The Situationist

Archive for October, 2007

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

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 4, 2007



Last 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.

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Just as it does every year this time, the season has clearly changed at Harvard Law School. We’re not referring to the falling leaves or the failed Sox. We’re talking about hundreds of 2Ls donning business attire for their annual migration to the Charles Hotel. We’re talking about interview season.

Much has been written about the stressful, transformative, and often harmful effect of the Harvard Law School experience on the lives and careers of its students. Certainly Dean Kagan’s tenure has done much to alleviate many of these effects. Still, the interviewing season, except for some added efficiencies, has remained fairly constant. Many students continue to find this period to be the most harried and disconcerting of their three years at HLS. Some sense that their futures are taking directions that seem more predestined than chosen. As one alum describes: “By the time Harvard Law students make the decision to take a job with the high-powered firm they ‘summered at’ the previous year (or another just like it), it is not eminence they feel, but rather resignation, confusion, and a loss of their capacity to chart their own futures or make things happen.”

This all seems a little puzzling. If most students come here because of the amazing career opportunities that a Harvard Law School education affords (and of course they do), then why do so many of those students find the actual job-hunting process so unsatisfying?

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Over forty years ago, Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, distinguished between two types of decisionmakers: maximizers and satisficers. The maximizers seek the “best” outcome and exhaustively search all possibilities; the satisficers look for an outcome that is “good enough.” Flipping through channels with the TV remote, the maximizer is frantic with concern that, on one of the other 300 channels, a more entertaining showChez Henri may be underway. The satisficer is happy with any option that isn’t home shopping. Sitting at Chez Henri, where the options include the Rice Crusted Tuna or the Chupe de Longosta, or perhaps the Star Anise & Plum Glazed Duck Breast, a maximizer pores over the menu, scrutinizes the ingredients, cross-examines the waiter, and factors in her tablemates’ selections. A satisficer picks the first entrée that sounds good and returns to the conversation.

At the risk of stating the obvious, HLS is brimming with maximizers. Indeed, the urge to maximize is a de facto prerequisite for admission. At least since high school, we have been making good grades and excelling at extracurriculars to separate ourselves, the few who have gained admittance, from the thousands who, sour grapes aside, wish they had. Not only does maximizing open the HLS doors, it is the main reason that most of us opt to enter. This is an institution that attracts high achievers who, though often uncertain exactly what they want to do with their lives, crave many rewarding options to choose among. As Alexa Shabecoff summarized in these pages a few weeks ago:

many of you may have ended up in law school because you lack a strong sense of what you want to do for a living. Having left college without specific training, and knowing that further education is highly valued, you find comfort in a place that will not only give you more time to prepare for the “real world” but will also give you skills that can be applied in numerous settings.

And once here, the maximization decision strategy is only reinforced. We teach and learn in our courses that policymakers maximize wealth, that consumers maximize utility, and that corporations maximize profit. Professors are measured by their citation ranking while students are measured according to how well they maximize grade points as they as they prepare for positions that increasingly involve maximization of billable hours. In short, most HLS students and professors are here because we were maximizers in the past, are maximizers in the present, and expect to be maximizers in the future.

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That brings us back to interview season. We are in the middle of the hectic job-searching phase in which summer jobs and clerkships are being traded like cattle futures. Mark Weber, who heads the on-campus portion of the interviewing program, describes the process as “intense, exciting, and busy” and the season itself as an “exciting, overwhelming, and emotional time.” Alexa Shabecoff calls it simply, the “fall insanity.”

Harvard Law JugglersHere is the strange part. The alleged source of this craziness is–take a breath to let this sink in–too many opportunities. According to Weber, HLS students are “curse[d]” (and blessed) with too “many choices and options.” They “face seemingly endless career choices requiring quick decisions.” As one 2L recently lamented in the Record, “there are so many incredible choices that I’ll never be able to make up my mind.”

Since when did having too many choices become a problem for HLS students? When selecting from the menu at Chez Henri, we maximizers proved our capacity for astute decision-making by gathering information, seeking advice, and, in the end, thoroughly enjoying French cuisine “with a Cuban twist.” 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.

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Part II of this series will pick up there — explaining the problem that too many choices create.


Posted in Choice Myth, Law | 4 Comments »

Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green

Posted by Dan Kahan on October 2, 2007

expressively overdetermined flag!A while back I posted an entry about the “cultural cognition of nanotechnology risks.” The entry described a study that members of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School had done that showed that exposure to just a small bit of information about nanotechnology — a subject the vast majority of Americans have heard nothing or little about — can instantly polarize people along cultural lines. I promised that I would post another entry describing techniques for ameliorating this type of cultural polarization on risk issues.

Well, I waited about 6 months or so, not just to let suspense build but also to gather some data so that it wouldn’t seem I was just engaged in wild-eyed conjecture (although truth be told, I’m pretty partial to that mode of exposition). Now I’m going to describe a framing technique for reducing cultural polarization that involves identity affirmation (a communication strategy based on the work of social psychologist and Cultural Cognition Project researcher Geoff Cohen). And I’m going to illustrate how it works with a study that relates to global warming.

Let me start with just a little bit of background. The “cultural cognition of risk” refers to the psychological disposition of people to form beliefs about risk that cohere with their values. People who hold relatively egalitarian and communitarian values, for example, worry about environmental risks (nuclear power accidents, global warming, air pollution, etc.), the abatement of which would justify regulating commercial activities that generate inequality and legitimize the unconstrained pursuit of individual self-interest. Persons who subscribe to relatively individualistic values, in contrast, reject claims of environmental risk precisely because they cherish markets and private orderings. They worry instead that excessive gun control will render individuals unable to defend themselves — a belief congenial to the association of guns with individualist virtues such as self-reliance, courage, and martial prowess. Persons who hold traditional or hierarchical values fret about the societal risks of drug use and promiscuous sex, and the personal risks associated with obtaining an abortion or smoking marijuana — forms of behavior that denigrate traditional social norms and roles.

One of the basic mechanisms behind the cultural cognition of risk is identity-protective cognition. As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.

This process, though, can presumably be reversed or at least mitigated. If one can frame risk information in way that affirms rather than threatens persons’ defining commitments, then those persons should be able to process information more open-mindedly.

We (Don Braman, Situationist Contributor Paul Slovic, Geoff Cohen, John Gastil and I) decided to test this hypothesis in an experiment focusing on global warming. People with individualistic values tend to be skeptical of environmental risks like global warming because accepting such risks seems to imply that government should regulate commerce, an activity individualists like. But it turns out that one possible solution to global warming is to rely more on nuclear power, which doesn’t emit the greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuel energy sources. Cultural individualists like nuclear power, because it is a symbol of individual initiative, industry, and mastery over nature. Advised that nuclear power is one solution to the risks of global warming, then, individualists should be more receptive to information suggesting that global warming in fact presents genuine and serious risks.

nuke_vs_antipollution.pngIn our experiment, we divided subjects (whose cultural values we measured ahead of time with appropriate scales) into two groups. Both received a news report describing a scientific study on global warming. The study was described as finding conclusive evidence that the temperature of the earth is increasing, that humans are the source of this condition, and that this change in the earth’s climate could have disastrous environmental economic consequences. In one version of the news story, however, the scientific study was described as calling for “increased antipollution regulation,” whereas in another it was described as calling for “revitalization of the nation’s nuclear power industry.”

The results of the experiment showed that subjects receiving the “nuclear power” version of the news story were less culturally polarized than ones receiving the “anti-pollution” version. That is, individualists who received the “nuclear power” version were less inclined to dismiss the facts related by the described report — that the earth’s temperature is increasing, that humans are the cause, and that the consequences would be dire if global warming were not reversed — than were individualists who got the “antipollution” version, even though the factual information, and its source, were the same in both articles. Indeed, individualists who received the “antipollution” version of the news report were even more skeptical about these facts than were individualists in a control group that received no newspaper story — and thus no information relating to the scientific study that made these findings.individualists_polarization.png

In sum, anti-pollution measures make individualists see red. Nuclear power makes them see green!

This is just one of a variety of experimental findings that appear in a report, “The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of — and Progress in — the American Culture War of Fact,” released last week by the Cultural Cognition Project. The study discusses a variety of issues in addition to global warming, including domestic terrorism, school shootings, and vaccination of school-age girls for HPV. It also identifies other mechanisms for counteracting the divisive effects of cultural cognition on these and other issues. I’ll discuss some of these findings too in future posts – ones that will appear, I promise, in less than six months’ time.

But before I conclude this post, I do want to make one thing clear. The point of “identity affirmation” and like techniques for counteracting cultural cognition is not to induce people to believe any particular set of facts about climate change, gun control, anti-terrorism policies, or the like. Rather it’s to neutralize the tendency of people to polarize along cultural lines as they consider and discuss information about such matters. If society availed itself of risk-communication and regulatory strategies founded on “identity affirmation” and similar mechanisms, disagreements about facts would no doubt persist, but they would no longer take the form of battles between rival cultural factions. And we think that’s a good thing.

Posted in Conflict, Cultural Cognition, Law, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 13 Comments »

The Situation of College Debt – Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 1, 2007

University Michigan Credit Card Booth

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.

This post excerpts Silver-Greenberg’s article, The Dirty Secret of Campus Credit Cards,” which illustrates the way that universities have, in part because of their situation, begun trading their reputation, group allegiances, and position of trust for increased revenues at a cost to their students. They are, in other words, charging a hidden tuition by contributing to the debt loads of their students.

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Case Western Mastercard

It was three years ago and Irene Leech still remembers the shock clearly. An associate professor at Virginia Tech who specializes in consumer affairs, she read the terms of the credit card that her school, together with JPMorgan Chase (JPM), was marketing to students, alumni, and staff. Behind the card’s shiny surface, featuring the football stadium at sunset, the so-called “affinity” card offered some of the most unfavorable terms around for card users. Among other things, the card had what’s known as “double-cycle” billing, where interest is calculated over two months instead of the typical one, resulting in higher finance charges. “I was shocked,” she says.The experience convinced Leech that it was time for her to take a stand. First in a limited way and now more broadly, she has been speaking out against the conflicts of interest that universities face when they strike business agreements with credit card companies. Chase ultimately dropped double-cycle billing on the Virginia Tech card, as it did for all cards earlier this year. But Leech warns that schools that get money from credit card companies through affinity contracts or other marketing agreements face intractable problems, in which the school’s financial interests are in direct conflict with those of students and alumni.

“Students assume that if the university has an affinity contract with a bank to offer a credit card, the university will surely look after them,” she says. “But these contracts are really money-makers for the school, and not about services to the students.”

Million Dollar Relationships

Leech isn’t just taking on Virginia Tech, which takes in seven figures from the Chase deal. Nearly every major university in the country has a multi-million-dollar affinity relationship with a credit card company. The deals can be worth nearly $20 million to a single university. Schools, especially public universities supported by state revenues, are coming under increasing financial pressure to generate new revenue these days, and deals with credit card companies can provide a steady stream of income. And in most cases the worse the card terms are for students and alumni, the more profitable theyColumbia University Visa are for the schools.

At a time when state support for higher education has languished, these contracts have become major sources of cash for universities. The University of Tennessee, which raised eyebrows with a $16 million deal in 1998, recently signed a pact with Chase worth $10 million — roughly $384 per student at a school with a total enrollment of 26,038. If Ohio State, with the nation’s largest enrollment at 59,091, signed a similar deal, it could be worth more than $22 million.

Card issuers and schools say that these relationships are mutually beneficial. With affinity cards, the schools get income that they otherwise wouldn’t, while alumni and students get the option of signing up for a credit card. The alumni association at Virginia Tech, which oversees the relationship with Chase, says its affinity card helps students and alumni build credit histories with unusually good service. “Hopefully card-users feel that they get more special care” says Thomas C. Tillar, vice-president for alumni relations at Virginia Tech. Some 20,000 people currently hold the card, including students, alumni, professors, and other staff.

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As a growing number of college kids pile up mountains of credit-card debt, the entire issue of credit-card companies on campus is coming under increasing scrutiny. Earlier this year, the state legislatures in Texas, Oklahoma, and New York voted to clamp down on credit-card marketing to college students.

“Clear Conflict of Interest”

Congress plans to hold hearings on the companies’ practices later this year. With such efforts underway, activists say that it is inevitable that the relationships between credit card companies and universities will ultimately face greater examination.

“Universities are pursuing these sweetheart deals with credit card companies, and offering up premiere marketing locations and student names and addresses for a big profit,” says Robert Manning, director of the Center for Consumer Financial Services at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “It’s a clear conflict of interest.”

Affinity relationships typically mean that schools enter into partnership with a credit card company to issue a co-branded card. Bank of America (BAC) is the leading player in the field, with 900 agreements with schools nationwide. Chase has 40 affinity relationships with schools nationwide. In most cases the school is paid royalties for the partnership. Royalties can top $2 million dollars a year in exchange for offering the credit-card company access to student lists and exclusive marketing privileges at football games and other school events. In addition schools earn a set fee for each student, alumnus, or professor who signs up for a credit card, as well as a percentage of overall charges made on the cards, according to Manning.

Surrounded by Secrecy

Boston University Visa Professor Leech, with her specialty in consumer affairs, was particularly sensitive to how customers would be treated in such situations. . . .

One thing that Leech has objected to in particular is the secrecy surrounding the contract between Virginia Tech and Chase. . . . “These deals are kept very close to the chest,” she says.

Virginia Tech isn’t alone in this regard. Universities closely guard the financial terms of their agreements with card companies. This is true even in public schools, where open contract laws typically mandate transparency. “Schools don’t want the public to see money made on these deals and so they broker the contracts through incorporated entities,” explains Robert Manning. “There is so much of this money unaccounted for.”

Benefits Scholarship Funds?

Only a handful of the contracts have been made public. . . . Manning [has] testified that a contract between the University of Tennessee and FirstUSA was worth $16.5 million over seven years. He also testified that the University of Oklahoma received a $1 million signing bonus from MBNA.

A spokeswoman for the University of Tennessee said that its affinity card is marketed primarily to graduate students and alumni, not undergraduates. In addition, the school — which last year signed a new affinity contract with Chase for $10 million over seven years — sends the bulk of the money from such contracts to private scholarships.

When so much money is at stake, Leech and other advocates worry that the schools are seeking out the best contract for their own financial interest, not the students’. “The university is not demanding consumer-friendly terms, instead they are just seeing what credit-card companies offer them,” says Leech.

Funding Financial Literacy

Tillar, from Virginia Tech’s alumni association, says that when the school renewed its affinity card contract roughly a year-and-a-half ago, it did have a choice of two banks — Bank of America and Chase. Still, the bidding didn’t allow Virginia Tech to negotiate better features on the affinity card, ensuring only that it could get a more competitive royalty package. “The bargaining is really with the royalty fee that is offered by the banks,” says Tillar. The money, Tillar says, goes toward operating costs for the alumni association.

Some advocates argue that any money made from such credit card contracts should be used for financial literacy programs, to make sure students use credit responsibly. Manning has been campaigning for such programs, as well as for a reserve fund to bail out students who end up over their heads in debt. At Virginia Tech Tillar hopes to use some money from the Chase contract to provide financial literacy education, although the program hasn’t been set up yet.

All of these steps are too modest for Leech. She says that the relationship between universities and credit card companies is simply too complicated to keep. “These affinity contracts are compromising and people need to wake up and examine them.”

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To view several Debt Hits Hard ads, click on the video below.

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

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