The Situationist

Archive for October, 2007

Deep Capture – Part I

Posted by J on October 31, 2007


In 2003, Situationist Contributor David Yosifon and I published an article (“The Situation: An Introduction to the Situational Character, Critical Realism, Power Economics, and Deep Capture,” downloadable here) that introduced to the law-review literature many of the insights and arguments on which this blog is premised and upon which an emerging mountain of legal scholarship is based.

Since The Situationist came online in January, I have been asked numerous times by readers who are unfamiliar with that body of work just what is meant by the term “deep capture.” This series of posts is my attempt to answer that question by relying on existing work. Although “deep capture” has been defined and illustrated in several more recent articles, I thought it was fitting to excerpt portions of “The Situation” to provide the original description and definition of the concept as well as some of the basic evidence that David Yosifon and I first offered.

This post begins with the concept of “shallow capture,” which will provide a starting point from which subsequent posts in this series can build and draw contrasts. (Situationist artist Marc Scheff is providing the remarkable images at the top of each post in this series.)

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“One cannot mention regulatory agencies without adding the observation that, of course, such agencies are likely to be ‘captured’ by the interests they are supposed to regulate. To suggest that matters are any different from this is to mark oneself as hopelessly naïve, or even disingenuous.”

–James Q. Wilson

The basic story of regulatory capture has become so well known–indeed, such a truism–that we think it appropriate to begin as Steven Croley began his recent retelling: “You’ve heard all of this before.”

Because no one wants us to rehearse the details yet again, and because we also value efficiency, we will base our introductory overview on the brief rendition offered by an extremely credible source. In his Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist, George Stigler describes how he came to the work central to his winning the Nobel Prize in Economics. According to Stigler, prior to his work, academic economists writing about state policies commonly offered their advice on “what [the government] should do, or refrain from doing.” They published their normative conclusions naively believing that governments, charged with enhancing the public welfare, would readily heed sound prescriptions. But after “two centuries” of being disregarded on issues like free trade, Stigler and a few other economists came to believe that government officials were not very interested in the “truths” of economics. It was time to “undertake the different and more fundamental task of explaining what states actually do, of discovering what are the forces that determine which policies will actually be adopted by a government.”

Stigler began that undertaking (much of it with co-author Claire Friedland) by examining “the actual effects of economic regulations.” By understanding the effects of regulation, he believed he could infer something about the forces that created the regulation. Through empirical testing unlike any that had previously been conducted, he discovered that several prominent regulatory policies of the 1960s–including the regulation of electricity rates and the SEC’s “elaborate review of the prospectuses for new security issues”–were not having the effects or yielding the benefits that ostensibly motivated them. To be sure, the regulations were creating benefits. The problem was that those benefits were accruing to the wrong recipients. For instance, the beneficiaries of electricity-rate regulation were large commercial customers instead of con-sumer households. Additionally, the effect of the SEC reviews was to inhibit competitionStigler Memoirs and raise the public’s costs.

From these and similar findings, the now-dominant conception of regulation emerged: the “general theory of the behavior of governments” is that “groups possessing political influence use the political process effectively to increase their incomes.” According to the “economics of regulation,” as this approach was initially dubbed, causal relationships and the direction of influences are the reverse of what had been supposed. The seemingly autonomous administrative agency is, upon inspection, captured, and the seemingly constrained industries are liberated and enriched. Consequently, the industry tail wags the regulatory dog. As Stigler laments, “no matter how disinterested the goal of public policy, the policy is bent to help politically influential groups at the cost of the less influential.” And the problem is not just that for every winner, there are losers–the real kicker is that the winners often win less than the losers lose. Regulation is, in a word, inefficient.

The finding that industries tend to benefit from regulation led to another question for Stigler: “Why are some industries and activities regulated by the state, and not others?” One of the most significant developments that emerged from this dismal perspective on regulation was a set of insights regarding the sources of political influence–or, as we would put it, power. As Stigler recounts, economists could explain, for example:

[W]hy smaller groups do better than large in the political arena. [First, t]he smaller group is more cohesive: It is easier to organize the small group, collect funds for lobbying, and keep it informed. There are only about 70,000 beekeepers concentrated in a few western states (yes, there is a federal program for them) but millions of occasional consumers of honey. And secondly, it pays each member of a small group to invest resources in politics, because the payoff will be larger. Each beekeeper gets hundreds of times as much out of the federal program as each taxpayer loses.

Such insights regarding how groups of individuals could effectively coordinate their behavior in pursuit of common interests were more the product of some of Stigler’s contemporaries than of Stigler himself. But before leaving our discussion of Stigler, a few observations are in order regarding his important contributions.

Look carefully at the structure of Stigler’s work–at least as we have summarized it. Stigler was challenging a long-held conventional wisdom that governments and their agencies create beneficial regulations. Underlying that conventional wisdom was the supposition that regulatory processes were fair and that regulators were dispositionally motivated to serve the public interest. Stigler’s challenge to those suppositions was initiated by his discovery that, in fact, a sanguine view of our regulatory institutions had no empirical basis and that, if anything, those institutions’ actions were counterproductive to their espoused goals. To explain the phenomenon, Stigler looked to the outside influences on regulators and described how different groups were able to exert power over the regulators. Thus, Stigler contested the reassuring conventional wisdom that our institutions are neutral and well-functioning and rejected the idea that the stated goals of regulators are controlling. He did so by downplaying dispositional factors and emphasizing situational factors. By taking situation seriously, he raised the issue of power inasmuch as situations are largely defined by allocations and dynamics of power. As Stigler and many others writing in this area have taken for granted (without ever actually using the term), power is central.

In this way, Stigler’s work on the economics of regulation provides a paradigmatic example of power economics. We believe that [our thesis] finds confirmation in the fact that Stigler and other economists stopped there–[it helps explain] why, in other words, neoclassical economics has not evolved into to power economics and why capture theory has not evolved into deep capture theory.

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Part II in this series  (available here) will describe an historical example of “deep capture.”  For a collection of previous Situationist posts discussing or illustrating deep capture, click here.

Posted in Deep Capture, Legal Theory | 9 Comments »

The Situation of “Winners” and “Losers”

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on October 29, 2007

a-rod.jpgBaseball fans face a bit of a puzzle in making sense of the game’s greatest hitters. We’ll get to the puzzle, but, first, some background for the non-aficionados.

Question: who had the most homeruns this season?

The answer is Yankee third-baseman Alex Rodriguez, better known as A-Rod. He muscled 54 home runs during the regular season, a particularly impressive feat given that he plays in Yankee Stadium, which, with its deep left field, has historically been inhospitable to right-handed power hitters. Although the situation has seemed stacked against him power-wise, A-Rod thrived this year–much like he has every season. In fact, A-Rod recently became the youngest player in baseball history to reach 500 career homeruns and he is on track to smash the home-run records set and re-set by the likes of Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, and most recently Barry Bonds. In addition to going yaaarrrrrrd, A-Rod has led the league in runs scored, runs batted in, total bases, and extra-base hits. He also shares the MLB record for most home runs in the month of April, hitting 14 in 2007.

In short, A-Rod is a phenomenal player — arguably the best ever and certainly among the very best in his generation. At least in the regular season, that is.

You see, A-Rod, also known as “Mr. April through September,” has been notoriously unimpressive in the playoffs (though he showed glimmers of is regular-season greatness in this year’s post season). The stats confirm the perceptions and explain the collective disappointment among his home-team fans and the serious doubts relentlessly raised about his ability to hit in the biggest games, when it really matters. NY Post columnist Filip Bondy, for instance, recently lamented, “The same man who homered 54 times during the season hasn’t managed to loop the ball over the infielders’ heads even once.” Similarly, Yankees minority owner Barry Halper drew headlines a couple of years ago for asking, “An A-Rod experience? How about he hits a few balls through the infield in the postseason? That’s the kind of A-Rod experience I’d like.”

So why does A-Rod devolve from the best hitter in baseball to a black hole in the lineup, from MVP to MD[isappointing]P, when it comes playoff time? Does he just not care? Is he lazy? Does he lack the will to win?

Far from it. In fact, A-Rod is one of the most driven players in the game. As Kevin Kernan reported in the New York Post this summer: “Alex Rodriguez’s sprint to 500 home runs is not just about his incredible talent, it’s about work ethic, too. Rodriguez is not only the most talented player in baseball, he is the game’s hardest worker.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, another question and some more background.

So if A-Rod is a post-season home-run dud, who is the post-season dinger king?

being-manny.jpgRed Sox Nation proudly gives you none other than Manny Ramirez, the 2004 World Series MVP who already has 24 post-season homeruns (and counting), more than any other player in the sport’s history, and who leads all players in this year’s playoffs in home runs and runs batted in.

His at-plate prowess notwithstanding, Manny “Who Cares?” Ramirez, may be better known (often inaccurately, in our view) for laziness, detachment, and a lack Red Sox spirit. He’s the kind of player who, through slothful and apathetic base-running, turns a near home-run (and easily a two-bagger) into single, as he did in the AL Championship Series last week against Cleveland. Commentators and fans alike have an expression for his lah-ti-dah recalcitrance — it’s just “Manny being Manny.”

Manny was being Manny again last week when, with the team on the brink of elimination down 3 games to 1, the blasé bopper responded to a question about his team’s dire situation with his own questions: “Why should we panic?” In classic Manny-speak, he went on: “If it doesn’t happen, so who cares? There’s always next year. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.”

To many die-hard Red Sox fans (who know that “next year” may not come around for something closer to a century and who seem to think that planet’s very existence turns on the outcome of a baseball tournament), that sort of talk is barely forgivable. The reaction on sports radio and sports blogosphere was swift and merciless. Consider, for instance, comments by Chris Ruddick of The Sports Network, who blasted Ramirez:

Enough is enough with him . . . he pretty much confirmed what everyone has believed all along — he could care less whether he wins or loses . . . . This winter, though, they should make every effort to get him out of town. Send him to the West Coast, where baseball is treated with nowhere near the intensity it is in Boston. He’d be a perfect fit in Anaheim.

Run’mouttatown! Of course, the fact that losing a baseball game is “not,” in fact, “the end of the world,” was somehow lost on many of Manny’s critics. In the end, Manny was forgiven, not because of the truth of his statements, but because of the pop of his Louisville Slugger which helped propel Boston over Cleveland for a trip to the World Series this year!

A Rod and Manny

So here’s the puzzle: Why does “crewcut A-Rod” with his unparalleled talent and undeniable desire to win, flop in the post-season while “Manny dredlocks” thrives, nonchalantly carrying his team to the big show while rewriting the record books for post-season offense. More succinctly, why does Mr. Baseball falter when Mr. Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy dominates?

One simple answer is that “randomness happens.” It’s true that many apparent “streaks” should be attributed to chance and statistical probability than to the dispositions of those individuals who happen to be on the fortunate or unfortunate side of the same coin. We don’t want to rule that possibility out — in fact, it is a factor that we have emphasized in a previous post and which is the topic of the excellent blog “The Hot Hand in Sports.” But the fact that A-Rod and Manny consistently fizzle and thrive respectively during the playoffs, year after year, suggests that there may be more to the patterns than just happenstance or luck.

So, to solve our puzzle, we think it might be helpful to talk about some lessons from social psychology — lessons that may initially seem to have little relevance for the ballpark.

Researchers have demonstrated that, because of pervasive negative (and positive) group-based stereotypes in our culture, members of those groups are often at risk of being stigmatized (or esteemed) by the stereotype:

“African Americans, for example are likely to be well aware that stereotypes accuse them of being intellectually inferior and aggressive; and women are well aware that stereotype accuse them of being emotional, bad at math, and lacking leadership aptitude.”

As Claude Steele (among others) has detailed, the anticipation of being reduced to a negative stereotype can, in some circumstances, yield a self-fulfilling dynamic, which he calls “stereotype threat.” At-risk individuals often experience a kind of anxiety, self-consciousness, or disruptive psychological state that itself can undermine performance. We have discussed the causes and consequences of stereotype threat in other posts (including “Your Group is Bad at Math,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation,” “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” and “Don W-Ho?.”)

When stereotype threat is activated (for example, when a math test is described as “diagnostic” of intellectual ability), performance is significantly lowered by members of a stigmatized group (though it is “lifted” by members of groups associated positively with intellectual ability). And when the stereotype threat is not activated (for instance, when the same exam is framed as “non-diagnostic” of intellectual ability) the performance of members of the stigmatized group rises (and that of the other group falls). The presence or absence of stereotype threat thus has a significant effect on performance of groups with otherwise comparable skill levels.

As the research has demonstrated, someone who is very talented and accomplished can be reduced to mediocrity or worse when the disruption of stereotype threat kicks in:

“[T]his situational predicament does not require the stigmatized to have any internal doubts about their ability, or their group’s ability, in those domains. In fact, the effects of stereotype threat may be most acutely felt by those individuals who are invested and skilled in the targeted domain, or by those individuals who at least care about the social consequences of being judged incompetent in that domain.”

This suggests another way in which stereotype threat can lose its teeth. Indeed, the research has shown that there are many individuals who are members of a stereotyped group but for whom the risk of being negatively stereotyped along a given domain seems to have no bite – namely, those individuals who do not consider success or failure in that domain an important element of their identity. Put differently, there is no “threat” in stereotype threat when the individual does not care.

Although the long-term implications of “not caring,” would likely harm a person’s performance, “not caring” can be an extremely effective means of improving one’s performance on a specific test on a given day – particularly when the alternative would be caring a great deal while fearing that one will confirm others’ negative expectations.

You see where this is going. Return with us to home plate and the “test” of the major league playoffs. Ian Herbert recently wrote a terrific summary of the psychology of batting. To understand that, it’s necessary to understand something about the “automaticity” of batting (for a related post, see “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players“) Herbert explains that although the game’s greatest hitters make it all seem easy, “the scientific consensus [is] that hitting is basically impossible. That’s right, impossible.” Consider the what’s involved:

A ball thrown by a major league pitcher reaches speeds of 100 m.p.h. and an angular velocity (the speed in degrees at which the ball travels through your field of vision) of more than 500 degrees per second. A typical human can only track moving objects up to about 70 degrees per second. Add to this the fact that it takes longer to swing a bat than it does for a pitch to go from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt, which means a hitter must start his swing before the ball is released and has less than a half a second to change his mind. All that equals impossible.

Part of what makes batting possible is that the professionals are better than average at keeping their eye on the ball — though none can actually continue to watch a pitch from hand to bat. Another part of what makes the impossible feasible is that the pitcher’s pitches are not totally random in terms of placement, velocity, and so on, and the batters can take cues from the pitcher’s body position and arm speed, from the batter’s own situation (the count, the number of outs, and so on), and from the ball’s early location and spin to estimate where the ball will be when it moves from hand to plate a split-second later. Of course, very little of this is conscious and calculated. The body reacts automatically, informed as it is by practicing the fundamentals and fine-tuned by the rewards of successes and the penalties of failures. If you’re really really good, you might just manage to get a hit thirty percent of the time.

What about the clutch-hitting situation? Is there any reason that one’s performance could be affected by the importance of the moment? Ian Herbert writes:

Research dating back to a 1984 study by Florida State’s Roy Baumeister . . . and including work by . . . Sian Beilock [at University of Chicago] suggests that if you put a player in a pressure situation, he develops a greater than normal self-focus — what we colloquially call trying too hard. When you learn a process like a baseball swing, it is important to practice it step-by-step, and novice hitters actually think through their actions of shifting their weight, rotating their hips, and so forth. But experts do this naturally. Indeed, . . . when expert hitters were asked to focus on a particular part of their swing, it adversely affected their performance.

In other words, if a batter begins thinking about an otherwise automatic process or otherwise becomes self-conscious, performance suffers. And here we think that the lessons of stereotype threat and of batter’s-box psychology converge.


Why does Rodriguez seem to fall apart when the season is on the line? We suspect, you guessed it, that A-Rod may care too much and, consequently, must deal with the added anxiety that a lackluster performance will confirm the negative conception of him as a post-season loser, a conception that has been haunting him for years. It is as if, in the big games, he’s saddled with the proverbial monkey, which prevents him from relaxing and allowing his own motor memory to do what it otherwise clearly knows how to do.

We recognize that, in a way, this is not news. Many commentators, such as Selena Roberts of the New York Times, believe that A-Rod has tried too hard to succeed when it matters the most, which in turn has caused him to fail (since his mechanics are adversely affected and he is no longer “in the zone” that serves him so well during the regular season). Others summarize A-Rod’s stats with a single word: “choke.” Indeed, the folks at have compiled a list of associated names, including “Please Opt Out Rod,” “Buzzkill,” “Mr. Springtraining,” and, of course, “Choke-Fraud.” Along those lines, sports blogger Josh Bacott explains that “the name Alex Rodriguez has become synonymous with . . . shrinking at the moments his team needs him most.”

What social psychology helps us do is better understand the source of A-Rod’s difficulty in clutch games and to understand that there is nothing particularly unusual or unforgivable about it. But it does more than that.

If the stereotype-threat analogy has any relevance, it helps us see that the problem is not a function merely of A-Rod’s disposition (as the kind of person who is “clutch” or the kind of person who “chokes”); it also reflects the expectations and conceptions in A-Rod’s situation, surrounding him like the chalk of the batter’s box or the love-him-when-he-succeeds-but-despise-him-when-he-fails fans. And those expectations, reactions, and resultant anxieties may be a big part of what leads to the pop-ups, double-play balls, and strikeouts that disproportionately characterize his playoff at bats. When sports writers and commentators and fans dispositionalize a player as “Mr. Clutch” or as “Mr. Choke,” they are influencing what they assume they are only describing. Blaming A-Rod is, at least in part, creating A-Rod.

At the very moment when A-Rod is attempting to be the hero or avoid being the villain, he ought to be watching the pitch. For most players, that is easier said than done — unless, perhaps, you’re a very strange bird . . . unless, in other words, you’re Manny Ramirez.

“Being Manny” and “not caring very much” at the dish may be the best way for a good hitter to be great. And, if you look at what the experts have to say about Manny’s notorious apathy, they seem to understand that it may well be the secret to his success. In response to Manny’s scandalous comments last week, Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said: “When I hear that I say, that’s why Manny Ramirez is the kind of hitter that he is. There is a certain relaxation about Manny.”


“Calmness, yes, [he] essentially has it at all times. And when he’s got a bat in his hand he uses it effectively because of that focus. He’s just not tight. He was trying to say ‘you know, let’s don’t panic. We’re going out and play this game. We’re going to have fun . . . that’s how I took it. . . . I think what you see in that is the essential Manny Ramirez, and one reason why for seven consecutive years we’ve seen an exceptional offensive [player].” This “calmness,” of course, is not meant to suggest that Ramirez lacks effort. In fact, as Bruce Allen of Boston Sports Media Watch carefully notes, Ramirez is renowned for his pre-game hitting preparation. Still, as his teammate and possible 2007 American League MVP, Mike Lowell, has said, Ramirez “has a [hitting] ability that I don’t understand . . . it’s just unbelievable.”

In the long run, athletes and others face a kind of trade-off between being committed to hard work — and all the elements associated with a “winning attitude” over the long haul — and to something like apathy or nonchalance when it comes to execution. True, practicing can make the impossible simple, but caring too much can make the simple impossible again.

If our argument has any validity, it suggests an unconventional lesson: the secret to success is, at least at times, not caring. In a world in which many assume that winners and losers are determined by “heart,” “will,” “a sense of urgency,” “the eye of the tiger,” and so on, Manny reminds us that maybe we can succeed by keeping things in perspective. “Winning attitudes” are great, but there’s a lot to be said for a a little ho-hum mixed in. Why is it always “Manny being Manny?” Maybe more people, including Alex Rodriguez, should consider “being Manny.”

But that’s not the “lesson” that motivated this post. We’re not really that concerned about explaining the divergent records of two great baseball players. Our hope is to help raise a possibility that might be a little harder to accept. That is, performance on “tests” that our society routinely uses to determine, not the outcome of a ballgame, but the opportunities and resources that individuals receive — that is, the winners and losers in “life”– may largely reflect the same sort of phenomena. Scores on exams that help determine, among other things, which applicants gain admittance to which colleges or have a shot at which jobs, may reflect something as seemingly trivial as self-fulfilling expectations and stereotypes and not simply be, as commonly supposed, a means of separating the “deserving” from the “undeserving.”

We’ll have more to say about this in subsequent posts.

Posted in Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 6 Comments »

Situationist Theories of Hate – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 28, 2007

hate1.jpgSocial Psychologist Alexander Gunz just published a thoughtful and surprisingly fun summary of social psychological theories about why we humans seem to “hate” so readily and so often. The full article is in the latest edition of In-Mind, which we highly recommend. We are excerpting portions of Gunz’s informative and entertaining article in this series of posts. Part I provided Gunz’s introduction to the topic of hate and a brief overview of the personality-based explanation by social psychologists (which we would describe as “internal situational” sources of hate. This post includes Gunz’s discussion of some of the external situational sources of hate first discovered by social psychologists.

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In 1954, psychologist Muzafer Sherif spent a summer dressed as a janitor at a summer camp to which he had brought two dozen perfectly normal 12 year old boys. In this classic study the boys were divided into two separately housed groups, who spontaneously took on names for themselves – the Eagles and the Rattlers.

There, he tried out one of the oldest, gold plated, tried and true, best ways to get people to hate each other: finding something they both can’t have. Historically speaking, jobs, land, money, churches, all have been favourites. Sports leagues have used this principle for years with silver cups. Psychologists call it the realistic threat hypothesis. A quick glance at those sports leagues will show that the prize doesn’t have to be realistically valuable, though, just somehow real. Still, honor and prestige are both real to human minds, as is “truth,” that most hard-fought-over piece of mental real estate. Get people excited about any of the above, and you’re well positioned for a launch down the well-trodden road to belligerent disrespect.

In his test of this theory, Sherif started his boys playing competitive games against each other after a few days. He offered prizes such as penknives, with the losing team receiving nothing. Within days, tauntings and food fights escalated to the point that the boys refused to eat meals in the same room. The campers began playing pranks on each other, stealing each others’ flags, and behaving in a generally rotten and scurrilous manner.

This may sound like nothing more than child’s play, but adults, too, respond to competition. As the anthropologist Thomas J. Schoeneman noted in 1975, witch hunts worldwide tend to follow closely after social turmoil. They peaked in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries when churches fell under siege from science and monarchs, they peaked in Massachusetts when Puritan influence there came under intense fire, and they peaked in Washington when China and the USSR loomed as threats. Meanwhile, a paranoid Stalin was holding witch hunts of his own. This isn’t a uniquely Western phenomenon; similar, if less murderous, patterns have been observed in Africa.

Competition, then, can spur prejudice. But if you look carefully at what happened in the Sherif experiment, the boys actually started taunting each other before competitive games were introduced –though they were still happy to eat together at that point. This illustrates another psychological finding, albeit one that has only come to be fully understood only recently: ingroup biases really don’t take much to get started.

Henri Tajfel’s minimal ingroup experiment is famed for illustrating just how little is required. He asked boys to guess how many dots were shown on a speckled slide and subsequently announced they were over- or underestimators. Next the boys distributed points (that were exchangeable for money) amongst each other. They tended to give more to those who were the same ‘type’ as themselves. They had spent mere minutes as a member of this transparently meaningless ingroup, and yet were already showing favoritism! Before you wonder which type you are, and how you can spot members of the other kind so you can fleece them, know this: Tajfel decided which type they were based on a coin flip, rather than anything they actually did. The kinships of “overestimators” with other “overestimators” wasn’t just flimsy, it was completely fictitious.
Now short-changing a stranger for a few bucks is a long way from, say, burning them as a witch, or blowing them up in a market place. But then being told you’re an “overestimator” is also a long way from discovering a wave of heretics threatening your way of life, or foreign soldiers patrolling the place you call home. It’s amazing that such a small prod produced any response at all.

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Schoeneman, T. J. (1975). The witch hunt as a culture change phenomenon. Ethos, 3, 529-554.

Sherif, M. (1961). Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation; The Robbers Cave Experiment. Norman, Oklahoma: University Book Exchange. Retrieved from

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7-24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

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Part III of this series is available here.  For previous Situationist posts on how competition can encourage prejudice and disrespect, see “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball” and “March Madness.”


Posted in Emotions, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 7 Comments »

Situationist Theories of Hate – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 27, 2007

hate-image.jpgSocial Psychologist Alexander Gunz just published a thoughtful and surprisingly fun summary of social psychological theories about why we humans seem to “hate” so readily and so often. The full article is in the latest edition of In-Mind, which we highly recommend. We will excerpt portions of Gunz’s informative and entertaining article in this post and several to follow. This post provides Gunz’s introduction to the topic of hate and a brief overview of the personality-based explanation by social psychologists (which we would describe as “internal situational” sources of hate).

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Humans are passionate creatures. Our passions drive us, gives us a sense of belonging, and unite us as few other things can. Still, there are only a couple of passions that have been constants down the ages, passions that people from every place and culture can agree on. Love is one, but another is that “those no-good bastards over there are trouble.” Of course, we quibble endlessly over the exact definition of “those” — every culture, pretty much, has had a different group in mind. But the singular fact of prejudice per se was as recognizable in Ancient Greece, Rome, and Samaria as it is now in modern Greece, Rome, and Arkansas.

Not only do we disagree over who Those Bastards Over There (TBOT) are, but also over why we hate them so much. Nose size has been cited in the past as a reason, as has intellectual capacity (too much or too little), and bad manners (eating without implements, eating with implements, etc). Hate may be a massively universal thing, but we are shockingly divided over why we do it. Personally, I blame TBOT.

Psychologists, though, (hate us or loathe us) aren’t as sanguine about not knowing, and have spent a great deal of time investigating prejudice in its many guises. They have come to two broad classes of answers: (a) Reasons we hate each other, and (b) Reasons we think we hate each other. There’s not as much overlap between those two as you might hope.

Why We Hate – A First Stab at Them It.

Scientific psychology started getting seriously interested in prejudice just after the Second World War. There’s nothing like a conspicuous mountain of corpses to really get you going on the question of hate.

The first really influential answer that psychology came to was not the ever popular theory that “some people are just jerks,” but neither was it far off. A German intellectual called Theodor W. Adorno released a book in 1950 called “The Authoritarian Personality,” in which he detailed research on his “F-scale.” This scale was designed to pick out people who were, among other things, conventional minded, uncritically accepting of authority, and accepting of the need for authorities to aggressively apply their power. He called it the F-scale, because he thought it would pick out people prone to fascism. Other people pointed out that it might not do a bad job picking out Soviet style communists either, but as a committed Marxist Adorno wasn’t as taken with this application.

These ideas have been updated as the construct of “Right Wing Authoritarianism,” about which the leading authority, Bob Altemeyer, has written a highly readable book which is available for free online HERE. New research (e.g. [Situationist Contributor] Jost, 2006) is adding to this showing that people who are very low in the commonly measured “openness to experience” construct seem to be more likely to be both right wing, and prejudiced.

Psychologists have long noted people’s over-fondness (at least in the western world) for explaining actions in terms of the personalities of the actors involved. It is therefore not really surprising that personality-based explanations were the first ones to occur to psychologists too. However, we tend to neglect the possibility that sometimes people fall because they are tripped and not just because they are clumsy. In fact, this bias is so commonplace that psychologists have named it the fundamental attribution error. Might psychologists have fallen prey to this bias that they are so keen to note in others? Might hate come from one’s circumstances too, rather than only just ornery dispositions?

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Altemeyer, R. (2006). The Authoritarians. Retrieved from

Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. Oxford, England: Harpers.

Jost, J. T. (2006). The End of the End of Ideology. American Psychologist, 61, 651-670.

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Part II of this series is available here.  To read John Jost’s Situationist post on this topic, go toIdeology is Back!” To read his longer article published in volume 61 of the American Psychologist, pp. 651-670 (2006), go toThe End of the End of Ideology.” The next post in this series will include some of Gunz’s discussion of the possible external situational sources of prejudice and hate.

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Social Psychology | 7 Comments »

Neural Origins of Optimism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 26, 2007


In a previous posts, we described “optimism bias” (see “Self-Serving Biases“) and some of its effects (see “Some Situational Sources of War” and “The Situation of College Debt“). Researchers at New York University this week report discovering a neural network that might generate that common tendency toward great expectations. We excerpt the press release from Science Daily below.

* * *

As humans, we expect to live longer and be more successful than average, and we underestimate our likelihood of getting a divorce or having cancer. The results, reported in Nature, link the optimism bias to the same brain regions that show irregularities in depression.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the laboratory of NYU Professor Elizabeth Phelps. The lead author is Tali Sharot, now a post-doctoral fellow at University College London.

The NYU researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain function while participants thought of possible future life events (such as “winning an award” or “the end of a romantic relationship”).

“When participants imagined positive future events relative to negative ones, enhanced activation was detected in the rostral anterioramygdala.gif cingulate and amygdala, which are the same brain areas that seem to malfunction in depression,” said Sharot. “Activation of the rostral anterior cingulate was correlated with trait optimism, with more optimistic participants showing greater activity in this region when imagining future positive events.”

The team found that participants were more likely to expect positive events to happen closer in the future than negative events, and to imagine them with greater vividness.

“Our behavioral results suggest that while the past is constrained, the future is open to interpretation, allowing people to distance themselves from possible negative events and move closer toward positive ones,” said Phelps, a professor of psychology and neural science. “Understanding optimism is critical as optimism has been related to physical and mental health. On the other hand, a pessimistic view is correlated with severity of depression symptoms.”

The brain imaging findings offer a possible mechanism mediating the behaviorally observed optimism bias. The rostral anterior cingulate has previously been shown to be involved in the regulation of emotional responses. The current results suggest that in healthy individuals this region may help integrate and regulate emotional and autobiographical information to generate a positive view of the future.

* * *

For a previous Situationist post discussing research by the Phelps Lab, see “Law & the Brain.”

Posted in Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

I’m Objective, You’re Biased

Posted by Emily Pronin on October 24, 2007

Image by Marc Scheff -

Take a look around and you’ll witness bias virtually everywhere you turn. Even professionals and those charged with making objective decisions are surprisingly biased. Take, for example, the judgment-distorting influence of self-interest: Recent news reports have described the biasing effect on doctors of receiving gifts from pharmaceutical representatives, on “independent” financial auditors of taking paychecks from the companies they audit, on “representative” politicians of receiving support from their most “generous” constituents, and on research scientists of accepting funding from sponsors with an agenda. Depending on your perspective, one part or another of the media is obviously biased. In the sports world, referees and umpires often seem less than fully neutral. And on the bench, even robed judges sometimes appear to have one finger on the scale.


At the same time that the world around us seems overflowing with biased actors, we are often surprised, even offended, to have to defend our own judgments and decisions against the charge of bias – especially when we are certain that we have acted with the utmost integrity.

To each of us, it seems as clear that others are biased as it is plain that we are not.

My colleagues Daniel Lin, Lee Ross, and I referred to that asymmetry in perceptions of bias, whereby people often readily detect the presence of bias in others while at the same time denying it in themselves, as a “bias blind spot”.

In a recent series of experiments, graduate student Matthew Kugler and I tracked down a source of this phenomenon. It lies in the unconscious nature of bias, coupled with people’s unwarranted faith in the value of their conscious introspections (that is, their thoughts, motives, intentions, etc.), which people consult to assess their own bias.

Because bias tends to occur non-consciously, searching for it in one’s explicit thoughts is a little like looking for one’s car in the refrigerator. In assessing other peoples’ bias, however, we tend to look at their behavior. Although people’s actions are certainly an imperfect indicator of non-conscious bias, it’s about as close as one is generally going to get to peering into the garage.

Consider the following example. One of your colleagues just hired his old college buddy for the new associate position. In judging whether his decision was biased, your colleague might recall his conscious efforts to be objective in reviewing the pool of applicants, or he might simply recall not feeling any signs of bias clouding his assessments. From his perspective, he hired someone he liked and felt was best qualified for the position. While his introspections thus leave him confident that his selection was objectively made, his behavior would likely leave you confident in that it wasn’t.

One reason for those contrasting conclusions is that people have access to their own thoughts, feelings, and intentions, but are in the dark when it comes to those of others. Our own thoughts come to us as a bright beacon while those of others are a black box. A more subtle distinction, though, motivated our most recent research. We wondered if people’s focus on others’ actions, rather than their inner thoughts and intentions, reflected more than just a lack of introspective illumination. More specifically, we wanted to examine if it also reflected an asymmetry in people’s beliefs about the relative credibility of their own thoughts and intentions versus those of others.

In terms of the college-buddy example, that is, we predicted that knowing your coworker’s intention to be fair and his faith in the talents of an old pal (and knowing his absence of any willful bias) would not radically change your (or other onlookers’) perceptions of his bias. And that is what we found: people’s lack of reliance on others’ introspections is in part due to a diminished valuation of those introspections.


In one experiment, we had subjects take a purported social intelligence test, gave them negative feedback about their score, and then asked them to evaluate the quality of the test after first thinking aloud about it. Later, when those subjects were asked whether they had been biased in their evaluation of the test, they ignored their evaluation of the test and instead focused on their thoughts and motives. Those thoughts and motives yielded no signs of bias, and therefore the subjects assumed that their evaluations were objective. A separate group of subjects in that experiment did not take the test but instead observed a peer take it and evaluate its validity. Those observer subjects tended to take a different approach to assessing the presence of bias. Although they heard the test-takers’ thoughts, they ignored them. Instead, they looked to the test-takers’ behavior and, in particular, to whether the test takers claimed that the test was invalid right after performing poorly on it. Thus, they attended to a peer’s actions for assessing that peer’s bias, while the subjects themselves relied on internal information to assess their own bias.

In another experiment, we asked participants to report their susceptibility to various classic biases that distort human judgment. These included the self-serving bias (taking too much credit for successes and too little credit for failures), the fundamental attribution error (mistakenly viewing people’s outcomes as a function of their personality rather than their circumstances), and the halo effect (viewing people as positive on numerous dimensions when they are known to be positive on one). Those subjects showed the usual tendency to view themselves as less biased than their peers. When asked how they made their judgment, they reported considering their own intentions, but their peers’ behavior. In a follow-up experiment, we asked them how valuable they felt introspective information versus behavioral information would be in making judgments about bias. They reported that introspective information would be valuable in assessing their own bias, but believed that it would not be as valuable for other people to use introspective information when assessing their bias; rather, they suggested, others should look to behavior.

Inspired by those findings, we conducted another experiment to test a possible strategy for reducing people’s bias blind spot. That strategy involved teaching people that their judgments can be affected by processes (such as biases) that operate unconsciously. Such education, we reasoned, could help people to recognize their susceptibility to bias by preventing them from relying on introspective evidence of it. In our experiment, some subjects read a fabricated article informing them about the role of nonconscious processes in judgment, and about people’s lack of awareness when they are influenced by unconscious processes. Other subjects were in a control condition and did not read that article. Both groups read a filler article masking our true interests. Then, in an ostensibly separate experiment, participants were asked to indicate their personal susceptibility relative to their student peers to a variety of different judgmental biases. The result was that participants who had been educated about nonconscious processes (and the perils of relying on introspection) saw themselves as no more objective than their peers, unlike those in the control condition. The two conditions differed significantly from each other, indicating that the intervention reduced the bias blind spot.

People’s willingness to recognize their own biases is, of course, an important first step in prompting them to correct for and overcome those influences. Once people are able to recognize that they can be biased without knowing it, perhaps they can stop relying on their good intentions and introspectively clean consciences for evidence of their own freedom from biases that range from corrupt, to discriminatory, to unfairly conflictual behavior. From that more humble starting point, they may be more open to engaging in efforts to rid themselves of their own biases and to understanding how others can be biased without knowing it. Such efforts are not just scientifically sensible, they are socially wise.

* * *

For a sampling of scholarship related to topics discussed in this post, see the following:

For some previous Situationist posts on related topics, see “Mistakes Were Made (but not be me),” “Lima Beans–Yuch! (Why Wanting Not To Be Prejudiced May Not Be Enough),” “Self-Serving Biases,” “Captured Science,” “Unlevel Playing Fields: From Baseball Diamonds to Emergency Rooms,” “The Situation of Judging,” “Industry-Funded Research – Part I,” and “Industry-Funded Research – Part II.”

Posted in Conflict, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | 6 Comments »

The Situation of College Debt – Part IV

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 23, 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. 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. To read the second in this series, which looks at some of the ways that credit card companies recruit student debtors, click here. The third post, linkable here, in the theories examines the hidden tuition of university credit cards.

This post excerpts Silver-Greenberg’s article, “Selling Students into Credit-Card Debt,” which examines some of the steps lawmakers are taking to curb the the most egregious strategies of credit card companies.

* * *

Citibank pitched an offer at Ohio State University that few college students would refuse: free food. The bank plastered the Columbus campus with advertisements for free sandwiches at a local haunt, Potbelly. The only catch? Students had to submit a credit-card application before any free food crossed the counter.

The food-for-credit application scheme caught the attention of Ohio’s attorney general, Marc Dann, who sued Citibank on Sept. 19, alleging that the campus advertisements violated the state’s consumer-protection laws. Dann has partnered with students and professors at Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law to prosecute the suit, which accuses Citibank of using bait-and-switch advertising, failing to clearly state conditions of the offer, and tempting students with a prize without disclosing all the conditions. The suit seeks more accountability in credit-card marketing practices. “Citibank is starting out the marketing deceptively and banking on the fact that these kids won’t read the fine print,” Dann says.

Citibank maintains that it never condoned the advertising, and is pursuing its own investigation of the ad. “The practices alleged in the complaint are not approved Citibank practices and if true, they were not condoned nor authorized by Citibank,” says company spokesman Sam Wang. . . .

* * *

As concern over student debt levels rises, lawmakers and campuses nationwide have turned their attention to credit-card issuers and marketing practices aimed at students. California, Oklahoma, and Texas recently passed laws restricting credit-card marketing on public campuses, joining 15 other states that already had such restrictions in place. In California, credit-card marketers can’t lure students with free gifts; in Oklahoma, colleges can no longer sell student information for credit-card marketing purposes; and in Texas, on-campus credit-card marketing was curtailed, permitting marketing only on limited days and in certain locations.

However, beyond the recent legislation, another type of state-sanctioned credit-card marketing escapes serious scrutiny: affinity cardloyala-mc.jpg contracts and marketing. Virtually every major university boasts a multimillion-dollar affinity relationship with a credit-card company. Under these deals, the university can receive $10 million or more in exchange for offering credit-card companies exclusive access to students, alumni, and professors at school athletic events. In some cases, the deals require schools to provide student e-mail addresses and phone numbers to the card-issuing bank. As state funding shrinks for public universities, such deals grow.

These deals provide a steady income stream for the university, but at what cost to students? Consumer advocates argue that these contracts allow schools to profit from student debt. In many cases, universities actually get a cut of overall charges on the school-backed card, raising questions about conflicts and whether schools negotiate the best deals for student and alumni.

What’s more, typically the worse a card’s financial terms are for students and alumni, the bigger the profit for the school. These deals potentially weaken schools’ ability to protect students from aggressive marketing tactics, high interest rates, onerous debt loads, and deceptive billing practices. “You have to wonder whether the university is doing everything they can to reduce student debt, when there is a clear financial conflict of interest,” says Travis Plunkett, legislative director for the Consumer Federation of America ( Diane Wagner, a Bank of America spokeswoman, says that 98% of affinity card holders are alumni and other nonstudents. “There are real benefits to the cardholder including reward points and cash-back bonuses,” Wagner says. “Alumni are showing pride in their schools by becoming cardholders.” She declined to comment on whether the cards pose a conflict of interest.

* * *

Even as Dann mounts his case against Citibank, another credit-card issuer, Bank of America, has exclusive access to Ohio State’s students through an affinity contract it negotiated with the alumni association. The contract could pour millions into state coffers. Few such deals are disclosed, but those that are offer a glimpse at the money at stake.

The University of Tennessee recently signed a deal with Chase worth $10 million—roughly $384 per student at a school with an enrollment of 26,038. If Ohio State—with the nation’s largest enrollment of more than 59,000—signed a similar pact, it could potentially be worth more than $22 million. Yet the particular terms of the contract, brokered through the alumni association and not subject to open contract laws, is shrouded in secrecy. “It’s between us and Bank of America,” says Jay Hansen, a spokesman for the Ohio State alumni association. Except the contract isn’t just between those two, because it also involves students who are subjected to marketing at athletic events. Hansen contends that the marketing efforts are largely directed at alumni and fans. “The affinity agreement gives us the opportunity to vet a card for our alumni, and make sure that it’s a good card, while offering a quality financial product to alumni and fans,” he says.

* * *
The affinity contracts also have forced legislators to dilute proposed laws to preserve the privileges promised the banks through these affinity deals. Oklahoma State Senator Jim Reynolds (R-Oklahoma City), authored a bill this year that banned universities from selling student information to card companies for st-johns-mc.jpgmarketing purposes. Initially, Reynolds had sought to ban card companies entirely from college campuses statewide. But the University of Oklahoma protested the ban because it already had promised Bank of America exclusive access to market credit cards in exchange for $1 million per year.

Such an arrangement represented “a fight that we wouldn’t have won,” Reynolds says. In California, lawmakers passed a bill that bans credit-card companies from getting students to sign up for plastic with free gifts, like pizza, T-shirts, or Frisbees, on all public school campuses. But a key provision in the bill that would have required public colleges to disclose credit-card marketing arrangements was considerably weakened before the bill went to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. To ensure its passage, the bill’s authors added the phrase “with the exception of proprietary information” to the bill. That one change negated the bill’s intended transparency, since schools can use the exception to shield critical details of their contracts by citing them as proprietary. “The students are wondering, are we being sold to the highest bidder?” says Chris Vaeth, director of special projects with the Greenlining Institute (, a left-leaning public policy institute that wrote the bill.

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To read the entire article, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Law, Public Policy | 2 Comments »

Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!

Posted by J on October 21, 2007

Several weeks ago, as part of its much lauded “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty,” Unilever released “Onslaught,” a video (above) examining disturbing images of women in beauty-industry advertising. The video ends with this admonition to parents: “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.”

Dove Self-Esteem Page ImageIt’s a powerful video with a disturbing collection of images. The situation of our daughters — and, by the way, our sons — seems both overwhelming and diabolical. Read the comments about the film on the Dove website discussion board, and you can feel the love and gratitude that viewers, particularly mothers, feel toward Dove for this film.

Skimming the first ten comments, one finds these reviews and remarks:

“This is a POWERFUL little film for sure”; ” I love the message behind the Dove movies/ads”; “I applaud Dove once again”; ” I think this film is wonderful!”; “I applaud Dove for launching their campaign of what beauty really is”; “Kudos to DOVE for taking a stand”; “My reaction to ‘Onslaught’ is that I want to cry”; and “Thank you for launching this campaign as it is way overdue.”

There’s a problem that is easily lost when one contemplates the impressive production that “Onslaught” represents and the possibility that at least some corporations just may be our friends — the kind of friend who cares about our kids and who we can trust to help teach our children the valuable messages about what “real beauty” is and about the traps and dangers of our shared environment.

No, there are actually several problems.

Onslaught ImageTo begin with, although Dove claims to “provide[] a refreshingly real alternative for women who recognise that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes,” even the Dove models seem to fit quite comfortably within a slightly expanded perimeter of conventional conceptions of beauty. The young girls, for instance, who represent “our children” in the film “Onslaught” are exceptionally attractive children even by commercially influenced cultural standards.

The same is true for the models in the Real Beauty campaign — yes, there is variety, but the variety is measured in small deviations around an average that is itself only a tiny enlargement of the single standard of beauty given to us by those other beauty products. In other words, Dove’s claim that beauty comes in “all shapes and sizes” seems to mean that beauty comes in “a few more shapes and sizes — particularly if the women are laughing and playing together in their underwear.”

Dove Models Real Beauty Campaign

What is the implicit message to those girls and women who don’t measure up to even the “lowered” Dove standard? And what is the message of these particular images — where groups of young women reveal their “inner beauty” by standing in their underwear touching, rubbing, and giggling?

There may be another even more troubling feature of these ads. Telling parents to “talk to [their] daughters before the beauty industry does,” is equivalent to telling parents to teach their children how to float in thin air before gravity gets to them. The beauty industry “talks” to our children either directly or indirectly at virtually every waking moment, and, I suspect, during many of our children’s dreams. If you don’t agree, just watch “Onslaught” again. Those images set the beauty standard not simply for the young girls who strive to slim down and measure up, but also of their friends and families and society at large. Those cultural expectations and pressures enmesh our children even when the ads and posters are briefly out of sight.

Parents fortunate enough to have the time, energy, and resources to “talk to their children” meaningfully and consistently about “real beauty” might be able to hold their children up against the force of gravity for a brief spell. Eventually, though, the “onslaught” of commercial images and messages will take its toll. After all, the barrage is incessant, multidirectional, and credible. Existing beauty standards matter in the lives of those who do, and those who do not, meet them. A parent’s words are among the least frequent, least credible, and least relevant words that their adolescent children will hear, particularly when it comes to questions of beauty and social acceptance among their peers. In fact, by even focusing on the problematic standards of beauty that their children face, parents risk underscoring and strengthening the power of that standard.

Ideas for Moms and Mentors Websiste ImageThe “Onslaught” video may itself have that effect by bringing into relief the current unforgiving and unrealizable standard of beauty that now dominates our culture. Thus, while the “Onslaught” video urges parents to “talk to your daughters,” it probably should add “but don’t show them this video” which all-too-clearly highlights the undernourished and oversexualized prototypes of “beauty.”

A parent’s task is made that much more difficult by the fact that commercial marketing is not simply teaching our children about the importance and meaning of “beauty,” it is also pitting parents and kids against one another — from encouraging children to “nag” for more stuff to undermining the credibility and authority of parental limits or advice. (For fascinating and detailed accounts of the consumerist kidnapping, you can read Susan Linn’s Consuming Kids or Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy — if time permits, both are worth reading. For an excellent website covering these topics, visit the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.)

Do not misunderstand: I accept that some parents may be able to make some difference — or, as a parent of three, I hope that is true. My point is that parents are competing against a force that is far larger than any one of us, a force not of our choosing.

As Cornel West and Sylvia Ann Hewlett have written:

[S]imply heaping blame on overburdened moms and dads will not solve our problems. Modern-day mothers and fathers, like those before them, struggle to put children at the center of their lives. But major impediments and obstacles stand in their way, undermining their most valiant efforts. From early in the morning till late at night, America’s parents are battered by all kinds of pressures, most of which are not of their making.

It seems peculiar, therefore, that Dove would offer a film demonstrating the ubiquitous attack of the beauty industry that ends with the suggestion to parents that they are the ones to make a difference by simply talking to their kids. If the industry is the problem, it strikes me as odd that the parents are supposed to be the solution.

“Peculiar?” “Odd?” Maybe the word “suspicious” is a better fit. Telling parents to talk to their children is not unusual as a public relationsPhilip Morris Talk to your Kids; They’ll Listen strategy. For instance, Philip Morris, among other companies, has long been pushing that message in its “public service” ads, particularly since the industry began to face a real threat of tort liability in the 1990s. The message seems public-spirited, but most industry analysts believe that Philip Morris is delivering, not a public-service message to parents, but a responsibility-shifting message to the public: kids smoke because of uninvolved or irresponsible parents, not because of anything that Philip Morris has done. (For a discussion of how the fast food industry has engaged in similar attribution-shifting tactics, you can link to an article by Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, David Yosifon, and me by clicking here.)

To add to my suspicions, many of the comments on the Dove website indicate that those who watch the video are concluding that the problem created by the beauty industry should be solved by parents — as if the industry conduct is immutable and the key variable to protecting our children is the presence or absence of good parenting.

Here is a sample of comments — again, from the first ten on the Dove website discussion page:

“I do NOT condone the way a lot of families allow their children to become obese”; “[S]hame on their parents for letting this affect their child”; “The media is not totally to blame”; “I do believe that it is the job of the parent to their daughters. I have read articles describing girls at 16 and younger getting plastic surgery and breast augmentation. What’s wrong with those parents??”; “it all starts in the home and with the kind of role model a mother is to her daughter”; and “I do agree that it is up to parents to educate children about what is right and what is wrong.”

If Dove were attempting to shift responsibility to parents for the “beauty” preoccupation of adolescent girls, it seems to be working. But, still, why would Dove do that?

One plausible answer is that they wouldn’t. Dove is selling soap, not tobacco. Any suspicions that one might have about the Philip Morris campaign do not translate easily to the message of the “Onslaught” video. To be sure, Dove may be criticizing the rest of the beauty industry and its standards to maximize its own profits; expressing concern (genuine or not) about our children might be a saavy route to getting our dollars. Selling “real beauty” instead of “commercialized beauty” seems a brilliant strategy for distinguishing Dove products form those of its competitors and for attracting that group of consumers who fancy themselves beautiful, but who want to reject the standards of “unreal beauty” set by those other beauty product ads. The returns indicate that this plus-sized marketing strategy has been immensely profitable. But that sort of profit-seeking does not seem particularly nefarious. As one commenter on the Dove website puts it:dove-model.jpg

“Good for Dove to tackle the ‘real beauty’ of women. As a former, public relations professional it’s hard for me not to be cynical of the company’s dollar-driven agenda, but I’m moved by the campaign and hopeful that others will follow suit in responsible social marketing.”

If it’s profitable for Dove to push meekly against the tide of commercial messages, more power to them, right? Philip Morris, in contrast, is attempting to shift blame that otherwise would be placed on them through law suits, legislation, and regulation or through reduced consumption by an angry public. Dove does not face those potential costs or public relations problems, so why would they want to shift responsibility from the beauty industry toward parents?

The second plausible answer is more troubling.

Dove is not, as most people seem to imagine, a company devoted to helping parents and their children in their battles against the polluting and quasi-pornographic images and messages of commercialized beauty products. Dove is not a person, and Dove is not a friend.

vaseline-ad.jpgDove is a brand — one member of a “family” of brands owned by the company Unilever. If Dove were a person, then, Unilever would be its parent. And, in light of that relationship, the question is, not whether Dove would have an incentive to shift responsibility to parents for the practices of the beauty industry, but whether Unilever would. Is Unilever acting responsibly by doing its part to stem the “onslaught”? If not, is it possible that that is because Unilever has the same sort of incentive that Big Tobacco has for shifting responsibility to others for the consequence of their own culpable conduct?

When one gives some thought to that question, the “real beauty” campaign begins to look a little ugly.

Unilever, as a company, seems uninterested in expanding our conceptions of beauty, much less in helping parents confront the problem of beauty-industry marketing. Unilever is not part of the solution; in fact, Unilever — one of the largest manufacturers of cosmetics, skin lighteners, diet products, and the like — may be one of the worst offenders.

A previous Situationist post has already detailed some of the ways that Unilever helps to set and reinforce harmful beauty standards with its products and marketing. (See “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.”) But there is more to say . . . or show.

In fact, the cascade of objectifying images in the “Onslaught” video seem surprisingly tame when compared to some of the actual ads for other Uniliver products. Consider, for example the following two ads for Lynx body spray, a male deodorant that seems to promise more than just deodorizing (indeed, the product slogan is “Spray More. Get More”):

According to the Dove website, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is a global effort that is intended to serve as a starting point for societal change and act as a catalyst for widening the definition and discussion of beauty.” Apparently Unilever has a different global vision. To learn more about the global “Lynx Effect,” check out this ad:

Unilever’s other body spray, Axe, is no better, as the following videos illustrate:

What are those ads if not an onslaught? The Dove website explains that “the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve.” Elsewhere, the website describes the pressure on young women this way:

“The comparisons are non-stop, especially among girls who see rich, beautiful young women in the media and want to be just like them. Dissatisfaction with body image increases as girls move into adolescence, according to a 2000 study by the Girl Scout Research Institute. Although 75 percent of 8- and 9-year-old girls in the study said they like their looks, only 56 percent of those ages 12 and 13 did. And of the 33 percent of girls ages 14-17 who said they’re too fat, two-thirds were dieting. Ninety percent of eating disorders are diagnosed in girls.”

Ummm. Good point.

But if the problem is sexualized stereotypes and unhealthy body types, then why is Dove telling parents to “talk to their kids before the beauty industry does”? Shouldn’t Dove be talking to its parent about not talking to our kids? Why would we applaud the arsonist when he passes out pamphlets on how to fight fires? Why buy mousetraps from the same person who dumped rodents into our basement? Should we not judge Dr. Jekyll in part by the sins Mr. Hyde?

If Dove cares about “real beauty,” it should start at home. If Unilever doesn’t care about “real beauty” it should stop getting rich off the illusion that it does. And if the beauty industry is the source of the onslaught, then Unilever, through Dove advertising, should not be permitted to blame the victims for its own contribution to that attack.

* * *

To read a New York Times article discussing the seeming contradiction in Unilever’s marketing strategies, click here. To read a Los Angeles Times article on the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s criticism of the Unilever contradiction, click here. For a previous Situationist post highlighting some of the uglier beauty messages of Unilever, see “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.” For a post discussing the situational causes and consequences of beauty, see “Survival of the Cutest.” For other related posts, check out “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” “Prejudice Against the Obese and Some of its Situational Sources,” “Spas and Girls,” and “Fitting in and Sizing up.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Life, Marketing | 25 Comments »

Don’t Worry, But Don’t Be Happy, Either?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 20, 2007

Mona LisaWe have examined the topic of happiness on multiple occasions, including in “The Situation of Happiness” and most recently in “Situating Emotions.” In addition, Situationist friend Dan Gilbert has authored the best-selling book “Stumbling on Happiness.” So happiness matters to those who write for The Situationist, just as it matters, presumably, to pretty much everyone.

But can too much happiness be a bad thing? According to University of Virginia psychology professor Shigehiro Oishi and his colleagues, the answer appears to be yes. They studied purported levels of happiness among European-Americans, Asian-Americans, Koreans, and Japanese, and found that while European-Americans tend to be most happy, they also experience higher levels of unhappiness–meaning they appear to encounter the most emotional peaks and valleys during their lives. The findings of their study published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and below we excerpt a press release from the University of Virginia.

* * *

Are you happy? Well don’t try to be happier; you might become less happy. That is the gist of a multi-cultural study published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study by University of Virginia psychology professor Shigehiro Oishi and colleagues at three other institutions found that, on average, European-Americans claim to be happy in general – more happy than Asian-Americans or Koreans or Japanese – but are more easily made less happy by negative events, and recover at a slower rate from negative events, than their counterparts in Asia or with an Asian ancestry. On the other hand, Koreans, Japanese, and to a lesser extent, Asian-Americans, are less happy in general, but recover their emotional equilibrium more readily after a setback than European-Americans.

“We found that the more positive events a person has, the more they feel the effects of a negative event,” Oishi said. “People seem to dwell on the negative thing when they have a large number of good events in their life.

“It is like the person who is used to flying first class and becomes very annoyed if there is a half-hour delay. But the person who flies economy class accepts the delay in stride.”

Oishi, a social psychologist who grew up in Japan and then moved to the United States at 23, is interested in comparing how people from East Asia and the United States respond to the daily events of life.

He and his colleagues surveyed more than 350 college students in Japan, Korea and the United StatesMixed Emotions over a three-week period. The students recorded daily their general state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with life, as well as the number of positive and negative events they had during the course of each day.

The researchers found that the European-Americans needed nearly two positive events (such as getting complimented or getting an A) to return to their normal level of happiness after each negative event, such as getting a parking ticket or a lower grade than expected. The Koreans, Japanese and Asian-Americans generally needed only one positive event to make up for each negative event.

Oishi said that people who become accustomed to numerous positive or happy events in their life are more likely to take a harder fall than people who have learned to accept the bad with the good. And because negative events have such a strong effect when occurring in the midst of numerous positive events, people find it difficult to be extremely happy. They reach a point of diminishing returns.

This is why the extreme happiness people may feel after buying a new car or a house, or getting married, can be rapidly diminished when the payments come due or the daily spats begin. It becomes a problem of ratio, or perspective.

“In general, it’s good to have a positive perspective,” Oishi said, “But unless you can switch your mindset to accept the negative facts of everyday life — that these things happen and must be accepted — it becomes very hard to maintain a comfortable level of satisfaction.”

His advice: “Don’t try to be happier.”

His co-authors are Ed Diener, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and The Gallup Organization, Dong-Won Choi of California State University, East Bay; Chu Kim-Prieto of the College of New Jersey, and Incheol Choi of Seoul National University.


Posted in Emotions | 1 Comment »

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 19, 2007

mistakes-were-made-cover.jpgIn a previous post we recommended, and excerpted the introduction of, an excellent new book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me),” written by social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. In this post, we provide an overview of the entire book.

Mistakes Were Made is about the human propensity for “tenacious[ly] clinging to a discredited belief.” The authors explore a number of arenas in which we tend to make and stick with our mistakes, including politics, psychology, criminal law, and personal relationships. The authors use the image of the “pyramid of choice” to describe the process by which we fall into the trap of self-justification: we start at the top of the pyramid, with many choices and a view of all of them; as we slide down (after having made our mistake or initially accepted a mistaken belief) we lose that bird’s-eye view, and the other sides of the pyramid become obscured. In the end we’re left facing just our mistake and, without perspective, will defend our mistake with certainty.

// book starts with a litany of brief descriptions of self-justifications made by well-known politicians, from the current president to Henry Kissinger. In describing dissonance theory and cognitive dissonance in more detail, the book describes an experiment in which students were invited to join a discussion group. They had to be interviewed before attending, and some were subjected to a difficult/embarrassing interview and others to an easy interview. In the end the discussion groups were all equally boring, but the students who had undergone the difficult interview were more likely to positively rate the group. The authors observe that these and other experiments show that if someone goes through a difficult experience in order to attain a goal, the goal will become more attractive.

To avoid cognitive dissonance, people perform mental gymnastics to maintain or strengthen their beliefs—unconsciously employing “confirmation bias” in order to dismiss or criticize any disconfirming evidence. This may be, in part, a neurological function: An experiment noted that the “reasoning areas of the brain” basically shut down when subjects were given dissonant political information. The need to preserve our self-concept is powerful and dissonance is filtered through our beliefs about who we are.

Chapter two opens with a discussion of “naïve realism” and particularly of the work of famed social psychologist Lee Ross. The authors review his work on Palestinian/Israeli conflict and also at Geoffrey Cohen‘s “experiment” with our own Democrat/Republican blind spots (where policies written by party A but labeled as coming from party B will still appeal to members of party B).

The authors argue that dissonance theory tells us that we are conditioned to justify our mistakes one small step at a time. The book looks at a few examples: Tom DeLay accepting a trip to St. Andrews, scientific blind spots in industry-funded research, Big Pharma’s influence on doctors. These “ego-preserving blind spots” divides into “us” vs. “them” while allowing people to believe that they aren’t prejudiced or biased. Our attachment to groups (us) are crucial to our identity but if we feel threatened our blind-spots are activiated (they are not smart or reasonable).

Chapter three focuses on the “dissonance-reducing distortions of memory.” Memories “spin the stories of our lives” and we tend to distort memories in “a self-enhancingabducted-by-aliens.jpg direction in all sorts of ways.” One example that struck me as being somewhat related to situationism (in spirit, even if it doesn’t quite fit any particular arguments) was the story of a man who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. On reflection, he realized that his memory of abduction was actually a result of his sleep deprivation & physical exhaustion after a very long bike ride. His immediate reaction was to overlook the situation and prefer an unreasonable explanation for his experiences.

Chapter four deals with the phenomenon of recovered-memory therapy in the 1980s and 90s and the rash of false accusations of sexual abuse that resulted. The examples focus on adults and children who, through psychotherapy and memory recovery, came to believe that they had been abused by teachers or relatives. In the end, many of these memories proved to be mistaken and inaccurate. Most of the therapists practicing this recovered-memory therapy were disconnected from the world of psychological research. Therapists had insisted that their clients had repressed memories of abuse, even when these clients initially denied any possibility of abuse. After tearing apart families and testifying in court to help convict accused sex offenders, the scientific evidence began to prove that horrible memories typically not repressed and that it can be particularly difficult to tell whether or not a child has been abused. Psychotherapists and psychiatrists who had practiced this therapy, though, were resolute and their backlash again scientific evidence now seems ridiculous. Those therapists who refused to admit any mistakes even went so far as to blame their clients. In the face of malpractice suits, one therapist even called for “an open season on academicians and researchers,” the source of disconfirming evidence. Finally, in an edition of a book that helped make recovered-memory therapy popular, the writers dismiss scientific evidence by claiming that it is “part of a backlash against child victims and incest survivors”—it’s them, not us.

Chapter five deals with mistakes made in the criminal law. This chapter discusses “external incentives” for denying mistakes (belief in the system, not wanting to be “soft on crime”) versus the internal ones that have been discussed elsewhere (“I’m a good, competent person”). The authors explore cases in which DNA evidence has later James Curtis Giles Exonerationexonerated a convicted person, and the reactions of those who worked for the original conviction. They also discuss interrogation techniques and how these techniques can create a “closed loop” of reasoning in the interrogator. Here the authors also take an interesting detour to explore how a suspect might eventually confess to a crime she didn’t commit because the interrogator creates dissonance by lying or making statements that conflict with what the suspect knows. Finally, the authors present the argument that the law and police training has failed to incorporate new research in cognition, perception and memory.

In Chapter six the authors move to personal relationships and marriage in particular. Here they note that a partner will often fail to recognize situation when praising or criticizing the other. But recognition of situation can be key to a successful relationship.

Chapter seven continues to explore personal relationships but also broadens the scope a bit. The authors argue that self-justification is more of a factor in cases where blameworthiness isn’t clear, and here situation is also more likely to be a key factor (using the Terri Schiavo case as an example). They also describe an interesting experiment in which subjects were asked to tell both a “victim story” and a “perpetrator story.” The experiment showed that self-justification turned more on situation (the role of victim or perpetrator) rather than on personality. The authors also discuss Abu Ghraib in terms of how we reduce dissonance by denying we do it and by justifying our reasons for it. They show how both individuals making decisions and an entire nation can come to accept a policy of torture. Once someone accepts that torture is acceptable in the context of a “ticking-time-bomb” it’s just a few steps more to accept what happened at Abu Ghraib.

In the end, the authors claim that we humans will do almost anything to reduce dissonance, including hurting others and supporting torture. They call for more transparency in organizations and institutions to reduce “blind spots” and they claim that individually we can fight the temptation to self-justify.

Posted in Book, Conflict, Life | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Fatness = Our “Obesogenic” Society

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 18, 2007

Body Mass Index

The BBC published a story this week about a massive study in the UK regarding the underlying causes of the obesity epidemic. One of the key messages of the report is that obesity is not the consequence of a sudden explosion of lazy overeaters, but dramatic shift in our environments and other factors situational. We excerpt portions of that below.

* * *

Individuals can no longer be held responsible for obesity so government must act to stop Britain “sleepwalking” into a crisis, a report has concluded. The largest ever UK study into obesity, backed by government and compiled by 250 experts, said excess weight was now the norm in our “obesogenic” society.

Dramatic and comprehensive action was required to stop the majority of us becoming obese by 2050, they said.

But the authors admitted proof that any anti-obesity policy works “was scant.”

Rising Incidence of ObesityNonetheless every level of society, from individual to the upper echelons of government, must become involved in the campaign against a condition which carries such great social and economic consequences, they said.

In 2002, those who were overweight or obese cost nearly £7bn in treatment and state benefits and in indirect costs such as loss of earnings and reduced productivity.

In 40 years time, that figure could reach nearly £46bn, as health services struggle to cope with the ill health such as diabetes, cancer and stroke which can be associated with excess weight.

“There is a danger that the moment to act radically and dramatically will be missed,” said Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific advisor and head of the Foresight Programme which drew up the report.

“It is a problem that is getting worse every year.”

So hard

Obesity, the authors concluded, was an inevitable consequence of a society in which energy-dense, cheap foods, labour-saving devices, motorised transport and sedentary work were rife.

In this environment it was surprising that anyone was able to remain thin, Dr Susan Jebb of the Medical Research Council said, and so the notion of obesity simply being a product of personal over-indulgence had to be abandoned for good.

“The stress has been on the individual choosing a healthier lifestyle, but that simply isn’t enough,” she said.

From planning our towns to encourage more physical activity to placing more pressure on mothers to breast feed – believed to slow down infant weight gain – the report highlighted a range of policy options without making any concrete recommendations.

Industry was already working to put healthier products on the shelf, the report noted, while work was advanced in transforming the very make-up of food so it was digested more slowly and proved satisfying for longer.

But it was clear that government needed to involve itself, as on this occasion, the market was failing to do the job, Sir David said.

Shock tactics?

uk-shock-warning.jpgPublic Health Minister Dawn Primarolo said the government would be holding further consultations to decide how to proceed.

She said it was too early to say whether the same “shock” approach seen in public health warnings against smoking would be adopted with obesity, or whether a tax on fatty foods, highlighted in the report but widely dismissed as unworkable, would be considered.

“The most important thing is there has to be public consent and understanding of the issues you’re trying to challenge,” she said.

“A mandate for change will be difficult because it has to be preceded by an understanding of the dangers of obesity.”

The Royal College of Physicians said the report was “encouraging.”

“The emphasis on cross-governmental initiatives is particularly welcome, as is the importance of addressing issues across society whilst avoiding blame,” said its president, Professor Ian Gilmore.

The Food and Drink Federation said it understood its role in tackling the problem.

“Our industry is now widely recognised as leading the world when it comes to reformulating products; extending consumer choice; and introducing improved nutrition labelling,” a spokesperson said.

* * *

For a listing of numerous Situaitonist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Public Policy | 3 Comments »

Judging One by the Actions of Another

Posted by Brian Nosek and Kate Ranganath on October 16, 2007

curly-haired.jpgAmerican culture supports the credo that individuals should be judged on the basis of their own actions, not the actions of others. But our recent research, to be published in Psychological Science (“Implicit Attitude Generalization Occurs Immediately, Explicit Attitude Generalization Takes Time”), suggests that, despite any intentions to consider members of a group as individuals, humans may not have the cognitive abilities to keep information that we learn about one person from a group from leaking into our evaluation of another person from that same group.

In our experiment we presented participants with a variety of behaviors performed by two individuals – Reemolap and Vabbenif. Reemolap was generally a good guy, performing 12 positive behaviors (i.e. visiting a sick friend in the hospital) and only 4 negative ones. Vabbenif was no angel, performing 12 negative behaviors (i.e. parking in a handicapped space) and only 4 positive ones.

We told participants that the Laapians, Reemolap’s people, and the Niffians, Vabbenif’s people, are large, diverse groups and introduced them to two new people who belong to those groups. Participants learned very little about these new people, and what they did learn was not particularly good or bad. We wondered whether evaluations of the original people, the clearly positive Reemolap and clearly negative Vabbenif, would influence the evaluations of the new people just on the basis of belonging to the same group.

We measured evaluations by asking people how they felt about the original and new people, and by measuring how strongly they associated the individuals with good or bad using an implicit measure called the Implicit Association Test. Not surprisingly, both self-reported evaluations and implicit associations toward the original people reflected the behaviors that they performed. Reemolap was liked more than Vabbenif explicitly and implicitly (other participants learned that Vabbenif did more of the positive behaviors, and those participants liked him more).straight-haired.jpg

When we measured evaluations of the new people, about whom participants had learned very little, explicitly participants resisted generalizing their explicit evaluations of the original people. Reemolap and Vabbenif’s actions were not accepted as being relevant for judging other people belonging to their groups. However, subjects did generalize from the original people to the new people on the implicit measure. Participants associated the new Laapian with good and Niffian with bad just as much as they associated the individuals that actually performed the behaviors. In other words, implicitly at least, subjects treated the original people and new people as if they were exactly the same.

In a sense, this is reassuring evidence for the importance of conscious, deliberate processing. The fact that the original and new people shared a group membership was sufficient for implicit associations to transfer the evaluations of one person to another. But, explicit evaluations did not conform, and showed that people can decide not to use such a simple association as the basis for judging individuals. That, however, is not the end of the story.

We followed-up with the participants a few days later to see if their implicit and explicit evaluations would change over time. We hypothesized that the strategies that people use to avoid generalizing from one person to another require a clear memory of who-did-what. As that memory fades with the passage of time, people might lose the ability to prevent their evaluations from generalizing, even in their conscious deliberation. In the follow-up session days later, instead of resisting the transfer of attitudes, both implicit and explicit attitudes toward the original people generalized to the new people.


While we humans may be able to resist generalizing actions of one group member to others in the short-term, this ability fades as the details of those events decline. It seems that where individuals were evaluated relatively independently at first, eventually the actions of one became the basis for evaluating the other. An encounter with one member of a group can have unintended effects on evaluations of other members of that group if we lose the details that differentiate the individuals.

* * *

You can download a preprint of the forthcoming article here. To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. For a list of Situationist posts on implicit associations and attitudes, click here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Situating Emotion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 15, 2007


Up and comng situationist legal scholar David Arkush has written a thoughtful paper, “Situating Emotion: A Critical Realist View of Emotion and Nonconscious Cognitive Processes for the Law,” in which he, as the title indicates, situates emotion. More specifically, Arkush describes the typical view of emotion in the legal literature, introduces a more realistic, situationist view, then reviews the legal literature in light of that new view. Larry Solum recently highly recommended the article, describing it as “deeply interesting and . . . important.” We provide a brief overview of the paper below.

* * *

The conventional view of emotion in the legal literature is that emotion serves as the object or goal of decisions–we call this emotion “preferences” and “welfare.” But emotions otherwise do not, and should not, play a role in the decision-making process. In other words, emotion act as as the internal rewards and cost of pursuing our preferences, but our emotions should not determine our behavior. The conventional model assumes that choices increase a chooser’s welfare and reveals a chooser’s preferences. Reason, not emotion, is the internal decider. When emotion gets involved directly in decision making, choices become irrational and regrettable. (In that sense, emotions are understood, as suggested in the 1950 video excerpt pasted below, as the something to be carefully controlled, like “a fire.”) Fortunately, for most people most of the time, do control their emotion, and defer instead to the independent process of reason. That is rational-choice theory’s descriptive view of emotion. (Economic behavioralists retain that same structure but recognizes flaws in rationality and acknowledges more instances of emotional interference.)

That model of human behavior has been significantly challenged by situationists in other work — including most broadly in “The Situational Character” by Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon. Preferences are often mistaken (meaning we often want things that fail to please us) and are deeply contextual. Even when we know what pleases us, we often have self-control problems and fail to act according to what we want. And even when we succeed in getting what pleases us, the resulting increase in happiness is surprisingly brief. This evidence strains the view that emotions are mostly objects of our reason, pursuit, and accumulation instead of something a bit more fluid.

Against this backdrop, Arkush’s paper reviews evidence from social psychology and neuroscience supporting a situationist understanding, and one that helps explain the problems identified. As Arkush summarizes, we humans are awash in emotion, which helps us navigate our environments in ways that would be impossible using only logic or rational calculation. In fact, emotional processes are not just central, they are probably necessary, to making decisions. At their most basic, emotional or affective processes mediate between the environment and our bodies by acting as “go/no go” cues to what is attractive or aversive. But they also operate in much more complex ways, for example by mediating the construction and activation of knowledge structures, which organize information about the world and our roles in it. In addition, emotions, as Situationist contributor John Bargh has demonstrated, help to automate complex behaviors.

In contrast to the normative economic view that choices are preference-satisfying, the situationist view of emotion recognizes that preferences are choice-satisfying: Instead of behaving in ways that satisfy emotional needs, we emote in ways that satisfy behavioral needs. Each moment, the world presents countless stimuli that demand behavioral responses, and our emotional processes meet the task of guiding us through them. Emotions are the key source of our “go” and our “no go.” As important as they are to influencing our behavior, there is little reason to be confident that emotional processes serve our well-being effectively. As Situationist contributor Tim Wilson and Situationist friend Daniel Gilbert have detailed, our “wanting” and “liking” can be misaligned for many reasons, foremost because our behavioral processes have evolved primarily to help us survive, not to make us happy. Moreover, if emotions are behavioral processes, it makes little sense to think of accumulating them in any ordinary sense.

After reviewing evidence that emotions should be viewed as behavioral processes rather than mere objects of decisions, Arkush discusses implications of his situationist view of emotions for law and legal theory. The paper also reviews work by, among others, rational-choice theorists and behavioral economists, arguing that each is takes an inconsistent or mistaken view of emotion.

EmoticonsArkush terms behavioral economics “emotional irrationalism” to reflect the behavioralist view that emotion is mostly an irrational force in decisions. It argues that behavioralists are correct that emotions can mislead people but are mistaken to view unemotional decision making as ideal or even possible. Attempts to insulate decision making from emotion (such as Cass Sunstein’s recent work on risk regulation) are flawed because policy making cannot be divorced from emotional judgments. This work reflects a common behavioral-economic tendency to forget that, in contrast to the analysis of facts, judgments about what is good for individuals or the general public can never be rationalized fully.

According to Arkush, behavioral economics also lacks a means of discerning welfare-enhancing decisions from bad ones, which he finds surprising for a field so preoccupied with paternalism. Normative rational choice theory asserted that people’s decisions are welfare enhancing, which allowed us to infer what was good for people simply by looking at their choices. But as behavioral economics undermines the view that people make good choices, it undermines this means of discerning what is welfare-enhancing. It therefore suffers from a tension: Legal behavioralists identify decision making flaws and recommend remedial legal rules, but they have inadequate theory for explaining why their proposed rules would be welfare-enhancing. It is for that reason, Arkush argues, that behavioralists tend to tackle problems for which we have a strong intuitive sense of what is good for people (increasing retirement savings is one example) and where intuitively appealing solutions come to mind.

Cultural cognition theory, which Situationist contributors Dan Kahan and Paul Slovic have been integral in developing, posits that people’s cultural worldviews constrain their information processing and decisions, a highly situationist view. Cultural cognition theorists have made a compelling case that much political conflict is rooted in people’s cultural worldviews rather than the facts about which people actually argue in politics. (For example, the gun control debate focuses intensively on the relative safety of various legal regimes, but the real source of conflict is people’s differing values. For Situationist posts providing illustrations of the effect of cultural cognitions, see Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green” and “Emotions, Values, and Information: The Future of Nanotechnology.”) Arkush’s paper asks whether cultural cognition theorists may have taken a hard-to-defend position regarding emotions — a sort of uneasy three-legged straddle of the conceptions taken by rational choice theory, behavioral economics, and situationism. Some of their work, according to Arkush, tracks behavioralism by treating culture as another bias that impairs decisions and requires a paternalist response. Other work asserts that emotions are critical to decisions and that emotional decision making is “rational.” That cultural cognition conception, which is new in the legal literature and a significant improvement over conventional accounts, Arkush calls “emotional rationalism.”

Emotional rationalism holds that emotions are “expressively rational” in that they reflect, and help people perceive, their core values. Without emotions, we would be unable to perceive those values and thus unable to make rational decisions. In that sense, this new view of emotion may also be a kind of restatemtn of rational choice theory, with emotion more explicitly playing the role of preferences. (Arkush explains that just as the rational actor makes rational calculations about “preferences,” the “cultural evaluator” makes rational calculations about emotions or core values.) As a result, emotional rationalism is subject to some of the same the objections that apply to rational choice theory. According to Arkush, the better view may be the situationist view outlined above: Emotions are crucial to decision making as part of the process, not mere objects, and that they are often helpful but sometimes harmful. The situationist view is otherwise wholly compatible with cultural cognition.

Arkush correctly underscores that cultural cognition’s central thesis–that culture (an emotion-laden phenomenon) strongly influences information-processing and decision making–constitutes one of the most promising and realistic positive theories on human judgment in the legal literature. In his view, however, some clarification on the question of “emotion” would strengthen the theory’s normative significance.

Having discussed the views of risk regulation in behavioralism and cultural cognition theory, Arkush then weighs in briefly on that subject. He urges a well-functioning republicanism, instead of regulation through experts insulated from public emotion or increased direct democracy. He claims that such an approach would mediate between the competing needs for others to make decisions for us (both because our emotions can mislead us and because we lack the capacity to make countless important regulatory decisions) and the need to ensure that experts base policy judgments on public emotions rather than their own.

Finally, Arkush outlines some general approaches to taking emotion more seriously in law and legal theory, then highlights particular areas of law in which to begin that work. He also urges a reevaluation of the concept of “welfare,” which purportedly forms the basis of much policy making although it lacks a coherent meaning. Paralleling the argument that emotions are processes rather than objects, the paper argues that we may have the greatest success by approaching well-being in terms of processes.

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To review previous Situationist posts on the topic of emotions, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

Talk about Gender Myths . . .

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 14, 2007


Some people talk about talking, and some people get out there and just do it. And then there is that very select few who actually study talking. Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, and two of his collaborators are examples of that last group, and they have a fascinating new article in Science to show for it. In their study, they equipped just under 400 college students from the U.S. and Mexico with special recording devices from which they discovered that, contrary to popular myths, men and women talk about the same amount on average. Women subjects spoke on average just over 16,000 words per day while their men subjects spoke just under that figure, a difference that was not statistically.

Across individuals, however, the range of words differed dramatically. As Meld explained in an interview: “To me this is the real news, the really striking finding. The person who talked the most talked a full-blown 47,000 words, and he happens to be a male. And the person who talked the least, who is also a male, was a little below six hundred words.”

The study suggests that talkativeness is more the consequence of situation than it the consequence of gender-based dispositions. Mehl explains, when highlighting the difference between 500 and 45,000 words: “This person who talked 47,000 words—and this is just guessing—may have had to give a talk somewhere.”

An excellent summary of the study, by Richard Knox for NPR’s All Things Considered, is excerpted below.

* * *

Psychologist Matthias Mehl of the University of Arizona says the three top talkers in the study — uttering up to 47,000 words a day — were all men. So was the most taciturn subject, who spoke only 700 words a day, on average.

Mehl says he and his colleagues were surprised at the outcome. They had tentatively bought into the popular stereotype that women are the more talkative sex.

But they were skeptical of the widespread claim that women use three times more words a day then men.

The claim got prominent attention with the publication of a 2006 book called The Female Brain. Its author, Louann Brizendine, hasStudent wearing EAR device - secretly records every 12.5 minutes been widely quoted claiming that “a woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000.”

Other sources have claimed an even greater disparity.

But until the Science study published this week, its authors say, no one had ever systematically recorded the total daily output, in natural conversations, of a sizable number of people.

Mehl says the supposed talkativeness of women is often mentioned in pop-psychology books.

“The typical scenario is — a man comes home from work at night, has used 6,850 words and with 150 left over just wants to relax and not talk,” Mehl says. “And the woman welcomes the husband with about 7,856 words left over. And that’s where all the problems start.”

Mehl guesses that the talkativeness claim “evolved as an explanation for what scientists call the demand/withdrawal pattern.” That is, the situation where a woman demands to talk through problems and her male partner withdraws emotionally.

“We use our gender magnifying glass and over-generalize from that,” Mehl says. “Instead of saying that men tend to talk less and women tend to talk more, we say ‘Women always talk and men never talk.'”

Even so, the researchers, based at the University of Texas as well as at Arizona, didn’t expect the verbal output between the sexes to be virtually equal.

Mehl acknowledges that many will have trouble believing the results, since it contradicts their own perceptions.

“This is the way the stereotype has been maintained in the past,” he says. “It is fairly easy to see what you want to see — to jump on the very chatty woman that you certainly find and say, ‘See, women talk a lot’ and to overlook the very talkative man.”

Mehl says the stereotype needs to be debunked. Not only because women are harmed by the “female chatterbox and silent male” stereotype, but because men are disadvantaged by it, too.

“It puts men into the gender box, that in order to be a good male, we’d better not talk — (that) silence is golden,” Mehl says. “The stereotype puts unfortunate constraints on men and women – the idea that you can only happily be a woman if you’re talkative and you can only be happy as a man if you’re reticent. The study relieves those gender constraints.”

The new report doesn’t mention any differences in what men and women talk about. But the researchers have analyzed the content of everyday conversation and will publish that in the future.

In general, they found that women tend to talk more about relationships. Their everyday conversation is more studded with pronouns. Men tend to talk more about sports and gadgets, and their utterances include more numbers.

No surprise there.

* * *

To read a Science Friday overview of the study and listen to some related audio sound bites, including “a talkative man,” click here. For some related posts on gender stereotypes and the consequences, see “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math & Science,” 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.’”

Posted in Life | 3 Comments »

Yi Jianlian and Reverse Prejudice

Posted by Jason Chung on October 12, 2007

Yi Jianlian

Apparently, Chinese basketball star Yi Jianlian is no longer wary of Caucasian communities – at least those in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On August 29, 2007, the Milwaukee Bucks managed to sign their first-round draft pick in the 2007 National Basketball Association draft but only after their owner, Herb Kohl, reportedly personally assured the youngster of certain special privileges – such as playing more than 20 minutes per game in his rookie season (though this has been denied by Bucks officials). A gifted athlete, passer and finisher, Yi overcame doubts regarding his true age and convinced the Milwaukee Bucks to make him an early lottery pick. This decision by the Bucks proved to be highly problematic on draft night when Yi and his Chinese team refused to confirm that he would, in fact, sign with the team that had drafted him.

Problematic, but not surprising. Even prior to the draft, Yi and his entourage had made noises about wanting to choose where he landed (translation: NOT some place like Milwaukee). Yi even refused to work out for the Bucks organization. Prior to Kohl’s last-minute heroics, it appeared as if the sixth overall pick would remain steadfast in his refusal to play in Milwaukee. Interestingly, while Yi himself personally showed little resistance to the idea, his “advocates” on both sides of the Pacific quickly concocted numerous professional and business reasons for his supposed disapproval of the team. In China, Chen Haitao, owner of Yi’s former Chinese basketball club, focused on Yi’s basketball development, claiming that Milwaukee had “too many tall players like Yi” and that the 2008 Chinese basketball team for the Beijing Olympics could suffer “[if] Yi goes to a team where he can’t keep up his level of play.” In North America, rumors circulated that Yi’s agent, Dan Fegan, wanted him in a major media market to increase his marketing potential and visibility. Maximixing the bucks, Fegan understands, means not being one.

But ostensible professional and business concerns now seem to have been pretextual. Or, in any event, they were soon eclipsed by the fact that, according to a myriad of sources, Yi Jianlian’s handlers didn’t want him residing in region without a significant Asian community. This concern was readily accepted by the national sports media. Most media outlets dutifully parroted Fegan’s argument that a larger Asian community would serve Yi’s marketability and integration into the United States far better than a relatively homogeneous white population could.

Although sports commentators might have taken Fegan to task, instead, they embraced his logic and conclusion. They made much of the fact that Asian-Americans numbered only 27,500 in the metro Milwaukee area and that, among those, the Chinese-American population stood at a mere 1,200. In fact, some news outlets such as claimed that the city of Milwaukee’s image as a tolerant and foreigner-friendly city was at stake after the Bucks’ pick.

Thus, the message was clear – if Yi wanted to function as a businessman and as an accepted member of an American community, he would have to go to a place where Asians had already established institutional completeness and thus had economic and social clout at least somewhat independent of a Caucasian community which risked not fully accepting him due to race.

yi-jianlian-dunk.jpgThis argument made by Yi’s agents and unchallenged by most of the sports media may reveal a reverse prejudice that ought to be critically examined. At the very least, we should all be a little cautious about generalizing about one group’s expected reaction to a member of another identity group.

Let me be clear. I am not concerned with or referring to the highly politicized version of the term reverse prejudice (or its related cousin reverse discrimination) which is invoked by certain sectors of society to deny the necessity and logic behind programs such as affirmative action (which seeks to increase ethnically proportional representation in public life in order to rectify historically disadvantaged minority groups such as women and ethnic minorities). Rather, I am referring to prejudice in its broadest terms whereby “prejudice refers to a negative or hostile attitude toward another social group, usually racially defined.”

In the Yi case, a negative attitude toward whites is being expressed — that is, that whites as a group would not or could not accept Yi as fully as an Asian community would or could. But is that necessarily true? To begin with, there is little empirical evidence suggesting that ethnic communities would automatically support members of their own nationality or ethnic background in a sustained manner independent of their on-field success.

Since at least 1997, in a majority-white national population, African-American players comprise over two-thirds of the National Football League and NBA and a quick look at jersey sales in China reveals that Yao Ming, a genuine Chinese-born and bred NBA superstar, is only number six in overall sales – trailing five African-Americans. The assumption that ethnic communities will disproportionately support their own above all lacks conclusive empirical support.

Similarly, it is far from obvious that Asian players will be anything less than vaulted heroes among a team’s fans and followers – no matter the region. For example, Boston-area fans, Asian and non-Asian alike, have embraced Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima not due to their ethnicity but due to their exciting array of pitches and live arms. At least in the world of sports, racial biases are often dampened by primary desire to see athletic excellence. Racial-group associations, in other words, can be overshadowed by team associations. Uniforms often supplant other socially salient demarcations of group identity.

Matsuzak and Okajima Join Sox Celebration - image by Tyler Kepner for NYTimes

A central tension in the fight against prejudice in all its forms is the fact that ethnic majorities and minorities tend to view the problem of racism and prejudice differently. A study conducted at Stanford University in 1992 by John H. Bunzel showed that whites believed prejudice to be universal, whereas ethnic minorities (in the Bunzel study, blacks) equated racism and prejudice with “oppression by a racial group in power.” Thus, whites defined prejudice as “the degrading of other people because of their color – in short, hostility against individuals and groups because of their background or membership in one race or another” while blacks believed that only whites could be guilty of prejudice.

To be sure, prejudice that justifies and reinforces existing disparities wealth, power, privilege, and the like is often more harmful than a subordinate group’s prejudice against a superordinate group. Still, though, neither type of prejudice is without its costs. The problem with the power-sensitive definition of prejudice is that it trivializes the effects of stereotyping and prejudice in the other direction, such as outgroup homogeneity bias and group attribution error.

Outgroup homogeneity bias occurs when an individual sees members of his own group as more varied than members of other groups. Consequently, out-group members are differentiated from in-group members who, in turn, are also viewed as more interchangeable with other out-group members since they are perceived to be quite similar in attitudes and preferences. “They all look alike,” “they all think alike,” “they’re all alike,” are three common presumptions about members of groups outside our own. Outgroup homogeneity is especially potent when combined with group attribution error, whereby the actions of one individual can be equated with the inherent disposition of an entire group.

A post by Asian-American poster Koreana Hoosier at as the Yi situation unfolded illustrates the dynamics of both outgroup homogeneity bias and group attribution error when he equates the actions of a “white douchebag . . . from Wisconsin” and “anatomy professor [from] Wisconsin” with the racial attitudes of the entire “northern Midwest.” Koreana_Hoosier goes so far to say that “I hope another Chai Vang incident starts up again, since those white punks in cheese land are acting up against Asians in that area.” He commits outgroup homogeneity bias and group attribution error when he equates his experiences with two white Wisconsinites as being representative of the Caucasian community of the northern Midwest and concludes by hoping for an escalation of ethnic tension between two ethnic groups. This is how frighteningly easy a dangerous stereotype of an entire race is formed and due to the self-fulfilling nature of stereotypes, it can influence not only the attitudes but important actions between members of differing racial groups. For example, white physicians may believe the stereotype that blacks are less likely to comply with treatment and subsequently give them less care which, in turn, causes resentment among blacks towards white physicians which leads them to more easily disregard their medical advice.

In the end, if there no reluctance to make generalizations about any segment of the population, the problems of ethnic differentiation may be exacerbated. As noted in a previously highlighted excerpt in the Situationist, perhaps even some guilt or negative social reaction is in order:

Guilt plays a vital role in the regulation of social behaviour. On one hand, the punitive feeling of guilt may keep you from repeating the same transgressive behavior in the future which psychologists call “withdrawal motivation.” Conversely, some researchers view the function of guilt in a societal context, in that; it keeps people’s behavior in line with the moral standards of their community. This view emphasizes a more positive emotional experience and is associated with “approach motivation.”

Work by David M. Amadio, Patricia G. Devine and Eddie Harmon-Jones indicates that both approaches to viewing guilt are intertwined. As noted in their article, “guilt is initially associated with withdrawal motivation, which then transforms into approach-motivated behavior when an opportunity for reparation presents itself.” Guilt, then, may play some role in alleviating societal racial prejudices by creating both internal conflict and conflict with external social norms. If the sort of reverse prejudice evident in the Yi story is not called out at appropriate times, the positive behavior and attitudinal modification is unlikely to occur.

Luckily, attitudes can be changed as a function of experience as well as guilt and perhaps Yi’s grudging but final acceptance of playing Milwaukee as well as his enthusiastic reception by the community, Caucasian and Asian alike, can open up new dialogues between the Caucasian and Asian-American communities in the “northern Midwest.”

Regrettably, majority-led racism and prejudice does still exist in Middle America and even today sports commentators in Omaha, Nebraska can mock entire communities on-air by adopting a stereotypical Asian accent (“Mirraukee”) and call Chinese people “Chinamen” with little to no repercussion (as the video below illustrates).

In the end, I hope that all forms of prejudice will be more vigilantly challenged — from the implicit attitudes that go unnoticed to the explicit attitudes that go unchallenged.

* * *

Numerous previous Situationist posts, including the following, have looked at different types of stereotypes and their effects: Unlevel Playing Fields,” “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas,” “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “Black History is Now” and “Implicit Bias and Strawmen,” “Prejudice Against the Obese,” “Your Group Is Bad at Math,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” “Dueling Stereotypes and the Law,” and “Don W-Ho? Situationist Contributor Jerry Kang has an interesting 1996 article on the problem of “negative action” against Asian Americans which can result from certain forms of affirmative action.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 13 Comments »

Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt – Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 11, 2007

Secret to HappinessLast year, Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson and Situationist Fellow Goutam Jois wrote an article for the Harvard Law Record about the situation of law students at elite law schools. It’s recruitment season again, so we thought it was time to share their article, in chunks, with Situationist readers. The popst picks up where where Part I and Part II left off, suggesting a few things that might be done to assist students in their hunt for satisfaction.

* * *

So what might be done to help students really look after themselves? We suspect that many reforms are worth considering. But the best hope for dealing with this problem of “doing better but feeling worse” may be to provide new and improved types of information to students regarding their options-not in terms of the kind of work, rates of pay, and levels of billing but in terms of the kind of lifestyle, rates of depression, levels of satisfaction, and so on.

We humans are far worse than we believe at predicting what will make us happy. We lack the information and the imagination to know what a new situation will feel like and how it will wear. Nonetheless, we place every confidence in our own happiness forecasts. Social Psychologists like Harvard’s Dan Gilbert are making (satisfying) careers demonstrating this embarrassing shortfall. And, according to Gilbert, probably the surest antidote is, not to try to imagine how we will feel about a life change, but to learn how people who have actually experienced the change feel about it. As he explained in a recent [NPR] interview: “One of the very best ways to find out if you’re going to enjoy taking a job at a particular law firm is simply to see how happy the people who work there are.”

Unhappy LawyerAs we’ve discussed, that information is not what HLS students typically receive, nor, because of a misplaced faith in their imaginations, do they demand it. It is true that some general information is available, but it is typically cursory and unreliable. Vault’s “Quality of Life” rankings, for instance, are based on considerations such as training, associate-partner relations, and offices. Valuable data, yes, but they reveal little about how much time associates and partners spend with their families and friends or whether a firm’s lawyers tend to suffer disproportionately from substance abuse problems. Moreover, even the most detailed rankings do not survey government agencies, public interest organizations, or smaller private firms. Yet answering such direct questions could be the only way to provide HLS students with useful information on what their future lives might be like and, thus, on what choices they should be making now.

Of course, filling the information void would be a challenge. Still, it seems doable, and it’s entirely in keeping with the current mission and trajectory of HLS. A valuable way to improve student life further is to help students make good life decisions. And we can better ensure that our students better meet the needs of the legal profession by helping to ensure that the legal profession better meets the needs of our students.

Whether or not the Law School takes up this task, we think it a worthwhile area for further research (a potential 3L paper topic!) and, at the very least, something that students in the throes of this interviewing season should keep in mind.

Though your sample will be small and biased, follow Professor Wilkins’s advice and “keep your eyes open”: look at the lawyers and staff at the places you are interviewing; pay attention to whether they seem happy-not just with their work, but in their lives. Maximize your satisfaction.

* * *

To listen to Dan Gilbert’s NPR interview about his book, Stumbling on Happiness, including a brief description of job hunting, click here. To read Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2007 commencement speech at Haverford College, “The Apocolypse Is Yours Now,” describing the sorry situation in which many college grads now find themselves, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Life | 4 Comments »

Another Century of Genocide?

Posted by Paul Slovic on October 9, 2007

Marc Scheff’s “Compassion”

Earlier this year I posted an overview of my recent research demonstrating psychological mechanisms that can lead good, compassionate people, and their governments, to become numbly indifferent when the number of innocent victims becomes large, as in genocide. Failure to intervene to prevent or stop genocide has occurred repeatedly during the past century, as documented in Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.”

Of course, psychological factors are only some of many causes underlying the failure to respond to genocide. But the psychology is important and it has implications for policy that, so far, have not been addressed.

Briefly, the psychological explanation can be summarized as follows:

“The statistics of mass murder or genocide—no matter how large the numbers—do not convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to trigger the affective emotion or feeling required to motivate action. In other words, we know that genocide in Darfur is real, but we do not “feel” that reality. In fact, not only do we fail to grasp the gravity of the statistics, but the numbers themselves may actually hinder the psychological processes required to capture attention and create emotion.”

The broader message of this psychological explanation is that we cannot trust our quick, natural, intuitions that we rely upon heavily to tell us whether or not some moral transgression is occurring and to motivate us to respond. Rather, our moral intuitions fail us when the number of lives involved becomes large. Indeed, the research shows that the breakdown of compassion can be seen to begin when the number of needy persons goes from 1 to 2!

Mario Ruiz Image - from

This psychological account has received widespread attention from radio and print media around the world, as well as from internet bloggers. Many appeared startled to see science confirm what they recognize as a shortcoming in their own feelings and responses to mass tragedies.

Yet, much to my surprise, no one has seriously thought about what I believe to be an important implication of the psychological analysis. The fact that we cannot trust our moral intuitions highlights the need to invoke our capacity for deliberate, rational thought, i.e. moral argument, to guide us in the face of genocide. Such moral deliberation led to the drafting in 1948 of the Genocide Convention, designed to prevent such crimes against humanity from ever happening again. Yet this convention has proven ineffective in numerous episodes of genocide that have occurred after World War II. Why is this the case?

Is it a failure of the Convention, or of the UN and the international signatories who pledged to uphold it? Does the Convention need fixing? Or, do we need new laws and institutions to compel us to respond properly when signs of genocide come to our attention? The psychological account shows the need for such questions to be taken seriously – now! But this is where my expertise, as a psychologist, leaves off, and I must hope that those of you with expertise in international law, human rights, and politics, will take up the challenge of curtailing mass murder and genocide in the 21st Century.

* * *

For another related Situationist post, see “An Apathy Epidemic.” (To view more of Mario Ruiz’s remarkable photos of Darfur refugees, visit “The Forgotten Ones.”  To visit Ruiz’s website, click here.)

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Politics, Public Policy | 2 Comments »

Encourage Your Daughters To Play Violent Video Games?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 8, 2007

Girl Playing Video GameWe have examined violence found in videogames on several occasions (see “The Situation of First-Person Shooters“; “The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Videogames“). We have also examined how, because of stereotype threat, the situation in which women find themselves can dramatically influence their expectations and levels of confidence (see “Gender-Inbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situaiton in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math”).

We now turn to an Economist article detailing a new study led by Ian Spence of the University of Toronto which identifies potential behavioral benefits to women who play violent video games, including, perhaps, decreased stereotype threat. The study was published in the October issue of Psychological Science and its abstract is available here. Below we excerpt a portion of the Economist article.

* * *

Writing in Psychological Science, a team led by Ian Spence of the University of Toronto describes a test performed on people’s ability to spot unusual objects that appear in their field of vision. Success at spatial tasks like this often differs between the sexes (men are better at remembering and locating general landmarks; women are better at remembering and locating food), so the researchers were not surprised to discover a discrepancy between the two. The test asked people to identify an “odd man out” object in a briefly displayed field of two dozen otherwise identical objects. Men had a 68% success rate. Women had a 55% success rate.

Had they left it at that, Dr Spence and his colleagues might have concluded that they had uncovered yet another evolved difference between the sexes, come up with a “Just So” story to explain it in terms of division of labour on the African savannah, and moved on. However, they did not leave it at that. Instead, they asked some of their volunteers to spend ten hours playing an action-packed, shoot-’em-up video game, called “Medal of Honour: Pacific Assault”. As a control, other volunteers were asked to play a decidedly non-action-packed puzzle game, called “Ballance”, for a similar time. Both sets were then asked to do the odd-man-out test again.

Among the Ballancers, there was no change in the ability to pick out the unusual. Among those who had played “Medal of Honour”, both sexes improved their performances.

Medal of Honor Pacific Assault

That is not surprising, given the different natures of the games. However, the improvement in the women was greater than the improvement in the men—so much so that there was no longer a significant difference between the two. Moreover, that absence of difference was long-lived. When the volunteers were tested again after five months, both the improvement and the lack of difference between the sexes remained. Though it is too early to be sure, it looks likely that the change in spatial acuity—and the abolition of any sex difference in that acuity—induced by playing “Medal of Honour” is permanent.

That has several implications. One is that playing violent computer games can have beneficial effects. Another is that the games might provide a way of rapidly improving spatial ability in people such as drivers and soldiers. And a third is that although genes are important, upbringing matters, too.

* * *

For the rest of the article, click here.

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

Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 6, 2007


Mary Murhpy and Claude Steele have a terrific new article in Psychological Science. A press release by Catherine West on the Association for Psychological Science website provides the following summary.

* * *

Have you ever felt outnumbered? Like there are just not that many people like you around? We’ve all felt outnumbered in one situation or another and walking into a situation in which you sense the possibility of being ostracized or isolated can be quite threatening.

// group that may experience this kind of threat is women who participate in math, science, and engineering (MSE) settings- settings in which the gender ratio is approximately 3 men to every 1 woman. Recently, in the wake of comments made by former Harvard University President, Larry Summers, suggesting that women may not possess the same “innate ability” or “natural ability” in these fields as do men, several leading scientific institutions and university presidents publicly lamented the underrepresentation of women in Math, Science and Engineering fields and put out a call to study the reasons for the numbers gap in these areas.

While previous research offers biological and socialization explanations for differences in the performance and representation of men and women in these fields, Stanford psychologists, Mary Murphy and Claude Steele argue that the organization of Math, Science and Engineering environments themselves plays a significant role in contributing to this gap. Murphy contends that situational cues (i.e. being outnumbered) may contribute to a decrease in women’s performance expectations, as well as their actual performance.

1904 University of Colorado Engineering Class

Murphy and colleagues showed a group of advanced MSE undergraduates a gender balanced or unbalanced video depicting a potential MSE summer leadership conference. To assess identity threat, the researchers measured the participant’s physiological arousal during the video, cognitive vigilance, sense of belonging and desire to participate in the conference.

The results are telling. The women who watched the gender unbalanced video- where women were outnumbered by men in a 3 to 1 ratio- experienced faster heart rates, higher skin conductance (sweating), and reported a lower sense of belonging and less desire to participate in the conference.

They also found that women were more vigilant to their physical environment when they watched the video in which women were outnumbered. Throughout the testing room, Murphy planted cues related to Math, Science, and Engineering such as magazines like Science, Scientific American, and Nature on the coffee table and a portrait of Einstein and the periodic table on the walls. Women were able to recall more details about the video and the test room, indicating that they paid more attention to the identity-relevant items in order to assess the likelihood of encountering identity threat. “It would not be surprising if the general cognitive functioning of women in the threatening setting was inhibited because of this allocation of attention toward MSE-related cues,” write the authors. Thus, it is likely that this kind of attention allocation would interfere with performance and might help explain the performance gap between men and women in these fields.girl-math-image.jpgWhile men, in either condition, showed no significant difference in physiological arousal, cognitive vigilance, or sense of belonging, both men and women expressed more desire to attend the conference when the ratio of men to women was balanced. Murphy says that while it’s interesting that both men and women want to be where the women are, the motivations of men and women for wanting to be there are probably quite different. “Women probably feel more identity-safe in the environment where there are more women- they feel that they really could belong there- while men might simply be attracted by the unusual number of women in these settings. Men just aren’t used to seeing that many women in these settings, because the numbers in real Math, Science, and Engineering settings are so unbalanced.”

These findings, which appear in the October issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, demonstrates that rather than being endemic to women the experience of identity threat in MSE settings is attributable the situation.

This research underlies the importance of situational cues and Murphy hopes that it will “inspire greater motivation to attend to such cues when creating and modifying environments so that they may foster perceptions of identity safety rather than threat.”

* * *

For related posts, see “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Social Psychology | 6 Comments »

Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 5, 2007

bag-o-cash.jpgLast year, Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson and Situationist Fellow Goutam Jois wrote an article for the Harvard Law Record about the situation of law students at elite law schools. It’s recruitment season again, so we thought it was time to share their article, in chunks, with Situationist readers. This post picks up where Part I left off, explaining how too many career options can pose a problem, particularly for the “maximizers” who occupy places like Harvard Law School.

Part I ended with this observation: “Harvard types are proven choosers! Surely HLS students must be at least as good at picking career trajectories and employers – major life decisions that they have been anticipating for years.”

* * *

Psychologists Sheena Iyengar, Rachael Wells, and Barry Schwartz just published a study that, unfortunately, suggests otherwise. They studied college seniors who were entering the job market. The job seekers were first rated as relative maximizers or satisficers and then followed over time. Some of the findings should sound familiar. The maximizers searched far more extensively than did the satisficers. They considered more options, but owing to a lack of meaningful information, relied more heavily upon simple, external criteria for evaluating those options. By some measures, the maximization strategy paid off, literally: the maximizers enjoyed average starting salaries that were $7,500 (20-25%) higher than those of their satisficing counterparts. Ka-ching!

Hovering within that silver lining, however, was a dark cloud. The simple external indicators on which job seekers relied revealed little about job fulfillment or overall happiness. “Even though maximizers invested more time and effort during the decision process and explored more options than satisficers–presumably in order to achieve greater satisfaction–they nonetheless felt worse about the outcomes that they achieved.” Indeed, every measure of psychological satisfaction that the researchers devised revealed that maximizers felt much worse: “maximizing tendencies were positively correlated with regret, depression, and decision difficulty, and negatively correlated with happiness, life satisfaction, optimism, and satisfaction with decision outcomes.” To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, it seems that maximizers, though they try, and they try, and they try, can’t get no satisfaction.

This study seems to capture at least part of the problem facing HLS students in their own personalized versions of the experiment. The fresh 2L often lacks good information about herself–exactly what sort of work she will want to do or how she will respond to different work environments–or about her options. At Chez Henri, we can hardly go wrong: the stakes are trivial, the options are mercifully few, and any one of them will be more pleasing than last night’s Ramen noodles. Yet we maximizers rely on the same basic strategy to choose a job as we do to choose our dinner. One student summarized her decision process in The Record this way:

In the past week, I’ve been to the DOJ info session, the DC headhunters talk, an advising appointment with a DC headhunter, an advising appointment with OPIA, firm cocktail receptions, firm brunches. I’ve talked to my parents, best friends from college, law school friends, lawyers whom I happen to know, old bosses. I’ve made a list of firms, proofed my resume, re-read my journal, collected business cards at firm receptions.


Despite these efforts, I don’t seem to be getting any closer to an answer to the question: will I work in a law firm this summer?

Although it may elicit little sympathy from those with fewer options, this student seems to be trapped in a kind of choice hell in which she has obtained advice from every available source and has admittedly “talk[ed] the question to death,” but remains mystified and anxious about her future. So what does the maximizing 2L do? More or less, she decides not to decide: “I’ll submit my bids. Bide my time. Spend another few weeks soul-searching, buying interview shoes, attending firm receptions and OCS tips sessions.” All of this is done in the hope that over time she can muster the courage to choose an option that will provide “long-term satisfaction.” It’s the OCI equivalent of asking the waiter for more time in the hope that she will somehow intuit whether the Chupe de Longosta or the Plum Glazed Duck is tastier.

law-firm-reception-room.jpgEven if the 2L decides to spend the summer at a particular firm, she will learn about only one firm for one type of career and will gain little ability to make meaningful comparisons across numerous firms or career paths. Furthermore, that one firm will likely employ a bait-and-switch tactic that, although recognized, still seems to work. The Record recently included a description of “a 2L bragging about his summer job at Über-Prestigious Law Firm. He was looking forward to the lavish lunches and social events, but knew things would change if he accepted an offer there; as a junior associate, he would work nights and weekends, keep his Blackberry with him at all times, and not have much of a life outside work.”

It would be easy to conclude, as many do, that anyone choosing such a job and its gadgets must expect personal benefits to exceed the personal costs. But if many jobs are occupying more hours and foreclosing more of “life,” then perhaps we should worry about whether the benefits truly exceed the costs. That is a concern particularly given that the overall satisfaction levels of lawyers are distressingly low. According to one source, lawyers suffer from major depressive disorder at a rate 3.6 times higher than non-lawyers (fully one-third of them suffer from clinical depression) and are alcoholics at double the rate of adults generally. Divorce, suicide, and stress-related illness rates are also disproportionately high among practicing lawyers.

Perhaps such evidence about “life” as a lawyer helps account for the increasing annual turnover rate in large law firms, which is now close to twenty-five percent. Even those who stay often say later in life that they would not become lawyers again if they had the choice. In an article on big-firm lawyering, a partner at a D.C. firm assessed his life this way: “A lot of us hate ourselves for what we’ve become . . . . We no longer recognize the practice of law as we knew it. I’d never want my kids to lead the life I’ve led.” The lawyer went on, pointing a shelf of memorabilia: “See those trinkets? . . . Each of those reminds me of another slice of my family’s life that went to pot because I had to stay holed up at work.” Ouch!

Assuming it’s not always the path to fulfillment, then what else could explain the heavy foot traffic between the Hark and the Charles? Alexa Shabecoff has argued that, “despite the diverse doors” opened by an HLS degree, many students tend to settle on just one: that of the large law firm. That is true in part because of situational forces that limit options, including huge debt loads and the lack of short-term clarity and closure behind most of the other doors. Commendably, Harvard Law School has lightened that burden by creating the best loan repayment program in the country. “If debt loads can be reduced,” the hope seems to be, “then our students will be free to choose the career path that they prefer.” Unfortunately, student loans are but one of the many situational factors influencing career directions. Another is that students must often look to imperfect sources of information when considering their options: the “choices” of classmates gravitating to big firms, the expectations and pressures of family and friends, “[t]he perceived prestige” of those firms, social status and standing, and, of course, the hard-to-miss and easy-to-compare wage rates.

It turns out that the very thing that attracts so many of us to a place like Harvard Law School-namely, choice-may not be all it is cracked up to be. The more good options we have, the more good options we have to pass up. The more good options we pass up, the worse we feel, especially when the choice is highly consequential. According to Professors Iyengar, Wells, and Schwartz, perceived opportunity costs don’t vanish from a chooser’s imagination once a final selection is made. Instead, those costs continue to haunt the chooser with images of what might have been.

That problem is exacerbated when others are eager to snatch up the job that we might forego. Why work at a place thatcorporate-ladder.jpg leaves little room for life? As one Record writer put it, “Do you know how hard it is to get a job there?” And, as another, reminded us: “Here at HLS, we’re privileged to be recruited for law firm jobs that students at other schools fight over.” Still another explained that, although “the work that firms do doesn’t interest me, . . . I go to Har-vard. I made it through my first year. . . . Don’t I ‘deserve’ to earn the $135,000 that a firm is willing to pay me? How can I pass up this wonderful opportunity?”

There exists, it seems, a sort of interpersonal tyranny of the majority that leaves us feeling obliged to choose as we imagine the majority of our cohorts would. Perhaps the majority’s choices will bring greater lifetime satisfaction, but perhaps not. Of course, if our cohorts are similarly motivated, then the career trajectories of many HLS students may simply reflect a shared illusion-a fairly common effect of what social psychologists call pluralistic ignorance. The phenomenon is all-too familiar: when a professor asks a deeply confused class if there are any questions, and every student remains silent (in the false belief that their bewilderment is unique), the professor moves forward as if he or she had been perfectly clear. Presuming that the group marches forward for good reasons, we go along, even though each of us may tread in ignorance. These and other herding tendencies may have motivated Professor Wilkins’s recent caution to HLS students: “keep your eyes open and . . . pay careful attention to what’s happening to your career because nobody really is looking out for you. And if they say they are, they’re mostly being disingenuous.”

* * *

So what might be done to help students really look after themselves? That question is taken up in Part III of this series.

For other posts discussing the problems posed by too much choice, read “Why You Bought That” and “Just Choose It.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Law | 3 Comments »

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