years, and cancer rates have slid by nearly a fifth. And again in these cases, New York is getting healthier faster than the rest of the U.S.

In essence, there is a health gap emerging between our massive metropolis and the rest of the country—some X factor that’s improving our health in subtle, everyday ways. . . . Like many New Yorkers, I’d moved here with some trepidation—always figuring that the stress, pollution, and 60-hour workweeks would knock about five years off my life. I was wrong—precisely wrong. But where, exactly, is our excess life coming from?

New York Strut from Thomas Hawk’s Digital Connection

I take this question to Thomas Frieden, New York’s commissioner of public health. Frieden is a wonk’s wonk—a handsome, energetic doctor who has gained a nationwide reputation for his aggressive effort to push New York’s average-life-expectancy figure ever higher. The smoking ban of 2003? The trans-fat ban of last year? You can thank Frieden for both. . . .

But even Frieden admits that public policy can’t account for all the gains. When I ask what the X factor is—where the “excess life” is coming from—Frieden goes over to his desk and returns with a clear plastic statuette. It’s from the American Podiatric Medical Association and Prevention magazine: BEST WALKING CITY, 2006.

“We’ve won it a couple of years in a row,” he tells me with a grin. He’s got a bunch of them kicking around.

Walking? This isn’t quite as facile an explanation as it sounds. Scientists who study urban health argue that it’s not just that we walk more—it’s the way we walk that has a surprising spillover effect on life spans. . . . Eleanor Simonsick, a Baltimore-based epidemiologist, knew that regular walking is a powerful way to maintain your health. But she began to wonder, a question very germane to us in New York: Does the speed at which you walk also affect your health?

She decided to conduct an experiment to find out. She and a group of scientists assembled 3,075 seniors in their seventies and asked them to traverse a 400-meter course, walking as fast as they could. They monitored their subjects’ health over the next six years, during which time 430 of the geriatrics died and many more fell ill. When Simonsick crunched the data, she found that the ones who were dying and getting sick were the ones who walked the slowest. For every minute longer it took someone to complete the 400-meter walk, he had a 29 percent higher chance of mortality and a 52 percent greater chance of being disabled. People who walk faster live longer—and enjoy better health in their later years.

nyc-pedestrians.jpg“Walking speed absolutely reflects health status,” Simonsick says. . . .

The thing is, as Simonsick points out, New York is literally designed to force people to walk, to climb stairs—and to do it quickly. Driving in the city is maddening, pushing us onto the sidewalks and up and down the stairs to the subways. What’s more, our social contract dictates that you should move your ass when you’re on the sidewalk, so as not to annoy your fellow walkers. (A recent ranking of cities found that New York has the fastest pedestrians in the country.) As Simonsick sees it, the very structure of the city coerces us to exercise far more than people elsewhere in the U.S., in a way that is strongly correlated with a far-better life expectancy. Every city block doubles as a racewalking track, every subway station, a StairMaster. Seen this way, the whole city looks like a massive exercise machine dedicated to improving our health while we run errands.

This idea of the city as a health club is fairly revolutionary. Back in the beginning of the industrial revolution, cities were regarded, quite correctly, as lethal places to live. . . . In the first decades of the twentieth century, cities began to clean up their acts drastically, when sanitation standards emerged and inoculations began to aggressively squelch infectious diseases; the actual life spans in cities began to catch up to and exceed those of people in rural areas. But the idea of urban rot remained strong, so the cultural bias against urban life lived on. It didn’t help when the seventies and eighties ushered in waves of urban crime, recession, and drug epidemics, and cities like New York and Detroit and Chicago sharply curtailed public-health services. Cities, more than ever, seemed like cesspools of dread and early death.

By 2000, though, the perspective looked altogether different. With a sharply reduced crime rate, runaway gentrification, and a geyser of boom-time dough, Manhattan had largely conquered the homicide, AIDS, and overdose problems that were pulling down the average life-expectancy figure. A trio of New York–based urban-health academics—Nicholas Freudenberg, David Vlahov, and Sandro Galea, professors at Hunter College and the New York Academy of Medicine—began to wonder if the “urban health penalty” still made sense. As they examined the most recent data about health in cities versus health in rural and suburban areas, they noticed that the cities were, contrary to theory, pulling ahead. . . . Death rates for 1-to-24-year-old males are 60 per 100,000 in cities, versus 80 in rural areas. Perhaps worst of all for the suburbs, obesity is rising far more rapidly than in cities.

New York Magazine Image

“We were just walking around New York and thinking, Wait a minute,” Vlahov says. “People in New York are in better shape than ever. So there’s obviously got to be something about cities that’s good for you.”

The urban health penalty, they decided, had inverted itself. The new reality was that living in the suburbs and the country was the killer. In January 2005, Vlahov and his colleagues penned a manifesto they cleverly called “The Urban Health ‘Advantage,’ ” and published it in the Journal of Urban Health. Cities, they posited, were now the healthiest places of all, because their environment conferred subtle advantages—and guided its citizens, often quite unconsciously, to adopt healthier behaviors.

Three years ago, Lawrence Frank, a professor of urban planning at the University of British Columbia, set out to measure this effect, examining 10,858 people in Atlanta and the type of neighborhood they lived in. . . . When he checked the results, the health difference was shockingly large: A white man who lived in a more urban, mixed-use area was fully ten pounds lighter than a demographically identical guy who lived in a sprawling suburb.

“The more you drive, the more you weigh,” Frank tells me after I call him to talk about it. He was unsurprised when I described New York’s increases in life expectancy. “You put people in an environment where public transportation is rational and driving is almost impossible, and it would be shocking not to see this outcome,” he says. Other scientists suggest that New York’s benefits do not occur merely because the city is walkable. It’s also because New York is old and filled with attractive architecture and interesting street scenes—since, as it turns out, aesthetically pretty places lure people out of their homes and cars. A 2002 study by the National Institutes of Health found that people living in buildings built before 1973 were significantly more likely to walk one-mile distances than those living in areas with newer architecture—because their environments were less architecturally ugly.

At the same time, New Yorkers are also more likely to visit parks than people who live in sprawl, because the parks are closer at hand. Andcentral-park.jpg proximity matters, as a study by Deborah Cohen, a senior natural scientist at the rand Corporation, discovered. When she examined the use of several parks in Los Angeles, she found that almost half the people using any given park lived no more than a quarter-mile away. In contrast, only 13 percent of the people using the park had come from more than a mile away. “The farther you are, the less willing you are to go to the park,” she notes.

Interestingly, urban theorists believe it is not just the tightly packed nature of the city but also its social and economic density that has life-giving properties. When you’re jammed, sardinelike, up against your neighbors, it’s not hard to find a community of people who support you—friends or ethnic peers—and this strongly correlates with better health and a longer life. Then there are economies of scale: A big city has bigger hospitals that can afford better equipment—the future of medicine arrives here first. We also tend to enjoy healthier food options, since demanding foodies (vegetarians and the like) are aggregated in one place, making it a mecca for farm-fresh produce and top-quality fish, chicken, and beef. There’s also a richer cultural scene than in a small town, which helps keep people out and about and thus mentally stimulated.

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At times, talking to Frieden and some of the other scientists, I wondered if all the talk about how healthy cities had become might be the latest species of boosterism, of civic mythmaking, partly because he’s staked his legacy on such aggressive policies as bad-food bans. And urban theorists have begun a fierce beat-down on the suburbs, castigating them endlessly for being the epicenter of the obesity epidemic. As it happens, this is the argument of Matthew Turner, an economist at the University of Toronto. Last year, he decided he was a bit sick of hearing about the health benefits of cities. The “urban health advantage” sounded to him like mere self-congratulation—the skinny, attractive folks in the megalopolises crowing about their innate superiority, and recoiling at the barbarisms of the SUV-driving, Wal-Mart-shopping exurban masses. It seemed too much like blue-state snobbery. So Turner devised a new experiment to test the power of the urban health advantage.

If it’s true that cities impose inherently healthier behavior on you, Turner reasoned, then people who move from cities to suburbs should get fatter—and vice versa. He began hoovering up data on 6,000 young Americans in their twenties to forties, tracking where they lived over a six-year period. He used satellite imagery and tallies of shops and churches to determine the level of sprawl in each subject’s neighborhood, then gathered information on each one’s weight.

When he examined the data, he discovered something surprising: People who moved between dense and sprawling neighborhoods didn’t change weight. Despite the claims of the new urbanists, Turner saw no evidence that one’s built environment has an impact on one’s health. “This idea that the built environment affects how much you weigh,” he told me, “is just wrong.”

But then why do cities harbor slimmer people who live longer and healthier than those in sprawl? Because, Turner argues, the populations are self-selecting. Highly active people who don’t like to drive—and who crave to make boatloads of money—naturally gravitate to places like New York, because that suits their chosen lifestyle. If we walk a lot here, it’s because we’re drawn to cities that force us to do so. The converse is also true: People who are heavier and less fit gravitate to suburbs precisely because that’s where they won’t need to walk—where nothing is possible without getting in a car. (Mind you, Turner’s rival scientists are not convinced by his argument. As one pointed out to me, moving to a differently dense area might take years to change your weight—longer than Turner’s time frame.) In Turner’s view, the logic of the urban health advantage is not only wrong, it’s backward. It’s not that New York makes us healthier. We make it healthier, by flocking here to live.

Ultimately, I’ve come to believe that Turner is likely correct—but so are the proponents of the urban health advantage. The two theories are not mutually exclusive. A city can be good for your health and, at the same time, attract healthy people.

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To review a sample Situationist posts examining the situaitonal sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Life | 1 Comment »

Virtual Infection, Disease Dynamics, and Human Behavior

Posted by Will Li on August 30, 2007

“Some acted selflessly … though that meant they risked infection themselves.

Others fled infected cities in an attempt to save themselves.

And some who were sick made it their mission to deliberately infect others.” BBC News.


Ebola? Influenza? The movie “28 Days Later?” . . . or “Corrupted Blood” Disease in World of Warcraft?

In September of 2005, Blizzard Entertainment added a dungeon to their extremely popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) World of Warcraft (WoW). This dungeon featured an enemy at the end who, when killed, could infect players with a curse which could instantly kill weaker characters and eventually kill stronger ones. But, as reported in another BBC News report, rather than being confined to those playing in the dungeon, the disease inadvertently spread, passing from player to player, carried by computer programmed characters (non-player characters or NPCs), even manifesting on several game servers.

Ultimately, it killed thousands of player characters (temporarily) and led to “reports from the disaster zones with some describing seeing “hundreds” of bodies lying in the virtual streets of the online towns and cities.”

The very human reactions of individuals confronted with “Corrupted Blood” disease has since prompted researchers at the Tufts University School of Medicine to look into the virtual disease (and possible others) as disease models which could lend insight into human behavior. The August 21, 2007 BBC News article is excerpted below.

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Researcher Professor Nina Fefferman, from Tufts University School of Medicine, said: “Human behaviour has a big impact on disease spread. And virtual worlds offer an excellent platform for studying human behaviour.

“The players seemed to really feel they were at risk and took the threat of infection seriously, even though it was only a game.”

She acknowledged that a virtual setting might encourage riskier behaviour, but said this could be estimated and allowed for when drawing conclusions.

She said a major constraint for epidemiologists studying disease dynamics at the moment was that they were limited to observational and retrospective studies.

For example, it would be unethical to release an infectious disease in real life in order to study what the consequences might be.

Computer models allow for experimentation on virtual populations without such limitations, but still rely on mathematical rules to approximate human behaviour.

A virtual world may be a way to bridge this gap, said Professor Fefferman.

Her team at Tufts are looking to use models such as the World of Warcraft to further study human behaviour, particularly in relation to disease outbreaks.

Dr. Gary Smith, professor of Population Biology and Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, has been working on modelling infectious diseases.”

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The human behavior aspect of MMORPGs has not gone unnoticed.

In 2006, a “Serious Games Initiative” was announced at video game expo E3 with the goal of “exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector.”

A recent note in the CDC’s “Preventing Chronic Disease: Public Health Research, Practice and Policy” by Lynne S. Wilcox, MD, MPH, proposed that another popular game, “Sim City,” “could use this modeling to improve their understanding of how aspects of the community, such as its built environment, affect the wellness of its population.” The insights such studies could give to medical anthropologists, looking into development of communities and systems of medical care, patient-practitioner interactions, and illness narratives could be significant. Part of the note is excerpted below
The Sims

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In a serious game for community settings, avatars could change from one game to the next to enable players to understand the experience of a mayor, a public health nurse, an academician, or other community members. Bringing multiple partners into the game setting over time could facilitate the adoption of revisions based on the on-the-ground experiences of individual communities and enable better understanding of social factors. Implementation of other recommendations by the expert panel could be informed by the results of these simulations.

Such games may be helpful to policy-makers because prospective models are useful in determining where resources are best applied (27). Of course, these games do not offer crystal balls. But examining results under different assumptions will encourage discussion among key decision-makers and may allow more rapid recognition of emerging factors that could affect health outcomes. The advantage of investigating these factors in a game setting is that citizens need not be modeling experts to appreciate which results are meaningful. Developing such games will require a partnership of modelers and community observers, as well as sponsors of the research and the creation of design elements. As we have seen in the electronic world, technologic development is an iterative process. A hypothetical Public Health Game 1.0 will be replaced by version 2.0 as community-based practice and research provide more answers.

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There is already significant scientific data available and still being collected regarding World of Warcraft.

Graduate studies have been devoted to studying models of expertise and learning. Nick Yee, PhD student at Stanford, has what is likely the most expansive and scientific collection of MMORPG surveys and data available online, at The Daedalus Project. Yee has studied “how age, gender, personality and play frequency interacted with a variety of issues – such as gender-bending, relationship formation, and in-game dynamics . . . as well as exploring how individuals project or idealize their personalities onto their virtual personas and what they might learn from their online experiences.” A brief video of World of Warcraft gameplay can be found at the end of this post.

The potential for social psychology studies certain seems to be vast, and situational studies into bias, heuristics and concepts such as expertise could give rich insights. In future Situationist posts, I hope to explore these topics.

Previous Situationist posts on the topic of social psychology and virtual environments include A Baseball Fantasy, The Intersection of Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Video Games, The Situation of First Person Shooters and Lil Poison. Other blog posts on the subject include a post at Feministing on Second Life and a programmed rape module in the game, which prompted a long discussion in the comments of the same post.

Posted in Entertainment, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Rent this Space

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 29, 2007

Chelsea JerseyIn today’s world, anything that is out in the public eye is fair game to have a corporate logo or name pasted on it. The glasses of that well-dressed professor down the hall that elegantly declare “Versace” whenever he turns to the side. The jerseys of the Chelsea football team playing on ESPN2. chelsea-jersey.jpgchelsea-jersey.jpgThe bags from the department store that only catch a glimpse of daylight before being thrown in the trunk. For a price, anything can be turned into advertizing space. As the New York Times reported Monday, thousands of Americans are paid up to $800 a month by companies to have their cars wrapped in ads. It sounds like a lot, until you consider what that buys:

ARD Ventures, a venture capital firm, has studied the phenomenon of wrapped cars and estimates that motorists and pedestrians see a single vehicle’s advertising message asxcar260.jpg many as 70,000 times a day.

Drew Livingston, the president of the advertizing agency FreeCar Media, which matches car owners with sponsor businesses, believes that the benefits are not just about pure numbers but also about targeting specific consumers:

“A company like Procter & Gamble will come to us and say, ‘We have a new and improved Tide, and our target is stay-at-home moms with two-plus children who live in these 20 markets,’” Mr. Livingston said. His company then finds drivers in that demographic. “We feel that when you can wrap a mom’s car and get it to her P.T.A. meeting or Curves gym, you’re getting the acceptance from her social circle.”

To most, this all seems completely acceptable—a proverbially “win-win.” Corporations get their message out and Americans have more spending money—to buy the great products listed on the sides of their SUVs. Indeed, many Americans don’t just find this unobjectionable; they want to take part: FreeCar Media “claims to have a database of more than a million car target-train.jpgowners who say they are open to wrapping their cars in ads for a fee.” And this makes sense—advertizing, the conventional narrative goes, is harmless.

But is it? Social psychologists, advertising executives, and others know that marketing techniques are not just about “getting the word out” so that people can make good choices. They are also incredibly effective at getting people to engage in all sorts of behavior—harmless and harmful. With proper marketing you can get a person who drives three miles to work every day on paved roads to buy a Hummer. With a good advertising campaign you can get people to inhale smoke, which they know may lead to a habit that kills them. Even the simple logo can be a tool, not of broadening choice, but of limiting it. A well-known swoosh or set of arches can actually shape perceptions. As reported in an earlier post on the Situationist, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in Baltimore recently documented that preschoolers find food wrapped in McDonald’s packing to taste better than identical food wrapped in unmarked packaging. With childhood obesity rates at record highs this is particularly unsettling. More logos are not what the doctor ordered.

Yet more logos are exactly what seem to be in our futures and the threat is not just to the environment, or our bodies, or our ability to make decisions without deliberate manipulation from external sources. As I recently argued in an op-ed in the Washington Post, the text of which appears below, some of our most important institutions are endangered by the great marketing push.

Jasper Johns

The Art of Advertising

Currently hanging outside the East Wing of the National Gallery is a large banner of Jasper Johns’s 1955 “Target With Four Faces,” advertising a show celebrating the first decade of his work. The painting is dominated by the title motif: a blue dot surrounded by four concentric circles of alternating yellow and blue. Walking in recently, I joked to my companion that I was surprised that Target wasn’t sponsoring the show.

Out of the mouths of babes . . .

It turns out Target is sponsoring it, “proudly,” in fact.

Offering financial backing to the exhibition was undoubtedly a savvy move for Target. After all, the show is filled with paintings that, though they aren’t red and white, evoke Target’s corporate logo. Johns’s targets also appear on the exhibition catalogue and posters for sale in the gift shop. On the busy Sunday I was there, hundreds of people were strolling through, staring intently at various depictions of an image that has been engrained in our heads as standing for one of America’s most powerful and successful companies.


As a groundbreaker for the Pop Art movement, Johns was very much interested in symbols, everyday household objects and popular culture, so perhaps the exhibition ought not to trouble me as much as it does. But I left that day feeling rather sick to my stomach.The corporation as art critic may be inevitable. The wealthy members of society, in their role as patrons, have always had a profound influence on the course of art. But the current trend does not sit well with me. If financial realities force museums to cede control to corporate America, art may lose its magic. The artists and works to be celebrated will not be those that img_2182.jpgInspire, explain or expose, but those that get people to buy more Taco Bell burritos, iPods and Michelin radials. The very definition of art will be that which maximizes shareholder profit.

While the Johns show, which runs through April 29, presents a particularly strong example of rising corporate influence over the art world, it is not an isolated instance. Last summer I was wandering through “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting” in the West Wing, wondering why the curators had devoted so much space in the exhibition to how x-radiographs and infrared images could be used to reveal insights into the creative process. Perhaps it arose from a genuine sense that the public needed to be educated on important technological innovations in the world of curatorship, but then—call me cynical—perhaps it was because the exhibition was made possible by Bracco, an international leader in diagnostic imaging.

So, what is to be done?

First, if we care about art—if we value it as a social good—we must increase public funding so that museum directors and artists can remain independent. While the United States is unlikely to shift to the centralized European model of art sponsorship, the federal government’s stingy arts budget could be increased without any of us feeling much of a bite in our pocketbooks.

Second, we should demand that corporations give money to art galleries without sponsoring particular shows. If Target is really committed to “arts and education,” as it says in the Johns show brochure, then it should be just as satisfied with its donation going to support the excellent exhibit on Rembrandt’s prints and drawings in the adjoining building.

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For previous Situationist posts looking at the role and effect of logos, see “Subliminal Ads on the Brain,” and “The Big Game: What Corporation Are Learning about the Human Brain.” To review numerous Situationist posts discussing marketing and its effect, click here. To listen to (or read the transcript of) a superb NPR series by All Things Considered four-part series, entitled “The New Ad Age” looking at “how digital media and the demise of the mass market are changing the advertising industry,” click on the the following links: Part I (“On Madison Avenue, Old Players Learn a New Game), Part II (“In the Age of Tivo, Advertisers Scramble To Keep Up”), Part III (“In a Crowded Mediaverse, Some Ads Stand Out”), and Part IV (“State-of-the-Art Ads are Increasingly One-to-One.”). For an intriguing three-minute video narrated by Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and, more recently, The Shock Doctrine, click on the video below.

Posted in Deep Capture, Entertainment, Marketing, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

Just Choose It!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 28, 2007

too-many-options.jpgIn July, Liz Hollis wrote an excellent article for The Times online on the topic of choice — too much choice. We excerpt that article below.

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For the naturally indecisive, Hell is choosing what to put in your supermarket trolley. Successfully negotiate the 38 choices of milk that I counted for sale in my local Tesco (organic, skimmed, soya, omega3 enriched or filtered for purity) and you’re then confronted with jam overload: 154 flavours.

Selecting from the banks of rosehip jam handcrafted in the Pyrenees, fig conserve, Scandinavian blackcurrant with “bits” or without, could take you all day. Then there’s the aisle with 107 varieties of pasta and 98 types of fruit cordial . . .

Choice aplenty – indeed, so much that psychologists now believe that it is making us miserable. Most big supermarkets provide us with about 30,000 products, and each year they add more. Indeed, for a taste of what the future might look like in every store, visit the latest temple of runaway choice – the giant new American Whole Foods Market in Kensington High Street, West London. Here, choice rules supreme. You can choose from 1,000 wine labels, 100 types of nuts, oats and grains and more than 40 varieties of sausage.

“I feel as though I’ve been punched in the face after I’ve been round somewhere like Morrisons,” says Joy Miller, 39, who runs a communications business in Norwich. “It’s so overwhelming that it just makes you feel awful. If you carefully considered every aspect – ethics, food miles, price, flavour and ingredients – you’d never get round to buying anything, ever.”

Of course, it doesn’t stop at groceries. Everywhere you turn there is a mind-boggling parade of clothes, gadgets, financial products, holidays and entertainment. Tantalised by all these buying options, we stockpile our shopping baskets, homes and lives with ever more consumer goods that we probably don’t need or even appreciate. And this isn’t good for our happiness.

“The huge number of choices that assault us every day makes many of us feel inadequate and in some cases even clinically depressed,” says Professor Barry Schwartz, a psychologist from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of The Paradox of Choice.“ There is vastly too much choice in the modern world and we are paying an enormous price for it. It makes us feel helpless, mentally paralysed and profoundly dissatisfied.”

Professor Schwartz believes that the dogma of all Western societies – that maximising freedom and choice increases welfare – is deeply flawed. “It wouldn’t surprise me if eventually you’ll be able to buy a mobile phone with integral nasal-hair trimmer and crème brûl�e torch,” he speculates sardonically.

So why does having so much choice make us feel miserable? Shouldn’t we be delighted that we can travel to any corner of the planet for our holidays, or select from tens of thousands of financial plans? Sadly not. Because making a decision is now a nightmare. We can easily end up with what psychologists call “consumer vertigo”, that is, swamped with so many options that we can’t make any decision, or decide wrongly.

“So much choice makes decision-making increasingly complex,” says David Shanks, a psychology professor and the co-author of Straight Choices, a new book that examines how to make the best decisions when faced with a perplexing array of options. We feel bad that every time we do make a choice, it seems we are missing out on other opportunities. This makes us feel inadequate and dissatisfied with what we have chosen. Often, we feel bamboozled and just shove a familiar or prominently displayed brand into our basket. Then we feel useless because we can’t cook gourmet dinners like Jamie Oliver and don’t know what to do with any of these exotic new ingredients. So we end up buying and eating the same meals time and again.

too-many-trinkets.jpgThis excess also numbs us to the heady pleasure felt by previous generations when they bought something new in an era when budgets were leaner and consumer goods in shorter supply. All we can think about now is what we still want to buy, rather than appreciating what we have.

Children are not immune, either. How can choosing yet another throwaway plastic trinket from the zoo gift shop ever equal the intensity felt by the 1940s child unwrapping just a couple of presents a year – on their birthday and at Christmas?

Experiments confirm that the less choice we have, the better we feel. Professor Mark Lepper and his team at Stanford University in America found that consumers who tested six jams went on to buy more and feel happier than those offered 24 jams to taste. Another experiment showed that giving students a choice of fewer essay topics made them produce better work.

“This suggests that we thrive when we have less choice,” says Professor Lepper. “Excess choice is paralysis rather than liberation.”

Yet the number of consumer choices available continues to multiply. “It doesn’t help that there is an ever-decreasing amount of expert advice available from shop assistants – if you can find one at all,” says Paco Underhill, chief executive of Envirosell, a research and consulting company. Consequently, many people’s homes are filled with high-tech products that offer still more unwanted choices: washing machines with a host of setting options (though we only ever use two); phones that could send e-mails if only we knew how to use them.

But if all this choice is actually harming us, what can we do about it?

Professor Lepper suggests that, for a start, we should lighten up when selecting, say, a type of bread or a disposable camera. “Don’t take making mundane choices too seriously or it gets to feel like an onerous task,” he says.

Opt for small shops that offer less choice – it’s harder to feel angst-ridden in a smaller supermarket where the choice is simply between big potatoes and small potatoes. In addition, decide on priorities before you look at what’s available – for instance, you could look only at cameras that offer a large playback screen, if that’s crucial for you. And don’t expect to become an expert; ask others who know what to look for.

To preserve mental wellbeing, save your decision-making effort for serious things that merit a large expenditure of time and effort. Then you can make better use of techniques such as those outlined by Professor Shanks and his colleagues.

“Choose when to choose,” says Professor Schwartz. “Don’t worry about what type of mobile-phone package to opt for. Pick a sofa from IKEA in 30 seconds and you’ll feel better than if you spend hours researching sofas – because you won’t know what else you’re missing out on.”

He adds that when it comes to achieving happiness it is better to be a “satisficer” who accepts a good-enough choice than a “maximiser” who always wants to make the best possible decision.

Perhaps we should all learn to love the constraints on our lives. After all, being restricted to a local job because you can’t move your children out of school, or having to buy a house near elderly relatives, makes you (and them) feel better.

“It challenges a lot of our beliefs, but it could just be that choice within constraints will make us feel a lot better,” says Professor Schwartz. “We need to live in the moment, appreciate what we have and not think about all the other things that we could choose instead.”

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To review Situationist posts that discuss the role, causes, effects, and illusion of choice, click here. To learn more about Barry Schwartz’s fascinating book, The Parodox of Choice, click here. To listen to an NPR Report, “The Mechanics of Choice,” including interviews of Sheena Iyengar and Barry Schwartz, click here. For excellent twenty-minute video of lecture by Barry schwartz, click on the video below.

Posted in Choice Myth, Life, Marketing | 7 Comments »

You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 26, 2007

aps-poster.jpgIn May, the American Psychological Society (APS) held their annual conference at which numerous prominent social psychologists gave presentations. The latest issue of Observer, the APS magazine, contains articles summarizing a few of those presentations. This is the third in a series of posts (to link to the first two, click here and here) by the Situationist excerpting and supplementing those articles. Below you will find excerpts of Eric Wargo’s excellent summary of Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske’s presentation “divisive dichotomies.”

* * *

Susan T. Fiske, Princeton, began her talk “Venus and Mars, or Down to Earth?” by reflecting on some of her early motivations in going into psychological science. In her undergraduate courses in psychology, she couldn’t help noticing that “all the individual differences had a good end and a bad. And you could almost always tell which end described the person who made up the scale.”

Since, at that point in time, most of the people making the scales were men, it isn’tSusan Fiske surprising that the “good” ends of the scales were often named with traits that seemed to connote stereotypically masculine values: “Perceptually thorough, math self-confident, linguistically specialized, physically directly assertive, tough minded, justly moral.

Fiske, who is a Past President of APS, described her “eureka moment” as being when she came across the term field independence. “Field dependence was this disease women had,” she said.

She showed the shift of perspective that occurs when you change the phrasing of these personality categories: “What about being field sensitive instead of being field dependent? What about being perceptually fast? Oh, does that mean men are perceptually slow? What about being cautious about math, instead of being un-self-confident? What about women being generally linguistically skilled? What about women being subtly socially assertive?”

“We all love dichotomies,” Fiske said. “Even scientists tend to think in dichotomies — either/or — but the similarities are often greater than the differences between the groups that we’re studying.” People tend to maximize the differences between categories and minimize differences within them, she said, citing as an example the low effect sizes found in meta-analyses of gender differences. “It’s just not either/or.”

Despite ambivalent differences found in much gender research and the advances made by women in the field since Fiske’s undergraduate days, psychologists are still not immune to gender-biased thinking. “It’s quite clear that people’s values and identities matter when they do this kind of science.”

“I’m not saying that people are politically biased and that their science is suspect,” Fiske explained. “I’m saying that people pursue what they find interesting, and what people find interesting is informed by their values and their identities.”

Group differences, when used unjudiciously, “have the tendency to divide us and oversimplify,” Fiske said. For one thing, differences assumed to exist between groups can become self-fulfilling (as in the phenomenon of “stereotype threat”) and prescriptive. Even positive attributes can be damaging when assigned to a whole group.

“When there is stigma, it is likely to be on multiple dimensions,” Fiske said. She cited research that 80-85 percent of variance in interpersonal and intergroup impressions is explained by two dimensions: perceptions of warmth and perceptions of competence. Groups can be stigmatized even if they are viewed positively on one of these dimensions. Precisely where different groups fall in this two-dimensional warmth-by-competence space determines the kinds of stigma groups can expect.


For example, housewives and effeminate gay men fall in the upper left — perceived as warm and nice but not competent — and may arouse pity as a result. Career women and Asians, by the same token, fall in the lower right — competent but cold — and may be received with reactions of envy. People who are mentally ill or poor fall in the lower left — not competent and not friendly — and may be dehumanized as a result.

“Stigmas differ. It’s not just ‘I hate them’ and ‘I love us.’ It’s not just that ‘My end of the scale is good, and your end of the scale is bad.’ . . . These stigma dimensions matter because emotional prejudices come quickly on their tail: pity, envy, disgust. Those are different kinds of stigma. And the discrimination that gets directed at these different groups is quite distinct and quite predictable from the emotions. For instance, consider the difference between being attacked and being neglected. Both of those are discrimination.”

* * *

To listen to a recent interesting NPR audio report (entitled “Stereotypes Are Only Human”) on the role and effect of stereotypes, click here. For a sample of stereotypes in film, click on the Youtube vides below.

Numerous previous Situationist posts, including the following, have looked at different types of stereotypes and their effects: Unlevel Playing Fields,” “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas,” “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “Black History is Now” and “Implicit Bias and Strawmen,” “Prejudice Against the Obese,” “Your Group Is Bad at Math,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” “Dueling Stereotypes and the Law,” and “Don W-Ho?


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

College Sweethearts and Breaking Up

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 26, 2007

College Breakup

In their Georgetown Law Journal article “The Situational Character: A Critical Realist Perspective on the Human Animal,” (available on SSRN) Situationists Jon Hanson and David Yosifon discuss ineffective forecasting:

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

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

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology explores ineffective forecasting in the context of college couples who break-up. Psychologists Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick of Northwestern University are the study’s authors and below we excerpt an Reuters story by Julie Steenhuysen on their work.

* * *Breaking Up

Despite the laments of pining pop stars and sad sack poets, U.S. researchers now think breaking up may not be so hard to do.“We underestimate our ability to survive heartbreak,” said Eli Finkel, an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University, whose study appears online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Finkel and colleague Paul Eastwick studied young lovers — especially those who profess ardent affection — to see if their predictions of devastation matched their actual angst when that love was lost.

“On average, people overestimate how distressed they will be following a breakup,” Finkel said in a telephone interview.

The nine-month study involved college students who had been dating at least two months who filled out questionnaires every two weeks. They gathered data from 26 people — 10 women and 16 men — who broke up with their partners during the first six months of the study.

The participants’ forecasts of distress two weeks before the breakup were compared to their actual experience as recorded over four different periods of time.

Not surprisingly, they found the more people were in love, the harder they took the breakup.

“People who are more in love really are a little more upset after a breakup, but their perceptions about how distraught they will be are dramatically overstated when compared to reality,” Finkel said.

“At the end of the day it, it is just less bad than you thought.”

* * *

Every break-up stems from a relationship’s beginning, and for more on the beginning of relationships, check out our post from May entitled “First Dates and Feeling Good.” More recently, our post “The Situation of Happiness” explains, among other points, how happiness positively correlates with marriage (which is probably not something you want to tell a recently-heartbroken college student).

Posted in Emotions, Life | Leave a Comment »

(Young) Minds Over Body

Posted by Emma Polgar on August 24, 2007

These days, seeing a shrink seems to be a trendy thing to do. At least, that’s how the media portrays the type of counseling that many Americans seek. More and more, kids are getting in on the action, especially child athletes. As children are increasingly encouraged to focus on only one sport, the pressure they feel to preform rises exponentially. Enter the sport psychologist.

Sports Psychology text

Despite the fact that therapy is often seen as a healthy release, there is question as to whether it is necessary for child athletes who may be as young as seven and eight. Is it just a trend that parents are buying into, or do they truly believe that their child will benefit in the long run? A recent New York Times article, which is excerpted below, examines the relatively new phenomena of sports psychology for children.

* * *

A competitive gymnast for most of her life, Heather Benjamin has traveled the country and won her share of awards. But last year she developed a fear of jumping from one bar to the other in the uneven bars event. So she did something familiar to professional sports stars — she talked to a sports psychologist.

“It made such a difference,” she said. “We worked through the fear, and that has let me relax. I would tell anyone that it’s worth it.” Heather was 9 at the time. For $225 a session, Alan Goldberg counseled her during 12 hourlong telephone conversations across five months. At recent national and Junior Olympic competitions, Heather surpassed her previous scores by three ability levels.

“It was a phobia,” said her mother, Donna Benjamin, who had decided Heather would benefit from the counseling. “A mental block that hindered her ability to compete.”

* * *

The idea that mental coaching can help the youngest athletes has pervaded the upper reaches of the country’s zealous youth sports culture. In the pursuit of college scholarships and top spots on premier travel clubs, the families of young athletes routinely pay for personal strength coaches, conditioning coaches, specialized skill coaches, nutritionists and recruiting consultants. Now, the personal sports psychologist has joined the entourage.

“Parents tell me that they’ve put so much money into their child’s athletic development that they’re not going to leave any stone unturned if it might help them achieve,” said Marty Ewing, a former president of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology.

* * *

But many sports psychologists, including those who see young athletes, say they wonder if the treatment is not pushy parentsoverkill in a youth sports landscape bursting with excess.

“On the one hand, it’s foolish not to teach kids mental skills they may need,” said Daniel Gould, a sports psychologist who is also the director of Michigan State’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. “On the flip side, is it just contributing to the professionalism of childhood? Because these kids aren’t playing for the New York Yankees. And worse, I worry that some parents are doing it just because their neighbor did it for his kid.”

* * *

Several sports psychologists said their primary work with young athletes was counseling the parents or coaches.

“The root of the problem is often the triangle of parent, coach and athlete and the conflicts created,” said Jay Boys Playing Football Granat, a New Jersey sports psychologist. “The parents have the right intentions. They want their kid to be the next Tiger Woods. But those fantasies are getting in the way.”

* * *

The trend toward specializing in one sport at an early age has also led more young athletes to seek counseling.

“If an 11-year-old is told that focusing on one sport is all that matters, it obviously puts a lot of pressure on every outcome in that sport,” Dr. Ewing said. “We are asking that 11-year-old to play a game at a level that is disproportionate to his or her cognitive development. That’s development you can’t rush, but people try.”

* * *

Sports psychology is a thriving business, and not only for children. Elite professional athletes have consulted with psychologists since the 1980s, and now top college players and recreational weekend warriors also want to fine-tune their mental muscles and pay $125 to $250 an hour to do so.

What sports psychologists say they deal with most is performance problems, usually linked to pregame nerves or postgame frustrations.

* * *

Sarah Mott, a 15-year-old swimmer, said she was filled with negative thoughts before races. “Dr. Goldberg changed the way I thought about my races,” Mott said. “He gave me techniques to relax and focus that I worked on for weeks in practices. My results got a lot better, but the best thing is I love swimming again.” The lessons, sports psychologists say, are useful beyond sports.

“Learning to concentrate, to relax and have confidence, to deal with frustration, to set goals and stay focused on the task at hand, these are life skills,” Joel Fish, the director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, Mental Athletesaid. “They will help you take an English test, not just get a hit in a baseball game.”

But Dr. Fish, like many of his colleagues, said some parents seemed to be having their athletic children see the sports psychologist too soon.

“They’re coming in at 7, 8 and 9 years old, and usually I say: ‘Just give it some time. This will work itself out,’ ” he said. “Sometimes I tell them it’s O.K. to take a season off.”

* * *

To read this article in its entirety, click here. For other Situationist posts on child development issues, check out these: Only Child Syndrome or Advantage?, 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.” To review numerous “Situationist Sports” posts, click here. Below you can find a seven-minute ESPN interview of sports psychologist Rob Bell from University of Tennessee.


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

The Situation of Happiness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 23, 2007


In May, the American Psychological Society (APS) held their annual conference (drawing 3000 psychologists to D.C.) at which numerous prominent social psychologists gave presentations. The latest issue of Observer, the APS magazine, contains articles summarizing a few of those presentations. This is the second in a series of posts (for the first post, click here) by the Situationist excerpting and supplementing those articles. Below you will find excerpts of Eric Wargo’s excellent summary of Dan Gilbert’s presentation on happiness.

* * *

APS Fellow and Charter Member Daniel Gilbert, director of the Hedonic Psychology Laboratory at Harvard University and author of last year’s bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness (2006), managed not only to enlighten a packed audience of psychologists and their loved ones but also, with his great wit, made the crowd, well, happy.

Dan Gilbert - Boston Globe Image by Dina RudickAffective Forecasting
For most of human history, Gilbert said, happiness wasn’t much of a secret — everybody knew that happiness is just “what happens when you get what you want.” Getting what you wanted seldom happened back in the day, when people’s lives were nasty, brutish, and short. So people pretty much lived in a world of perpetual wanting. In modern society, our basic needs are much more easily attainable — yet, as Gilbert pointed out, we still live in a world of want.

What’s wrong? Gilbert, an expert in the study of affective forecasting — how people predict their emotional reactions to future events — says the problem has to do with how we aim at happiness. “We might not be aiming very well,” he said.

. . .

Multiplying the odds of an outcome by how much you’ll value it sounds like basic math, not rocket science. So economists scratch their heads when people don’t actually follow this easy formula in making decisions, and instead make choices that often lead them to further unhappiness. Why do people fail to act rationally when it comes to their happiness?

One would easily imagine that . . . it is . . . [in calculating] the odds you will get what you want . . . that trips people up. But according to Gilbert, “what’s really hard, in gambling and in life, is to figure out how much you’re going to like it if you get exactly what you’re aiming for” — in other words, affective forecasting.

Comparison Shopping
One of the best ways to study how bad people are at doing such forecasting is to watch what makes them pull out their wallets. “Money is nothing more or less than a happiness storage device,” Gilbert explained. “It’s a great tool for finding out how much people think they’re going to value things in the future.”

Sale!He showed a slide of a DVD marked down to $14.99 from $19.99. You could almost sense the audience reaching for their back pockets. “These are the most magic words in marketing,” Gilbert said: “Price Cut.” When it seems like its price has changed in a favorable way, it raises the value of that DVD: “That change in price is a delight, and I’m gonna buy it.”

Economists say that what smart decision makers should do, before any purchase, is ask what else they can do with that same amount of money — in other words, compare with the possible. What psychologists like Gilbert have found, though, is that because it’s so hard to compare with the possible, we compare with the past instead. “This can get us in all sorts of trouble.”

Why do we compare with the past and not with the possible? “The human brain is, at every level, a change detector,” Gilbert explained. Change, not stable qualities, is what the senses are attuned to. Eyes don’t see objects, for instance, but changes in objects, so they constantly jiggle in order to keep the visual world in motion. Or take smell: That smelly guy on the subway doesn’t smell himself, Gilbert explained, because “three weeks ago he ripened to perfection; his smell isn’t changing so he can’t detect it.” It’s the same way when evaluating the value of things like DVDs or cars or jobs — the brain looks for comparisons.

One of the things that gets people in trouble with this approach is that our bases of comparison often shift.

Gilbert asked the audience to imagine the following scenario: On the way to the theater tobroadway-tickets.jpg see your favorite play, you have two $100 bills in your wallet, but you lose one of them on the way. The theater ticket costs $100. Would you spend your remaining bill on the theater ticket? Most people say they would.

But alter the terms slightly: You have already purchased your $100 ticket; you are on the way to the theater with just $100 in your pocket, as well as your ticket, but you lose the ticket. Would you then spend your remaining $100 on another ticket? Most people say they would not.

An economist would say that both situations are equivalent, and thus shouldn’t produce different actions. Yet people do feel differently about these two scenarios. In the second scenario, it feels like the price of the ticket has gone up — doubled. And just as people love to feel like they’re paying less for something than they might have, they hate to feel like they’re paying more for something than they should have.

Shifting comparisons leads to major errors when predicting how much we will like something when we get it, however.

You’ll Get Nothing, and You’ll Like It
Gilbert described a study done by himself, Carey Morewedge, Kristian Myrseth, and [Situationist Contributor] Tim Wilson, in which student participants sat down with a bag of potato chips and estimated how much they thought they’d like the snack. The participants then ate the chips and rated how much they actually did like them. It seems straightforward, but for a little detail: Some students made their judgments in a room that also contained other appetizing foods like a chocolate bar (“A Snicker’s bar is far and away the best thing you can put in your mouth without asking permission if you are under 22 years old,” Gilbert noted); other students performed the task in a room that contained less appetizing items like sardines and a can of Spam.

Spam, Chips, & Snickers

Although students were not told to consider the other items in the room, these implicit comparisons had a big effect on their predictions. Those in the “Spam room” predicted liking the chips much more than did those in the “chocolate room.” But crucially, the other foods present had no effect on participants’ judgment of the actual experience of eating the chips. “We use different rulers for experiencing and prediction,” Gilbert explained.

Shifting comparisons causes us to routinely “misimagine our futures,” Gilbert said. Which is why we shouldn’t let things like discounts factor into our decisions — whether it comes to DVDs or major purchases like cars. . . .

This is true, even when it comes to major life turnarounds. Gilbert cited a study comparing the happiness of paraplegics with that of lottery winners. One year after the accident or lottery win, respectively, the two groups were about equally happy. “When you imagine these things you’re comparing to your present state. But that’s not what you do when it becomes your present state.” For the same reason, things like career advancement (e.g., achieving tenure) actually have a negligible impact on happiness even if, beforehand, our happiness seems like it will completely hinge on them.

The Kids Aren’t Alright
So can psychological science provide any kind of roadmap for attaining happiness?

To answer this small question, Gilbert showed a slide of his mother, who had advised him that, to be happy in life, he should get married, earn a decent amount of money, and have children — a standard triumvirate when many people imagine what will make them contented.

Gilbert said that the science shows his mom to be only partially right (at this point, one could hear the anxious mooing of sacred cows being led to slaughter).

“What she was really right about was marriage,” Gilbert said. Studies have shown that people who are married are happier than people who are unmarried or cohabiting, suggesting there is a “marriage advantage” when it comes to life satisfaction. Mom’s second requirement, a good paycheck, is known to be much less important. Research shows that money has diminishing marginal utility: “Anybody who says money can’t buy happiness has never met someone who lives in a cardboard box under a bridge,” Gilbert said. “But anybody who tells you money buys happiness has never met a very very rich person.” Money makes a big difference when it moves you out of poverty and into the middle class, he explained, but it makes very little difference after that.

But the biggest blow science dealt to Gilbert’s mother, and received wisdom, is when it comes to kids. Children have a negative overall effect on happiness. “The more children you have, the less likely you are to say you are satisfied with your life,” Gilbert said. Studies that monitored how much satisfaction people got from their everyday activities showed that women were less happy when interacting with their children than when doing almost any other activity. The pleasure of being with their children was actually comparable to that of doing housework.

“Contrary to what the popular press tells us,” he said, “the most common symptom of empty-nest syndrome is smiling.”

Why, then, are children regarded as one of life’s greatest rewards? “We believe we get more pleasure from the things for which we pay the most,” Gilbert explained. . . . “When people sacrifice, when people hurt, when people pay, they come to value things more. … One of the conclusions we draw from how much we do for our children is that they must be tremendous sources of happiness.”

Gilbert — himself a father — likened raising children to a no-hitter in baseball, in which your favorite team finally hits a game-winning home run at the bottom of the ninth. The long, event-free innings are incredibly dull to endure, but the game will be remembered as a great experience afterward because of that one punctuating moment of delight. “That’s how memory works: One of its funny foibles is that it remembers things that are extraordinary or unusual.” This is the “illusion” that can cause parenthood to seem so rewarding when, after an exhausting day of tedium taking care of a child, the child finally beams up at you and says “I love you, Daddy.”

The Principle of Shifting Comparisons
Anticipating the protests of the mothers in the audience who would corner him after the talk and insist that their children are the best thing in their lives (it was the “Bring the Family Address,” after all), Gilbert again invoked the principle of shifting comparisons: Children are the best thing in a parent’s life, he agreed, “but only because they tend to get rid of every source of joy we had before they came along.”

When it comes to shooting for happiness, our intuitions . . . often aim us the wrong way . . . . This is nobody’s fault but the rapid pace of history. “This device [the brain] was created for an environment that it no longer knows how to navigate.”

Gilbert noted that psychological science has a unique role to play — namely, “telling us that our intuitions can be wrong,” and counseling discipline and rational thinking in its place. “If our species has any hope of walking sure-footedly into a future, it is going to be because we have begun to understand what makes us stumble.”

* * *

To read the entirety of Eric Wargo’s article, click here. Dan Gilbert’s research has been discussed quite a bit on The Situationist; for a sample, go to “The Unlucky Irish: Celtic Fans and Affective Forecasting,” “The Heat Is On” (including a terrific exchange between David Friedman and Dan Gilbert), and “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers.” For a sample of Situationist posts on happiness, go to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Alone Together – The Communter’s Situation,” and “The Economist Flirts with Situationism.” Finally, to a veiw an superb 20-minute presentation by Dan Gilbert (from 2005), click on the youtube video below.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Life, Marketing, Social Psychology | 7 Comments »

Brainicize: The Situational Malleability of our Brains

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 22, 2007

Smartbells Image by Horacio Salinas for NYT

Thought you couldn’t teach old brains new tricks? Think again. Sunday’s New York Times included a thought-provoking and exercise-promoting article by Gretchen Reynolds entitled “Lobes of Steel.” We have excerpted relevant portions of that article below.

* * *

The Morris water maze is the rodent equivalent of an I.Q. test: mice are placed in a tank filled with water dyed an opaque color. Beneath a small area of the surface is a platform, which the mice can’t see. [See two-minute video below.]

Despite what you’ve heard about rodents and sinking ships, mice hate water; those that blunder upon the platform climb onto it immediately. Scientists have long agreed that a mouse’s spatial memory can be inferred by how quickly the animal finds its way in subsequent dunkings. A “smart” mouse remembers the platform and swims right to it.

In the late 1990s, one group of mice at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, near San Diego, blew away the others in the Morris maze. The difference between the smart mice Mouse Wheeland those that floundered? Exercise. The brainy mice had running wheels in their cages, and the others didn’t.

Scientists have suspected for decades that exercise, particularly regular aerobic exercise, can affect the brain. But they could only speculate as to how. Now an expanding body of research shows that exercise can improve the performance of the brain by boosting memory and cognitive processing speed. Exercise can, in fact, create a stronger, faster brain.

This theory emerged from those mouse studies at the Salk Institute. After conducting maze tests, the neuroscientist Fred H. Gage and his colleagues examined brain samples from the mice. Conventional wisdom had long held that animal (and human) brains weren’t malleable: after a brief window early in life, the brain could no longer grow or renew itself. . . .

Gage’s mice proved otherwise. . . . Their brains were regenerating themselves. [For a related Situationist post, see “Imagine You Could Change Your Brain. Oops, You Just Did!“]

adult hippocampal neurogenesisAll of the mice showed this vivid proof of what’s known as “neurogenesis,” or the creation of new neurons. But the brains of the athletic mice in particular showed many more. These mice, the ones that scampered on running wheels, were producing two to three times as many new neurons as the mice that didn’t exercise.

* * *

Gage’s discovery hit the world of neurological research like a thunderclap. Since then, scientists have been finding more evidence that the human brain is not only capable of renewing itself but that exercise speeds the process.

“We’ve always known that our brains control our behavior,” Gage says, “but not that our behavior could control and change the structure of our brains.”

* * *

This spring, neuroscientists at Columbia University in New York City published a study in which a group of men and women, ranging in age from 21 to 45, began working out for one hour four times a week. After 12 weeks, the test subjects, predictably, became more fit. . . .

But something else happened as a result of all those workouts: blood flowed at a much higher volume to a part of the brain responsible for neurogenesis. Functional M.R.I.’s showed that a portion of each person’s hippocampus received almost twice the blood volume as it did before. Scientists suspect that the blood pumping into that part of the brain was helping to produce fresh neurons.

The hippocampus plays a large role in how mammals create and process memories; it also plays a role in cognition. [For more technical details, view the two-minute video above.] If your hippocampus is damaged, you most likely have trouble learning facts and forming new memories. Age plays a factor, too. As you get older, your brain gets smaller, and one of the areas most prone to this shrinkage is the hippocampus. (This can start depressingly early, in your 30’s.) . . . .

The Columbia study suggests that shrinkage to parts of the hippocampus can be slowed via exercise. The subjects showed significant improvements in memory, as measured by a Fred Gage - Image from Timeword-recall test. Those with the biggest increases in VO2 max had the best scores of all.

“It’s reasonable to infer, though we’re not yet certain, that neurogenesis was happening in the people’s hippocampi,” says Scott A. Small, an associate professor of neurology at Columbia and the senior author of the study, “and that working out was driving the neurogenesis.”

Other recent studies support this theory. . . . These results raise the hope that the human brain has the capacity not only to produce new cells but also to add new blood vessels and strengthen neural connections, allowing young neurons to integrate themselves into the wider neural network. . . .

And the benefits aren’t limited to adults. Other University of Illinois scientists have studied school-age children and found that those who have a higher level of aerobic fitness processed information more efficiently; they were quicker on a battery of computerized flashcard tests. The researchers also found that higher levels of aerobic fitness corresponded to better standardized test scores among a set of Illinois public school students. . . .

What is it about exercise that prompts the brain to remake itself? Different scientists have pet theories. . . .

. . . [Some] researchers are looking at the role of serotonin, a hormone that influences mood. Exercise speeds the brain’s production of serotonin, which could, in turn, prompt new neurons to grow. Abnormally low levels of serotonin have been associated with clinical depression, as has a strikingly shrunken hippocampus. Many antidepressant medications, like Prozac, increase the effectiveness of serotonin. Interestingly, these drugs take three todancercize.jpg four weeks to begin working — about the same time required for new neurons to form and mature. Part of the reason these drugs are effective, then, could be that they’re increasing neurogenesis. “Just as exercise does,”Gage says.

Gage, by the way, exercises just about every day, as do most colleagues in his field. Scott Small at Columbia, for instance , likes nothing better than a strenuous game of tennis. “As a neurologist,” he explains, “I constantly get asked at cocktail parties what someone can do to protect their mental functioning. I tell them, ‘Put down that glass and go for a run.’ ”

* * *

Thanks to Situationist reader, Vaughan Stewart, for alerting us to this story.  To read the the entire article, click here. For an earlier Situationist post discussing the role of “mindset” on exercise, go to “January Fool’s Day.” 

Posted in Life, Situationist Sports | 2 Comments »

How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 21, 2007

aps-poster.jpgIn May, the American Psychological Society (APS) held their annual conference (drawing 3000 psychologists to D.C.), at which several of social psychology’s biggest hitters — including Situationist contributor Susan Fiske and Situationist friend Dan Gilbert made presentations. The latest issue of Observer, the APS magazine, contains articles summarizing a few of those presentations. Over the next week or so, the Situationist will include several posts excerpting those articles.

We begin with Wray Herbert’s excellent article on Carol Dweck’s keynote address. Carol Dweck’s fascinating research has been the subject of previous Situationist posts (including The Young and the Lucky, and The Perils of Being Smart (or Not So Much). This post compliments those posts as well as the collection of previous Situationist posts on child development (including Only Child Syndrome or Advantage?, 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.”).

* * *

How Beliefs About the Self Shape Personality and Behavior

TwinsPeople are fascinated by separated-at-birth stories . . . . [I]dentical twins often . . . share aspects of temperament, like sociability and self-control. But in her keynote address at the APS 19th Annual Convention, APS Fellow Dweck emphasized that much about personality and behavior is demonstrably not part of a fixed genetic legacy. Specifically, Dweck argues that beliefs about the self and the world not only contribute to and change personality, they underlie adaptive functioning in school, work, and relationships.

Dweck described her work on “mindsets” and their influence on academic performance. People tend to hold one of two beliefs about intelligence: Some believe that intelligence is a fixed entity, endowed at birth and unchanging, whereas others believe that intelligence is malleable. People with these different “self theories” tend to have very different experiences in life. Those with a fixed mindset set as their primary goal in life the documentation of their ability, not true learning. When they experience setbacks, they take these setbacks as reflections of their innate ability, becoming defensive and helpless. By contrast, people with a malleable mindset value learning and growth and react to adversity with increased effort and strategies for change. They are resilient.

Dweck has demonstrated the power of belief in many studies, including one (with Jennifer Mangels) in which she measured the brain-waves of Time Cover November 2005students with different mindsets. She gave the students a computerized test, deliberately made up of very difficult questions. Exactly 1.5 seconds after the students answered a question, the computer told them if they answered correctly or incorrectly. Exactly 1.5 seconds after that, the computer gave the correct answer. Dweck measured the electrical activity of the students’ brains to see when in this process the students focused their attention. The students with a fixed mindset basically stopped paying attention once they knew if they were right or wrong: “Their work was over,” Dweck said. Those with a malleable mindset — and a belief in effort — were more focused on learning the real answer.

Dweck also has shown that it’s possible to intervene and change beliefs. Even those with a tendency to think of fixed ability can learn otherwise — withCarol Dweck at APS Conference (from The Observer) effects on performance. She (with Lisa Blackwell and Kali Trzesniewski) studied a group of junior high school students whose math grades were declining steeply. All of the students had eight sessions of training in study skills, except that for half the students, these sessions included instruction in the malleability of intelligence. They were told that the brain is a muscle, which like other muscles can be strengthened with hard work. The students were “mesmerized,” she says, by the idea that they had the power to grow and enrich their own brains. The result? The students who learned the malleable mindset theory rebounded with better math grades, and their teachers reported positive changes in their motivation. [For an NPR Morning Edition audio interview and story about this research, click here.] (Dweck designed a computer software version of this intervention, called “Brainology,” which is now being tested in 20 New York City schools.)

Beliefs can also affect relationships, Dweck reported. Her research (with Susan Johnson) builds on the work of John Bowlby, who theorized that infants form internal models of relationships with other human beings based on their early experiences. Dweck and her Mother & Infant (from studied 12- to 16-month-old children who were either securely or insecurely attached to their mothers. They had them watch a story, using abstract shapes, in which the “mother” moves away from the “child,” who follows. When all of the children had gotten used to this story through many viewings, the story ended in one of two ways: Either the mother returned to care for the child, or she continued on her way, effectively abandoning the child. The secure children expressed more interest and surprise at the abandonment than did the insecure children; indeed the insecure children, if anything, were more surprised by the caring mother’s behavior.

Such beliefs about security and relationships can manifest themselves in adult relationships as well, Dweck says. Adults with low expectations and anxiety about relationships have more fragmented and shorter-lived romantic relationships. . . . They have learned through experience certain beliefs about others, and those beliefs have shaped their attitudes and behavior in crucial ways.

These kinds of beliefs can be changed as well. Dweck reported research by Greg Walton and Geoff Cohen in which African-American students who were entering college were taught to expect acceptance rather than rejection from others. They learned that doubts about being accepted in this new environment were common but largely unwarranted. Students receiving this information, compared to those in a control group, were more likely to reach out to professors, participate in class discussion, study more, and earn higher grades.

Dweck concluded . . . : “Beliefs matter. Beliefs can be changed. And when they are, so too is personality.”

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To read all of Wray Herbert’s article, click here. To view a four-minute video interview of Carol Dweck regarding her research and its relevance (even for race-car drivers), click the youtube video below.


Posted in Events, Life, Social Psychology | 12 Comments »

Only-Child Syndrome or Advantage?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 19, 2007

Only Child

Words like “selfish” and “self-absorbed” are commonly associated with only children. But are those stereotypes based on any evidence? And might only children actually be better off than those with siblings? JuJu Chang and Sara Holmberg of ABC News examines those questions in an article we have excerpted below.

* * *

The myth of the only child dates back to the late 1800s when G. Stanley Hall, known as the founder of child psychology, called being an only child “a disease in itself.”

Susan Newman, a social psychologist at Rutgers University and the author of “Parenting an Only Child,” says the myth has been perpetuated ever since. “People articulate that only children are spoiled, they’re aggressive, they’re bossy, they’re lonely, they’re maladjusted,” she said. “And the list goes on and on and on.”

But is there any science that makes the stereotype stick? “No,” Newman said. “There have been hundreds and hundreds of research studies that show that only children are no different from their peers.”

In order to find out for ourselves, “20/20” gathered a group of onlies in New York and asked them whether they thought the stereotype is true.

While a battery of studies shows no difference with onlies when it comes to bossiness or acting spoiled, it turns out there is a significant difference when it comes to intelligence. A landmark 20-year study showed that increased one-on-one parenting produces higher education levels, higher test scores and higher levels of achievement.

What explains that apparent advantage? Newman says, “They have all their parents financial resources to get them extra lessons, to get them SAT training but more critical is the one-on-one time at the dinner table.”

Which means more reading time, more homework time and eventually better test scoresFamily Circus. [A mother] said of her son, “I think we felt as a family that we were able to give him more attention and spend more time together and really focus on him.”

A generation ago, only 10 percent of families had only children. Today that percentage has more than doubled. And it’s no wonder  it costs between $200,000 and $300,000 to raise one child to the age of 17, and that’s not including the cost of college.

“Families have changed,” said Newman. “I actually call the only child the ‘new traditional family.'”

And yet, despite the explosion of families with onlies, a recent poll suggests only 3 percent of Americans believe one is an ideal number. Could it be that the myth of the only child persists?

* * *

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 “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.”

(August 10, 2008 Update:  For a worthwhile Chicago Tribune article summarizing research challenging the myths, stereotypes, and stigmas of the only child, click here.)

Posted in Emotions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 80 Comments »

Unlevel Playing Fields: From Baseball Diamonds to Emergency Rooms

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 19, 2007

baseball-umpire.jpgDaniel Hamermesh, the Edward Everett Hale Centennial Professor of Economics, finance professors at McGill and Auburn Universities and a University of Texas at Austin graduate student analyzed every pitch from three major league seasons between 2004 and 2006 to explore whether racial discrimination factors into umpires’ evaluation of players. . . .

. . . . During a typical game, umpires call about 75 pitches for each team. Throughout the season, they call about 400,000 pitches.

The researchers found if a pitcher shares the home plate umpire’s race or ethnicity, more strikes are called and he improves his team’s chance of winning.

* * *

It doesn’t happen all the time — in about 1% of pitches thrown — but that’s still one pitch per game, and it could be the one that makes the difference. “One pitch called the other way affects things a lot,” says Hamermesh. “Baseball is a very closely played game.” What’s more, says Hamermesh, a slight umpire bias affects more than just the score; it also has an indirect effect on a team’s psyche. Baseball is a game of strategy. If a pitcher knows he’s more likely to get questionable pitches called as strikes, he’ll start picking off at the corners. But if he knows he’s at a disadvantage, he might feel forced to throw more directly over the plate, possibly giving up hits.

. . . . Controlling for all other outside factors, such as the pitcher’s tendency to throw strikes, the umpires’ tendency to call strikes and the batter’s ability to attract balls, researchers found evidence of same-race bias — and the data revealed that the bias benefits mostly white pitchers. Not surprising, since 71% of MLB pitchers and 87% of umpires are white.

The highest percentage of strikes were called when both the home-plate umpire and pitcher were white, and the lowest percentage were called between a white ump and a black pitcher. The study also found that minority umpires judged Asian pitchers more unfairly than they did white pitchers. It’s a significant disadvantage for Asian pitchers because the MLB doesn’t have any Asian umpires. Interestingly enough, Hamermesh’s research found that the race of the batter didn’t seem to matter — the correlation was only between the pitcher and the home-plate ump. Rich Levin, an MLB spokesman, refused to comment on the research findings.

Though his research confirms that bias exists, Hamermesh says it can be easily reduced or eliminated. When a game’s attendance is particularly high, when the call is made on a full count or when ballparks use QuesTec, an electronic system that evaluates the accuracy of umpires’ calls after the game, the biased behavior disappeared, according to the study. “The umpires hate those [QuesTec] systems,” Hamermesh says. “When you’re going to be watched and have to pay more attention, you don’t subconsciously favor people like yourself. . . .”

Hamermesh, who has studied discrimination at all levels, says that bias is instilled in infancy — much like enduring personality traits such as shyness or high self-esteem — as an essential part of human behavior. “We all have these subconscious preferences for our own group,” he says. . . .

But the takeaway message of his study is a hopeful one, says Hamermesh: discrimination can be corrected. “I expect that [MLB] will not be very happy about this, but the fact that with a little bit of effort this kind of behavior can be altered, that’s very gratifying. I wish with society as a whole we could reduce the impact of discrimination as easily as it could be done in baseball.”

nba-referees.jpgAn academic study of the National Basketball Association . . . suggests that a racial bias found in other parts of American society has existed on the basketball court as well.

A coming paper by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University graduate student says that, during the 13 seasons from 1991 through 2004, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players.

Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics, found a corresponding bias in which black officials called fouls more frequently against white players, though that tendency was not as strong. They went on to claim that the different rates at which fouls are called “is large enough that the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew assigned to the game.”

. . .
“I would be more surprised if it didn’t exist,” Mr. [Ian] Ayres [at Yale Law School] said of an implicit association bias in the N.B.A. “There’s a growing consensus that a large proportion of racialized decisions is not driven by any conscious race discrimination, but that it is often just driven by unconscious, or subconscious, attitudes. When you force people to make snap decisions, they often can’t keep themselves from subconsciously treating blacks different than whites, men different from women.”

Mr. Berri [at Cal. State Bakerton] added: “It’s not about basketball — it’s about what happens in the world. This is just the nature of decision-making, and when you have an evaluation team that’s so different from those being evaluated. Given that your league is mostly African-American, maybe you should have more African-American referees — for the same reason that you don’t want mostly white police forces in primarily black neighborhoods.”

To investigate whether such bias has existed in sports, Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price examined data from publicly available box scores. They accounted for factors like the players’ positions, playing time and All-Star status; each group’s time on the court (black players played 83 percent of minutes, while 68 percent of officials were white); calls at home games and on the road; and other relevant data.

But they said they continued to find the same phenomenon: that players who were similar in all ways except skin color drew foul calls at a rate difference of up to 4 ½ percent depending on the racial composition of an N.B.A. game’s three-person referee crew.

Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a vocal critic of his league’s officiating, said in a telephone interview after reading the paper: “We’re all human. We all have our own prejudice. That’s the point of doing statistical analysis. It bears it out in this application, as in a thousand others.”

. . .

[The study found] “that black players receive around 0.12-0.20 more fouls per 48 minutes played (an increase of 2 ½-4 ½ percent) when the number of white referees officiating a game increases from zero to three.”

Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price also report a statistically significant correlation with decreases in points, rebounds and assists, and a rise in turnovers, when players performed before primarily opposite-race officials.

“Player-performance appears to deteriorate at every margin when officiated by a larger fraction of opposite-race referees,” they write. The paper later notes no change in free-throw percentage. “We emphasize this result because this is the one on-court behavior that we expect to be unaffected by referee behavior.”

Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price claim that these changes are enough to affect game outcomes. Their results suggested that for each additional black starter a team had, relative to its opponent, a team’s chance of winning would decline from a theoretical 50 percent to 49 percent and so on, a concept mirrored by the game evidence: the team with the greater share of playing time by black players during those 13 years won 48.6 percent of games — a difference of about two victories in an 82-game season.

. . . Both men cautioned that the racial discrimination they claim to have found should be interpreted in the context of bias found in other parts of American society.

“There’s bias on the basketball court,” Mr. Wolfers said, “but less than when you’re trying to hail a cab at midnight.”

medical-decisions.jpgDeeply imbedded attitudes about race influence the way doctors care for their African- American patients, according to a Harvard study that for the first time details how unconscious bias contributes to inferior care. Researchers have known for years that African-Americans in the midst of a heart attack are far less likely than white patients to receive potentially life-saving treatments such as clot-busting drugs, a dramatic illustration of America’s persistent healthcare disparities. But the reasons behind such stark gaps in care for heart disease, as well as cancer and other serious illnesses, have remained murky, with blame fixed on doctors, hospitals, and insurance plans.

In the new study, trainee doctors in Boston and Atlanta took a 20-minute computer survey designed to detect overt and implicit prejudice. They were also presented with the hypothetical case of a 50-year-old man stricken with sharp chest pain; in some scenarios the man was white, while in others he was black.

“We found that as doctors’ unconscious biases against blacks increased, their likelihood of giving [clot-busting] treatment decreased,” said the lead author of the study, Dr. Alexander R. Green of Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s not a matter of you being a racist. It’s really a matter of the way your brain processes information is influenced by things you’ve seen, things you’ve experienced, the way media has presented things.”

. . .

“Years of advanced education and egalitarian intentions are no protection against the effect of implicit attitudes,” said Dr. Thomas Inui, president of the Regenstrief Institute Inc. in Indianapolis, which studies vulnerable patient groups. “When do they surface? When we’re involved with high-pressure, high-stakes decision-making, when there’s a lot riding on our decisions but there isn’t a lot of time to make them, that’s when the implicit attitudes that are not scientific rise up and grab us.”

. . .”The great advantage of being human, of having the privilege of awareness, of being able to recognize the stuff that is hidden, is that we can beat the bias,” said [Situationist Contributor] Mahzarin R. Banaji, a Harvard psychologist who helped design a widely used bias test.

Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, Massachusetts secretary of health and human services and a specialist in healthcare disparities, said the study demonstrates the importance of monitoring how hospitals and large physician practices provide care to patients of different races.

But Inui and other specialists said that even conquering doctor bias will not be enough to eliminate healthcare disparities.

A succession of studies during the past decade has demonstrated graphically the scope of disparities and the complexity of the problem, which touches on issues from poverty to geography to genetics.

Black patients in the process of having a heart attack, for example, are only half as likely as whites to get clot-busting medication, and they are much less likely to undergo open-heart surgery. Similarly, African-American women receive breast-cancer screenings at a rate substantially lower than white women. Fewer black babies live to celebrate their first birthdays: In Massachusetts, the mortality rate for black infants is more than double the rate for white babies.residents.jpg

Healthcare disparities emerged as a national issue with the 2002 release of a landmark study titled “Unequal Treatment” that was commissioned by Congress and produced by the Institute of Medicine. In Boston, the city health department released a sweeping blueprint for addressing disparities two years ago, with Mayor Thomas M. Menino describing the issue as the most pressing health problem confronting the city.

“Most physicians are now willing to acknowledge that important disparities exist in the healthcare system,” said Dr. John Ayanian, a healthcare policy specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who was not involved with the new research. “There’s still a barrier, though, to many physicians acknowledging that disparities may exist in the care of their own patients.”

It was during a lecture three years ago by Banaji that Green came up with the idea of measuring the unconscious bias of physicians by using a test Banaji had helped develop .

Green and his colleagues decided to test residents at Massachusetts General, the Brigham, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, as well as at an Atlanta hospital. Residents were told that the study was evaluating the use of heart attack drugs in the emergency room, but not that it was also examining racial bias; 220 trainee doctors were counted in the results.

The residents were first given a narrative describing a male patient who shows up in the emergency room complaining of chest pains. Accompanying the narrative was a computer-generated image of the patient, either a black or white man shown in a hospital gown from the chest up, wearing a neutral facial expression.

The doctors were asked if, based on the information provided, they would diagnose the man as having a heart attack and, if so, whether they would prescribe clot-busting drugs called thrombolytics, commonly used in community hospitals to stabilize patients having heart attacks, and how likely they were to give those drugs.

Study participants were also asked questions designed to determine if they were overtly biased. Answers showed they were not.

Last, the residents took Banaji’s “implicit association test,” which is based on the concept that the more strongly test-takers associate a picture of a white or black patient with a particular concept, say cooperativeness, the faster they will make a match. White, Asian, and Hispanic doctors were faster to make matches between blacks and negative concepts and slower to make matches between blacks and positive ones. The small number of African- American physicians in the study were as likely to show bias against blacks as against whites.

Computer Image from Green et al. study

The researchers then compared the implicit association test scores with the decisions about whether to provide the clot- busting medicine and found that doctors whose ratings of African-Americans were most negative were also the least likely to prescribe the drug to blacks.

. . .

“At the end of the day, even among very well-intentioned people, implicit biases can be both prevalent and in some situations can impact clinical decisions,” said Dr. Amal Trivedi, a healthcare disparities specialist at Brown Medical School who was not involved in the study. “What this study can do is raise awareness of that finding.”

* * *

Green said numerous other studies are underway to evaluate the utility of psychological tests for bias to explain disparities in medical domains. “We have reason to suspect you can measure unconscious bias among physicians and show it has an impact on treatment decisions,” he said.

Mahzarin Banaji . . . said the racial bias unearthed by the study is at odds with conventional views of bigotry — and perhaps more insidious. Rather than harboring deliberate ill will, she said, the physicians had apparently internalized racial stereotypes, and these attitudes subtly influenced their medical judgment without their even realizing it.

The study of physicians had one hopeful note, Banaji said: Doctors at least were willing to open their subconscious minds for inspection, which is something that many other professionals — judges, police officers and NBA referees — rarely are willing to do.

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For an NPR Talk of the Nation audio discussion of the NBA study and reactions to it, click here. For an NPR Tell Me More audio discussion of the heart-attack study, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

The Moon and Your Emotions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 17, 2007

The MoonDespite its barrenness, the Moon has been a fixation for humans since the origin of our species. The Romans and Greeks, for instance, thought it was a goddess. Much more recently, it spawned a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. It has also provided great fodder for werewolf stories and the like.

Aside from its cultural and political ramifications, the moon affects the Earth in physical ways. Most meaningful, it’s gravitational pull, which varies depending on the distance between the Earth and Moon, helps to create our oceans’ tides. This link provides a layperson’s description of the phenomenon:

Tides are created because the Earth and the moon are attracted to each other, just like magnets are attracted to each other. The moon tries to pull at anything on the Earth to bring it closer. But, the Earth is able to hold onto everything except the water. Since the water is always moving, the Earth cannot hold onto it, and the moon is able to pull at it. Each day, there are two high tides and two low tides. The ocean is constantly moving from high tide to low tide, and then back to high tide. There is about 12 hours and 25 minutes between the two high tides.

While there is uncertainty as to what the Earth would be like without the Moon, it’s clear that it would be a very different place, with very dissimilar wind and water patterns. So the Moon matters a great deal to Earth and all of its life.

But does it matter to us, individually? Some believe that the moon’s varying gravitational pull affects our brains and bodies in ways that we do not appreciate. After-all, the human body is mostly water, so if the moon moves bodies of water, why not us? If this sounds crazy, keep in mind that many believe it to be true, including those who are highly-educated. An article by Alina Iosif and Bruce Ballon of the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry explains:

A study by Rotton and Kelly in 1985 showed that 50% of university students believed that people act strangely during a full moon. In 1995, Vance reported that as many as 81% of mental health professionals believed that the full moon alters individual behaviour.

Perhaps these beliefs are influenced by some in the scientific community, including psychiatrist Arnold Lieber, who authored the controversial “Lunar Effects: Biological Tides and Human Emotions.” In it, he concluded that a full moon leads to higher homicide rates and other nefarious effects. His conclusions, writes Chris Francesani and Brittany Bacon on ABC News, are supported by others:

Studies have found that cops and hospital workers are among the strongest believers in the notion that more crime and trauma occur on nights when the moon is full . . . Dr. David Mandell of the Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh and some colleagues studied existing data on health-care myths and did a 2005 study of area nurses. He said he found that 69 percent of surgical nurses in his study believed that a full moon led to more chaos and patients that night.

Now the bad news for those who believe: Most scientific evidence indicates that the moon does not appreciably influence our bodies or minds. As Iosif and Ballon write,

Not everyone realizes that, although the moon is able to move oceans, this is achieved only because the moon’s gravity acts over the 12 800-km diameter of the earth, which pulls back with a comparable force. But the moon exerts no influence on smaller bodies of water such as lakes and even some seas, and the difference between a person’s weight in the presence of the moon’s gravity and his or her weight if there were no moon is “less than the effect of a mosquito on one’s shoulder.”

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To read a study by physicist Robert Seeberger on how there is no connection between lunar activity and industrial accidents, click here. To read other accounts indicating no connection between the Moon and human behavior, see University of Florida psychologist James Rotton’s Moonshine and a post on Psychology and Crime News discussing the research of University of Washington bioengineering professor Eric Chudler.

Posted in Emotions | 57 Comments »

The Situation of Ethical Consumption

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 16, 2007


An interesting set of studies recently looked into the role of situation in influencing “ethical” consumption.

Loosely, those studies indicate that strategies focusing on dispositionist solutions (for instance, information campaigns that presume individual consumers will alter their consumption patterns in the given situation) tend to be unsuccessful, but well-executed strategies that alter the situation (for instance, the infrastructure and available options in the consumption space) are relatively successful. The press release summarizing the study is pasted below and is available here.

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The most effective campaigns to encourage ethical consumption are those that take place at a collective level, such as the creation of Fairtrade cities, rather than those that target individual behaviour. These are the findings of a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The research suggests that ethical consumption is best understood as a political phenomenon rather than simply a market response to consumer demand.

fair-trade-in-rwanda.jpg“For many people, their choice to buy ethical goods or services is shaped by both personal and public commitments” says Dr Clive Barnett of the ESRC’s Cultures of Consumption programme. People bring a wide range of ethical concerns to their everyday consumption practices, from the personal responsibilities of family life to more public commitments like membership of a faith community or political affiliation.

The research team found that campaigns aimed at getting people to change what they buy often worked on the assumption that individuals lack the necessary information to make educated decisions about the consequences of what they buy and where they buy it from. However the findings from the study suggest that people don’t necessarily lack the information about Fairtrade, organic food, environmental sustainability, or third world sweatshops. They do, however, often lack effective pathways to acting on their concerns over these issues.

By holding a series of 12 focus-groups in different areas of Bristol, the team were able to access a wide range of participants differentiated by class, gender, ethnicity, race, age, income and education. The results from the focus-groups found that individual’s ability to adopt ethical consumption practices are affected by different levels of material resources in terms of their income and access to shops that sell ethically sourced goods.

Dr Barnett said: “People actually seem very aware of these types of things, but often don’t feel that they have the opportunities or resources to be able to buy Fairtrade products or ethically sourced goods. And it’s not as simple as the consumer making a choice to buy an item that is ethically sound.”

A great deal of the consumption people do they don’t do as ‘consumers’ exercising ‘choice.’ Lots of consumption is embedded in relationships of obligation where people are acting as parents, caring partners, football fans or good friends. Some consumption is used to sustain these sorts of relationships: giving gifts, buying school lunches, getting hold of this season’s new strip. And quite a lot of consumption is done as the background to these activities, embedded in all sorts of infrastructures (eg transport, energy, water) over which people have little or no direct influence as individual ‘consumers’.

In order to successfully encourage people to adopt ethical consumption activities, it is important to call on their specific identities, as for example a member of the local community or faith group, rather than just targeting them as ‘faceless’ and ‘placeless’ consumers. The most successful initiatives are those that find ways of making changes to the practical routines ofnewcastle-fair-trade-partnership.jpg consumption. For example, by changing how and what people buy and from where through establishing initiatives such as Fairtrade networks or achieving the status of a Fairtrade town or city.

In order to become a Fairtrade town, the local council must pass a resolution supporting Fairtrade, a range of Fairtrade products must be readily available in the area’s shops and served in local cafés and catering establishments and Fairtrade products must be used by a number of local workplaces and community organisations. Fairtrade town and Fairtrade city initiatives are a means of raising awareness around issues of global inequality and trade justice, as well as transforming collective infrastructures of provisioning so that everyone, irrespective of their ‘choice’, becomes an ‘ethical consumer.’

The research findings present a clear message says Dr Barnett: “If ethical consumption campaigns are to succeed they need to transform the infrastructures of every day consumption rather than focusing on changing individual consumer behaviour.”

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Thanks to a terrific post by Corey Tomsons at Thought Capital for making us aware of those studies.

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

Manufactured Hype: Can ESPN’s Agenda-Setting Behaviour save Major League Soccer?

Posted by Jason Chung on August 14, 2007

(Author’s note: I am an avid soccer fan and fully support its growth in North America.)

Can David Beckham and ESPN save MLS?

In a previous post, I argued that ESPN has the power and credibility to kill a professional sports league; this post asks if it can breathe life into a fledgling one.

* * * *

ESPN has gone soccer mad, particularly for its Major League Soccer (MLS) variant. Long ridiculed for its microscopic ratings and substandard level of play, the MLS has recently received a major credibility boost and marketing surge with David Beckham’s signing by the Los Angeles Galaxy from Spain’s famed Real Madrid. His initial agreement to play in America last January was greeted with tremendous fanfare by both domestic and international media, and since his arrival in the United States the media crush has continued at a breathtaking pace – particularly on ESPN.

Despite the Worldwide Leader in Sports’ boundless ballyhoo and the introduction of a mega-star into Major League Soccer, there is little evidence that John Q. Public has yet to catch soccer fever. The MLS’ record television ratings and strong attendance figures in the wake of Beckham’s arrival are no doubt welcome news, but a hopeful long-term prognosis is belied by a closer examination of the facts. Beckham’s North American debut consists of an abysmal 1.0 television rating which, though markedly better than ESPN’s admittedly “flat” average rating of 0.2 this season, is still lower than the much-maligned NHL’s record-low 1.1 rating for the Stanley Cup Finals between Ottawa and Anaheim. Furthermore, the attendance spike may be a mirage of sorts as it seems to be heavily concentrated in places that Beckham is due to play.

Why, then, is ESPN continuing the hype in the face of apparent American apathy?

In a word: money. ESPN believes that it can influence American perceptions and preferences significantly over time. And it is willing to make that sort of investment in soccer because doing so would pay off. As reported by multiple sources, ESPN now owns a financial stake in the success of MLS due to the fact that it is finally paying rights fees – to the tune of $20 million per year – to broadcast MLS games. The new contractual agreement between the league and ESPN binds the network to pay the league, not only to broadcast games, but also to “bear the burden of making sure MLS programming is successful.” At the announcement of the new deal between ESPN and MLS, ESPN executive vice-president John Skipper outlined several methods the network would use to grow the game including increased exposure for MLS on the ESPN’s internet and mobile services and “likely” increased exposure on Sportscenter, its flagship sports news show. Skipper concluded that “[i]f we get ESPN behind soccer in this country, it is almost impossible for me to believe that we can’t move this forward.”

Skipper’s quote would seem to indicate that ESPN executives are well aware of their agenda-setting power. Popularized by social psychologists Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, agenda-setting theory hypothesizes that the media shapes reality by “choosing and displaying news.” By analyzing presidential campaigns and measuring people’s reactions, McCombs and Shaw found that the public learns about issues “in direct proportion to the emphasis placed on the campaign issues by the mass media.” As noted in 1963 by the University of Wisconsin’s Bernard C. Cohen, “the press may not be successful much of the time in telling its readers what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.”

Troublingly, ESPN is not only aware of its power to influence what matters in “sports,” it is willing to exploit its agenda-setting power for its own commercial benefit – even if that means exerting pressure on its editors to show more highlights of its sports properties and ingrain the sport in the American collective consciousness.

Most journalists and editors, particularly in the realm of sports (and specifically ESPN), tend to deny or ignore the role that they play in agenda-setting. As ESPN vice-president of studio productions Craig Lazarus claims “There is this notion that we drive a sport’s popularity . . . but I think we reflect it.” During a radio interview on Toronto’s FAN 590 in which I defended my previous article, sportscasters and producers Doug Farraway and Gerry Dobson also advanced that very same “consumer is sovereign” line of thinking when defending ESPN’s NHL coverage. They asserted that it is viewers and listeners that determine their news priorities. The claim is that consumers or fans have fixed preferences, and the media simply competes over viewers given those (exogenous) preferences. The viewer’s disposition controls while the situational influence of the media is irrelevant.

As logical as that simple model is, it is also wrong (or, at least, vastly exaggerated). In their 1999-2000 series of articles on the problem of “market manipulation”(see Westlaw, Westlaw, and SSRN), Doug Kysar and Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson detailed how sellers — from gas stations to grocery stores — manipulate consumer perceptions and preferences routinely. McCombs and Shaw, as already noted, came to a very similar conclusion with respect to news coverage. Can it be that sports media and the selling of sports is somehow different and immune from manipulation? Quite the contrary. To an extent nearly impossible with hard news, sports journalism seems open to manipulation given its relatively trivial content (at least in comparison with hard news) and highly subjective nature in measuring the “newsworthiness” of stories. It is hard to believe that editorial control does not yield, even subconsciously, to corporate interests.

Subjective analysis of ESPN broadcasting seems to validate these concerns. After years of ESPN marginalizing the game and its American league, MLS is suddenly the lead segment on PTI and analyzed on Around the Horn, David Beckham’s MLS advertisements are splashed across multiple ESPN properties, other ESPN ads are proclaiming that “You’re a soccer fan, you just don’t know it yet” and MLS games are now given the “ESPN treatment” with regular game nights plus requisite hype. In addition, Beckham’s North American debut received more production support than many championship games in the traditional Big Four American sporting leagues with 19 cameras and was treated as on par as a media event as the first Monday Night Football game in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina or Game 7 of an NBA playoff series.

When pressed, ESPN’s upper management acknowledge highlighting ESPN products (such as leagues they have a financial stake in) more prominently, even during news broadcasts. Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice-president for news, admits that corporate affiliations influence certain segments during ESPN’s flagship news show Sportscenter. When discussing the rise of Arena Football League (AFL) highlights on Sportscenter in the wake of ESPN’s purchase of a share in the league, Doria admits:

We are clearly paying more attention to Arena Football than we would have if the games were not on [ESPN]. I could lay it all off on the resources that come with rights, but when we are trying to grow a sport, it means we get a little ahead of the curve to drive the interest up, but we don’t go overboard.

Further corroboration of ESPN’s agenda-setting behaviour comes from its on-air talent, who occasionally acknowledge and lament upper management’s desire to manipulate coverage for financial gain. In 2006, ESPN College Gameday’s Chris Fowler wrote:

Chris Fowler

For 13 seasons, the locations of the GameDay road shows have been editorial decisions based on the college football landscape. The basic principle was to (almost) always come from the site of the “biggest game,” or occasionally, “the best story…”

Now, the philosophy has been rethought by upper management. For the first time, the competitive landscape of football programming is a frequent consideration. Serving the needs of ABC’s new prime-time package of games is often a priority. The decision on GameDay’s site is less a clear-cut “best game” philosophy now and is more complicated, made on a landscape where terms like “synergy” and “branding” live.

This sort of evidence from among the ranks of its own reporters suggests that ESPN is ignoring the relative newsworthiness of stories and pushing their own products in the interests of corporate success. By agenda-setting and influencing coverage of certain ESPN-friendly events, the network is trying to “grow” its own products by altering the viewing behaviour and interests of its audience. As noted by one irate ESPN watcher, agenda-setting may be for losers, but it is alive and kicking at the Worldwide Leader for Sports. The bottom line, not the consumer, is sovereign.

The question then becomes, will ESPN’s agenda-setting succeed? Recent evidence seems to indicate that too much attention and hype can backfire when promoting an inferior product. Unlike other sports leagues, such as the NHL, MLS faces a unique challenge as superior soccer leagues are available on U.S. airwaves, such as Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League, and can be readily compared to MLS. U.S. soccer legend and L.A. Galaxy president Alexi Lalas aside, very few believe that the quality of play offered in MLS is comparable to the top leagues in the world. Even American soccer fanatics strongly dispute the notion that any MLS club can compete in the top leagues of Europe due to the relative paucity of skilled players. So, yes, ESPN exerts considerable informational and normative social influence on sports fans (as discussed in my previous post regarding ESPN and the NHL). Nonetheless, even it cannot easily mask the more or less unambiguous fact that the quality of play in MLS is less than that on other channels.

Recent reports suggest that this problem will not be rectified anytime soon and the league will have an uphill battle attracting top talent to its shores. MLS is mostly treated as a glorified golden parachute for aging European “name” talent (such as former Arsenal legend Sol Campbell). Unfortunately, in other words, it is perceived very much like the defunct North American Soccer League was. In addition, with a league-imposed salary cap of only $1.9 million USD and only one designated player allowed per team, MLS clubs are financially unable to attract skilled complementary players. Even Beckham, talented as he is, is considered by many to be overrated and over the hill. Simply put, casual sports fans who discover that they are soccer fans, are unlikely to remain fans of the MLS for very long. The MLS play simply does not match ESPN’s manufactured hype.

Thus, ESPN’s current marketing of MLS risks raising public expectations too quickly. As Situationist contributor Tim Wilson and Situationist friend Dan Gilbert have taught us in their work on affective misforecasting, the gap between anticipated feelings and actual feelings are typically quite wide. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that aggressive marketing may be successful in getting people to try the product once but if raised consumer expectations haven’t been met repeat business is unlikely. As the study’s lead researcher Vanessa Patrick of the University of Georgia notes “too much hype can be detrimental.”

The lesson, then, is that while ESPN has the incentive and some ability to influence what sports fans watch and like, there are limits to what they can pull off. Even if ESPN’s agenda-setting behaviour is successful in the short term by attracting new viewers to the sport, keeping a loyal fan base will prove difficult.

In sum, although ESPN may be able to “kill” the NHL, I doubt they can bring to life a second-tier soccer league. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Posted in Deep Capture, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 18 Comments »

The Situation of Judging – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 13, 2007

scales-of-justice.jpgIn late July, we posted about former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s remarks at the National Governors Association Conference at which she called on the state executives to help do something to protect and reinforce judicial independence. That post mentioned other writings on the situations of judges and judging including a 2006 report (pdf available here) entitled the “New Politics for Judicial Elections Report for 2006,” by the Justice at Stake Campaign. The report is excellent and, we thought, worth summarizing.

As it happens Nina Totenberg has recently done just that for NPR’s Morning Edition. So, below we have excerpted the transcript of her report, supplemented with graphs and charts from the report itself (plus an interesting video described below).

* * *

A new report shows a dramatic increase in special interest money being spent on judicial elections.

The report, compiled by the nonpartisan group Justice at Stake, shows that business interests spend twice as much money on state high-court elections as all other groups combined, including lawyers.

At the same time, a poll of business leaders shows many feel uneasy about the trend.


Documenting the increasing influence of money in judicial elections, the report shows fundraising by state supreme court candidates rose in 2006, with the median being close to $250,000 per candidate. The high-water mark came in Alabama, where the total price tag for the race for chief justice was $8.2 million.


TV ads ran in 10 of the 11 states where state supreme court judges were up for election, compared to just four states out of 18 six years earlier. Average television spending hit a new record at $1.6 million per state. And business interests outspent everyone else combined — by a 2-to-1 margin.



“What we are seeing now is the beginning of a very serious arms race,” said Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development, a business group that is part of Justice at Stake.

Kolb contends that the arms race could end up with the mutually assured destruction of our judicial system.

His group sponsored a Zogby poll of business leaders that shows concern running so high that 70 percent of those polled favored alternatives to judicial elections.

The big players from the business community in judicial elections, however, are the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. They began focusing on state judicial elections because they thought they were being outgunned by the plaintiffs’ bar — lawyers seeking big damage awards for clients who claimed injury.

It used to be that they were, but not any more. Business groups contributed twice as much to supreme court candidates as lawyers and unions combined in 2006. And 85 percent of non-candidate TV advertising was sponsored by business groups.


Take Georgia, for instance. The lone race for the state supreme court there cost $38,000 in 2000. But in 2006 the National Association of Manufacturers targeted Justice Carol Hunstein, through its affiliate group, the American Justice Partnership, with $1.3 million in contributions.

“Justice Hunstein was very, very unpredictable,” said Dan Pero, president of the American Justice Partnership, offering an explanation for why the group targeted her. There was concern, he said, that Hunstein was a judge the partnership “could rely on” to correctly interpret the law.

But tort reform was not prominently featured in the anti-Hunstein TV ads, many of which attempted to make her look soft on crime.

Pero said the ads were focused on issues to which the general public could relate.

Ironically, Hunstein’s record was considerably more conservative than her other colleagues up for re-election. A statistical analysis of Georgia supreme court criminal case rulings done by the Fulton County Daily Report concluded that in cases decided by a divided vote, Hunstein sided with the prosecution 39 percent more often than did the court as a whole.

Despite the fact that business groups poured money into the campaign to defeat her, Hunstein raised over $1 million herself and won.

Some of her supporters say the ad campaign was meant to send a message to others on the court that they too could face a business-financed challenge. [Justice Hunstein describes her election experience in the 9-minute video below.]

Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, head of the National Association of Manufacturers, conceded as much.

But the trend bothers Ohio Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, a Republican, who is the nation’s longest serving current chief justice.

“Human nature is that we help people if they help us,” Moyer said. “And that’s the problem with this system.”

Judges like to say that money doesn’t matter when they are making decisions, but trying to ignore big money in judicial elections, observed one noted judge, is like trying to ignore the crocodile in your bathtub.

* * *

To view the entire report 2006 report, the “New Politics for Judicial Elections Report for 2006,” click here. To view our earlier post on the situation of judging, containing other related links, click here.

Posted in Deep Capture, Law, Legal Theory | 2 Comments »

The Batting Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 11, 2007

Willits FanWe’ve all been told what it takes to become a great athlete. Drive, determination, heart, inspiration, perspiration, preparation, positive attitude, hard work, some talent, and so on. Oh yeah, some good coaching can help too. Want to become a great batter? According to The Superstar Hitter’s Bible, “hitter’s nirvana . . . comes from within.”

Yes, it mostly comes from disposition, greatness does. And that’s one reason we are so eager to transform winning quarterbacks and heat-throwing pitchers into our biggest (only?) public heroes.

What we forget — or perhaps don’t want to contemplate — is that our sports stars are much more the product of situation than we generally assume. A recent New York Times article about Reggie Willits helps underscore just how significant situation can be — from an understanding and supportive spouse and family to happenstance and from budget constraints to a home inside a batting cage. Together those situational factors plus some luck helped transform an undistinguished minor league prospect into the lead-off hitter of the division-leading Los Angeles Angels.

We have excerpted parts of the article by Lee Jenkins below.

* * *

When Amber Willits is cooking dinner — crack! — or putting the baby to bed — crack! — or trying to get a little sleep herself — crack! — she has to wonder why she ever agreed to live in a batting cage.

“I may have thought that a few times,” she acknowledged. “But I never said it.”

Baseball wives are an understanding breed. They endure 12-day trips and meals at midnight, and move their families from minor league towns like Yakima, Wash., to Pulaski, W.Va.

But Amber Willits, the wife of Angels outfielder Reggie Willits, has taken hardball devotion to a new level. For the past three years, she has made a home, raised a son and helped develop a .300 hitter — all in an indoor batting cage.

“I could not have gotten here alone,” Reggie said. “I have an extremely supportive wife.”

At this time a year ago, he was a fringe prospect who had never started a major league game. Today, he is 26, the leadoff hitter for the first-place Los Angeles Angels, batting .337 with 18 stolen bases and a shot at the American League rookie of the year award.

Willits’s Batting Cage by Bryan Terry for The New York Times

He credits his emergence, at least in part, to the cage he calls home. While other players travel long distances to workout centers in the off-season, Willits merely has to roll out of bed and start taking his hacks.

“It’s very convenient,” said his father, Gene.

Reggie and Amber never planned to live in a cage. In 2003, they decided to build a 3,000-square-foot house on five acres they own next to his family in Fort Cobb, Okla. The batting cage happened to be the first part of the house that they built.

But when the cage was finished, Reggie and Amber saw a way to save money from his minor league salary. They did notWillits Batting have to complete the house. They could simply stay in the cage.

From the outside, it looks like a warehouse, 60 feet long and 32 feet wide. But inside, it has everything a baseball family would ever need: a place to eat, sleep and hit.

When houseguests open the front door, they see a small bathroom and kitchen on the right, and two sofas and a television set on the left. The floors are covered with Berber carpet. The dining room table is adorned with a vase of flowers. There are no closets.

Toward the back, the pitching machine, the weight room and the master bedroom are clustered together. “I did put in one wall,” Reggie said.

When he wants to bat, he pushes aside the sofas to form his personal playing field. He steps inside the net, suspended from the ceiling. If Amber is busy, he hits off a tee.

If she is free, she feeds balls into the pitching machine. Amber stands behind an L-Screen, the kind used to protect batting-practice pitchers. Still, line drives sometimes rip through the screen.

“I know she’s taken a few in the helmet,” said Mickey Hatcher, the Angels’ hitting coach. “But that’s part of the game.”

Two and a half years ago, the Willitses produced a bat boy, their son, Jaxon. They took him right from the hospital to the cage. Jaxon fell asleep to the whir of the pitching machine and the crack of the bat.

Willits in his Cage, by Bryan Terry for The New York Times

* * *

The Willitses are staying in a hotel in Anaheim during the season, but Amber and Jaxon will go back to the cage this summer. In addition to helping Reggie with batting practice, Amber is an elementary-school counselor in Fort Cobb, and she cannot be gone all season.

Heading into spring training, the Angels knew they could count on veteran players like Vladimir Guerrero. Reggie, on the other hand, was just a kid in a cage.

He made the opening-day roster as a reserve, mainly because he could run. But after an injury in April to Garret Anderson, Reggie took over a starting outfield spot and never gave it up.

* * *

Soon enough, Reggie will have his own house. He is making $382,500 this season, and in a few months, the place that he planned to build four years ago will be finished.

Gene Willits, the family contractor, announced proudly, “The batting cage will be a thing of the past.”

* * *

To read all of the article, click here. For another post examining the situational sources of success, click here. To view other posts on the role of situation in sports, click here.

Posted in Situationist Sports | Leave a Comment »

Promoting Smoking through Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 10, 2007

Scarlett Johansson Smoking

In their 1999-2000 series of articles on the problem of “market manipulation”(see Westlaw, Westlaw, and SSRN), Doug Kysar and Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson detailed how advertisers manipulate affective/emotional processes of consumers. In a book about the risks and perceived risks of smoking (edited by Situationist Contributor Paul Slovic), Hanson and Kysar have a chapter examining the manipulative practices of the cigarette industry. From it, we have copied the following excerpt:

The impact of experiential thinking in the consumer context has been stated nicely by an early proponent of the significance of affect to decision making:

We sometimes delude ourselves that we proceed in a rational manner and weigh all the pros and cons of the various alternatives. But this is probably seldom the case. Quite often, ‘I decided in favor of X’ is no more than ‘I liked X.’ . . . We buy the cars we ‘like,’ choose the jobs and houses we find ‘attractive,’ and then justify these choices by various reasons . . . (Zajonc, 1980).

In other words, our affective responses to products often determine the purchasing decision, regardless of whether we experience the decision as having resulted from “reasons.” Significantly, our affective response can dominate the consumption choice even when our rational processing system suggests a contrary decision. Indeed, the affective system can often confound the rational system by causing logically distinct categories like “cost” and “benefit” to become conflated in the individual’s mind. Thus, a manufacturer that succeeds in generating a positive affective response with respect to its product may gain the added effect of lowering consumer estimates of the product’s potential to cause harm.

Consumer product manufacturers clearly strive to cultivate positive affect in relation to their products. This effort can be seen in the omnipresent practice of feel‑good advertising that carries little if any information about the product being pitched, but plenty of gushing views of the happiness, wealth, and beauty that allegedly can be gained from itsmarlboro-man.jpg consumption. Tobacco ads are no exception. Indeed, the decades‑long “Marlboro Man” campaign of Philip Morris might be considered the ultimate in such “lifestyle advertising.” By frequently offering depictions of the free and natural cowboy smoker, Phillip Morris instilled in many smokers a positive affective association with the product. Consequently, subsequent negative information about smoking was (and is) viewed by the consumer through the bias of experiential thinking. As Seymour Epstein (1994) explains, “Cigarette advertising agencies and their clients are willing to bet millions of dollars in advertising costs that the visual appeal of their messages to the experiential system will prevail over the verbal message of the surgeon general that smoking can endanger one’s life, an appeal directed at the rational system” . . . . Given the durability of such practices throughout this century, the bet appears to be a good one.

Apart from those general efforts to generate positive affect for their products, tobacco manufacturers have also capitalized on qualitative characteristics that influence how individuals perceive and respond to risks. To give just one example, consider the recent “natural” marketing campaigns adopted by R.J. Reynolds for its Salem Menthol cigarettes and Brown & Williamson for its Kool Natural cigarettes. Both feature such content as forest green design schemes, Edenesque images of waterfalls and lush foliage, and repeated use kool-natural.jpgof the words “nature” and “natural.” A recent print ad for Kool Natural Lights, for instance, repeats the word “natural” a remarkable thirteen times in a single half-page advertisement. The companies skirt deceptive advertising liability by linking “natural” with the cigarettes’ mint leaf-supplied menthol flavor. The overall effect of the campaigns, however, is far more subtle. As behavioral researchers have noted, people respond more favorably to risks that they view as emanating from natural, as opposed to man-made, sources. In other words, a risk may be underestimated by people simply because it is attributed to nature. R.J. Reynolds has exploited this cognitive bias in the tagline to its Salem ads: “Menthol from nature. Created by plants, not people.” Never mind that cigarettes typically contain hundreds of additives, many of which are created by people, not plants (Hanson & Logue, 1998).Humphrey Bogart by Yousuf Karsh

* * *

The July issue of Psychological Science includes a research report (by lead author Sonya Dal Cin and four collaborators) describing a fascinating new type of evidence (relying on the implicit association tests developed by scholars such as Situationist Contributors Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek) that sheds light on the causal link between how exposure to positive affective cues — in this case smoking by protaganists in movies — to smoking attitudes, intentions, and behavior. We have excerpted a bit of that report and its abstract below.

* * *

Exposure to smoking in movies is a potential influence on youths’ smoking behavior. Cross-sectional . . . and longitudinal . . . surveys have shown that greater exposure to smoking in movies predicts increased likelihood of trying smoking, even after accounting for a wide range of potential confounding factors . . . . A few experimental studies have supported a causal argument, revealing that exposure to movies in which smoking takes place predicts more favorabvle attitudes toward smokers . . . and increased self-reported likelihood of smoking . . . . However, the mechanisms underlying these effects are poorly understood, and until recently . . . , accounts of these mechanisms were entirely speculative.

In this article, we report experimental data that speak to this debate, while advancing understanding of basic social psychological issues. Among nonsmokers, similarity between one’s self-concept and one’s image of a smoker predicts trying smoking . . . Similarly, among youth who have never smoked, liking movie stars who smoke and considering oneself to be similar to peers who smoke are associated with intentions to smoke and subsequent smoking initiation. . . .

More generally, researchers interested in the persuasive impact of narratives suggest that greater identification with characters increases persuasion . . . , but the determinants of identification are not entirely certain. . . .

Our main objective in this study was to examine identification with a movie character who smokes and the influence such identification has on one’s own self-concept. Given that smoking is considered socially undesirable in North America, we expected that our participants, particularly nonsmokers, might have difficulty reporting changes in smoking self-concept. To overcome this possible limitation, we administered not only traditional explicit (self-report) measures, but also a less-deliberative, implicit measure of the association of smoking with the self. This circumvented the potential influence of social-desirability biases inherent in explicit measures.

* * *

Cigarette Ad for Movie MakersUndergraduate men were randomly assigned to view film clips in which the male protagonist either smoked or did not smoke. We measured subsequent levels of self-smoking associations using a reaction time task, as well as self-reported beliefs about smoking and smokers. Greater identification with the smoking protagonist predicted stronger implicit associations between the self and smoking (for both smokers and nonsmokers) and increased intention to smoke (among the smokers). Stronger implicit self-smoking associations uniquely predicted increases in smokers’ intentions to smoke, over and above the effects of explicit beliefs about smoking. The results provide evidence that exposure to smoking in movies is causally related to changes in smoking-related thoughts, that identification with protagonists is an important feature of narrative influence, and that implicit measures may be useful in predicting deliberative behavior.

* * *

Narratives are ubiquitous, and history reveals that certain conditions (i.e., when individuals identify with a character), narratives may be able to change (or at least selectively activate) implicit associations, with potentially insidious consequences.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Emotions, Entertainment, Marketing, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

“Situation” Trumps “Disposition”- Part II

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on August 9, 2007

The Bad Apple

On Tuesday, we posted Part I of our reaction to the criticism that a number of social psychologists made of Situationist Contributor Phil Zimbardo’s latest book, The Lucifer Effect. (Phil Zimbardo’s compelling reply to that criticism is available here.) [To pick up reading directly from Part I, skip from here to below the three asterisks.]

For convenience, here again is the criticism:

We are concerned by the message that has been conveyed to the general public regarding the power of the situation to “trump individual dispositions” (“The Banality of Evil,” Observer, April 2007). In contrast to Zimbardo, we believe that there is actually little scientific evidence indicating that situations are more important than dispositions for explaining behavior. Indeed, researchers recently summarized over 25,000 studies and found that personality and situations contribute almost equally to various outcomes, and many studies demonstrate the complex ways in which people react differently to similar situations. Our concern is that Zimbardo has misrepresented the scientific evidence in an attempt to offer a purely situational account of the antisocial acts perpetrated at Abu Ghraib. The scientific consensus, based on existing data, is that people vary in their propensity for antisocial behavior and that environments transact with personalities. Some people are more likely to turn out to be bad apples than others, and this is particularly evident in certain situations.

As we began to argue in Part I, the critics have built their arguments on particular definitions of “disposition” and “situation” that we believe are ill-conceived. The thrust of their argument seems to be that if individuals behave differently in seemingly similar situations, then that proves the power of disposition (or personality). Part I tried to clarify definitions and show how the differing behaviors of subjects in the first version of Milgram’s experiment were entirely consistent with our position that situation trumps disposition.

That post ended with the assertion that there “is nothing about differences in individual behavior across seemingly similar situations that demonstrates that disposition is the driving force.” This post picks up by describing some of the many reasons why that’s the case.


Milgram’s ExperimentTo begin with, as Milgram would go on to discover, by manipulating the situational cues somewhat, he could elicit almost any ratio of compliance to non-compliance among his subjects. Where the pleas of the “student” were made more remote, for instance, closer to 100% of subjects would shock to 450 volts. Given that few people would attribute their unwillingness to shock (perhaps fatally) an innocent victim to the proximity of that victim, those findings suggest that situation trumps disposition. And the fact that 1/3 of the subjects were unwilling to shock all the way up to 450 volts in the initial rendetion of the study does not show that their disposition was greater than the situation, as much as it shows that situation didn’t call for greater compliance.

Furthermore, what seems like an identical situation rarely is. When people appear to have different dispositions, it is often the case that the situational analysis is insufficiently subtle. How do we know what situational influences the subjects in Milgram’s first experiment might have been susceptible to beyond those controlled by Milgram. Were some hungry or tired or hurried? Were some feeling fed up with people telling them what to do? Were others simply unaccustomed to taking instruction? Were some especially phobic about electric shocks? Were some in need of money and hoping to be selected for future experiments? Were some subjects implicitly less motivated to obtain closure and thus end the experiment? And so on.

The tendency to presume situational equivalence is itself a reflection of the fundamental attribution error (discussed here) and the difficulty humans have in seeing situational forces. To assume that the situation of each subject in Milgram’s experiment was identical is equivalent to assuming that the situation of each sibling in a family or racial or socioeconomic We Own the Nightgroup is identical, a surprisingly common set of suppositions. They are implied, for instance, when people are incredulous that two siblings can “turn out so differently” or assert that the difference between those who succeed in the U.S. and those who don’t boils down to the presence or absence of motivation, character, work-ethic or some such other dispositionist quality. Although those suppositions may be common, even a tiny bit of reflection or observation reveals that they are incorrect.

Similarly, the fact that individuals do have a “personality”—seemingly stable ways of acting and interacting over time—does not prove the power of disposition over situation. It only indicates one reason why the “dispositionist model” continues to form the foundation of “common sense” and can be useful as a means of predicting some people’s behavior in a given situation. But as Professors Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett argued years ago in their important book, The Person and the Situation, people can have stable personalities precisely because they occupy stable situations. In addition, as many social psychologists have shown, a perceived “personality,” or personal narrative, or self-schema, carries its own self-fulfilling weight (for related Situationist posts, click here and here). In short, “personality” and “situation” are mutually constitutive not, as Zimbardo’s critics would have it, mutually exclusive. And once “personality” is understood as the consequence of internal and external situational factors, it’s meaning and significance changes from that commonly supposed by the dispositionist model.

It may be helpful if we come at that again. Situationists do not deny that there are important differences across individuals. In fact, situationist scholars are interested in identifying and understanding those differences. For instance, Situationist contributor John Jost and some of his co-authors have devoted much attention to understanding the “antecedents of ideology”—differences across individuals that influence their behavior, not simply in individual laboratory experiments, but across wide, real-life behavioral domains.

The key, however, is that those “dispositional” differences are actually situational as we would define the term — that is, they fall outside the naive psychology of stable, explicit attitudes or preferences and outside the self-schemas that individuals typically employ to make sense of their own conduct and that of others. They are, in other words, part of our “interior situation.” A person doesn’t say “I’m a conservative because I crave closure and structure and tend not to be open to new experiences.” Instead, she offers reasoned-based explanation for her ideological position, something like “I’m a conservative because conservative policies are best for the country’s future and protect those values that I hold dear.” But the implicit motives operating under the radar are often more influential than the stories we tell.

The fact that individual and group voting patterns are predictable does not mean that people behave according to the dispositionist model summarized above. Rather, the dispositionist model is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of behavior that is caused by situational forces within us (including the “antecedents of ideology”) and around us about which we are rarely conscious. (For related Situationist posts, click here and here. For a long article on the gap between the the dispositionist model and the situational character, click here.)

Professor Zimbardo’s critics seem motivated, in the end, by their “concern” that the public might forget that “[s]ome people are more likely to turn out to be bad apples than others.” In other words, they seem nervous that if situation is taken too seriously we might lose our ability to hold the people who engage in bad activities responsible by no longer conceiving of them as “bad apples.” We might lose our ability to make easy normative distinctions between good apples and bad apples—the sort of distinctions that provide the legitimating, normative punch behind everything from the individualistic (dispositionistic) criminal justice system to ideologies and blame frames that justify vast inequalities.

As we have already indicated, however, the evidence that there are “complex ways in which people react differently to similar situations” does not demonstrate that those differences are dispositional in any normative sense.

Our own concern is that those psychologists are misrepresenting situationism in an attempt to individualize responsibility for “antisocial acts.” They, like most people, want to be able to blame someone. It may be true as they assert that “that people vary in their propensity for antisocial behavior.” Nonetheless, it is at least as true that the naive, dispositionist, preference-driven attributional models that are so commonly used to explain behavior are wrong and thatPrisoners overlooked situational forces (both external and internal) are leading to conduct that, as with Milgram’s experiment, is both harmful and inconsistent with our explicit, shared values.

Sometimes bad apples need to be removed—in part because they are contaminating. But if a bad apple can harmfully effect the situation of good apples, then don’t we owe it to the “bad apple” to consider whether its condition itself reflects a contaminating environment? If we don’t like “bad apples” or their effects, shouldn’t we at least endeavor to examine the tree, it’s roots, the soil, the air quality, the parasites, the orchard, the toxins, and, in a word, the situation.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right

Posted by Chloe Cockburn on August 8, 2007

McDonalds big mac costume for kids - issue of marketing good to children is a tricky one for food companies, whose profit margins depend on being able to woo young customers, but whose public relations concerns require them to advocate healthier eating for kids. Three weeks ago, eleven of America’s biggest food and drink companies announced that they would adopt rules to limit advertising to children under the age of 12, including not using popular movie characters in connection with unhealthy products. This move anticipated an FTC hearing that sought to increase pressure on food companies to address the child obesity epidemic through responsible marketing. The McDonald’s spokesperson at the hearing claimed that McDonald’s would market only healthy foods to children under 12.

Despite this voluntary agreement to limit their marketing through some mediums, companies are not abandoning the children’s market. At a recent conference, major food companies gathered to hear tips from marketing specialists about how to work around limitations on marketing in England, where new regulation has sharply cut down on television commercials. Alternative tactics focus on the internet and cell phones, finding ways to encourage children to market products to their friends through games and contests.

The strong power of marketing extends beyond persuading a child to choose one kind of food over another. New Scientist reports on a study conducted by Dina Borzekowski at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in Baltimore and her colleagues, funded by Stanford University, which looked at the effect of McDonald’s packaging on pre-schoolers’ perception of the taste of food. Children said that food wrapped in McDonalds packaging tasted better than food that was not wrapped in the packaging, despite the fact that the two food samples were identical (and both from McDonalds). From the child’s perspective, she is simply choosing the food that tastes better. However, the study indicates that the McDonalds logo is generating that perception.

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Fast food branding makes children prefer happy meals

by Roxanne Khamsi

Fast food branding really does make food more appetising to children. A study has revealed that pre-school kids prefer foods wrapped in McDonalds packaging over the same snacks wrapped in unmarked packaging.

The finding gives all the more reason to limit the marketing of fast foods to youngsters, say the researchers who conducted the study. But they also add that it suggests that powerful branding could help sell more nutritious healthy foods to a generation of increasingly overweight kids.

Dina Borzekowski at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in Baltimore, Maryland, US, and her colleagues asked 63 preschoolers, aged three to five, to sample two meals, each consisting of a chicken nugget, a quarter of a hamburger, french fries, two baby carrots and a small cup of milk.

Baby eating McDonalds fries -

Although both meals came from a local McDonalds, only one of them appeared in its original packaging. Researchers presented items from the other meal in plain wrappers, which lacked the company’s distinctive logo.

In most cases children said they tasted a difference between the two meals, and they overwhelmingly preferred the McDonalds-branded foods.

Commercial influence

For example, 76 per cent favoured the fries presented in the branded packaging, compared with 13 per cent who liked the unbranded fries better. And while 60 per cent of the children preferred the McDonalds-branded chicken nuggets, only 10 per cent favoured the nuggets presented in plain wrapping.

“It’s no surprise that branding works,” says Borzekowski. “What’s interesting about these results is to see how strongly it affects the three- to five-year-olds.”

The study also found that children in homes with more televisions were more likely to show a preference for the branded meal, suggesting that fast-food commercials exert a strong influence.

“It just shows how difficult it is for parents to fight the battle alone,” says Kathryn Montgomery, an expert on children and media at American University in Washington DC.

Experts have estimated that the food and beverage industries spend more than $10 billion each year to market products to US children. “They could just as easily use marketing to support parents in their efforts to feed kids a healthy diet,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest based in Washington DC.

Healthy Alternative

Borzekowski points out that the children in the study were twice as likely to prefer the McDonalds-branded carrots as the plain-packaged ones. This suggests that marketing savvy could perhaps convince youngsters to make healthful choices. Some companies have already begun experimenting with this tactic by using Mickey Mouse cartoons to sell sliced fruit and placing Curious George stickers on bananas.

Last month McDonalds announced it would shift its advertising targeted to children under the age of 13 to focus on the 375-calorie Happy Meal, which it says meets current dietary standards outlined by the government.

Nutritionists hope that curbing fast-food television ads will help reverse the obesity epidemic among youngsters. But new forms of cellphone and internet marketing mean that adolescents are increasingly exposed to junk-food ads. “My guess is that the effects [of ads] might even increase with time,” says Thomas Robinson at the Stanford Prevention Research Center in California, who co-authored the new study with Borzekowski.

Journal reference: Archives of Pediatrics (vol 161, p792-797)

Ronald McDonald dancing with kids -* * *

Limiting marketing to children on certain mediums like television during popular children’s shows may not go far enough in addressing the situation that fosters dangerous eating habits. McDonald’s has said that the only Happy Meals it will promote to children will be healthier options that contain fruit. However, if the brand itself causes kids to think that the food tastes better, then whether or not the company markets specific products to kids may not matter as much. Regulating the effects of this situation may prove to be far more difficult than anticipated.

For a sample of other Situationist posts about the effects of advertising on consumers see Banner Ads Really Work,The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain,and Another Reason Not To Watch Drug Commercials. For an excellent book detailing the food industry’s odious methods of marketing to kids, see Susan Linn’s “Consuming Kids.” Click here for a recent New York Times article about Kellogg’s announcement that it would phase out advertising certain products to young children (apparently, though not explicitly, in response to the threat of lawsuits).

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