The Situationist

Archive for September, 2007

Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 29, 2007


We often hear about new and allegedly innovative approaches to implementing public policy. The key word, of course, is “innovative.” By definition, it means the process of making improvements by introducing something new or — and particularly relevant to the following discussion — translating new ideas into tangible societal impact.

This year we’ve seen plenty of “innovative” approaches when it comes to public health. Some have attracted headlines. “Philadelphia follows New York in taking on trans-fat“; “Montgomery county declares war on partially hydrogenated oils in restaurants, supermarket bakeries, and delis.”

The city of Los Angeles will soon contemplate its own new and likely controversial proposal for innovative public health policy: “health zoning plans” for fast-food. As Tami Abdollah of the Los Angeles Times details, LA’s city council will be asked this fall to consider an up to two-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South L.A., “a part of the city where fast food is at least as much a practicality as a preference.”

NPR’s All Things Considered outlines additional details on the proposed two-year moratorium. “In South Los Angeles, where 30 percent of adults are obese, activists and lawmakers are pointing to one possible cause: few dining-out choices except for fast food restaurants.” According to NPR, this particular low-income area, much like other low-income urban areas across the country, offers few healthy food alternatives, even fewer grocery stores, and fast food chains may be found just a stone’s throw away from each other.

Tami Abdollah describes the situation of many South L.A. residents this way.

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Catalina Ayala, 23, who grew up in South Los Angeles, lives three blocks from a McDonald’s and a slew of other fast-food restaurants, and eats fast food about four times a week.

“By the time I go home, it’s already too late to cook food,” said Ayala, who works at LAX.

On a recent afternoon, Ayala and her husband were at a McDonald’s. Their 3-year-old son played in the indoor playground, which for some families serves as their children’s park.

But her husband, a 23-year-old construction worker in South L.A., said he avoids fast food.

“It’s not for me,” he said. “Later on sometimes, your son is too fat, he eats too much.”

That was one reason Terrah Cephas, 32, left South L.A. for the Valley about two years ago.

“It’s fast food on every corner, but it’s not enough wholesome restaurants,” she said. “You literally have to be willing to drive to Long Beach or Santa Monica, or Inglewood.”

Fast Food

That’s if you have a car.

Many South L.A. residents are “almost a captive audience for these restaurants, unfortunately,” Flynn said.

In South Los Angeles, 28% of people live in poverty, compared with 16.2% of the county, according to county figures.

South L.A. has lots of fast-food restaurants because these restaurants do well in areas where people might not want to spend $15 on lunch, said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of Foodservice Strategies at WD Partners, a restaurant consulting firm that works with Red Lobster, Jamba Juice and Fatburger, among others.

But there also may be missed opportunities: According to a 2005 market study contracted by the city, South L.A. loses more than $400 million annually in general merchandise, grocery and restaurant sales to outside areas.

“The community has suffered for decades by an assumption that attracting business of any type is good, and it’s not true,” Perry said.

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In a situation where fast food is available twenty-four hours (and in abundance), it should not be surprising that an overweight population arises. Yet as discussed in Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America, a law review article by Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon, “obesity is only a symptom of the problem.” The “real problem” is the difficulty in recognizing and understanding “[roles] of unseen features in our environment and within us and too readily [attributing] responsibility and causation to the more obvious ‘personal choices’ of the obese.” In essence, assigning obesity to personal choices alone and not discerning the relevant situational forces results in “misdiagnosing” the true problem. With obesity at an all-time high throughout the United States, 47 states are above 20% and fifteen years ago no state was above 15%, pressure to implement “innovative” plans (that work) will substantially increase.

Los Angeles’ proposal enables a new term in policy, health zoning, which raises an important question: do policymakers have a responsibility to address public health problems generally attributed primarily to personal choice? More broadly, if people are moved largely by situation, and if situation is influenced by laws and policies, then should policymakers consider the situational consequences of their policies — intended and unintended.

For a collection of other posts on the situation of obesity, including Phil Zimbardo’s most recent post, click here. For other posts on the regulation of food, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Law, Marketing, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

Lima Beans – Yuch! (Why Wanting Not To Be Prejudiced May Not Be Enough)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 28, 2007


A interesting new article in the September issue of Psychological Science provides evidence that people who show little racial bias may be generally more resistant than others to the situational conditioning that leads to racial bias and prejudice in our society. The press release is below.

* * *

Robert Livingston of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Brian Drwecki of the University of Wisconsin conducted studies that examined white college students who harbored either some or no racial biases. What is remarkable about the findings is that only seven percent did not show any racial bias (as measured by implicit and explicit psychological tests), and that nonbiased individuals differed from biased individuals in a psychologically fundamental way — they were less likely to form negative affective associations in general.

Subjects completed a task that repeatedly paired unfamiliar Chinese characters with pictures that evoked positive or negative emotions (e.g., puppies or snakes). The objective was to see whether unfamiliar Chinese characters could evoke emotions by simply being paired with pictures that evoked these emotions (i.e., classical conditioning). Results showed that nonbiased individuals were less likely than biased individuals to acquire negative affect toward characters that were paired with negative pictures. This implies that people who display less racial bias may be more resistant to the kinds of real-world conditioning that leads to racial bias in our society.


The results suggest that “whether someone is prejudiced or not is linked to their cognitive propensity to resist negative affective conditioning,” according to the authors. Thus, reducing prejudice may require more than simply adopting egalitarian values. Instead, such change may require reconditioning of the negative associations that people hold.

“Just as it is difficult to change visceral reactions to aversive foods (e.g., lima beans) through sheer force of will,” writes Livingston, “it may also be difficult to change visceral attitudes toward racial groups by acknowledging that prejudice is wrong and wanting to change.” The authors argue that although negative affect cannot be reduced by reason alone, it could be reconditioned through positive interpersonal experiences or exposure to more positive images of Blacks in the media.

* * *

For a collection of Situationist posts on implicit associations and attitudes, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Celebrating Situationist Contributors

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 27, 2007

Marc Sheff’s Psychology Trophy (

Some digging, sleuthing, and googling by the Situationist Staff turned up some good news about this blog’s impressive cast of contributors. We report a sample of that news below – in alphabetical order by last name. (You can learn more about each Situationist contributor by clicking on her or his name in the left column).

* * *Banaji Award

Mahzarin Banaji won the 2006 Morton Deutsch Award for Social Justice awarded by the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, at Columbia University’s Teachers College (she is pictured to the left with Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman who presented the award). This year, Banaji received a Presidential Citation from the American Psychological Association.

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Adam Benforado finished a clerkship on the D.C. Circuit Court of appeals this summer and has recently begun working as an attorney in Jenner & Block’s elite D.C. office. He is currently on the legal-academic teaching market.

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Susan Fiske published another superb book, Beyond Common Sense: Psychological Science in the Courtroom (2007) (co-authored with Eugene Borgida) (to which Mahzarin Banaji wrote the preface). Susan also made a presentation at the 2007 Association for Psychological Science’s Annual Convention.

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Jon Hanson was named the Alfred Smart Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. In 2006 he was voted a finalist for the Albert M. Sacks – Paul A. Freund Teaching Award. Hanson also co-founded and directs The Project on Law and Mind Sciences and co-created this blog.

* * *

APSJohn Jost received the Morton Deutsch Award for Distinguished Scholarly and Practical Contributions to Social Justice, awarded by the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Jost’s American Psychologist article on “The End of the End of Ideology” received the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize for the “Best Paper of the Year” in the area of intergroup relations, Sponsored by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). Finally, Jost was elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) in 2006.

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Jerry Kang received the 2007 Rutter Award for Excellence in Teaching. The award recognizes outstanding commitment to teaching at one of three law schools — UCLA, USC and UC Davis.

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Michael McCann was invited by Sports ( to become a legal columnist (his columns can be read here). McCann received the 2006-07 Professor of the Year Award, 2006-07 First-Year Professor of the Year Award, and 2005-06 First-Year Professor of the Year Award at Mississippi College School of Law. McCann is also the Chair-Elect of the Association of American Law Schools’ Section on Sports and the Law and was named to the Executive Board of the College Sport Research Institute. Finally, he co-founded The Project on Law and Mind Sciences and co-created this blog.

* * *

Brian Nosek was awarded the 2006 Division of Experimental Psychology Young Investigator Award in Experimental Psychology and the 2007 Michele Alexander Early Career Award for Scholarship and Service, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. In 2006, Nosek also received the University of Virginia Department of Psychology Outstanding Professor Award. Next month, he will give a plenary lecture at the World Forum for Social and Environmental Responsibility in Lille, France.

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Emily ProninEmily Pronin has been extraordinarily productive in 2006 and 2007. Her co-authored published articles include “Temporal Differences in Trait Ascription,” “Everyday Magical Powers” (which has been the subject of several of the most popular Situationist posts, such as here, here, and here), “Manic Thinking,” “Bombing versus Negotiating,” “Perception and Misperception of Bias in Human Judgment,” “Alone in a Crowd of Sheep,” “Valuing Thoughts, Ignoring Behavior,” and “Doing Unto Future Selves as You Would Do Unto Others.”

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The Construction of PreferencePaul Slovic published the fascinating new book, The Construction of Preference (Cambridge University Press, 2006, with Sarah Lichenstein).

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Tom Tyler’s “Why People Obey the Law”Tom Tyler published an updated version of his classic book, Why People Obey the Law (Princeton University Press, 2006).

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Timothy Wilson, along with his co-authors, Elliot Aronson and Robin Akert, published the sixth edition of Social Psychology (Prentice Hall, 2006).

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David Yosifon finished his first year teaching at Santa Clara University Law School at which he was voted Professor of the Year.

2005 Zimbardo - Havel Award

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Phil Zimbardo retired from teaching at Stanford this year — having taught more students than any other single professor in the history of that university — apparently so that he could fly around the world (including to Harvard Law School) talking about his remarkable book, “The Lucifer Effect,” which recently climbed its way to #11 of the NYTimes best-seller list.

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Finally, we want to welcome and thank Marc Scheff, the talented artist who painted the remarkable image of a “situationist trophy” at the top of this post. We look forward to introducing Marc properly next week.

Posted in Events | 1 Comment »

The Situation of College Debt – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 26, 2007

Happy Shoppers Card

Business Week recently published an excellent collection of articles (by Jessica Silver-Greenberg) examining the increasing use of credit cards by college students. The series sheds light on some of the situational sources of the escalating debt loads of college graduates, one component of a wider debt and and bankruptcy epidemic. The Situationist is offering a series of posts excerpting portions of the Business Week collection. To view the first post in this series, containing numerous related links and the Youtube version of the documentary “Maxed Out,” click here.

This post excerpts Silver-Greenberg’s article, “Confessions of a Credit-Card Pusher.”

* * *

It all started as a way to make some quick cash. In 2002, at the beginning of his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh, Ryan Rhoades needed some extra spending money. So when his friend told him about an Internet ad offering Pitt students a way to make some cash in a couple of hours, he didn’t hesitate. Rhoades rounded up some of his buddies and headed over to the designated classroom at the student union.

What he saw in that room offers a view of how creative credit-card companies have become in marketing their services to college students.

An enthusiastic man who identified himself as a representative of Citibank (C) welcomed them and said they had the opportunity to make some money by signing up their fellow students for credit cards. The bounty for each completed application would be $5 to $10, depending on the kind of card. In retrospect, Rhoades feels like he and his fellow students were being recruited to become credit-card pushers. “That’s exactly what it was,” he says.

* * *

Visa “Extra Credit” AdRhoades took the job and signed up roughly 30 students for cards. He regrets any trouble he caused other students from his actions. Still, his actions may have been most damaging to himself. He ended up with $13,000 worth of debt that he is now struggling to repay. “I hadn’t learned anything about credit cards in high school, and I didn’t know anything about them at the time,” says Rhoades. “I was duped.”

Politicians and college administrators are growing increasingly concerned about the damage that credit-card debt is causing students, and they’re trying to crack down on some of the card companies’ practices. They’re limiting marketing on some campuses and trying to restrict the size of credit lines extended to students. . . .

As the restrictions grow, however, so too do the creative tactics marketers use to circumvent these efforts. At Columbia University in New York City, the school banned credit-card solicitations on campus. But a spokesman says the prohibition may not be that effective because the card companies set up “right outside the gates” to the school grounds. At the University of Michigan and nine other schools, JPMorgan Chase (JPM) contracted with New York-based BicyTaxi to offer students free bike-taxi rides around town. Once inside the vehicles, students are greeted with a piped-in recording promoting Chase’s student credit-card program, Chase+1.

* * *

A spokesperson for Citibank says the company has voluntarily pulled back from marketing on college campuses. . . . “Citi does not conduct direct sales marketing on college campuses,” she wrote in an e-mail. Citibank also says that it has strict guidelines for third-party vendors and that it would never condone violations of school policies.

That doesn’t mean that Citibank doesn’t market to college kids. The company has a specially designated card for students. And it actively markets its services near college campuses. Edward Solomon is chief executive of Campus Dimensions, which contracts with banks to market credit cards to college students. He says his company plans to visit 1,000 schools this fall to promote cards for Citibank and U.S. Bank (USB). In both cases, his company will work to steer clear of school grounds but stay close enough to attract students. “It’s mostly about positioning yourself in a high traffic area,” he says.

* * *

MasterCard Kompressor PromotionBack in 2002, when Rhoades entered Pitt’s student center during his freshman year, the first thing he noticed was the abundance of giveaways handed out with the credit cards. Among other things, there were about 20 boxes of T-shirts with “college” emblazoned in capital letters on the front, and a Citibank logo printed quietly under the collar. . . .

Roughly 25 students were milling around the student center, discussing what their mysterious sales task would be, when the man who identified himself as a Citibank rep entered. “He told us that this was easy money to make and that all we had to do was get students to fill out applications for Citibank credit cards,” recalls Rhoades.

After arming the students with a bundle of T-shirts and credit-card applications, the Citibank representative, according to Rhoades, told the group how to assuage any concerns a student might have. “He told us phrases to tell students if they were skeptical about filling out an application,” says Rhoades. “He told us to say things like, ‘Even if you apply, you can always cut up the card,’ and ‘It’s easy to pay off your balance once you graduate and get a great job.'”

* * *

Rhoades had no time to teach his fellow students about the pros and cons of credit. In fact, he wouldn’t have known what to say if they had asked. All he wanted to do was sign up students. Without prompting from the Citibank representative, he went into one of the dorms, started on the third floor, and solicited on every floor until he reached the 20th. He was pretty successful, signing up roughly 29 students in a single morning. “Most of the students just wanted the T-shirt, and so I told them to fill out the application anyway,” remembers Rhoades. “I just told them to fill it out and never use the card again.”

* * *

credit-card-mail.jpgAt the end of the morning, exhausted from traipsing around campus, Rhoades surveyed his progress. He was just one application short of getting a cash bonus so he decided to fill one out himself. After marketing the cards all morning, he had begun to buy his own sales pitch and since there was no commitment, he quickly filled it out.

It took just seconds. But now, five years later, he’s struggling with the $13,000 of debt that he accrued across several different credit cards after using them to pay for dinners, movies, and car repairs. “They should put warnings on credit cards like they do on cigarettes,” he says, “to make sure people know how dangerous the cards are.”

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To read the article in its entirety, click here. To listen to an excellent NPR Connection show, “The Plastic Trap,” discussing “research show[ing] that the banks controlling those cards are becoming even more aggressive at charging late fees and other penalties you never knew you’d agreed to,” click here. To view a Today Show interview of Chris and Luke, who obtained corporate sponsorship from First USA to pay for their college education, click on the video below. Chris and Luke, in addition to wearing the corporate clothing agreed, to help get the word out to their cohorts to promote financial responsibility.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Marketing | 3 Comments »

Jena 6 – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 24, 2007

Jena 6

Part I of this series summarizes events giving rise to the march and protest last week in Jena, Louisiana. The protest was motivated largely by a shared sense that events in Jena reveal race-based disparities in our criminal justice system and constitute the visible tip of a largely ignored iceberg of racial disparities throughout the criminal-law system (and perhaps beyond).

This post briefly highlights some evidence to suggest that, indeed, there are immense disparities beneath the surface, of which the “Jena 6” may constitute only a tiny, visible tip. Below, we excerpt portions of a recent Newsweek interview by Eve Conant of David Jacobs about his recent research finding significant racial disparities in U.S. execution rates. We begin, however, with a reprise of an excerpt from a previous post by Situationist contributors Jon Hanson & Michael McCann entitled “Black History is Now.

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[To many, the events in Jena suggest that despite claims of progress, this country has not come so far after all. S]ocial scientists have amassed [a great deal of evidence] indicating the continued influence of robust race-based stereotypes and prejudices. Worse still, the evidence is that those beliefs and feelings . . . are ubiquitous. And here may be the worst part: whatever our conscious or explicit attitudes and intentions, today’s social psychologists have discovered a set of biases that operate beneath the radar of those salient, accessible, and misleading cognitive features.

Such attitudes, sometimes called “implicit associations,” have been uncovered, for instance, through an internet-based experiment called the implicit association test (or IAT) . . . . (Among others, two Contributors to The Situationist, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nozek, have been integral in developing the methodology and analyzing the meaning of its results. And among legal scholars, two other Contributors to The Situationist, Jerry Kang and Linda Hamilton Krieger, have been especially active in exploring the possible implications of those results for particular areas of law.)

implicit_association_image.jpgIn the Race IAT, subjects take a timed test in which they are shown a computer screen and asked to match positive words (love, wonderful, peace) or negative words (evil, nasty, failure) with faces of African-Americans or Whites. Very roughly, subjects who take less time to link positive words with Whites and more time to link positive words with Blacks—or who are quicker at connecting negative words with Blacks and slower at connecting negative words with Whites—demonstrate an implicit bias for white faces or against Blacks. You can take the test yourself by clicking here. Millions of people have. And, among other findings, the IAT test reveals that approximately three-quarters of White subjects and half of the Black subjects show such a bias. . . .

But wait a minute. If the bias is only implicit and subconscious, how important can it be? Here, too, the news is bad. Although the research is by now piled high and the findings, at time complex, the results can be fairly summarized as follows: implicit bias influences behavior in the way that we assume (often incorrectly) explicit attitudes do. Put differently, the “attitudes” that we do not perceive in ourselves are often more powerful in shaping our conduct than are the attitudes of which we are conscious — situation eclipses disposition.

Other research illustrates that the distinctions made among various shades of “gray”. . . have important behavioral consequences for adults. For instance, Elizabeth Klonoff and Hope Landrine‘s study “Is Skin Color a Marker for Racial Discrimination” found that “dark-skinned Blacks were 11 times more likely to experience frequent racial discrimination than their light-skinned counterparts.” Similarly, Rodolfo Espino and Michael M. Franz‘s study “Latino Phenotypic Discrimination Revisited: The Impact of Skin Color on Occupational Status” finds that “dark-skinned Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans continue to face higher levels of discrimination in the labor market.”

One recent, remarkable study strikes us as particularly revealing regarding the life-and-death significance of “blackness.” Jennifer Eberhardt, Paul Davies, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, and Sheri Lynn Johnson, found a disturbing correlation between how prototypically “black” a death-eligible criminal defendant was and whether that defendant was sentenced to death. Eberhardt’s website summarizes the research this way: lifedeathillustration-image.jpg

The vast majority of studies designed to examine the influence of race in capital punishment have found that murderers of White victims are much more likely than murderers of Black victims to be sentenced to death. Drawing from an extensive database compiled by David Baldus, she and her colleagues obtained the photographs of Black defendants who were death eligible in Philadelphia from 1979 to 1999. She presented the faces of Black defendants who had killed White victims to naive participants (who did not know that the photographs depicted convicted murders) and asked them to rate each face on how stereotypically Black it appeared. The effect of stereotypicality was clear. Whereas only 24% of the defendants rated as less stereotypically Black received a death sentence, 58% of the defendants rated as more stereotypically Black received a death sentence. This stereotypicality effect was significant even when controlling for defendant attractiveness and the most significant non-racial factors known to influence sentencing (i.e., aggravating or mitigating circumstances, murder severity, defendant socioeconomic status, and victim socioeconomic status).

. . . .

To paraphrase Cornell West, race still matters and history is a fundamental lens for seeing what we would otherwise like to deny. In West’s words, “[a] fully functional multiracial society cannot be achieved without a sense of history and open, honest dialogue.” . . . .

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Execution Room U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. - From Chuck Robinson/AP

Related to this discussion are findings from a recent study co-authored by David Jacobs, a sociologist and political scientist at Ohio State University, who examined whether the race of murder victims affects the probability that a convicted killer gets the death penalty or life in prison. The study appeared in the August issue of the American Sociological Review and Newsweek recently interviewed Jacobs about it. We excerpt portion of the interview below.

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Is American justice colorblind? A new study finds that blacks on death row convicted of killing whites are more likely to be executed than whites who kill minorities. It also concludes that blacks who kill other minorities are less likely to be executed than blacks who kill whites. The authors of the report say their findings raise serious doubts about claims that the U.S. criminal justice system is colorblind.

Appearing in the August issue of American Sociological Review, the report claims to be the first of its kind to study whether the race of murder victims affects the probability that a convicted killer gets the ultimate punishment. The study examined outcomes of 1,560 people sentenced to death in 16 states between 1972 and 2002. NEWSWEEK’s Eve Conant spoke to David Jacobs, coauthor of the study and a professor of sociology and political science at Ohio State University.

NEWSWEEK: Why did you do this study?

David Jacobs: Because the role of race is a fundamental question about the death penalty. There was a lot of research, mostly on one or two Southern states, which found that if an African-American killed a white, that they’d be more likely to get the death penalty. But you have to remember that only about 10 percent of those who get the death sentence actually get executed. Most people wind up leaving death row and going back to prison where they serve long sentences. But we really didn’t know much about what happened to offenders after they were sentenced to death and that’s what’s unique about this study. We didn’t know the factors that cause executions. There have been a few studies, but we didn’t know if a black or Hispanic who kills a white person would be more likely to be executed. We knew it was more likely that these offenders would get the death sentence. But we didn’t know if they were more likely to actually get executed.

NEWSWEEK: So what did you find?

David Jacobs: Holding a whole bunch of stuff constant, including several political variables, we found that if a black person killed a white person they were more likely to get executed. If a Hispanic killed a white person they were also more likely, but this probability wasn’t quite as strong. There is more than a twofold greater risk that an African-American who killed a white will be executed than a white person who kills a nonwhite victim. A Hispanic is at least 1.4 times more likely to be executed if such an offender kills a white. Both findings are statistically significant. Also, the findings indicate that blacks who kill nonwhites are less likely to be executed than blacks who kill whites, which shows that the postsentencing capital-punishment process continues to place greater value on white lives.

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There are many thoughtful and provocative commentaries on the Jena 6. We found particularly interesting an article entitled “Awakening?” in Black Entertainment News which asks “Could the rally in the tiny town of Jena, La., awaken the Black community—and Black youths in particular—to a new round of activism in the same way that young civil rights leaders of the 1960s joined in the fight against segregation?” Mirian Wright Edlemen wrote an editorial in which she argued: “The recent conviction of Black high school student Mychal Bell in the small rural town of Jena, Louisiana, demonstrates why the struggle for civil rights and equal justice must continue with renewed vigor.”

Perhaps the article that most closely tracks the themes of The Situationist and the evidence reviewed above is one written by Gary Younge, “Jena is America,” in which he argues that

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“[t]hese incidents have turned Jena into a national symbol of racial injustice. As such it is both a potent emblem and a convenient whipping boy. Potent because it shines a spotlight on how race and class conspire to deny black people equality before the law. According to the Justice Department, blacks are almost three times as likely as whites to have their cars searched when they are pulled over and more than twice as likely to be arrested. They are more than five times as likely as whites to be sent to jail and are sentenced to 20 percent longer jail time. . . .

Convenient because it allows the rest of the nation to dismiss the incidents as the work of Southern redneck backwoodsmen without addressing the systemic national failures it showcases. According to the Sentencing Project, the ten states with the highest discrepancy between black and white incarceration rates include Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York and none from the South. What took place in Jena is not aberrant; it’s consistent. The details are a local disgrace. The broader themes are a national scandal. . . .

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From NPR’s Tell Me More, you can listen to the story “Jena Six Brings Youth, Elders Together in Protest.” Finally, James Peterson on BlackProf offers a thoughtful analysis in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”


Posted in History, Implicit Associations, Law, System Legitimacy | 3 Comments »

Jena 6 – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 23, 2007

Jena “White Tree”

For those who haven’t heard the story behind the recent protest march and demonstration in Jena Louisiana, you can find a brief timeline summary on and a very detailed summary from The Jena Times and a narrative summary in The Nation. We have excerpted portions of a New York Times overview below, which picks up the story in August of 2006, when a student asked the assistant principal at Jena High School’s back-to-school asemly if he could sit under “the white tree” in the school’s courtyard.

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“You know you can sit anywhere you want,’’ answered Gawen Burgess, the assistant principal. The next morning, according to the account, two nooses were found hanging from the tree.

Most students did not even see the nooses before they were cut down, Still, school officials suspended three white students for their part in hanging the nooses. After some parents complained about the matter, the United States Attorney’s office and the F.B.I. investigated, but decided not to bring hate-crime charges against anyone.

Over the next few weeks and months, parents and some students continued to complain to officials about the nooses hung on the trees, which they said was an unambiguous gesture of racial intimidation. The news media picked up on the matter. Some white people in the town were quoted saying that the noose business was little more than a youthful prank. Fights erupted in the school, but officials said they were not necessarily related to the tree and nooses. In November, a fire broke out at the high school, which is being investigated as arson.

The high school was closed down for several days, and when classes resumed, in December, another fight broke out during the lunch hour. A white student, Justin Barker, was beaten and taken to the hospital. That is when the six black students were arrested.

Richard G. Jones wrote about the series of events in The New York Times . . . . His first few paragraphs encapsulate what has become a nuanced tale:

“They called it the White Tree. Not because of the color of its leaves or tint of its bark, but because of the kind of people who typically sat beneath its shade here at Jena High School.

And when a black student tried to defy that tradition by sitting under the tree last September, it set off a series of events that have turned this town of 3,000 in central Louisiana’s timber country into a flashpoint over the issue of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

The white student was treated at a local hospital and released; the black students were charged, not with assault, but with attempted murder.”

As Mr. Jones writes, local civil rights groups have objected to the course the case has taken, calling it a “throwback to the worst kind of Deep South justice.”

Five of the black youths were charged as adults, after they allegedly knocked out classmate Justin Barker and stomped him during the school fight. One of the five, Mychal Bell, has already been tried. He was 16 when the beating took place last December, and in June he was found guilty on second-degree battery charges by a six-member, all-white jury.

* * *

Last Friday, the state’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal overturned Mr. Bell’s conviction.

Mr. Bell’s lawyers have argued that their client was not old enough to be tried as an adult and that the maximum penalty that he faced –­ 22 years in prison –­ was excessive. In the wake of the growing public furor, prosecutors have reduced the charges against some of the other defendants who are awaiting trial as well.

Free Jena 6 (Image by Sean Gardner/Reuters)

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In Jena – Part II, we offer a brief sample of the growing evidence racial bias in our criminal justice system and some situational reasons for it.

Posted in Conflict, Events | 2 Comments »

The Situation of the Erwin Chemerinsky Deanship

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 22, 2007

Erwin Chemerinsky and Michael Drake

Situationist contributor Jerry Kang has a thoughtful analysis in this week’s National Law Journal on the awkward hiring, firing, and re-hiring of Professor Erwin Chemerinsky to be the dean of the University of California at Irvine law school. Kang examines the political and social dynamics that moved the decision-making process, including the role played by Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake. We excerpt a portion of his piece below.

* * *

Inside of a week, we quickly learned that Chemerinsky had accepted the offer, then was fired due to political pressures, then was rehired in the face of a furious backlash against Chancellor Michael Drake.

Now that Chemerinsky has been rehired and the relevant parties are playing nice, the post-mortem will probably go on only a little longer, to try to see who applied what kind of political pressure. As this story’s newsworthiness dissipates, many people will forget the details and take away some rough lesson about political power: Exercise of naked political power by conservatives fired Chemerinsky, then exercise of naked political power by liberals (and some others) hired him back. But this somewhat cynical interpretation misses something significant.

When news of the firing initially surfaced, very smart people defended Irvine’s decision even if it was politically influenced. They emphasized that, first, a deanship is an administrative position not an academic one; thus, complaints about academic freedom are exaggerated. Second, if politics can be used in the initial hiring decision, what’s so wrong with considering politics a few weeks later?

These are excellent points. And I do not mean to make any detailed legal argument about academic freedom. But only formalism would suggest that a law school deanship is not also an academic position: The dean is also a tenured professor of law. More substantively, many legal academics view associate deanships and deanships as the natural path of promotion. When Chemerinsky was fired, faculty across the nation were sent a clear signal that straying from the narrow mainstream can endanger upward mobility. This is why in the rehiring, it was crucial and completely expected that both Chemerinsky and Drake would underscore the value of academic freedom.

* * *

What happened to Chemerinsky is galling not because money and politics apparently influenced a hiring decision. We are not so naïve to think that this is a rare occurrence. But this was not merely an acquisition question — a failure to hire Chemerinsky in the first instance. Rather, he had already signed the contract and fielded a board of advisors. This was removal. To be sure, firing a sitting dean for being politically incorrect is worse. But what happened was almost as bad.

* * *

For the rest of the column, click here. For a useful recap of the Chermerinsky matter and excerpts from various commentators on the matter, see this post from Law and Letters. Also check out the following thoughtful pieces by Ole Miss law professor Paul Secunda on Workplace Prof Blog, Marquette law professor Scott Moss on FindLaw, and Suffolk law professor Jeffrey Lipshaw on the Legal Profession Network,

Posted in Law, Politics | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of College Debt – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 21, 2007


Business Week recently published an excellent collection of articles (by Jessica Silver-Greenberg) examining the increasing use of credit cards by college students. The series sheds light on some of the situational sources of the escalating debt loads of college graduates, one component of a wider debt and and bankruptcy epidemic. Over the next several weeks, The Situationist will offer a series of posts excerpting portions of the Business Week collection. This post begins with “Majoring in Credit Card Debt.”

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Some 75% of college students have credit cards now, up from 67% in 1998. Just a generation earlier, a credit card on campus was a great rarity. For many of the students now, the cards they get will simply be an easier way to pay for groceries or books, with no long-term negative consequences. But for . . . a growing number like him, easy access to credit will lead to spending beyond their means and debts that will compromise their futures. . . .

Critics say that as the companies compete for this important growth market, they offer credit lines far out of proportion to students’ financial means, reaching $10,000 or more for youngsters without jobs. The cards often come with little or no financial education, leaving some unsophisticated students with no idea what their obligations will be. Then when students build up balances on their cards, they find themselves trapped in a maze of jargon and baffling fees, with annual interest rates shooting up to more than 30%.

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The major credit-card companies take great issue with the criticisms. Bank of America (BAC), Citibank (C), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), American Express (AXP), and others say they are providing a valuable service to students and they work hard to ensure that their credit cards are used responsibly.

* * *

college-orientation.jpgThe banks also make the point that students have to be responsible for their own actions. They are the ones, after all, who sign up for cards and then choose to use them.

* * *

In most cases, an unemployed person would have a hard time getting a credit card, especially one with a five-figure credit line. Consumer advocates say that banks have modified their practices for college students, because they’re vulnerable and their parents will usually bail them out. “

* * *

[B]anks often change the rates they charge cardholders as their credit scores change. Students’ credit scores can plunge particularly quickly, with one or two missed payments, because their track records are so short. One common practice is called “universal default.” Under universal default, a student who has two credit cards and faithfully makes timely payments on one, but misses a payment on the other, can find that the interest rate he’s being charged has been raised to 30% on both cards. . . .

All of this is disclosed in cardholder policies. But students, like many other people, don’t read the fine print. . . . The average credit-card contract can be 30 pages long, and it’s littered with legal jargon in tiny type. “You tell me how any college student can understand the terms of a card, and make rational choices when the agreements themselves are unreadable,” says Elizabeth Warren, a law professor at Harvard University. “It’s like selling toasters and handing a consumer wiring diagrams.”

* * *

[M]any college students have no fear about credit cards to temper their spending. They tend to be optimistic about the future, anticipating that once theycards.jpg get out of school they’ll have a good job and plenty of money. Credit-card ads often echo this optimism with some showing students smiling into the distance as if glimpsing the blissful days ahead.

* * *

Students also live in a culture of debt. Many of them are borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to go to school, tapping low-interest loans to pay tuition. “The primary way we help students pay for college is by telling them to take on more and more student loan debt,” says Tamara Draut, director of the Economic Opportunity Program at Demos. The message is clear, she says: “Debt is O.K., and you are going to have lots of it.” In that context, Woodworth and other students think little of charging another $50 for dinner or groceries.

* * *

from The Student PIRGSCredit-card companies say that they put a heavy emphasis on financial literacy. They distribute materials and make information available online to help students become savvy consumers, while helping them to build a good credit score in the long term. “Each one of our new student account holders receives our Student Financial Handbook, an easy-to-use guide for understanding the basics of managing their finances, including how to balance a checkbook, how a credit card works, and so on,” said Bruce Hammond, president of card services for Bank of America . . . .

. . . . “Education alone isn’t going to solve the problem,” says [Travis] Plunkett, of the Consumer Federation of America. “Credit-card companies are subtly shifting the burden to students when they talk about credit education programs. The companies should not be targeting a population who are not in a position to handle credit wisely.”

The learning curve with credit cards is steep, and there is little room for trial and error. Mistakes made in college can haunt students long after graduation. Their credit scores can have an impact whether they get their job of choice, whether they qualify for an apartment, and even whether they have to pay more to get their utilities turned on.

* * *


For superb blogging on credit, bankruptcy, college expenses, and related challenges to middle-class Americans, be sure to visit Warren Reports. For previous Situationist posts on the popularity, but inefficacy, of much information-based regulation, check out “The Situation of Ethical Consumption,” and “FDA Wants Informed Choice.” For other posts discussing the role of “optimism bias,” read “Some (Interior) Situational Sources of War – Part II” and “Self-Serving Biases.”

To watch the acclaimed, eye-opening documentary “Maxed Out” (1 hour, 27 min), click on the Google Video below.


Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Marketing | 7 Comments »

The Magnetism of Beautiful People

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 20, 2007

Sclarett Johnason

It’s often said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but as social science teaches, “beauty can behold the eye” may prove far more accurate. Indeed, a new study authored by Florida State University psychologist Jon Maner indicates that we are genuinely distracted by beautiful people and for reasons that often rest outside our consciousness.

Below we excerpt a Science Daily recap of a press release accompanying Maner’s study, which will published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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Whether we are seeking a mate or sizing up a potential rival, good-looking people capture our attention nearly instantaneously and render us temporarily helpless to turn our eyes away from them, according to a new Florida State University study.

Drew Barrymore People Magazine Most Beautiful“It’s like magnetism at the level of visual attention,” said Jon Maner, an assistant professor of psychology at FSU, who studied the role mating-related motives can play in a psychological phenomenon called attentional adhesion. His findings are published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The paper, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You: Attentional Adhesion to Mates and Rivals,” is one of the first to show how strongly, quickly and automatically we are attuned to attractive people, he said. FSU graduate students Matthew Gailliot, D. Aaron Rouby and Saul Miller co-authored the study.

In a series of three experiments, Maner and his colleagues found that the study participants, all heterosexual men and women, fixated on highly attractive people within the first half of a second of seeing them. Single folks ogled the opposite sex, of course, but those in committed relationships also checked people out, with one major difference: They were more interested in beautiful people of the same sex.

“If we’re interested in finding a mate, our attention gets quickly and automatically stuck on attractive members of the opposite sex,” Maner said. “If we’re jealous and worried about our partner cheating on us, attention gets quickly and automatically stuck on attractive people of our own sex because they are our competitors.”Beyonce Knowles Engaged

Maner’s research is based on the idea that, through processes of biological evolution, our brains have been designed to strongly and automatically latch on to signs of physical attractiveness in others in order to both find a mate and guard him or her from potential competitors.

“These kinds of attentional biases can occur completely outside of our conscious awareness,” he said.

Biology or not, this phenomenon is fraught with potential romantic peril. For example, even some people in committed relationships had difficulty pulling their attention away from images of attractive people of the opposite sex. And fixating on images of perceived romantic rivals could contribute to feelings of insecurity.

Modern technology has enhanced these pitfalls. Although there are people of striking beauty in real life, singer Frankie Valli’s pronouncement that “you’re just too good to be true” may be the case when it comes to images in movies and magazines or on the Internet.

“It may be helpful to try to minimize our exposure to these images that have probably been ‘doctored,'” Maner said. “We should pay attention to all of the regular-looking people out in the world so that we have an appropriate standard of physical beauty. This is important because too much attention to ultra-attractive people can damage self-esteem as well as satisfaction with a current romantic partner.”

In the experiments, study participants — 120 people in the first study and 160 and 162 in the second and third studies, respectively — completed questionnaires to determine the extent to which they were motivated to seek out members of the opposite sex. They then took part in a series of “priming” activities before they were shown photos of highly attractive men, highly attractive women, average-looking men and average-looking women.

Posh and David BeckhamAfter a photo of one of the faces flashed in one quadrant of a computer screen, the participants were required to shift their attention away from that face to somewhere else on the screen. Using a precise measure of reaction time, Maner found that it took the participants longer to shift their attention away from the photos of the highly attractive people.

Maner said he was surprised that his studies showed little differences between the sexes when it came to fixating on eye-catching people.

“Women paid just as much attention to men as men did to women,” he said. “I was also surprised that jealous men paid so much attention to attractive men. Men tend to worry more about other men being more dominant, funny or charismatic than they are. But when it comes to concerns about infidelity, men are very attentive to highly attractive guys because presumably their wives or girlfriends may be too.”

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The situation of beauty has captured our attention on several other occasions, including in “Survival of the Cutest,” “Spas and Girls,” “Fitting in and Sizing Up,” and “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.”

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Um, I don’t make misteaks . . .

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 19, 2007

mistakes-were-made-cover.jpgThe Situationist Staff is happy to recommend a terrific new book, “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me).” The book’s authors, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson are both social psychologists — indeed, Elliot Aronson is widely regarded as one of the most influential social psychologist of the Twentieth Century. We have excerpted a small portion of the book’s introductory chapter below.

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It’s fascinating, and sometimes funny, to read doomsday predictions, but it’s even more fascinating to watch what happens to the reasoning of true believers when the prediction flops and the world keeps muddling along. Notice that hardly anyone ever says, “I blew it! I can’t believe how stupid I was to believe that nonsense”? On the contrary, most of the time they become even more deeply convinced of their powers of prediction. The people who believe that the Bible’s book of Revelation or the writings of the sixteenth-century self-proclaimed prophet Nostradamus have predicted every disaster from the bubonic plague to 9/11 cling to their convictions, unfazed by the small problem that their vague and murky predictions were intelligible only after the event occurred.


Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21. They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group’s leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech’s own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.

At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group felt a little nervous. By 2 a.m., they were getting seriously worried. At 4:45 a.m., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. “And mighty is the word of God,” she told her followers, “and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.”

The group’s mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group’s members, who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21, began calling the press to report the miracle, and soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them. Mrs. Keech’s prediction had failed, but not Leon Festinger’s.


The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions — especially the wrong ones — is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance producesCognitive Dissonance Diagram mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways.

Dissonance is disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity and, as Albert Camus observed, we humans are creatures who spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd. At the heart of it, Festinger’s theory is about how people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful. The theory inspired more than 3,000 experiments that, taken together, have transformed psychologists’ understanding of how the human mind works. . . .

In 1956, one of us (Elliot) arrived at Stanford University as a graduate student in psychology. Festinger had arrived that same year as a young professor, and they immediately began working together, designing experiments to test and expand dissonance theory. Their thinking challenged many notions that were gospel in psychology and among the general public, such as the behaviorist’s view that people do things primarily for the rewards they bring, the economist’s view that human beings generally make rational decisions, and the psychoanalyst’s view that acting aggressively gets rid of aggressive impulses.

Consider how dissonance theory challenged behaviorism. At the time, most scientific psychologists were convinced that people’s actions are governed by reward and punishment. . . .

. . . [N]o one would stay in a boring job without pay, and if you give your toddler a cookie to stop him from having a tantrum, you have taught him to have another tantrum when he wants a cookie. But, for better or worse, the human mind is more complex than the brain of a rat or a puppy. A dog may appear contrite for having been caught peeing on the carpet, but she will not try to think up justifications for her misbehavior. Humans think; and because we think, dissonance theory demonstrated that our behavior transcends the effects of rewards and punishments and often contradicts them.

For example, Elliot predicted that if people go through a great deal of pain, discomfort, effort, or embarrassment to get something, they will be happier with that “something” than if it came to them easily. For behaviorists, this was a preposterous prediction. Why would people like anything associated with pain? But for Elliot, the answer was obvious: self-justification. The cognition that I am a sensible, competent person is dissonant with the cognition that I went through a painful procedure to achieve something — say, joining a group that turned out to be boring and worthless. Therefore, I would distort my perceptions of the group in a positive direction, trying to find good things about them and ignoring the downside.

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Social psychologist William B. Swann wrote a review of “Mistakes Were Made” for American Scientist Online, in which he provided the following desription of the range of Aronson & Tavris’s analysis:

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Brandishing the banner of dissonance theory, Tavris and Aronson charge through a breathtakingly diverse collection of substantive topics. The result is both engaging and informative. Their key argument is that dissonance theory can explain many laboratory findings and elements of many naturally occurring phenomena. For example, the authors maintain that when ordinary people blithely agreed to administer dangerously strong electric shocks to hapless learners in Stanley Milgram’s classic experiments, the subjects’ penchant for self-justification (“the experimenter told me to continue”) was a key contributor to their complicity. Similarly, in instances in which prosecutors have refused to back down when DNA evidence has revealed that a defendant was wrongfully sentenced for a crime, Tavris and Aronson attribute theprosecutors’ refusal to admit error to pernicious self-justification processes. The authors also maintain that most champions of the repressed-memory movement, when confronted with information suggesting that the “memories” of alleged victims are false, simply dismiss the evidence as being a form of backlash against child victims and incest survivors.

As the book’s title suggests, one of the topics touched on is contemporary politics. Tavris and Aronson mention in the endnotes that many U.S. presidents have used the phrase “mistakes were made,” including Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Although Alberto Gonzales’s use of the phrase a few months ago (“I acknowledge that mistakes were made here”) occurred too recently to make it into the book, the authors do discuss some of the self-justifications and self-deceptions of the current administration. For example, they characterize George W. Bush as “the poster boy for ‘tenacious clinging to a discredited belief.'”

Tavris and Aronson do an artful job of illustrating the contribution that social-psychological research on self-justification can make to understanding numerous social phenomena. Moreover, they do so in a manner that is often witty and always engaging. This book will undoubtedly bring important scientific findings to life for readers from all walks of life.

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For an NPR Talk of the Nation story interview regarding “Mistakes Were Made,” click here. To learn more about or to purchase the book, click here.

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

Risky Decisions: Why Growing Old Helps You Grow Older

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 18, 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 fifth in a series of Situationist posts (to link to the first four, click here, here, here, and here) excerpting and supplementing those articles. Below you will find excerpts of Ann Conkie’s excellent summary of various presentations on “Risky Decision-Making Across the Lifespan.”

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Albert EinsteinSage or Just Age?
According to Ellen Peters, Decision Research and the University of Oregon, by 2050 the number of people over 60 will surpass people under 15 for the first time in history, underscoring the importance of research into how older adults make decisions. Peters’ research shows that although the cognitive decline associated with age makes it seem that older people would make worse decisions, they actually have a lifetime of experience to draw from and that older people can bring their “deliberative capacity to bear when it matters.” . . .

* * *

Wasted Youth?
We know that adolescents are different from you and me, but does that difference extend to how they make decisions? Is their process neurologically different than that of adults? To find out, Abigail Baird, Vassar College, went straight to the source: teenagers. As adults, there are some decisions we don’t have to think about. Eating a salad? Good idea. Swimming with sharks? Bad idea. This is because our amygdala and insula, the parts of the brain that initiate our fight/flight response, giveRisky Decisions on the Brain us an instinctual sense that something is good or bad. However, it’s not always that simple. When asked questions similar to those above, teenagers and adults all came to the same good/bad conclusions, but the teenagers took significantly more time to do so when the decisions involved potentially risky situations. Whereas the adults showed quick reactions of the amygdala and insula, the teenagers also involved their frontal cortex, the center of reasoning and logic. Essentially, this means that teenagers have not yet developed the gut instinct or reflex and were thinking about the questions more.

On the surface, carefully thinking over a decision is a good thing and very necessary for more complex decisions. But initial fight/flight responses to obvious decisions are necessary, too, and thinking too much can leave the brain open to being “blindsided” by emotion, most often by means of peer interactions. When teenagers are mulling over a question of right or wrong, safety or danger, they take into account what others do or think, something Baird, a Past Secretary of APS, calls “the Haley effect.” (As in, “I’m pretty sure swimming with sharks is a bad thing, but I want to know what my best friend Haley thinks before I totally make up my mind.”) This, combined with a shifting focus from parents to peers in the teenage years, as well as a new awareness of the imaginary audience (the “they” who will be so merciless if a kid doesn’t have the latest shoes or the “everyone” who will be at that party), makes peer pressure a powerful force in risky decision-making for adolescents.

Daniel Romer, University of Pennsylvania, presented a different rationale for adolescents’ seeming cluelessness when it comes to decision-making. Romer explained that adolescence is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon, which has been elongated since the 1900s Sex, Drugs, & Rock-n-Rollwith the progress of the industrial revolution and universal education. Earlier generations of adolescents were expected to assume adult responsibilities at an earlier age and received adult guidance in the process. Also, studies have shown that the amount of dopamine released and the number of dopamine synapses increase during adolescence. This increase in dopamine has been correlated with an increase in sensation-seeking behavior — which in our media saturated culture often leads to your good old sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. So adolescents are left in a non-adult, “responsibility-lite” situation at just the time when they want to engage in novel and exciting behavior the most.

How can we help teenagers avoid these risks? Psychology-based public policy has come up with some answers. The U.S. Department of Education is running pilot school programs teaching problem-solving skills, starting early in elementary school. One of the most successful risk-reduction policies has been graduated driver’s license programs. In these programs, states restrict beginners’ licenses in a variety of ways (e.g., not allowing other teenagers in the car or not allowing teens to drive at certain times of night). States that have incorporated at least five of these types of measures have seen a 30 percent decline in fatal teenage accidents.

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To read all of Ann Conkie’s article, click here. For some related Situationist posts, see “Some Groups Affect Kids More than Others” and “Your Brain on Politics.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Life, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

Of Senators and Sympathies

Posted by Goutam Jois on September 17, 2007 By now, it’s pretty well known that Senator Larry Craig has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct in Hennepin County, Minnesota and announced his resignation (sort of). Virtually every news outlet and blog has picked up the story (for example, see here, here, and here), and the police report and the recording of the police interview have been passed around the Internet in a voyeuristic frenzy. (In case you’ve missed the ten-minute police interview, you can listen via the Youtube video below.) But more interesting, at least here at The Situationist, are the attributions of responsibility and blame that some are quick to make, or not, regarding Senator Craig.

The oft-repeated story goes something like this: Senator Craig was picked up for very likely soliciting gay sexual activity in a bathroom in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport. Senator Craig has, in the past, been outspoken against gay rights, including voting for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and is one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate (ranking number 16 out of 99, according to the National Journal). Therefore, it seems the senator is a hypocrite.

This attributional story is simple and satisfying (or not, depending on your political orientation), but it may be wrong. As I argued in an earlier post, charges of hypocrisy make dispositionist assumptions about the target and presume that the “hypocrite” is not acting in accordance with his disposition. Of course, a fundamental tenet of situationism is that our behaviors will often not reflect our explicit beliefs, attitudes, or values — even when they are sincerely and deeply held.

But there is another level to the Senator Craig story, one that is particularly deserving of situational analysis. In recent days, the Senator has sought to withdraw his guilty plea. Specifically, he argued that he was “deeply panicked” in the aftermath of his arrest and that he pled guilty under the assumption that the incident would never become public.

For his part, Senator Craig has won some allies. Arlen Specter, a moderate and highly respected member of the Senate, argued on CNN recently that Senator Craig should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea. Senator Specter said that all he wanted was for Senator Craig to get his “day in court,” just like anyone else. After all, Senator Specter pointed out, Senator Craig has his life and his reputation on the line. When police officers asked him to plead guilty, Senator Craig had not consulted with legal counsel. With such high stakes, why not simply allow the guilty plea to be withdrawn — particularly when Senator Craig has such a strong ally in Senator Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee?

Well, for one thing, we would do well to ask where Senator Specter’s sympathy comes from. One can make a very strong case that Senator Craig’s guilty plea was “knowing and intelligent,” as the law requires: certainly, as a United States Senator, Larry Craig had some sophistication as to the law; his guilty plea was signed several weeks after the incident, allowing a reasonable “cooling off” time; and the Senator surely could have afforded to retain (or at least consult with) an attorney. Former District Attorney Arlen Specter almost certainly knows that.

Senator Specter almost certainly knows that there are large numbers of people who regularly plead guilty or confess to crimes without consulting attorneys and, who, consequently never get their “day in court.” In fact, he probably witnessed firsthnd the guilty plea process countless times when he was a D.A. in Philadelphia. And surely he knows that those people — generally those with lower income, lower education levels, little access to good legal counsel, and fewer political connections — are rarely allowed to withdraw their guilty pleas, even if they were “deeply panicked” when they spoke to the police, even if they had their “life” or “reputation” on the line, even if they wanted to avoid negative publicity. More or less every guilty plea is entered in the unmistakable shadow of some very ugly possibility which the plea helps to avert.

At the same time it is hard not to sympathize with Senator Craig. Maybe he is a victim of circumstance; maybe he was simply trying to keep his sexual orientation under wraps because he did not think it would be accepted; maybe he was just trying to beat the rap. Whatever the case, there are many of his defenders who argue vehemently for his right to withdraw his guilty plea, even though those same voices generally do not call for prototypical “criminals” — defendants accused of gun-running, drug dealing, violent acts, and the like — to be allowed that same right. Are those people also hypocrites?

Again, social psychology offers some explanations. We are, as other contributors have observed, “selectively situationist.” We are more likely to relate to the predicament of someone with whom we identify than with someone who is “other.” Senator Specter, predictably, can relate to the plight of a fellow senator who wishes to avert a crisis, and can muster clever and compelling legal arguments as to why the usual rules ought not to apply to him. The ordinary “street criminals,” on the other hand, are far from the Senator’s in-group. No wonder we don’t hear Senator Specter arguing for a wholesale liberalization of the laws governing guilty pleas. After all, this Senator simply got caught up in the situation and should be allowed to plead his case; those people are bad and are trying to avoid taking responsibility for their bad acts.

Indeed, Senator Specter can say quite easily that all he wants is for the rules simply to be followed in this case; after all, it is not as if he is arguing that a new exception be created for his colleague. But that’s just it: the people who are calling for the rare “manifest injustice” provision to be invoked here are almost never the ones who are calling for the provisions to be invoked on behalf of the everyday, generally indigent, criminals. Again, we tend to see situation when those like us are in trouble; we tend to see disposition when those unlike us are.

In the justice system, criminal defendants regularly lose their cases for filing papers a day late, for not scrupulously following the correct procedures, or for failing to clear any one of myriad procedural hurdles. Those rules may or may not be ideal — but until they are changed, Senator Craig should have to play by them like anyone else.

Posted in Choice Myth, Law, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?

Posted by Chloe Cockburn on September 15, 2007

// 2004, Professor George Lakoff rocketed into the public sphere with his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, which sought to explain how conservatives and liberals conceptualize the world in different ways. Lakoff drew attention to differences at the level of perceived social structure, pointing out that conservatives and liberals maintain quite disparate models of the ideal family, which in turn reflect each group’s conception of the proper relationship between individuals and authority. In 2003, Situationist contributor John Jost and several co-authors published a meta-analysis of numerous studies finding that conservatives tend to be more persistent and structured than liberals in their judgments and decision styles — as measured, for instance, by relative needs for order and closure and relative tolerance for ambiguity and complexity. These differences in approaches to decision-making across ideological groups raise questions about their possible sources. A study published in the most recent issue of Nature Neuroscience tests the hypothesis that those differences relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

The results show “there are two cognitive styles — a liberal style and a conservative style,” said UCLA neurologist Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who was not connected to the latest research.

top view drawing of a brainParticipants were college students whose politics ranged from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

Researchers got the same results when they repeated the experiment in reverse, asking another set of participants to tap when a W appeared.

Frank J. Sulloway, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality and Social Research who was not connected to the study, said the results “provided an elegant demonstration that individual differences on a conservative-liberal dimension are strongly related to brain activity.”

Analyzing the data, Sulloway said liberals were 4.9 times as likely as conservatives to show activity in the brain circuits that deal with conflicts, and 2.2 times as likely to score in the top half of the distribution for accuracy.

Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.

“There is ample data from the history of science showing that social and political liberals indeed do tend to support major revolutions in science,” said Sulloway, who has written about the history of science and has studied behavioral differences between conservatives and liberals.

* * *

// study’s lead author was David Amodio, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University, who worked in conjunction with Situationist contributor, John Jost of New York University.

The author of the quoted L.A. Times article and others who have commented on this study have drawn the conclusion that “liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.” However, this conclusion is too hastily reached. The study’s association of ideological tenants with certain brain patterns does not indicate whether certain people are mentally predisposed to be more liberal or conservative, or instead whether adopting liberal or conservative behaviors changes the way we process information. While the association of conflict management behaviors with liberal beliefs could support the theory that there is a biological source for individual ideologies, we should be cautious.

For example, in a study recently reported in the Economist, a team led by Ian Spence of the University of Toronto conducted a spatial recognition test and found that men were more successful than women at identifying a strange object in the visual field. This would seem to support the hypothesis that women are “wired” differently with regards to special recognition skills. However, after both groups played ten hours of “Medal of Honour: Pacific Assault,” a violent video game, the women scored just as well as the men on the test. This effect persisted for at least five months. Thus, a seemingly hard wired genetic trait was something that could be learned in a number of hours. If the case of political ideology, a similar shift in cognitive processing of conflict and ambiguity could be induced by a short term event.

For a sample of other Situationist posts about political ideology and the brain, see Ideology is Back!, Heart, Brain, or Wallet . . . How Do You Vote?, and Your Brain on Politics. For previous posts discussing the plasticity of the brain, see “Brainicize” and “Imagine You Could Change Your Brain.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Conflict, Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology | 6 Comments »

Cheating Doesn’t Pay . . . So Why So Much of it?

Posted by Goutam Jois on September 13, 2007

Wait a minute — it’s not supposed to be like this. Why would Bill Belichick condone his coaching staff videotaping his opponents’ signals? Doing so is, of course, against the rules. Why would the coach, who some call “the only certifiable genius in the [NFL] coaching ranks,” go so far as to “insanely risk his reputation on the long shot that a small advantage might provide just one more victory he probably would have gotten anyway”?

By now, of course, the NFL world is abuzz with the fine and penalty levied against the New England Patriots. The blogosphere has similarly run with the story (see here, here, here, and here). The Patriots — winners of three of the last six Super Bowls — were secretly filming the Jets defensive coordinator when he called in plays. As a result, they knew the defense’s plays and were able to call their own plays accordingly. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Bill Belichick personally $500,000; fined the team $250,000; and ordered the team to forfeit one or two draft picks (depending on whether the team makes the playoff this season). Perhaps worst of all, Belichick’s reputation is now sullied. What kind of “certifiable genius” has to cheat to win? Some Philadelphia Eagles players even suspect that the Pats’ dramatic second-half turnaround in Super Bowl XXXIX was perhaps a product of signal-stealing.

As is often the case, we are unable to make sense of people’s behavior because we assume that they are rational (dispositionist) actors. In other words, we assume that people’s behavior reflects deep-seated, stable personality traits, and that they make decisions by dispassionately weighing the risks and the benefits. It was perhaps in this vein that one writer said that “this charge fits perfectly with everything we know about [Belichick,] on and off the field.” And if he was weighing the potential loss and potential gain, it seems like this was a no-brainer. The benefits of cheating were miniscule: first of all, the Patriots probably would have won anyway, so the marginal benefit of cheating were minimal. Second, even if they lost, the Patriots were still highly favored to, at a minimum, win the AFC; they were ranked #1 in many preseason rankings and favored to win the Super Bowl (with one website giving 2-to-1 odds). Thus, it is highly unlikely that the Pats would have lost on Sunday, and even less likely that a loss on Sunday would have made a difference in the postseason. Indeed, one can understand why Belichick, or anyone for that matter, might cheat in the Super Bowl or another playoff game, where fame, fortune, and legacy are on the line. But in the first game of the season?Belichick

Perhaps part of the explanation is situational. In an environment where competitive pressures and expectations are very high, incentives to push the envelope, cut corners and, yes, cheat outright are quite strong. Bad choices, to be sure. But powerful situations too. Consider the recent debacles in corporate America. Surely, none of the now-disgraced executives set out years ago on a quest to defraud shareholders. Instead, they faced pressures to meet analysts estimates quarter after quarter. When a division or department reported figures that didn’t quite seem right, they looked the other way. When accountants concocted unusual transactions and entities to hide debt and inflate revenues, they assumed “everyone was doing it.” (To read Sung Hui Kim’s related posts on why lawyers acquiesce in their client’s misconduct, click here and here.)

So, too, in football. Perhaps the surprising thing is not that Belichick was cheating; it’s that he got caught for doing it so obviously. And the pressure in this case comes not from investment bankers or shareholders but from sportswriters and fans. Sure, the cheating may not have made a difference in this game — but Belichick was looking for an edge in the next game and the next, and perhaps a playoffs rematch with the Jets. Indeed, Belichick implied as much in his “statement,” saying that the Pats “have never used sideline video to obtain a competitive advantage while the game was in progress.” Of course, as a commentator pointed out on CNN this morning, if it didn’t make a difference, they wouldn’t have done it. The risks may have been sky-high, and the benefits marginal, but in the minds of Belichick and the pats, every little bit could be the difference maker in their quest for a fourth Super Bowl ring.

In a relatively situationist account of the Belichick fiasco, Dan Weztel wrote for Yahoo! Sports that the problem had to do with the “culture” of the NFL. He aptly titled his article, “Products of the System,” and posed the question of whether Belichick was a problem for the NFL or if he was the NFL — “a byproduct of a business where a coach that doesn’t seek every last advantage is doomed to fail.” As Situationist contributor Phil Zimbardo might put it: Is the problem just with the apple or does the barrel itself play some role?

Various Situationist contributors have written about the effects that situational pressures can have in corporate law (e.g., Kate Hill’s “When Thieves See Situation“) and in sports (e.g., Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s “What’s Eating David Ortiz?“). The Belichick scandal illustrates one of the commonalities between the two: that in a highly competitive environment, the situational pressures to cheat are very high. Belichick got caught, but he was not the first, and he surely will not be the last — not because these coaches are particularly evil-minded, but because the competitive nature of their jobs make it difficult for them not to. Steroids in baseball, doping in cycling, the list goes on.

Given the power of situation to compel choices, eliminating the possibility of certain choices may prove advantageous. The NFL could, for instance, provide for additional security in games to monitor for potential cheating, assess “unsportsmanlike conduct” penalties if it came to light during the game, and in extreme situations, require teams to forfeit tainted games. After-all, it appears that the NFL only responded to the Patriots’ videotaping upon being notified by other teams’ personnel. If the issue were so crucial to the NFL, as the league now alleges, why did the league allow for a situation in which it may exist until detected by opposing teams?

Belichick needs to be punished, no doubt. And a stiff punishment and public outrcry will influence the situation of all coaches who contemplate such options. Still, if we care about honesty and integrity, in sports as in business, we would do better than to rely on “the better angels of our nature.” Instead, we should be sensitive to shaping our institutions and our laws with a view to changing the incentives that our coaches, players, and CEOs face. Even without laws and rules that condone advantage-seeking, there are plenty of incentives, for corporations and for sports teams, to be and to remain highly competitive. A more accurate understanding of human nature just might change some of the incentives to cheat.

In that vein, and in an effort to foster some collective, constructive situationism, we encourage readers to comment with suggestions about what else might be done — in terms of rules, league arrangements, or otherwise — to influence the situation in ways that would discourage cheating of this sort.

Posted in Choice Myth, Situationist Sports | 5 Comments »

Cultural Thinking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 13, 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 fourht in a series of posts (to link to the first three, click here, here, and here) by the Situationist excerpting and supplementing those articles. Below you will find excerpts of Catherine West’s fascinating summary of various presentations on “How Culture Influences the Way We Think.”

* * *

“Culture is like water for fish,” . . . Shinobu Kitayama . . . explained during the special Culture and Cognition themed program . . . . But defining our own culture is difficult, “because it is the only thing we know,” Kitayama said in his talk, “Voluntary Settlement and the Spirit of Independence: Some More Evidence from Japan’s ‘Northern Frontier.'”

Speaking to a packed room, Kitayama noted that researchers investigating cultural differences often contrast Western and Eastern cultures. Kitayama, however, utilized two separate samples from Japan — one from the mainland and the other from the island of Hokkaido — to examine differences in individualism that may exist in Japanese culture.

Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost territory, is unique due to its history as a frontier in Japan. For several reasons, including the collapse of the feudal government in Japan, which resulted in fewer job for Japan’s samurai soldiers, and a need to protect Hokkaido from increasing Russian aggression, many samurai were initially deployed to the island in the mid-1800’s. Subsequently, a large number of farmers and peasants followed suit in search of land, wealth, and freedom. According to the voluntary settlement hypothesis, the immigration to the frontier, while economically motivated, may have fostered psychological orientations toward independence.

Kitayama examined this notion by assessing Hokkaido-born and non-Hokkaido-born college students’ implicit theory of independence, and found that, like Americans, Hokkaido Japanese show a strong cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error. They tend to explain another person’s behavior in terms of internal traits while ignoring situational forces. In contrast, mainland Japanese showed no such bias. The pattern suggests that the voluntary settlement hypothesis may indeed apply to individuals from Hokkaido.

This finding is particularly interesting in the context of the differences between Japanese and American values, beliefs, and traditions. As APS Fellow Richard Nisbett, University of Michigan, pointed out, modern Asian cultures are relatively collectivist or interdependent, whereas Western cultures thrive on independence and individualism, and it follows that these societal values sculpt one’s point of view.

Nisbett cited a study in which researchers used an eye-tracking device to pinpoint exactly where participants look when given a photo with a salient object (e.g., a train) set against a busy background. Americans looked outside the object an average of one time but had eight or nine fixations on the actual object. On the other hand, Chinese participants had one sharp initial fixation on the object followed by five or six fixations on the background context. “If people are seeing different things, it may be because they are looking differently at the world,” Nisbett added.

Doug Medin, Northwestern University, agreed. During his talk, Medin . . . presented research on the effect of our “cultural framework” (i.e., how we make sense of the world) on inter-group conflict. He said that the way we organize our knowledge varies by culture, and that this knowledge plays a large role in the ways we view others. Thus, limited observation of other groups and immersion solely in our own culture leads to overgeneralization of other cultures and the perpetuation of stereotypes.

. . .

Other participants in the APS program included Denise Park, and Qi Wang. To listen to an excellent NPR, Morning Edition report on Richard Nisbett’s pathbreaking scholarship on the role of culture on cognitions (or, “The Geography of Thought“), click here.

Posted in Cultural Cognition, History, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Science of Songs Stuck in Your Head

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 12, 2007

Woman on Bus

Ever hear a song play over and over again in your mind, and be unable to do anything about it? It happens to all of us. Monica Hesse of the Washington Post interviews perhaps the best person to explain why it happens: record producer turned neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, the Bell Chair in the Psychology of Electronic Communication of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise in the Department of Psychology at McGill University. Levitin is the author of the new book, “This is Your Brain on Music,” and he shares his thoughts on why music can be “stuck” in our heads. We excerpt a portion of the interview below.

* * *

Q: In your book you say music might be an evolutionary asset.

Levitin: “Darwin thought the function of music was to attract members of the opposite sex. … A man who can dance for hours on end, always varying the steps – that shows great physical stamina and mental flexibility. Women could be subliminally thinking, ‘This guy is clever. This guy could bring home a bison.’ ”

Q: And now, in our bison-protected era?

Levitin: “Look at Mick Jagger. There’s an ancient genetic echo that musicians are attractive. … In one study women were asked to rate various fictional potential mates. The guys were either creative or not creative, rich or not rich. When women were at their most fertile, they wanted to hook up with the creative guy. Other times, they wanted the rich guy. So if you’re passing on genes, you want the creative guy.”

Q: Now I have “Stars and Stripes Forever” stuck in my head. Explain that to me.

Levitin: “Scientists call songs that get stuck in your head “earworms,” after the German Ohrwurm. We don’t know a lot about how or why they happen – it’s hard to get funding to study this type of thing – but we know a little. Like, it tends not to be a whole song that gets stuck in your head, just 15-20 seconds of one, and it tends to be a simple song that even non-singers can hum without effort.”Woman Song

Q: Is there a cure?

Levitin: “Some people get earworms so bad that it interferes with their ability to sleep or work. For those people, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can help. They relax the circuits. Then again, some people become musicians because they have earworms. Neil Young told me that he started writing songs because he couldn’t get rid of the tunes in his head.”

Q: Doesn’t learning everything about how our brains interact with music ruin the magic of the listening experience?

Levitin: “Like that famous Oz scene where the Wizard is revealed as a nebbish little man behind the curtain? For me it’s been the opposite. Every time I get a modicum of insight into mystery I’m overwhelmed by the intricacy and the beauty.”

Q: Where will you go next with your research?

Levitin: “My lab recently completed a study in which we found an area of the brain that responds to the silence in between symphony movements. It’s really a study about memory, and event segmentation and how we define beginnings and endings.”

* * *

For the rest of the interview, click here. For an examination of the connection between situationism and music, see Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s “Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation.” In their post, Hanson and McCann explore how the situation in which persons listen to acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell–either while he is disguised as a subway peddler or while performing normally at a symphony–enormously influences how they regard his music.  For another post exploring how our taste in music is situationally contingent, see “The Situation of Music.”

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | 7 Comments »

Obesity in China

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 11, 2007

Healthy Choices BookThe obesity epidemic has attracted much attention on The Situationist. Although obesity is commonly attributed to “bad choices” and “personal failings,” recent findings in social science suggest that social interaction patterns, economic circumstances, and environmental factors prove far more explanatory.

This disconnect between a widely-shared, but mainly erroneous public perception of obesity’s causes and an often overlooked or dismissed set of actual explanations posses troubling consequences for public policy. As Philip Zimbardo writes in his recent Situationist article,Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” by focusing on disposition largely at the expense of situation, most government efforts to curb obesity are bound to fail:


Societal attempts to combat obesity and fight evil focus on modifying the individuals themselves through a variety of programs, penalties, and punishments. There’s a problem. If indeed, obesity and evil were solely matters of character, disposition, or metabolism, the centuries’ old struggles to resist evil and more recent medical-educational programs to combat obesity should have yielded significant reductions in both. Unfortunately, obesity is now at epidemic proportions in the U.S., while evil remains rampant across the globe.


* * *

[W]e have misidentified the enemy. Social science, like history, has demonstrated that the most powerful causal forces behind everything from prisoner abuse to ‘supersizing’ are located less in conscious individual choices and more in the situational and systemic factors that envelop individuals at given times and places. The prevailing notion that personal, inner dispositions are the primary causal factors involved in bad behavior or obesity needs to be reexamined.

Generally, our obesity-related writings on the Situationist examine the topic as it pertains to the United States. Obesity, of course, has emerged as a problem in many other nations, though the United States appears to suffer the most from it. In a fascinating piece, Maureen Fan of the Washington Post studies how the government and society of China have reacted to rising rates of obesity. To illustrate, she studies the singing group, Qian Jin Zu He, which is comprised of four obese Chinese women in their 20s. We excerpt portions of her article below.

* * *

Qian Jin Zu He

On the street, they are often the target of laughter or cruel whispers. Individually, they have all been denied jobs or their parents’ praise.

On stage, however, the four members of a singing group known as Qian Jin Zu He are strong and confident, belting out their signature rap song, “So What If I’m Fat,” passing out photographs of themselves and signing autographs.

The lead singer, 26-year-old Xiao Yang, is 375 pounds; the others in the group are between about 200 and 300 pounds. Together, they tour the country, performing at nightclubs, paint factories, garment industry conventions and shopping malls.

Their success has been modest, but given the powerful discrimination against the obese in China, Xiao said her discovery by a talent agent has been “like a tree branch saving me in the water.”

The story of precisely how Xiao’s group came to be is a window onto the challenges of being obese in a country where the ideal form of feminine beauty is delicate, girlish and small-boned. As China has grown more prosperous, the percentage of overweight citizens here has also grown. Still, those who are obese continue to struggle in relative solitude. Only about 7 percent of the population in China is considered obese, compared with 30 percent of the population in the United States.

Not long ago, having overweight children in China was viewed as a sign of prosperity. Even today, grandparents who can remember famines, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, tend to spoil and overfeed their grandchildren.

But chubby is no longer in fashion here, and image has become more important than ever. Summer boot camps for the overweight are springing up. In an increasingly competitive market, employers demand height and weight information from job candidates. And in higher education, fitness can now be a reason to reject college applicants, officials say, all other factors being equal.Qian Jin Zu He 2

“Chinese people now have a higher requirement for fashion and healthiness,” said Wang Zeqing, a social psychologist who is leading a nationwide project analyzing the psychological health of Chinese. “Being fat, in people’s minds, means not trendy and healthy.”

Discrimination against the obese is inevitable, Wang said: “It’s how society is now. Employers have countless choices. They can easily turn down a fat person and choose a better-looking one.”

* * *

The group’s name is a play on words. One meaning refers to a courteous expression for another person’s daughter or, in ancient times, a thousand pieces of gold. But no one who sees the band perform can mistake its second meaning: 1,000 jin, a Chinese measurement that would translate to just over 1,000 pounds.

These days, the band is making more TV appearances than before, on cooking shows and alongside Olympic wrestlers. It performed in more than a dozen provinces last year.

But as Qian Jin Zu He crisscrosses China, the band sometimes meets less welcoming audiences. Once, a spectator thought Xiao was wearing a fat suit and asked if he could test his theory by burning her skin with a cigarette. Another audience member came onstage to trip her.

* * *

Though the audience is appreciative, the women of Qian Jin Zu He say their skits are often an uncomfortable reminder of the rude comments they get each day when not in costume.

“I rode a bicycle home the other day and a person walking close to me said, ‘Wah, you’re so fat!’ I cursed him in my heart and pretended not to hear,” said Shen, who said she once lost a job in hotel sales because she was overweight.

* * *

For the rest of the article, click here. For further discussion on the mistaken but dominant dispositionist attributions made regarding obesity and the actual situationist sources of the epidemic, see Situationist Contributors, Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon’s law review article entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America,” which can be read by clicking here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Life, Social Psychology | 6 Comments »

Ideology is Back!

Posted by John Jost on September 10, 2007

From filmclub.comI published the essay below in the June 15 Times Higher Education Supplement. It summarizes a longer article,The End of the End of Ideology,” published in volume 61 of the American Psychologist, pp. 651-670 (2006).

* * *

The “end of ideology” was declared more than 40 years ago, after the titanic struggle between fascism and communism. The declaration was made by a tiny but influential band of sociologists and political scientists who were glad to see it go. Their assumption that ordinary citizens don’t care about, or even understand, ideological concepts has dominated scholarship on voting behavior for decades. Increasingly, however, reality is getting in the way of believing, however conveniently, that political differences are only skin deep – and therefore easy to resolve.

An ideological divide that has loomed for years became gaping in the aftermath of the Bush Administration’s polarising response to 9/11 and the Iraq War. Nearly everyone in the US now knows whether they live in a predominantly liberal, conservative or “swing” state. Almost all of us have friends and family whom we have learned, over the past five years, to avoid on the subjects of politics and religion.

Ideology is back with a vengeance, and psychologists are willing to study it, even if sociologists and political scientists are still reticent. There is a steadily growing list of differences between people who are drawn to liberalism and those drawn to conservatism. There are also situations or experiences, such as 9/11, that evoke intense feelings of threat and uncertainty and move most people to the Right, even temporarily. Other experiences, such as travel and education, make what is unfamiliar less threatening and what is uncertain less aversive, thereby moving most people to the Left.

Two of the most stable or “core” differences between the Left and the Right pertain to attitudes to traditionalism (versus change) and equality (versus inequality). People who call themselves conservatives hold significantly more favorable attitudes than liberals towards traditional cultural and “family values,” including religious forms of morality. They are also more likely to support conventional authority figures and oppose activists who are seeking to change the status quo, especially toward greater equality.


People who identify themselves as liberals place a higher priority on egalitarianism, achieved through policies such as welfare, social security and affirmative action. They are also significantly less likely to hold prejudicial attitudes, at both conscious and unconscious levels, toward racial minorities, homosexuals, women and members of other disadvantaged groups. These differences may themselves be rooted in more basic psychological needs for stability versus change, order versus complexity, familiarity versus novelty, conformity versus creativity, loyalty versus rebellion.

Other differences, such as those involving aesthetic preferences, musical tastes, hobbies and personal belongings, may share the same psychological roots but seem more harmless. The bedrooms of conservatives, for example, are more likely to contain organizational supplies such as calendars, postage stamps and laundry baskets, the bedrooms of liberals art supplies, books, CDs and maps. As a rule, conservatives tend to pursue lives that are more orderly, conventional and conscientious, whereas liberals are more open-minded in their quest for creativity, novelty and diversity.

Results from the American National Election Studies reveal that more than three quarters of respondents since 1996 can and do place themselves on a continuous scale of liberalism-conservatism. These ideological self-placements account for an astonishing 85 per cent of the statistical variance in candidate preferences between 1972 and 2004. They also predict many other important outcomes for the individual, including traits, values, behaviors and even mental health characteristics.

Many other discoveries concerning the causes and consequences of ideological differences await us, but only if we accept the obvious fact that ideological differences exist and that they can be studied scientifically.

Ideology, because it appears to satisfy many social and psychological needs of our species, is probably a natural part of the human constitution and will always be present in one form or another. Human beings have required and will continue to require the characteristics that are associated with the political Left as well as the political Right. We need tradition, order, structure, closure, discipline, competition and conscientiousness, to be sure, but if the human race is to continue to survive new challenges we will also just as surely need creativity, curiosity, tolerance, diversity, co-operation and open-mindedness.

Getting both “sides” to agree on this is the hardest part.

* * *

To read a New York Times op-ed from February 2007 on this same topic, click here.

Posted in Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 5 Comments »

Can Emotional Intelligence be Taught?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 9, 2007


We have examined emotions on multiple occasions, including in “The Situation of Happiness” and, most recently, in Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s “Attributing Terror–From the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror.” We now excerpt an article by the BBC’s Denise Winterman on whether children can be taught “emotional intelligence,” which can be defined as the ability to perceive, assess, and manage one’s emotions and those of others.

* * *

Do you offer complete strangers a shoulder to cry on when England fail to fulfil their potential in yet another World Cup? Or did you shed a few tears of your own when Take That got back together – after crying a river when they split up?

There’s a term for people like you – and it’s one you can repeat in front of your mother. In fact, she might even be proud to know you’re what psychologists call “emotionally intelligent”.

* * *

Happy Childhood. . . [T]he term emotional intelligence (EI) is a relatively new one. Despite its recent arrival it has become embedded in our vernacular and linked to almost every area of life. From contentment in your home life to success in the workplace, it always seems irrevocably wrapped up in your ability to get in touch with your feeling – and others.

The government even wants EI taught in all classrooms. A pilot scheme in primary schools found it improved behaviour and academic performance. This week ministers announced they now wanted to extend such lessons to secondary schools.

So when did EI become so important and why? The term – and the theory behind it – was popularised by psychologist Daniel Goleman. His book of the same name became a bestseller in 1995 and sold millions of copies worldwide.

From there a whole industry rapidly grew. If you work you might have been on a training course to help you develop your EI, run by the one of a multitude of EI institutes, companies and organisations.

* * *

“It is a great commercial opportunity for some,” says Professor Goleman. “Money can be made through marketing new tests and training courses for industry. Some of the marketing efforts have been pretty aggressive.”

He argues there is a fundamental difficulty in testing EI and it’s often impossible to specify objectively what is the most emotionally intelligent behaviour in a given situation.

“Tests for EI are of limited value in that the test score tends to reflect a subjective judgment as to what are the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers – whether the judgement comes from the developer, outside experts or group consensus.

“Such judgments are likely to be dependent on social and cultural influences. If the tests had been invented 50 years ago, they would probably have rewarded a ‘stiff upper lip’ and constrained emotional expression, in contrast to contemporary tests.”Happy Kid

The current emergence of EI into education is a direct result of the introduction National Curriculum in 1988, says Professor Susan Hallam, author of the Institute of Education (IoE) study looking at the teaching of EI in primary schools.

“Prior to the National Curriculum schools had a duty to develop the whole child, that flew out of the window when it was introduced,” she says.

The IoE’s study showed positive results from the introduction of lessons in EI – from the classroom to the playground – but Professor Hallam says the term in general is “a bit of a red herring”.

* * *

“Emotional intelligence and understanding your own emotions does not mean you use them in a positive way. It’s the same in schools as it is in society.

“It’s not only about being aware of the way you, and others, feel – there’s a moral element. Bullies are often very emotionally intelligent, they just don’t use it in a positive way.”

Including a moral framework into EI lessons is a key part of their success, she says.

Ultimately, like any theory, EI will always be open to debate. But maybe its rapid rise in the public consciousness comes down to something rather simple – people like to put labels on things.

“We love doing it because it validates something and makes it seem more real,” says philosopher Julian Baggini.

Posted in Emotions | Leave a Comment »

Sex Differences in Math & Science

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 7, 2007

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed in her Seneca Falls speech:

Man’s intellectual superiority cannot be a question until woman has had a fair trial. When we shall have had our freedom to find out our own sphere, when we shall have had our colleges, our professions, our trades, for a century, a comparison then may be justly instituted. When woman, instead of being taxed to endow colleges where she is forbidden to enter – instead of forming sewing societies to educate “poor, but pious,” young men, shall first educate herself, when she shall be just to herself before she is generous to others; improving the talents God has given her, and leaving her neighbor to do the same for himself, we shall not hear so much about this boasted superiority . . . .

Stanton was, at least in that way, a situationist – reminding her audience that, contrary to the received wisdom, women’s “place” may well be a reflection of her situation more than her disposition. Not before situations between the sexes are more equal can we begin to make reliable judgments about group-based dispositions.

A century and a half later, the question about whether the “place” of women and men reflects biologically based disposition or situation continues to be an important and provocative one.

In January 2005, former President Lawrence Summers outraged many when, at a conference, he indicated that that innate differences between men and women may help explain why lower proportions of women succeed in math and science careers. In effect, his point was that situations are now sufficiently equal across groups that observed differences in performance between those groups can be attributed, at least in part, to disposition.

The resultant uproar, of course, had adverse consequences for Summers’s already precarious presidency. But the remarks may have,Lawrence Summers consistent with Summers’s purported justification for making them in the first place, provoked some valuable and illuminating responses. In the wake of his comments, several groups of prominent scholars have collaborated in interdisciplinary efforts to try to sort out the extent to which, if at all, sex differences can account for the disproportionality of men to women within certain math and science fields.

For example, in 2006, the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering of the National Academy of Science (NAS) compiled an interesting, if not fully convincing, report that reached the following conclusion: ‘‘It is not lack of talent, but unintentional biases and outmoded institutional structures that are hindering the access and advancement of women.” In other words, it is not disposition, but situation that is hindering the access and advancement of women.

In August (2007), Psychological Science in the Public Interest devoted an issue (titled, “The Science of Sex Differences in Science and Mathematics”) to this question. We have excerpted portions of Susan Barnett’s introduction to that issue below. As things stand today, Barnett’s summary suggests, the issue remains roughly as Elizabeth Cady Stanton described it – we have yet to have a fair trial.

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Unlike the more policy-oriented report of the NAS task force, this article focuses on the scientific evidence regarding the causes of the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields [that is, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. The authors conclude that ‘‘early experience, biological factors, educational policy, and cultural context affect the number of women and men who pursue advanced study in science and math and that these effects add and interact in complex ways’’ . . . . They note that, if readers were expecting a single conclusion, they ‘‘are surely disappointed’’ . . . . Perhaps so, but complex questions rarely have simple answers. . . .

The authors point out that one problem in attributing causation in the area of sex differences is that, although relationships can often be found between variables, the direction of causality is often unclear because experimental manipulation is frequently impossible. For example, the monograph reviews students-math.jpgconsiderable evidence showing that men’s and women’s brains differ, but conclusions are necessarily hard to draw: Is it that innate brain differences cause males and females to have differing interests and abilities? Or are the observed brain differences the consequence of differing experiences? As the authors mention, the brain ‘‘remains plastic into very old age’’ . . . . Similarly, girls’ and boys’ interests also differ, but are males more interested in STEM fields because they are better at them, or could they be better because they are more interested or are socialized to believe they are more competent?

One of the most frequently cited bodies of evidence mentioned in the article, suggesting ability differences as a major cause of the dearth of women in advanced STEM fields, is the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) by Benbow and Stanley. This research program has consistently shown strong male superiority in math aptitude scores for mathematically advanced middle schoolers. However, even these results are open to interpretation. According to the monograph, ‘’25 years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the [mathematics portion of the SAT] at age 13. Now the ratio is only 2.8:1’’ . . . . Such rapid changes suggest strong environmental effects, highlighting [the report’s] caution that ability is an environmentally influenced measure, not a pure measure of innate talent. The finding that international differences in math performance swamp intranational sex differences also suggests that cultural factors play an important role.

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Finally, the ability of women to build successful careers in STEM and other fields is dependent upon the time and effort they can devote to their work. As long as women continue to play a greater role in child rearing than men, they will have fewer hours to invest in their careers. And in demanding fields like science and mathematics, this is likely to affect their success.

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To open a pdf file of Professor Barnett’s introduction, click here. For previous Situationist posts discussing or related to situational sources of sex differences, take a look at “Your Group Is Bad at Math,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” “How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition,”and “The Perils of ‘Being Smart.'” Regarding the plasticity of the brain, see “Brainicize” and “Imagine You Could Change Your Brain.” For a thirty-minute NPR (Talk of the Nation, Science Friday) panel discussion of “Gender Differences and Cognitive Abilities,” click here.

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