The Situationist

Archive for December, 2007

Cheering for the Underdog

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 31, 2007

i-hate-new-england-patriots.jpgIf you’re like many Americans, you’re spending much of this week watching football games. And, if you’re like many such viewers, you’re rooting for the underdog (or rooting against the overdog). It seems there’s a strong bias in favor of the person or group who seems outmatched be it in sports, movies, or other walks of life.

We’ve examined that tendency on several ocassions, most substantively in Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s Promoting Dispsitionism through Entertainment series, which, by studying the films Rocky Balboa and The Pursuit of Happyness, showed how system justification plays a leading role in explaining for whom we cheer. System justification, as Situationist contributors John Jost, Aaron Kay, and their collaborators have shown, refers to the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests.

A new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looks further into the underdog phenomenon. In “The Appeal of the Underdog,” Joseph A. Vandello, Nadav P. Goldschmied, and David A. R. Richards of the University of South Florida asked participants to react to various scenarios presenting different competitors with an advantage or disadvantage. Below we excerpt of a Science Daily article on their study and findings.

* * *

Using both sports and political examples, the researchers asked study participants to react to various scenarios presenting different competitors with an advantage or disadvantage.

For instance, in one study using the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, the participants were given the same essay about the history of the area, but with different maps to reference — one showing Palestine as smaller than Israel (and thus, the underdog) and the other showing Israel as smaller.

Israel Palestine

No matter what scenario the participants were presented with, they consistently favored the underdog to win.

Why do people support underdogs and find them so appealing?

The researchers propose that those who are viewed as disadvantaged arouse people’s sense of fairness and justice — important principles to most people.

The researchers also found that people tend to believe that underdogs put forth more effort than top-dogs, but that favorable evaluation disappeared when the underdog status no longer applies, such as when people are expected to lose but have a lot of available resources.

* * *

The actual study can be obtained at this link.

Posted in Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 4 Comments »

And the Winner Is . . .

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 30, 2007

Top TrophiesLast week, we asked readers to vote for their favorite Situationist post from 2007. Congratulations are in order for Jason Chung and Emily Pronin, whose posts received the two highest total of votes. Jason’s Negative Press: Is ESPN Killing the NHL? and Emily’s Think You’ve Got Magical Powers led the way.

We appreciate that many of you took the time to vote and hope that you have an excellent selection of best Situationist posts to read in 2008.

Happy New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Racial Health Disparities

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 28, 2007

HospitalThe December issue of The Observer contains an article on James S. Jackson’s research on the (situational) sources of racial disparities in our healthcare system. We’ve excerpted a sample of that article below.

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The knowledge of racial inequities in America is hardly breaking news. Our country’s long history of segregation and discrimination continues to reverberate in many areas of our society. Nowhere are the effects of discrimination more evident than in the health status of black Americans. “Over the life-course, blacks, more than any other [racial] group, live the fewest years and a high proportion of those years are in poor health” said APS Fellow and Charter Member James S. Jackson during his James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award Address at the APS 19th Annual Convention. Jackson is leading the charge to understand and curb these differences. As a professor of psychology and director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, he examines the health gap between African Americans and non-Hispanic Caucasians.

* * *

In his talk, Jackson outlined some of his recent findings and provided hypotheses for the causes of racial health disparities. Throughout the lifetime, small group differences in genes, race, stress, and socioeconomic status have interacted to create interesting patterns in health disparities, said Jackson. Up until age one, death rates are much higher for blacks than for whites. The ultimate result is an African American population that is heartier than average, or “selected” in the evolutionary sense. African Americans who survive beyond infancy are much more resilient than their white counterparts, leading to a relative lull in health problems early in life. But as they age, the everyday stressors of being materially disadvantaged and geographically segregated begin to wear this resiliency down.
Jackson explained that “African Americans are suffering stressors over their life-course, but because they are more highly selected, they are able to resist those stressors in early years of life, but [health difficulties] arise because they can only suffer for so long.”

As stressors become overwhelming, individuals begin to utilize stress-coping mechanisms. Doctors and therapists preach that simple activities such as jogging or taking a swim are excellent remedies to alleviate such stress. But, as Jackson noted, it is considerably easier to instead reach for readily available junk food, cigarettes, or alcohol, especially in low-income areas where parks, pools, and gyms are likely to be unavailable. Exercise becomes an even less viable option as a person ages and the body begins to break down, further contributing to declining health in middle age.

Jackson’s resilience hypothesis falls in line with public health data: Rates of smoking, alcohol use, and obesity increase in later years of life, whereas vigorous activity declines precipitously.

He extends his perspective on racial health disparity to mental illness. . . .

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To read the rest of the article and more about Jackson’s fascinating research, click here. For a listing of numerous Situationist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here. To review The National Healthcare Disparities Report, click here. And, to listen to an NPR story titled “Closing the Black Cancer Gap,” click here.

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

No Contract for Old Men

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 27, 2007

No Contract for Old MenIn July, Situationist Fellow Kate Hill wrote a post (“When Thieves See Situation“) about how marketers are exploiting the situation of elderly people, many of whom are especially vulnerable to manipulative practices that have become common among telemarketers. Her post was based on a New York Times article by Charles Duhigg.

Duhigg just published a related article (“Shielding Money Clashes with Elders’ Free Will“) describing how some of those elderly victims are beginning to fight back, with a little help from their lawyers. Elderly individuals who appear to be making “bad choices” and entering “bad contracts” are, according to Duhigg’s latest piece, claiming that they should be shielded from some of their contracts.

That sort of argument is, of course, very unusual and unpopular in contemporary American culture, which teaches (1) that we are less than fully human if we admit that we’re not good choosers for ourselves or (2) that we are paternalistic or elitist if we suggest that anyone else is vulnerable to situational manipulation.

To be sure, there are categories of people for whom we accept the idea that the “free choice” model doesn’t apply, or at least not fully — children and the insane, for instance, are often said to “lack capacity” to contract and, therefore, are sometimes not held to the terms of a contract, particularly when that contract seems exploitative. But that’s the point, to declare that some other group “lacks capacity” is equivalent to saying that they are like children or otherwise incompetent.

Perhaps our presumptions should change. If we accepted that all of us are vulnerable to situational manipulations, we might be more willing to shift responsibility to the large entities who spend vast resources to manipulate our situation instead of looking to assign responsibility entirely to the the individual on the other side of the contract.

Below we excerpt a few sections of Duhigg’s excellent article, which raises some of those issues.

* * *

Eight years ago, when Robert J. Pyle was 73 years old, he had about $500,000 in the bank and owned a house in Northern California worth about $650,000. He was looking forward to a comfortable retirement.

Today, at 81, he has lost everything. Mr. Pyle, a retired aerospace engineer, now lives in his stepdaughter’s tiny, mountainside home in a room not much larger than his bed.

By his own admission, Mr. Pyle willingly made every decision that led to his financial problems. He gave away large sums to people he thought were friends, and then, in need of money, sold his house at a deep discount to the first person who offered to buy it.

Even so, he claims in a lawsuit that he should be compensated for some of his losses for a simple reason: he is old, and should not bear the full responsibility for his choices.

“I still make pretty good decisions about most things,” said Mr. Pyle, who shows no signs of dementia. “But for others, I guess I’m not as sharp as I was before, and people take advantage of that.”

In the last few years, thousands of older Americans like Mr. Pyle have filed suits against companies and salespeople who have promoted dubious offers and schemes. These suits are unusual because the victims typically do not say they were intimidated or lied to, and they concede they freely made what turned out to be unwise decisions.

But because the plaintiffs are older, they argue, they should be less accountable for their mistakes.

These lawsuits raise controversial questions: In the eyes of the law, should the elderly be treated like adolescents, who are not entirely responsible for their poor decisions, but are also barred from making certain choices on their own? Or should they have autonomy, and therefore be accountable for their blunders?

* * *

Although national figures are hard to collect, more than 760 civil lawsuits were filed last year in California alone contending elder abuse (most of them claim financial abuse, though some assert other kinds of abuse, including physical). That is an increase of 98 percent from five years earlier, according to a search of court filings. At least a dozen other states show similar trends.Many of the legal theories at the core of these suits draw on recently passed laws that are often ambiguously worded.

woman-on-phone.jpegCalifornia’s elder abuse statute, for instance, does not specify how sales agents should treat older customers. Instead, the law recognizes that the elderly are vulnerable to “abuse, neglect or abandonment,” and indicates that an older person has been financially abused when “it is obvious to a reasonable person” that fraud has occurred. These broad laws, argues Mr. Pyle’s lawyer, Kathryn A. Stebner, creates special protections for the elderly, even if they are not specifically spelled out.

* * *

As growing numbers of elderly consumers begin citing such legislation to undo contracts or get refunds, some companies and executives are warning of possible repercussions.

“Either someone has the mental capacity to make a decision, and therefore live with the consequences, or they don’t, in which case they shouldn’t be managing their own finances,” said Terry J. Dyer, president of Jett Financial Services, a defendant in Mr. Pyle’s suit. Mr. Dyer said his company, which helped Mr. Pyle refinance his home, did nothing wrong.

“There is no business on earth that can function if its customers can say, ‘I’m tired of abiding by this contract, so I want out because I’m old,’” he added.

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To read all of the Duhigg article, go to Shielding Money Clashes with Elders’ Free Will.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Marketing, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

Why Do Lawyers Acquiesce In Their Clients’ Misconduct? – Part III

Posted by Sung Hui Kim on December 24, 2007

This is Part III of my series, exploring the reasons why lawyers acquiesce in their clients’ frauds and other misconduct. For background, please access Part I and Part II of this series. In Part II, I had focused mainly on the in-house lawyer and argued that the in-house lawyer is a mere employee to her business superiors in her company and, therefore, will be inclined to countenance the unethical actions of the CEO, CFO, etc. But, in this segment, I will focus on lawyers generally—both in-house and outside lawyers.

Don’t think this is an issue? Consider just a few of the many high-profile events in the past year, as we reminisce about 2007:

o SEC Sues Apple General Counsel Nancy Heinen. Remember the over hundred companies under investigation for backdating stock options? In April 2007, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Apple General Counsel Nancy Heinen, claiming that she “caused Apple” to backdate two large option grants to senior executives and that she altered company records to conceal the fraud. Of course, she’s innocent until proven guilty.

o Monster Worldwide General Counsel Myron Olesnyckyj Pleads Guilty. In February 2007, Myron admitted that he and others at Monster Worldwide, Inc. prepared grant paperwork with altered dates, changed the names of grant recipients and the number of options granted, and provided false information to Monster’s auditors.

o Jury Convicts Hollinger General Counsel Mark Kipnis. In July, after a seven-week trial in Chicago, a jury convicted Mark Kipnis on three counts of mail fraud in connection with a scheme by Hollinger ex-CEO Conrad Black to secretly skim $60 million from sale of the company’s newspapers. Although Kipnis was not a beneficiary of the hidden payments, the jury believed that he played a crucial role in structuring the fraudulent deals.

And outside counsel also faced their own problems, which I will not recount here.

Alignment pressures of Faithful Agents. It is banal to say that lawyers are “faithful agents” of their clients. This agency relationship is another crucial feature of the ethical ecology of lawyers. Like all agents, the lawyer has to justify her behavior to her clients, which creates pressures to align her views with her client’s.These alignment pressures are powerful psychological forces and can distort the lawyer’s judgments. How warped her judgments are depends on how closely aligned she feels with her client.

Who is the Client? As a threshold matter, we should be clear who the client is. Formally, the client is the organization, not its “constituents,” such as the Board of Directors, the entity’s other employees, or even the shareholders. Of course, the organization is entirely fictitious and can only act through the flesh and blood of its constituents. Therefore, in actual practice, the lawyer must suspend this fiction and interact with senior management (who are vested with the authority to direct her activities) as her de facto client or principal, although they are merely and legally co-agents. This explains why both outside and inside lawyers often, if not always, refer to and think of these co-agents as “clients.” (There is one little complication which I will gloss over for purposes of this blog entry: for the outside lawyer, the de facto client is often the inside lawyer whose de facto client, in turn, is the senior manager.) Interestingly and without going into great detail here, the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct strongly support the identification of senior managers as the lawyer’s de facto clients.Also, with the exception of independent counsel to the Board of Directors, all lawyers report, either directly or indirectly, to these senior managers. This mismatch between the beneficiary of the lawyer’s fiduciary duty (the corporation) and the beneficiary of the lawyer’s reporting duty (management) is inherently problematic for the state of professional norms. Putting it bluntly, the lawyer faces an obvious conflict of interest when the senior manager, who acts as the lawyer’s de facto client, asks that lawyer to do something that goes against the interest of the de jure client—the corporate entity to whom the lawyer owes a fiduciary duty.

Auditing vignettes study. How strong are these alignment pressures experienced by faithful agents? Consider recent research on the impact of roles on the judgments of professional auditors. Researchers Don Moore, George Loewenstein, Lloyd Tanlu and Max Bazerman surveyed 139 auditors employed full time by one of the Big Four U.S. accounting firms. Each participant was given five intentionally ambiguous auditing vignettes and asked to judge the accounting for each.Half the participants were asked to assume that they had been retained by the firm they were auditing; the rest were asked to assume that they had been retained by an outside investor which was considering investing money in the firm. The firm’s unaudited financial statements needed to be evaluated by all participants.

For all five vignettes, the auditors were on average 30% more likely to find that the accounting behind a company’s financial reports complied with GAAP if they were playing the role of auditor for that firm (as opposed to representing the potential investor), demonstrating substantial bias in auditors’ judgments when asked to suppose a hypothetical role with a client. If a mere hypothetical relationship with a client could generate such great distortions in auditing judgment, one can only imagine the degree of distortion that might exist in a longstanding relationship between a lawyer (acting in her capacity as zealous advocate) and her de facto client.

Accountability. Why were the judgments of the firm’s auditors so grossly distorted in the direction of their client? The authors of the auditing vignettes study explain these results by focusing on the mechanism of “accountability” in the agent-principal relationship. Accountability – having to justify one’s views to others – is at the crux of the relationship. Agents are, by definition, accountable to their principals; they must justify their actions and views to their principals.Accountants and lawyers as agents must justify their views and decisions to management in terms that management understands and values.

Accountability can thus produce a chameleon-like shift in behavior in the principal’s direction. Other studies have demonstrated that even a weak form of accountability between strangers can bias subjects in adopting public positions that are more closely aligned with the preferences of those to whom they are accountable. If we know we are speaking before a bunch of liberals, we perform more liberal-talk; in front of conservatives, we talk conservative.

If you read current news reports about the ongoing presidential campaigns, notice how well the presidential candidates tailor their messages to their audiences.In the December 17, 2007 issue of The Wall Street Journal, I read that Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee emphasizes his views opposing abortion and same-sex marriage in Iowa, while in New Hampshire he doesn’t bring up abortion, marriage or religion unless specifically asked about it. Of course, Huckabee is not alone and most of the tailoring done by presidential hopefuls is conscious and strategic, based on careful focus-group analyses. My less obvious and perhaps more controversial point here is that we also tend to tailor our messages and actions to our respective audiences unconsciously as well. I do suspect that some are naturally more adept at unconscious tailoring or “tuning” than others.

Accountability may produce an even deeper alignment. In a follow-up study, Moore, et. al. found that role manipulation, i.e., whether the subject worked as “auditor” for either the seller or buyer, had a significant effect in aligning private beliefs about the client’s accounting in the direction of their hypothetical client.In other words, affiliated agents tend to automatically adopt the principal’s perspective of the world, a “partisan point of view.” Moreover, once the agent adopts a partisan affiliation with the principal, “it can be difficult, if not impossible, to undo that encoding or to retrieve unbiased information from memory.”

Strength of accountability. As explained above, an agent’s accountability to her principal produces alignment. It is reasonable to suppose that the stronger the accountability, for whatever reasons, the greater the alignment. What accounts for the strength of accountability? There are multiple binding factors that determine the strength of the agency relationship. For example, stark financial ties to the principal will increase accountability to the principal. Evidence now suggests that social ties also have that effect. Given the day-to-day social interaction between management and inside counsel, this is another reason why accountability to management should be strong. For outside lawyers, the repeat business to be expected from their corporate client’s senior managers likewise should produce strong alignment pressures. Just think about the following developments in the past few decades and their possible effect on the alignment of law firm partners with their clients: eat-what-you kill compensation schemes and the erosion of lock-step seniority system, the increased competition in the market for legal services, beauty contests for legal services, etc. I detail the effects of these and other developments in my article, Gatekeepers Inside Out, which is forthcoming in The Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics.

Lawyer as Moral Extension of Client. In addition, the characteristic activities of lawyering may also contribute to the strength of accountability to the de facto client. As Professor Gerald Postema argues, unlike the physician or auto mechanic, the lawyer “act[s] in the place of the client, [which] require[s] the direct involvement of the lawyer’s moral faculties — i.e., his capacities to deliberate, reason, argue, and act in the public arena.” As the client’s agent, the lawyer speaks on behalf of the client and enters into relationships with others in the name of the client. What the lawyer does is typically attributable to the client. As Postema notes, “Thus, at the invitation of the client, the lawyer becomes an extension of the legal, and to an extent the moral, personality of the client.” Consistently acting out behavior may have far-reaching consequences. Thus, it is entirely plausible, as the great Karl Llewellyn suggested decades ago, that the most powerful determinant of attitudes and social orientation of lawyers is the work they do.

In my upcoming Part IV, I will argue that lawyers’ special status as lawyers will contribute to these alignment pressures. For a more thorough treatment of this topic, please read my more comprehensive works, The Banality of Fraud: Re-Situating the Inside Counsel as Gatekeeper and Gatekeepers Inside Out.

Posted in Law | 1 Comment »

Giving Is Receiving

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 24, 2007

santa-gift.jpgEarlier this month, Tara Parker-Pope wrote an interesting article, “A Gift That Gives Right Back? The Giving Itself,” for the New York Times. We excerpt portions of the article below.

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Gift giving has long been a favorite subject for studies on human behavior, with psychologists, anthropologists, economists and marketers all weighing in. They have found that giving gifts is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction, helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends. Indeed, psychologists say it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the biggest psychological gains from a gift. Frustrated by crowds, traffic and commercialism, people can be tempted at this time of year to opt out of gift giving altogether. A 2005 survey showed that four out of five Americans think the holidays are too materialistic, according to the Center for a New American Dream, which promotes responsible consumption.But while it’s reasonable to cut back on spending during the holidays, psychologists say that banning the gift exchange with loved ones is not the best solution. People who refuse to accept or exchange gifts during the holidays, these experts say, may be missing out on an important connection with family and friends.

“That doesn’t do a service to the relationship,” said Ellen J. Langer, a Harvard psychology professor. “If I don’t let you give me a gift, then I’m not encouraging you to think about me and think about things I like. I am preventing you from experiencing the joy of engaging in all those activities. You do people a disservice by not giving them the gift of giving.”

The social value of giving has been recognized throughout human history. For thousands of years, some native cultures have engaged in the potlatch, a complex ceremony that celebrates extreme giving. Although cultural interpretations vary, often the status of a given family in a clan or village was dictated not by who had the most possessions, but instead by who gave away the most. The more lavish and bankrupting the potlatch, the more prestige gained by the host family.

Some researchers believe evolutionary forces may have favored gift giving. Men who were the most generous may have had the most reproductive success with women. (Notably, the use of food in exchange for sexual access and grooming has been documented in our closest ape relative, the chimpanzee.) Women who were skilled at giving — be it extra food or a well-fitted pelt — helped sustain the family provider as well as her children.

* * *
People who stop giving gifts lose out on important social cues, researchers say. “Who is on your gift list is telling you who is important in your life,” Dr. [Mary Ann] McGrath said. “It says who is more important and who is less important.”

But the biggest effect of gift giving may be on ourselves. Giving to others reinforces our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring, Dr. Langer said.

For a glimpse into the psychology of giving, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University recently studied gift giving by pet owners, finding that it stemmed from a desire to make pets happy and offer gifts that would improve a pet’s comfort and care. The research, to be published next year, may seem frivolous, but it also gives insight into the self-serving nature of giving, since pets can’t reciprocate, the researchers note.

“When you’re giving to another person, you have this pressure of reciprocity, but it’s not there with a pet,” said Tracy Ryan, an associate professor of advertising research at Virginia Commonwealth. “It shows that a lot of the pleasure is in the giving, knowing you’ve taken care of someone.”

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To read Parker-Pope’s entire article, click here. Happy giving and receiving.

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

The Milgram Experiment Today?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 22, 2007

milgram-shock-box.jpgStudents commonly assume that, even if Milgram’s famous experiment sheds important light on the power of situation today, were his experiment precisely reproduced today, it would not generate comparable results. To oversimplify the argument behind that claim: The power of white lab coats just ain’t what it used to be. Of course, that assertion has been difficult to challenge given that the option of replicating the Milgram experiment has been presumptively unavailable — indeed, it has been the paradigmatic example of why psychology experiments must be reviewed by institutional review boards (“IRBs”).

Who would even attempt to challenge that presumption? The answer: Jerry Burger, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University. With some slight modifications, Burger managed to obtain permission to replicate Milgram’s experiment — and the results may surprise you.

Below (or at this link) you can watch a video containing the ABC Primetime News story on Milgram original experiment and Burger’s replication of Milgram. Below that, you can read Burger’s first-hand account, from the December edition of the Observer, of how he managed this impressive feat. Finally, we’ve included a news story from this week suggesting the relevance of the Milgram’s findings for real-life.

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“It can’t be done.”

These are the first words I said to Muriel Pearson, producer for ABC News’ Primetime, when she approached me with the idea of replicating Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience studies. . . . Milgram’s participants were placed in an emotionally excruciating situation in which an experimenter instructed them to continue administering electric shocks to another individual despite hearing that person’s agonizing screams of protest. The studies ignited a debate about the ethical treatment of participants. And the research became, as I often told my students, the study that can never be replicated.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued. . . .

The challenge was to develop a variation of Milgram’s procedures that would allow useful comparisons with the original investigations while protecting the well-being of the participants. But meeting this challenge would raise another: I would also need to assuage the apprehension my IRB would naturally experience when presented with a proposal to replicate the study that can never be replicated.

I went to great lengths to recreate Milgram’s procedures (Experiment Five), including such details as the words used in the memory test and the experimenter’s lab coat. But I also made several substantial changes. First, we stopped the procedures at the 150-volt mark. This is the first time participants heard the learner’s protests through the wall and his demands to be released. When we look at Milgram’s data, we find that this point in the procedure is something of a “point of no return.” Of the participants who continued past 150 volts, 79 percent went all the way to the highest level of the shock generator (450 volts). Knowing how people respond up to this point allowed us to make a reasonable estimate of what they would do if allowed to continue to the end.

Stopping the study at this juncture also avoided exposing participants to the intense stress Milgram’s participants often experienced in the subsequent parts of the procedure.

Second, we used a two-step screening process for potential participants to exclude any individuals who might have a negative reaction to the experience. . . . More than 38 percent of the interviewed participants were excluded at this point.

Third, participants were told at least three times (twice in writing) that they could withdraw from the study at any time and still receive their $50 for participation. Fourth, like Milgram, we administered a sample shock to our participants (with their consent). However, we administered a very mild 15-volt shock rather than the 45-volt shock Milgram gave his participants. Fifth, we allowed virtually no time to elapse between ending the session and informing participants that the learner had received no shocks. Within a few seconds after ending the study, the learner entered the room to reassure the participant he was fine. Sixth, the experimenter who ran the study also was a clinical psychologist who was instructed to end the session immediately if he saw any signs of excessive stress. Although each of these safeguards came with a methodological price (e.g., the potential effect of screening out certain individuals, the effect of emphasizing that participants could leave at any time), I wanted to take every reasonable measure to ensure that our participants were treated in a humane and ethical manner.

Of course, I also needed IRB approval. I knew from my own participation on the IRB that the proposal would be met with concern and perhaps a little fear by the board’s members. . . . Given the possibility of a highly visible mistake, the easy response would have been to say “no.” To address these concerns, I created a list of individuals who were experts on Milgram’s studies and the ethical questions surrounding this research. I offered to make this list available to the IRB. More important, Steven Breckler, a social psychologist who currently serves as the executive director for science at the American Psychological Association, graciously provided an assessment of the proposal’s ethical issues that I shared with the IRB.

In the end, all the extra steps and precautions paid off. The IRB carefully reviewed and then approved the procedures. More than a year after collecting the data, I have no indication that any participant was harmed by his or her participation in the study. On the contrary, I was constantly surprised by participants’ enthusiasm for the research both during the debriefing and in subsequent communications. We also produced some interesting findings. Among other things, we found that today people obey the experimenter in this situation at about the same rate they did 45 years ago. ABC devoted an entire 60-minute Primetime broadcast to the research and its implications. Finally, it is my hope that other investigators will use the 150-volt procedure and thereby jump-start research on some of the important questions that motivated Stanley Milgram nearly half a century ago.

* * *

Sometimes real life instances of Milgram experiments prove the most telling. For a very recent one, we take you to Canton, Massachusetts, and specifically the Judge Rotenberg Education Center, a special-education school for students in grades one through 12. The Boston Herald reports on a harrowing story of students receiving electric shocks because of a prank caller who seemed authoritative. We excerpt portions of the story below.

* * *

Staff members at a group home made multiple mistakes when they followed a prank caller’s direction to give dozens of electrical shocks to two emotionally disturbed teenagers, according to a report by a state agency that investigated the incident.

Judge Rotenberg Education CenterThe report by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care said six staffers at a Stoughton residence run by the Canton-based Judge Rotenberg Education Center had ample reason to doubt the orders to administer the shocks, but did nothing to stop it.

The six staff members and video surveillance worker on duty that night were fired on Oct. 1, Ernest Corrigan, the school’s spokesman, said Thursday.

After the Aug. 26 call, the teens, ages 16 and 19, were awakened in the middle of the night and given the shock treatments, at times while their legs and arms were bound. One teen received 77 shocks and the other received 29. One boy was treated for two first-degree burns.

The caller posed as a supervisor and said he was ordering the punishments because the teens had misbehaved earlier in the evening. But none of the staffers had witnessed any problems, and other boys said the two teens had done nothing wrong. One boy suggested the call was a hoax.

The report says the caller was a former resident of the center with intimate knowledge of the staff, residents and layout of the Stoughton home. No motive was given and the caller’s identity wasn’t disclosed. Police are looking into filing criminal charges.

Five of the six staffers had worked a double or triple shift and most had been on the job less than three months. The staffers were described as concerned and reluctant about the orders, but failed to verify them with the central office or check treatment plans to make sure the teens could receive that level of shock therapy, the report said. Staffers also didn’t know who the shift supervisor was that night.

Staff members realized their mistake after someone finally called the central office.

One reason staffers might not have been suspicious of the phone call is that the Rotenberg Center uses surveillance cameras in its group homes to monitor residents and staff, and a central office employee is allowed to initiate discipline by phone.

As a result of the investigation, the center has expanded staff training, implemented new telephone verification procedures, added oversight at group homes and eliminated delayed punishment.

* * *

For the rest of the story, click here. For an excellent Mother Jones expose on the Judge Rotenberg Education Center, click here. For a collection of previous Situationist posts discussing Milgram’s classic experiment, click here.

P.S. Under the category of “great blogs blog alike” be sure to read the excellent posts, “So It Really Can Happen?” at Psyblog and “Milgram Study Comes to Life (Again)” at Advances in the History of Psychology.

Posted in Social Psychology | 38 Comments »

Deep Capture – Part VI

Posted by J on December 21, 2007

This is the sixth of a multi-part series on what Situationist Contributor David Yosifon and I call “deep// capture.” The most basic prediction of the “deep capture” hypothesis is that there will be a competition over the situation (including the way we think) to influence the behavior of individuals and institutions and that those individuals, groups, entities, or institutions that are most powerful will win that competition.

I review the previous posts in this series at the bottom of this post, which lays out the “deep capture hypothesis” a bit more and begins loosely testing it by examining the role that it may have played in the “deregulatory” movement.

(Situationist artist Marc Scheff is providing the primary illustrations in this series.)

* * *

The Deep Capture Hypothesis

“The universal spirit of the laws, of every country is always to favor the strong against the weak and those who have against those who have not. This difficulty is inevitable, and it is without exception.”

~Jean Jacques Rousseau

“The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”

~Alex Carey

All of the key elements are in place. As with Galileo’s capture, today we have an extremely powerful institutional force with an immense stake in maintaining, and an ability to maintain, a false, though intuitive, worldview. Our basic hypothesis (and prediction) is that large commercial interests act (and will continue to act) to capture the situation–interior and exterior–in order to further entrench dispositionism. Moreover, they have done so largely undetected, and without much in the way of conscious awareness or collaboration. Hence, large corporate interests have, through disproportionate ability to control and manipulate our exterior and interior situations, deeply captured our world.

This is a hypothesis that finds support not just in the axiom of history repeating itself, although the lessons of history do indeed provide significant support. And it is a hypothesis that follows from more than just laboratory and field experiments of social psychology, although that literature alone should be sufficient to reverse our current presumptions. The deep capture hypothesis is also the logical extension of several basic economic insights, including those associated with capture theory and market theory– informed by a realistic understanding of the human animal (or situational character). The question remains, however, whether such a provocative, counterintuitive hypothesis finds much support in the various institutions that shape our exterior and interior situation.

Some Evidence of the Deep Capture Hypothesis

The deep capture hypothesis is too provocative to leave totally undefended, but covers too vast a set of institutions to adequately defend here. Much of the remainder of this [series of posts], therefore, will be devoted to providing a sample of observations that provide support for our framework. . . .

Here [in this series], we will attempt to show that history is, as usual, repeating itself — that we live in a world much like that of Galileo. The dispositionist worldview, which is so valuable to the most powerful institutions in our culture, is widely accepted in our population as common-sensical, even though that view is, according to the best available evidence, fundamentally lop-sided. Furthermore, those powerful institutions use their power to advance that view by actively promoting it themselves, by rewarding others who do so, and by seeking to penalize or delegitimate those who challenge it.

A. Some Shallow Evidence of Deep Capture

“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

~Justice Louis Brandeis

First, we will consider the view of human beings adopted by the sort of administrative regulatory institutions that Stigler and his cohorts did focus on. Take, for example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and [former] Chairman Michael Powell‘s conception of consumers and the corresponding presumptions about markets and regulation:

I am committed to building policy that is centered around market economics. At times, this foundation of my thinking is often questioned as being somehow anti-consumer. In a television interview, the question goes something like this: “Many consumer groups express grave concern that your laissez-faire approach will harm consumers. They say you are out of touch with consumers and living in an ivory tower. What say you?”


I am always a little puzzled by this question, for the premise of it has been so thoroughly discredited in this nation and in countries around the world that it should be beyond challenge. Market systems, far from being the bane of consumers, have unquestionably produced more consumer welfare than any other economic model devised by mankind. How is it that anyone can argue that the pro-market policies of the United States have not yielded enviable productivity in our economy, jobs for our citizens, a higher standard of living than nearly any other country in the world, and a tradition of innovation and invention that has brought new products, tools and services to our citizens?


A well-structured market policy is one that creates the conditions that empower consumers:


It lets consumers choose the products and services they want–which is their right as free citizens.
. . . .
It allows market forces to calibrate pricing to meet supply and demand. Consumers get the most cost-efficient prices and enjoy the benefits of business efficiencies.


The result for consumers is better, more cutting edge products, at lower prices.


Contrary to the classic bugaboo that markets are just things that favor big business and big money, market policies have a winning record of delivering benefits to consumers that dwarfs the consumer record of government central economic planning. Thus, if you are truly committed to serving the public interest, bet on a winner and bet on market policy.

Thus, Powell views consumers as “free citizens,” who should therefore be allowed to “choose the products and services they want.” And,Michael Powell & FCC Building according to that conception of consumers, free choice should be enabled through “market systems,” which are the best mechanism ever “devised by mankind” for “delivering benefits to consumers,” “empower[ing] consumers,” and thereby producing “more consumer welfare.”

There are other noteworthy features of Powell’s remarks. For example, Powell frames his goals in terms of serving the “public interest,” but this is the same type of assertion that Stigler claimed could not be trusted. And certainly this “trust” issue has been raised. But Powell reassures critics by claiming that deregulation tends toward the “public interest:”

“In capital[ist] economies,” he writes, “the central premise is that the interests of producers (i.e., money-makers) and consumers need not diverge, but, in fact, can be synchronous.” That may be true, but it is equally true that a central premise behind regulation is that the interests of producers and consumers sometimes do diverge. As if to respond to that potential criticism, Powell takes a page from Stigler’s scholarly agenda, writing:

I am the first to admit that deregulation for its own sake is not responsible policy. What is good policy is to carefully examine rules to determine if they are actually achieving their stated purposes, or if, instead, they are, in fact, denying consumers value by impeding efficient market developments that these consumers would welcome. Regulations are not innocuous simply because they are promulgated in the name of consumers. No matter how worthy the purpose, rules that constrain markets can, in fact, deny or delay benefits to the consuming public.

Stigler himself could hardly have said it better. If you want to be sure that regulations (or deregulations) actually serve the public interest, then look at their effects. Thus, Powell’s vision of consumers, like that of virtually all of the country’s most prominent regulators, appears to be very close to the one that George Stigler complained regulators generally lacked.

But our hypothesis is that shallow capture is still a problem, in part because the advantages favoring large business interests in the competition for regulatory influence have not changed, even if the conceptions of consumers, markets, and regulations have. Thus, the same evidence that, to many scholars, might constitute proof of the absence of shallow capture, strikes us as evidence of deep capture–the faith in pro-market, anti-regulation dispositionism.

Finally, it is worth pointing out how Powell dismisses those who doubt that faith. He finds such apprehensions, not just “puzzl[ing],” but “so thoroughly discredited . . . that [his view] should be beyond challenge.” A major part of the discrediting comes from the fair competition that is presumed to have occurred in the global marketplace of political-economic systems, a competition that led to the “winning record” of markets and a “higher standard of living [in the United States] than nearly any other country in the world.” The not-very-hidden implication is that those who don’t embrace his views are favoring a turn toward “central economic planning,” perhaps even communism. Powell, in other words, dismisses what he calls “the classic bugaboo that markets . . . favor big business and big money” by raising the familiar specter of the totalitarian bogeyman.

A look at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), whose “efforts are directed toward stopping actions that threaten consumers’ opportunities to exercise informed choice,” is similarly revealing. The [former] FTC Chairman, Timothy Muris, seems to share Powell’s preference for Tim Muris & FTC Buildingfree markets, and for all the same reasons. In 1980, for instance, Muris wrote (with a co-author) that

[t]he relatively unregulated marketplace has significant advantages in allocating resources and promoting consumer welfare. The market tends to minimize waste by permitting continuous individual balancing of economic costs and benefits by consumers and producers. In addition, greater productive efficiency and more innovation result from the reliance on market incentives. Competitive markets also reduce the need for central collection of information; their price signals allow producers and consumers to respond quickly to change. Finally, competitive markets tend to decentralize power and make decisions that are fair in the sense of being impersonal. For these reasons, reliance on the market should be the norm.

More recently, he has supplemented that pro-market view by emphasizing the need for certain types of regulatory interventions in markets. In 1991, for instance, he wrote that “[o]ne of the crucial roles for government, as we are seeing in Eastern Europe, is to define and allocate property rights.” And although he acknowledges the need for certain types of regulation when a market fails, he cautions that

it is important to talk about the concept of market failure with care because the issue is failure compared to what. In the real world, institutions are imperfect, both government institutions and market institutions. It makes no sense to compare an imperfect reality to a hypothetical perfection. A vast literature exists on government failure, as large as or larger than the literature on market failure.

With that caution, Muris appears to be emphasizing the work of, among others, George Stigler, for Muris goes out of his way to stress that

[g]overnment agencies are not run by philosopher kings who descend from Olympus to protect us. Instead, government agencies are, themselves, governed by rules that constrain what they can do, and they are run by individuals who are striving to advance or succeed, just as we all are. These constraints and incentives will influence how an agency acts in the public interest.

Muris also describes how FTC regulation of advertising has moved from protecting industry members from competition toward serving consumers by encouraging competition.

Again, the chairperson of a major federal regulatory institution seems to embrace the dispositionist case for markets–as does the Commission itself. Again, that regulator seems quite sensitive to the insights of shallow capture theory. And, again, we would conclude that, insofar as Chairman Muris fails to consider the role of exterior and interior situation, his views and, indeed, his position at the FTC, evince deep capture.

We could continue in this vein at some length, but for everyone’s sake, we will stop here.

* * *

The next post in this series digs a little deeper and provides some illustrative examples of how other “regulators,” from courts to hard-hitting news networks, reflect and contribute to deep capture.

Part I of this series explained that our “deep capture” story is analogous to the (shallow) capture story told by economists (such as Nobel laureate George Stigler) and public choice theorists for decades regarding the competition over prototypical regulatory institutions. Part II looked to history (specifically, Galileo’s recantation) for another analogy to the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has implications far broader and deeper than he or others realized. Part IV examined the relative power (measured as the ability to influence situation) of large commercial interests today, much like the power of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day. Part V described other parallels between the Catholic Church and geocentrism, on one hand, and modern corporate interests and dispositionism, on the other.

All the posts in this series are drawn from the 2003 article , “The Situation” (co-authored with David Yosifon and downloadable here).

Posted in Deep Capture, Public Policy, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Stereotype Threat and Performance

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 20, 2007

Donovan McNabbDavid Dobbs of Scientific American links to a piece by S. Alexander Haslam, Jessica Salvatore, and Thomas Kessler of the University of Exeter entitled “How Stereotypes Shape Performance.” They discuss new research on stereotype threat, a topic that we have examined on multiple occasions and refers the (often self-fulfilling) fear that one’s behavior or performance will confirm an existing stereotype associated with one’s identity groups. Stereotype threat attracted attention earlier this fall, when Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb said that African-American quarterbacks face more pressure and criticism than white quarterbacks.

Below is an excerpt from Haslam, Salvatore, and Kessler’s piece.

* * *

Every sports fan has vivid memories of key occasions on which a favorite team or player has ‘choked’ under pressure. And every student who has ever taken a standardized test knows what that kind of pressure feels like. What makes for high-pressure situations, and how do they influence performance? In the last decade such issues have been explored by social psychologists researching the phenomenon of stereotype threat. Their work shows not only that pressure can compromise performance, but that this dynamic is more common among members of negatively stereotyped social groups. Why?

The classic demonstration of stereotype threat, in a 1995 paper by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, emerged from a series of studies in which high-achieving African American students at Stanford completed the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) under conditions where they thought either that the test was measuring intelligence or that it was not a test of ability at all. Intriguingly, these bright students did much worse when they considered it an intelligence test.. This, the researchers argued, was because “in situations where [a negative] stereotype is applicable, one is at risk of confirming it as aStudents Taking Test self-characterization, both to one’s self and to others who know the stereotype.” This tendency to perform worse when conscious of being in a group stereotyped as performing poorly is what is meant by stereotype threat.

This pattern of findings has been replicated with many different groups on many different dimensions of stereotype content. The work of the University of Chicago’s Sian Beilock and colleagues, reported in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology (abstract or pdf download), follows that of many previous researchers in showing that if female students are made aware of a stereotype that men have greater mathematical ability than women, they tend to do worse on complex mathematical tasks than they do if they are not alerted to this stereotype.

* * *

An explanation of effects arising from stereotype threat also needs to explain why they are not particularly generalized. For it is certainly not the case that all members of a given group succumb to the perils of threat. On the contrary, effects are restricted to individuals who value the domain in question, and who have high levels of basic competence (i.e., those who, in the abstract, have less to worry about). A woman who loves math and is good at it, in short, is more likely than others to suffer from stereotype threat. How so?

* * *

For the rest of the piece, click here. For other discussions of stereotype threat in the sports context, see Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Baseketball” and “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers.’” For previous Situationist posts examining the causes and consequences of stereotype threat, see “The Gendered Situation of Science and Math,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “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 Education, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

Vote Early and Often!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 18, 2007

vote-button.jpgYesterday we listed and linked to 40 of our best posts from the year. We now ask you to vote for your favorite, or at least your favorite among the eight listed below. (To vote, click on your favorite post of those listed.  If you would like to read the posts, click on the links in yesterday’s post, immediately below this one.)

What is your Favorite Situationist Post of 2007?

1) Think You’ve Got Magical Powers? (Emily Pronin)

2) Situational Sources of Evil (Philip Zimbardo)

3) Hoyas, Hos & Gangstas (Jon Hanson & Michael McCann)

4) Another Century of Genocide? (Paul Slovic)

5) The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent (Mahzarin Banaji)

6) Negative Press: Is ESPN Killing the NHL? (Jason Chung)
Test Space
7) Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green (Dan Kahan)
Test Space
8) Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR Parent! (Jon Hanson)


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Situationist Staff Favorites for 2007

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2007

Marc Scheff ImageSince January, several hundred posts have been published on The Situationist. As 2007 draws to a close, the Situationist Staff thought it was a good time to identify 40 of our favorites over that time period. Narrowing it down to that still-signficant number was harder than it sounds.

We have listed and linked to them below in approximate order of their publication (with authors other than Jon Hanson, Michael McCann, and Situationist Staff listed).

Because our readership has been increasing sharply over this year, we suspect that most of our readers today missed most of the earlier posts. We encourage those readers to explore what they might have missed.

Next week, we hope to poll our readers for a “readers’ choice” award.

* * *

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Think you’ve got magical powers? (by Emily Pronin)

Black History is Now

Situational Sources of Evil – Part I, Part II, & Part III (by Phil Zimbardo)

Promoting Dispositionism through Entertainment – Part I, Part II, & Part III

Why Do Lawyers Acquiesce In Their Clients’ Misconduct? – Part I & Part II (by Sung Hui Kim)

From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part I & Part II (by Phil Zimbardo)

March Madness

Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball

The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent – Part I & Part II (by Mahzarin Banaji)

Too Many To Care (by Paul Slovic)

Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas

Hoyas Hos Gangstas

Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation

Unrecognized Injustice — The Situation of Rape

Red Sox Magic

Crazy Little Thing Called Love

Blake, Jordin, and the Situation of American Idol (by Goutam Jois)

Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII

Negative Press: Is ESPN Killing the National Hockey League by Influencing Public Attitudes? (by Jason Chung)

Al Gore – The Situationist

David Vitter: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation

Person X Situation X System Dynamics (by Phil Zimbardo)

Rent this Space (by Adam Benforado)

“Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II

Jena 6 – Part I & Part II

Ideology is Back! (by John Jost)

Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt – Part I, Part II, & Part III (with Goutam Jois)

Devil Junk Food

Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil

(by Phil Zimbardo)

Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror

Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green (by Dan Kahan)

Deep Capture – Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV (with David Yosifon)

The Situation of “Winners” and “Losers”

Situationist Theories of Hate – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV


I’m Objective, You’re Biased (by Emily Pronin)

Of Senators and Sympathies (by Goutam Jois)

Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!

Judging One by the Actions of Another (by Brian Nosek & Kate Ranganath)

Another Century of Genocide? (by Paul Slovic)

The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

The Gendered Situation of Science & Math

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 15, 2007


In the wake of President Lawrence Summers’s remarks suggesting that the gender gap in math, science, and engineering may reflect innate abilities, social scientists from many fields have taken to researching and writing about the sources of that gap. (Summers’s comments and and some of the resultant research are briefly discussed here.) This month’s Scientific American includes a terrific article by a group of such scholars (Diane F. Halpern, Camilla P. Benbow, David C. Geary, Ruben C. Gur, Janet Shibley Hyde and Morton Ann Gernsbacher). Their article, which we have excerpted below, offers a helpful overview of that research.

* * *

For years, blue-ribbon panels of experts have sounded the alarm about a looming shortage of scientists, mathematicians and engineers in the U.S.—making dire predictions of damage to the national economy, threats to security and loss of status in the world. There also seemed to be an attractive solution: coax more women to these traditionally male fields. . . .

* * *
. . . In this article, we present an analysis of the large body of research literature pertaining to the question of female participation in these fields, information that is central to understanding sex differences and any proposal designed to attract more women to the science and mathematics workforces. Contrary to the implications drawn from Summers’s remarks, there is no single or simple answer for why there are substantially fewer women than men in some areas of science and math. Instead a wide variety of factors that influence career choices can be identified, including cognitive sex differences, education, biological influences, stereotyping, discrimination and societal sex roles.

It does not take a Ph.D. to see how making fuller use of female talent would go a long way toward increasing the number of scientific workers. In the U.S., for example, women made up 46 percent of the workforce in 2003 but rep­resented only 27 percent of those employed in science and engineering. One reason Summers’s comment upset many people was its implication that any attempt to close this gap was futile.

If most women are naturally deficient in scientific ability, then what could be done? But this seemingly simple interpretation contains two misconceptions.

First, there is no single intellectual capacity that can be called “scientific ability.” . . .

Second, if women and men did demonstrate differences in these talents, this fact would not mean these differences were immutable. . . .

One of the confusing things about the field of sex differences is that you can arrive at very different conclusions depending on how you decide to assess abilities. Women clearly have the right stuff to cut it academically. They have constituted the majority of college enrollments in the U.S. since 1982, with the attendance gap widening every year since then. Similar trends are occurring in many other countries. Furthermore, women receive higher average grades in school in every subject—including mathematics and science.

// their success in the classroom, however, women score significantly lower on many standardized tests used for admissions to college and graduate school. The disparity in male-female enrollment in science and related fields grows larger at advanced levels of the education system. For example, in the late 1990s women represented 40 percent of undergraduates in science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but only 8 percent of the faculty.

Defining Sex Differences

Because grades and overall test scores depend on many factors, psychologists have turned to assessing better-defined cognitive skills to understand these sex differences. Preschool children seem to start out more or less even, because girls and boys, on average, perform equally well in early cognitive skills that relate to quantitative thinking and knowledge of objects in the surrounding environment.

Around the time school begins, however, the sexes start to diverge. By the end of grade school and beyond, females perform better on most assessments of verbal abilities. . . . There is also a female advantage in memory of faces and in episodic memory—memory for events that are personally experienced and are recalled along with information about each event’s time and place.

There is another type of ability, however, in which boys have the upper hand, a skill set referred to as visuospatial: an ability to mentally navigate and model movement of objects in three dimensions. Between the ages of four and five, boys are measurably better at solving mazes on standardized tests. Another manifestation of visuospatial skill in which boys excel involves “mental rotation,” holding a three-dimensional object in memory while simultaneously transforming it. As might be expected, these capabilities also give boys an edge in solving math problems that rely on creating a mental image.

Indeed, of all the sex differences in cognitive abilities, variation in quantitative aptitude has received the most media attention. . . .

. . . . When all the data on quantitative ability are assessed together, however, the difference in average quantitative ability between girls and boys is actually quite small. What sets boys apart is that many more of them are mathematically gifted.

. . . . For reasons that are not yet fully understood, it turns out that males are much more variable in their mathematical ability, meaning that females of any age are more clustered toward the center of the distribution of skills and males are spread out toward the ends. As a result, men outnumber women at the very high—and very low—ends of the distribution. . . . In the 1980s one of us (Benbow), along with the late psychologist Julian C. Stanley, who founded this study at the John Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, observed sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability among tens of thousands of intellectually talented 12- to 14-year-olds who had taken the SAT several years before the typical age.

Among this elite group, no significant differences were found on the verbal part of the SAT, but the math part revealed sex differences favoring boys. There were twice as many boys as girls with math scores of 500 or higher (out of a possible score of 800), four times as many boys with scores of at least 600, and 13 times as many boys with scores of at least 700 (putting these test takers in the top 0.01 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds nationwide).

Although it has drawn little media coverage, dramatic changes have been occurring among these junior math wizards: the relative number of girls among them has been soaring. The ratio of boys to girls, first observed at 13 to 1 in the 1980s, has been dropping steadily and is now only about 3 to 1. During the same period the number of women in a few other scientific fields has surged. In the U.S., women now make up half of new medical school graduates and 75 percent of recent veterinary school graduates. We cannot identify any single cause for the increase in the number of women entering these formerly male-dominated fields, because multiple changes have occurred in society over the past several decades.

This period coincides with a trend of special programs and mentoring to encourage girls to take higher-level math and science courses. And direct evidence exists that specifically targeted training could boost female performance even further. . . .

The Role of Biology

Decades of data from studies of different animal species show that hormones can play a role in determining the cognitive abilities that males and females develop. . . .

. . . . [R]ecent studies have shown that hormones . . . play a role in cognitive development throughout life. Such changes have been observed in individuals receiving large quantities of male or female hormones in preparation for sex-change surgery. Researchers found, for example, that people undergoing female-to-male hormone treatment show “masculine” changes in their cognitive patterns: improvements in visuospatial processing and decrements in verbal skills.

The human brain is shaped by these hormones, as well as by our genetic inheritance and a lifetime of experiences, so it should not be surprising that numerous differences appear in female and male brains. In general, females have a higher percentage of gray matter brain tissue, areas with closely packed neurons and fast blood flow, whereas males have a higher volume of connecting white matter tissue, nerve fibers that are insulated by a white fatty protein called myelin. Furthermore, men tend to have a higher percentage of gray matter in the left hemisphere, whereas no such asymmetries are significant in females.

Imaging studies assessing brain function support the notion that females perform better on tasks such as language processing that call on more symmetric activation of brain hemispheres, whereas males excel in tasks requiring activation of the visual cortex. Even when men and women perform the same task equally well, studies suggest they sometimes use different parts of their brain to accomplish it.

It is important to emphasize, though, that finding sex differences in brain structures and functions does not suggest these are the sole cause of observed cognitive differences between males and females. Because the brain reflects learning and other experiences, it is possible that sex differences in the brain are influenced by the differences in life experiences that are typical for women and men.

Ladies’ Choice

. . . . What leads one little Einstein to choose electrical engineering and the other law? A 10-year study of 320 profoundly gifted individuals (top one in 10,000) found that those whose mathematical skills were stronger than their verbal ones (even though they had very high verbal ability) said math and science courses were their favorites and were very likely to pursue degrees in those areas. On the other hand, those kids whose verbal skills were even higher than their math skills said humanities courses were their favorites and most often pursued educational credentials in the humanities and law.

It appears then that highly gifted kids ask themselves, “What am I better at?” rather than “Am I smart enough to succeed in a particular career?” This finding provides some insight into sex differences. Among precocious children, boys more frequently exhibit a “tilt” favoring mathematical and related abilities compared with verbal aptitude. Encouraging more balanced gifted students to keep science and technology fields open as options may help top off the pipeline with more high-achieving female and male students.

It is true that multiple psychological and social factors play a part in determining career direction. People’s individual expectations for success are shaped by their perception of their own skills. One factor in forming our self-perception is how authority figures such as teachers and parents perceive and respond to us. A 1992 study by psychology professors Lee Jussim of Rutgers University and Jacquelynne Eccles of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor found that the level at which teachers rated a student’s mathematical talent early in the school year predicted later test scores—even when objective measures of ability were at odds with the teacher’s perception. This study and others suggest that stereotypes of science as masculine may prejudice educators against girls from the start.


The Enduring Glass Ceiling

Perhaps most troubling is the thought that a skilled, confident scientist could climb to the top and still face discrimination when she gets there. Nevertheless, plenty of research suggests that people’s perception of a job as stereotypically masculine or feminine results in a bias in hiring and compensating candidates or employees who are male and female, respectively. Even though social psychologists agree that the overt sexism that existed decades ago in the U.S. and in many other countries is now rare, they say it has been replaced by unconscious sexism in some situations.

The real-world impact of covert biases on female achievement in science is not well studied because of the shroud of secrecy surrounding peer review, the process by which many aspects of a scientist’s career—awarding of grants, acceptance of academic papers for publication and decisions about hiring—are judged by a panel of other, often anonymous, scientists.

There has been one thorough study of the real-world peer-review process. Biologists Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold of Goeteborg University gained access to the Swedish Medical Research Council’s data on postdoctoral fellowship awards only after a battle in court. . . .

. . . . The authors of this study concluded that the peer-review process in what is arguably the most gender-equal nation in the world is rife with sexism. These results provide a strong rationale for making the peer-review process more transparent. . . .

Finally, we cannot consider success at work without considering the effort needed for families to function and maintain a home. Even when husbands and wives both work full-time, women continue to assume most of the child care duties and to shoulder most of the responsibility for tending to sick and elderly family members. Women work, on average, fewer hours per week and spend more time on family and household tasks than comparably educated men do. For women, having children is associated with lower income and a reduced probability of attaining tenure. In contrast, men show a slight tendency to benefit professionally when they become fathers. Thus, the different roles women and men play in family care can also explain their differential participation in demanding careers.

Where We Go from Here

If Larry Summers’s comments had one appealing feature, it was the benefit of simplicity. If the lack of women in science were a reflection, in part, of lack of ability, then the take-home lesson would seem to be that we can do nothing but accept the natural order of things.

As this article shows, however, the truth is not so simple. Both sexes, on average, have their strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, the research argues much could be done to try to help more women—and men for that matter—excel in science and coax them to choose it as a profession. The challenges are many, requiring innovations in education, targeted mentoring and career guidance, and a commitment to uncover and root out bias, discrimination and inequality. In the end, tackling these issues will benefit women, men and science itself.

* * *

To read the entirety of this excellent article, click here. For related Situationist posts, see “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “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, Education, Implicit Associations, Life, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

Steroid-Enhancing Situations

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 14, 2007

mitchell.jpgThe “Mitchell Report,” representing twenty months of investigation, topped the news yesterday and may again today. No doubt the focus of most journalists and commentators will be on the particular players named, the veracity of the allegations, and the question of whether or how individuals might be punished for their use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Here at The Situationist, those are not our concerns. Instead, we prefer to underscore the report’s ultimate attribution of responsibility. As Mitchell himself put it in a news conference today: “Everybody in baseball – commissioners, club officials, the players’ association, players – shares responsibility. . . . I can’t be any clearer than that.”

And, given that the problem has situational causes, we agree with the Mitchell Report that baseball should focus on situational solutions: “Everyone involved in Major League Baseball should join in a well-planned, well-executed, and sustained effort to bring the era of steroids and human growth hormone to an end and to prevent its recurrence in some other form in the future.”

Our hope is that Mitchell’s situationist conclusions not be fully eclipsed by the dispositionist dramas that are about to unfold. On that front, we are discouraged by’s decision to prominently feature a link entitled “List of players mentioned in Report.” It directs to a page that lays out the allegations against each named player, representing each allegation as a fact (much like is done in plaintiffs’ and defendants’ “statement of facts”). Last month, in a Sports Illustrated column, Situationist Michael McCann discussed that phenomenon arising:

Listing names may reveal another motivation: fans and media could be tempted to dwell on the individual failings of the named players rather than on the institutional failings of the league (and players’ association) to prevent a situation where some players were regularly tempted.

We’ll carefully follow whether the dispositionist or situationist story of steroids in baseball wins out.

Posted in Events, Situationist Sports | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Ideology – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 12, 2007

Numerous Situationist contributors have been studying and writing about the situational sources of ideology. With the 2008 presidential campaign underway and with the political-ideological divisions apparently growing in depth and distance, that research seems particularly pertinent. In part for that reason, the theme of the March 8 conference hosted by the Project on Law and Mind Sciences will be “Ideology, Psychology, and Law.”

This, post, the second in a series, excerpts portions of Jay Dixit’s excellent overview of some of the recent research on the statue-manhattan-911.gifpsychology of ideology. His article, “The Ideological Animal,” was published in Psychology Today.

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Cinnamon Stillwell never thought she’d be the founder of a political organization. She certainly never expected to start a group for conservatives, most of whom became conservatives on the same day—September 11, 2001. She organized the group, the 911 Neocons, as a haven for people like her—”former lefties” who did political 180s after 9/11.

Stillwell, now a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, had been a liberal her whole life, writing off all Republicans as “ignorant, intolerant yahoos.” Yet on 9/11, everything changed for her, as it did for so many. In the days after the attacks, the world seemed “topsy-turvy.” On the political left, she wrote, “There was little sympathy for the victims,” and it seemed to her that progressives were “consumed with hatred for this country” and had “extended their misguided sympathies to tyrants and terrorists.”

Disgusted, she looked elsewhere. She found solace among conservative talk-show hosts and columnists. At first, she felt resonance with the right about the war on terror. But soon she found herself concurring about “smaller government, traditional societal structures, respect and reverence for life, the importance of family, personal responsibility, national unity over identity politics.” She embraced gun rights for the first time, drawn to “the idea of self-preservation in perilous times.” Her marriage broke up due in part to political differences. In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, she began going to pro-war rallies.

In 2005, she wrote a column called “The Making of a 9/11 Republican.” Over the year that followed, she received thousands of e-mails from people who’d had similar experiences. There were so many of them that she decided to form a group. And so the 911 Neocons were born.

We tend to believe our political views have evolved by a process of rational thought, as we consider arguments, weigh evidence, and draw conclusions. But the truth is more complicated. Our political preferences are equally the result of factors we’re not aware of—such as how educated we are, how scary the world seems at a given moment, and personality traits that are first apparent in early childhood. Among the most potent motivators, it turns out, is fear. How the United States should confront the threat of terrorism remains a subject of endless political debate. But Americans’ response to threats of attack is now more clear-cut than ever. The fear of death alone is surprisingly effective in shaping our political decisions—more powerful, often, than thought itself.

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Most people are surprised to learn that there are real, stable differences in personality between conservatives and liberals—not just different views or values, but underlying differences in temperament. Psychologists John Jost [a Situationist Contributor] of New York University, Dana Carney of Harvard, and Sam Gosling of the University of Texas have demonstrated that conservatives and liberals boast markedly different home and office decor. [For a Situationist post summarizing that research, click here.] Liberals are messier than conservatives. . . . Liberals have more books, and their books cover a greater variety of topics. And that’s just a start. Multiple studies find that liberals are more optimistic. Conservatives are more likely to be religious. Liberals are more likely to like classical music and jazz, conservatives, country music. Liberals are more likely to enjoy abstract art. Conservative men are more likely than liberal men to prefer conventional forms of entertainment like TV and talk radio. Liberal men like romantic comedies more than conservative men. Liberal women are more likely than conservative women to enjoy books, poetry, writing in a diary, acting, and playing musical instruments.

“All people are born alike—except Republicans and Democrats,” quipped Groucho Marx, and in fact it turns out that personality differences between liberals and conservatives are evident in early childhood. In 1969, Berkeley professors Jack and Jeanne Block embarked on a study of childhood personality, asking nursery school teachers to rate children’s temperaments. They weren’t even thinking about political orientation.

Twenty years later, they decided to compare the subjects’ childhood personalities with their political preferences as adults. They found arresting patterns. As kids, liberals had developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive, and resilient. People who were conservative at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3. The reason for the difference, the Blocks hypothesized, was that insecure kids most needed the reassurance of tradition and authority, and they found it in conservative politics.

The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. The researchers—[Situationist Contributor] John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley—found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.

The study’s authors also concluded that conservatives have less tolerance for ambiguity, a trait they say is exemplified when George Bush says things like, “Look, my job isn’t to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think,” and “I’m the decider.” Those who think the world is highly dangerous and those with the greatest fear of death are the most likely to be conservative.

Liberals, on the other hand, are “more likely to see gray areas and reconcile seemingly conflicting information,” says Jost. As a result, liberals like John Kerry, who see many sides to every issue, are portrayed as flip-floppers. “Whatever the cause, Bush and Kerry exemplify the cognitive styles we see in the research,” says Jack Glaser, one of the study’s authors, “Bush in appearing more rigid in his thinking and intolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity, and Kerry in appearing more open to ambiguity and to considering alternative positions.”

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By 2004, as the presidential election drew near, researchers saw a chance to study the Jost results against the backdrop of unfolding events. Psychologists Mark Landau of the University of Arizona and Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore sought to explain how President Bush’s approval rating went from around 51 percent before 9/11 to 90 percent immediately afterward. In one study, they exposed some participants to the letters WTC or the numbers 9/11 in an image flashed too quickly to register at the conscious level. They exposed other participants to familiar but random combinations of letters and numbers, such as area codes. Then they gave them words like coff__, sk_ll, and gr_ve, and asked them to fill in the blanks. People who’d seen random combinations were more likely to fill in coffee, skill, and grove. But people exposed to subliminal terrorism primes more often filled in coffin, skull, and grave. “The mere mention of September 11 or WTC is the same as reminding Americans of death,” explains Solomon.thoughts-of-death-quotation.jpg

As a follow-up, Solomon primed one group of subjects to think about death, a state of mind called “mortality salience.” A second group was primed to think about 9/11. And a third was induced to think about pain—something unpleasant but non-deadly. When people were in a benign state of mind, they tended to oppose Bush and his policies in Iraq. But after thinking about either death or 9/11, they tended to favor him. Such findings were further corroborated by Cornell sociologist Robert Willer, who found that whenever the color-coded terror alert level was raised, support for Bush increased significantly, not only on domestic security but also in unrelated domains, such as the economy.

University of Arizona psychologist Jeff Greenberg argues that some ideological shifts can be explained by terror management theory (TMT), which holds that heightened fear of death motivates people to defend their world views. TMT predicts that images like the destruction of the World Trade Center should make liberals more liberal and conservatives more conservative. “In the United States, political conservatism does seem to be the preferred ideology when people are feeling insecure,” concedes Greenberg. “But in China or another communist country, reminding people of their own mortality would lead them to cling more tightly to communism.”

Jost believes it’s more complex. After all, Cinnamon Stillwell and others in the 911 Neocons didn’t become more liberal. Like so many other Democrats after 9/11, they made a hard right turn. The reason thoughts of death make people more conservative, Jost says, is that they awaken a deep desire to see the world as fair and just, to believe that people get what they deserve, and to accept the existing social order as valid, rather than in need of change. When these natural desires are primed by thoughts of death and a barrage of mortal fear, people gravitate toward conservatism because it’s more certain about the answers it provides—right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, us vs. them—and because conservative leaders are more likely to advocate a return to traditional values, allowing people to stick with what’s familiar and known. “Conservatism is a more black and white ideology than liberalism,” explains Jost. “It emphasizes tradition and authority, which are reassuring during periods of threat.”

To test the theory, Jost prompted people to think about either pain—by looking at things like an ambulance, a dentist’s chair, and a bee sting—or death, by looking at things like a funeral hearse, the grim reaper, and a dead-end sign. Across the political spectrum, people who had been primed to think about death were more conservative on issues like immigration, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage than those who had merely thought about pain, although the effect size was relatively small. The implication is clear: For liberals, conservatives, and independents alike, thinking about death actually makes people more conservative—at least temporarily.

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Campaign strategists in both parties have never hesitated to use scare tactics. In 1964, a Lyndon Johnson commercial called “Daisy” juxtaposed footage of a little girl plucking a flower with footage of an atomic blast.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan ran a spot that played on Cold War panic, in which the Soviet threat was symbolized by a grizzly lumbering across a stark landscape as a human heart pounds faster and faster and an off-screen voice warns, “There is a bear in the woods!”

In 2004, Bush sparked furor for running a fear-mongering ad that used wolves gathering in the woods as symbols for terrorists plotting against America.

And last fall, Congressional Republicans drew fire with an ad that featured bin Laden and other terrorists threatening Americans; over the sound of a ticking clock, a voice warned, “These are the stakes.”

“At least some of the President’s support is the result of constant and relentless reminders of death, some of which is just what’s happening in the world, but much of which is carefully cultivated and calculated as an electoral strategy,” says Solomon. “In politics these days, there’s a dose of reason, and there’s a dose of irrationality driven by psychological terror that may very well be swinging elections.”

Solomon demonstrated that thinking about 9/11 made people go from preferring Kerry to preferring Bush. “Very subtle manipulations of psychological conditions profoundly affect political preferences,” Solomon concludes. “In difficult moments, people don’t want complex, nuanced, John Kerry-like waffling or sophisticated cogitation. They want somebody charismatic to step up and say, ‘I know where our problem is and God has given me the clout to kick those people’s asses.'”

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To read the entire article (including a discussion of the controversy surrounding some of this research and a summary of how educational experiences influence ideology), click here. This post is the second in a series. Part I was based on a New York Times piece from February by Patricia Cohen, entitled “Across the Great Divide: Links Between Personality and Politics.” For other related posts on the psychology of ideology, see Ideology is Back” (by John Jost), “Ideology Shaping Situation of Vice Versa,” and “Thanksgiving as ‘System Justification.'”

Posted in Conflict, Deep Capture, Emotions, Ideology, Politics | 5 Comments »

The Need for a Situationist Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 11, 2007


In 1999, renowned social psychologist Albert Bandura published an article examining the role of “Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities.” That article’s abstract reads as follows:

Moral agency is manifested in both the power to refrain from behaving inhumanely and the proactive power to behave humanely. Moral agency is embedded in a broader sociocognitive self theory encompassing self-organizing, proactive, self-reflective, and self-regulatory mechanisms rooted in personal standards linked to self-sanctions. The self-regulatory mechanisms governing moral conduct do not come into play unless they are activated, and there are many psychosocial maneuvers by which moral self-sanctions are selectively disengaged from inhumane conduct. The moral disengagement may center on the cognitive restructuring of inhumane conduct into a benign or worthy one by moral justification, sanitizing language, and advantageous comparison; disavowal of a sense of personal agency by diffusion or displacement of responsibility; disregarding or minimizing the injurious effects of one’s actions; and attribution of blame to, and dehumanization of, those who are victimized. Many inhumanities operate through a supportive network of legitimate enterprises run by otherwise considerate people who contribute to destructive activities by disconnected sub-division of functions and diffusion of responsibility. Given the many mechanisms for disengaging moral control, civilized life requires, in addition to humane personal standards, safeguards built into social systems that uphold compassionate behavior and renounce cruelty.

This year, Bandura published a related article on the perpetration of environmental harm. In this more recent piece, titled “Impeding Ecological Sustainability Through Selective Moral Disengagement” (pdf here) Bandura examines how environmental harms are rendered palatable through our ability to preempt or deactivate the self-regulatory mechanisms that would otherwise condemn the behavior that leads to those harms. Understanding the human proclivity for self-justification, he argues, is a key ingredient to saving the environment that sustains us. Or, as we might put it, there is a need for greater situationist awareness and a situationist morality.

Below we excerpt a of a December 5 press release summarizing Bandura’s article by ScienceDaily.

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We can disguise environmentally harmful practices and dress them up in words to help ease our consciences, argues Albert Bandura . . . but such practices will have a negative impact on the planet and the quality of life of future generations, no matter how we label them.

He explains that we must stop attempting to disguise our actions and switch on our environmental conscience to save the world.

As consumers we are repeatedly bombarded with messages telling us to consider the environment and to save energy in the face of global climate change. However, much has been made recently of the fact that personal economic savings on energy consumption might be offset by increased consumption of goods and services. What may at first appear to reduce the level of ecological harm that we cause, may in effect be cancelled out and possibly lead to even greater harm.

Moreover, many of us pursue practices that are detrimental to the environment but which we justify by a kind of moral disengagement. This frees us from the constraints of self-censure and we defend our actions on the basis that such practices are somehow fulfilling worthy social, national, or economic causes and, as such, offset their harmful effects on the future of our planet.

Moral disengagement equates to switching off one’s conscience and there is nothing like self righteousness to exonerate and sanitize malpractice in the name of worthy causes. Convoluted language helps disguise what is being done and reduces accountability, and also ignores and disputes harmful effects. Learning about moral disengagement shines the light not only on the malpractices of others but on ourselves, argues Bandura . . . .

Process of Moral Disengagement - from Bandura paper

Bandura, in his paper, . . . highlights how we can be selective about acknowledging the global consequences of our behaviour and points out that harmful practices, thinly disguised as worthy causes, could cause widespread human harm and degrade the environment nevertheless.

“We are witnessing hazardous global changes of mounting ecological consequence,” he says, “they include deforestation, expanding desertification, global warming, ice sheet and glacial melting, flooding of low-lying coastal regions, severe weather events, topsoil erosion and sinking water tables in the major food-producing regions, depletion of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of other aspects of the earth’s life-support systems. As the unrivaled ruling species atop the food chain, humans are wiping out species and the ecosystems that support life at an accelerating pace.”

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In the article itself, Bandura concludes with this warning:

Ecological systems are intricately interdependent. Global-level changes affect everyone regardless of the source of the degradation. Because of this interconnectedness, lifestyle practices are a matter of morality not just environmental sustainability. Most of the current human practices work against a less populated planet with its inhabitants living sustainably in balance with natural resources. Given the growing human destruction of the earth’s environment, Watson . . . may not have been too far off the mark when he characterized the human species as an “Arrogant primate that is out of control.” One should add morally disengaged to the characterization as well. If we are to be responsible stewards of our environment for future generations, we must make it difficult to disengage moral sanctions from ecologically destructive practices.

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To read all of the press release, click here. To open a pdf version of Bandura’s article, click here. To review some previous Situaitonist posts providing a situationist perspective on environmental challenges, see “Edward O. Wilson’s Situationist Plea,” “Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green,” “Al Gore – The Situationist,” and “The Heat Is On.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 1 Comment »

Deep Capture – Part V

Posted by J on December 10, 2007

“Blind Faith” - Image by Marc Scheff at is the fifth of a multi-part series on what Situationist Contributor David Yosifon and I call “deep capture.”

The most basic prediction of the “deep capture” hypothesis is that there will be a competition over the situation (including the way we think) to influence the behavior of individuals and institutions and that those individuals, groups, entities, or institutions that are most powerful will win that competition.

Part I of this series explained that our “deep capture” story is analogous to the (shallow) capture story told by economists (such as Nobel laureate George Stigler) and public choice theorists for decades regarding the competition over prototypical regulatory institutions. Part II looked to history (specifically, Galileo’s recantation) for another analogy to the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has implications far broader and deeper than he or others realized. Part IV examined the relative power (measured as the ability to influence situation) of large commercial interests today, much like the power of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day. This part describes other parallels between the Catholic Church and geocentrism, on one hand, and modern corporate interests and dispositionism, on the other.

(Situationist artist Marc Scheff is providing the primary illustrations in this series.)

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Fundamental attribution errors

The second major parallel between our world and Galileo’s is the existence of a widely held attributional intuition that is false, but generally viewed as a “truth”–and an obvious one at that. At that time, it was about what, if anything, moved the Earth and the celestial bodies “above” it. Now, it is about what moves us and our institutions.

Incentives to deeply capture

The third parallel is that in our world, too, those in power have a stake in maintaining the apparent veracity of that “truth” and, thus, in heavily promoting it. Instead of the Catholic Church sustaining geocentricism and dismissing Galileo’s observations regarding the role of astronomical situation, today, in our world, it is large corporate interests promoting dispositionism and dismissing observations regarding the influence of exterior and interior situations on behavior.

i. The stakes of geocentricism

To the Catholic Church, maintaining an allegiance to the biblical account of astronomical structure, no matter how logically dubious, was extremely important. Although Galileo himself saw no tension between his scientific findings and his Catholic faith, portions of the Catholic hierarchy saw in his discoveries the direct contradiction of several theological tenets. In their eyes, such weakened links threatened to destroy a whole chain of logic upon which the Church relied.

The insistence on intellectual conformity in scientific and philosophical subjects was intimately connected to the Church’s reaction to a farGalileo by Marc Scheff more fundamental challenge to its authority, that of the Protestant Reformation. That Galileo was linked in the minds of many Catholic Church leaders to the Protestant Reformation is ironic, since Galileo probably objected to the Protestant’s literal interpretations of the Bible, if not their reformist spirit, even more than he did to Catholic orthodoxy. At the same time, Protestantism seemed to be advancing the same kind of challenge to core Catholic beliefs that Galileo’s scientific approach posed to Aristotelian naturalism. On a broader level, at its inception, Protestantism was fundamentally anti-authoritarian in the sense that its leaders, beginning with Luther, encouraged the radical decentralization of religious authority and the rationalization of scriptural interpretation. The result was a more personal, individualized experience and interpretation of the scriptures. To the Catholic hierarchy, this was the work of the devil. And maintaining a strict biblical understanding of astronomy was of critical importance in their broader battle against diabolical corruption of Church dogma.

ii. The stakes of dispositionism

Similarly, today, large corporate interests have a great deal at stake in maintaining and promoting a dispositionist worldview. As we argued earlier, it is possible to speak of a “corporate interest” in maximizing profit not because corporations are dispositionally motivated, but because there are robust and stable situational pressures encouraging corporations to act “as if” they want to pursue that end.

And, in a similar vein, just as one can speak of corporations’ individual interests, one can also speak of their shared or collective interest. Although corporations are often in direct competition with one another, they share a collective interest in maximizing profits–which translates to an interest in maximizing available markets and minimizing profit-reducing regulation. Phenomena such as trade associations for lobbying, industry- and sector-wide advertising and public relations, and illegal collaborative activities such as price-fixing, evince these shared interests amongst competitors. Coordinated lobbying efforts for policy initiatives like NAFTA and for one-or-another political candidate, demonstrate a shared corporate interest across markets. But corporations share an interest in more than just promoting, for example, global trade policy. They also share a deeper interest in promoting certain perceptions of global trade policy, and of many other issues that can influence their common pursuit of profits. It is our contention that a dispositionist worldview benefits both individual corporations and the shared corporate interest, and that corporations therefore individually and jointly will act situationally to promote it. Because this claim is a major feature of our larger thesis, and because defending it is somewhat complex, it will be the topic of . . . [separate work]. We urge the reader to accept, or at least suspend disbelief in, this claim until we can flesh it out and (we hope) thoroughly substantiate it. For now, we will only cursorily highlight portions of that [work].

One important reason that corporations have a stake in dispositionism is that it is the dispositionist perspective that largely justifies their profit-seeking behavior as socially beneficial. If consumers are assumed to be dispositional–that is, if they act according to a stable set of preferences that only they can access directly–then it plausibly follows that the best way to maximize welfare is to allow consumers to satisfy their preferences through free-market transactions. It is through free markets that otherwise invisible preferences are satisfied (and revealed) through mutually beneficial transactions that enhance overall social welfare. As profit-maximizing entities, corporations act to maximize social welfare by serving consumers’ supposed dispositional preferences. Profit is the substantiation of those welfare-enhancing transactions and is therefore, by definition, good. In short, profit-maximizing corporations act in the public interest.

A dispositionist worldview is similarly valuable to the corporate interest because it helps minimize profit-reducing regulation. Markets, which allow the free exercise of dispositions, are understood as more responsive to consumer preferences than regulators who lack good information and the appropriate incentives. The dispositionist presumption translates to a presumption against regulatory intervention even against visible harms, for the actors involved are presumed to be choosing the inevitable risks that gave rise to those harms. Regulatory intervention is warranted only in circumstances in which markets demonstrably fail to respond to consumer dispositions–for instance, when consumers clearly lack information or when a transaction creates significant negative externalities. But, even in the presence of such market imperfections, calls for regulation may be rebutted on the grounds that imperfect markets might be preferable to imperfect regulations. Expressions like “the nirvana fallacy” and “the law of unintended consequences” have been coined to capture this fallback defense of markets.

Dispositionism also helps support common arguments for why regulators cannot be trusted. Regulators, like the rest of us, are presumed to be motivated to satisfy their self-interest, an end that is often in tension with their purported goal of serving the public interest. Regulators are often depicted as concerned with job security, career advancement, and larger budgets, as well-meaning but ill-informed bunglers, or as zealous intermeddlers seeking to impose their visions of society upon otherwise free consumers. Such dispositions are likely to lead to wrongful interference in free choices and, consequently, inefficient outcomes–the apparent dispositional mechanism behind Stigler’s findings.

Another benefit of dispositionism is that it helps to preserve and legitimate the status quo, in which corporations are the wealthiest and most powerful entities. Dispositionism places consumers, not corporations, in the driver’s seat. Corporations are viewed as competing to fulfill consumers’ desires in a fair competition; they are viewed as having no role in creating or influencing consumers’ behavior. If consumers are unhappy with one or another outcome of that competitive process, they dc-v-quotation.pngare rebuffed with the observation that the process is fair and that consumers have no one but themselves to blame. If consumers claim not to like a given market outcome, they can be told to change their consumption choices, reexamine their perceived preferences, or take it up with their fellow consumers.

In addition, corporations gain in innumerable ways from the general human tendency–reflected in the fundamental attribution error–to attach disproportionate weight to what we see and to see only a small, salient subset of our environs and interiors. This phenomenon has many manifestations that tend to benefit large commercial interests. For example, when the situation is not obvious (as is generally the case), people believe they are acting autonomously when they are actually responding to unseen situational cues. Not only do they miss the situational influence, they don’t believe there is a situational influence. Consumers are like competitors in a sprint, who, not seeing the track, presume that it is flat and fair. The runners measure their dispositions–talent and drive–according to the outcome of the race, without regard to its situation. In such a setting, corporations can camouflage their situational manipulations behind reassurances that those subject to them are, in fact, dispositionally moved. That same tendency permits corporations to attribute particularly egregious corporate activities to the dispositions of the handful of human actors involved or the rather unique corporate disposition (culture) of one corporation, and not to larger situational influences that might implicate, say, all corporations or all of corporate law.

Galileo’s conflict with the Church was not a neutral scientific debate. It had profound implications for power–who would have it and how it would be wielded–in seventeenth-century Europe. Similarly, the divide between dispositionism and situationism is not an academic point. It has profound implications for the distribution of power in our society. Large corporations have a stake in a dispositionist worldview because it helps them create and maintain vast situational power. Indeed, by promoting a lopsided worldview, based on individual stable preferences and autonomous individual choices, corporations can actually curtail individual autonomy and alter perceived preferences. That is possible, we assert, because of dispositionism.

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This post, like the others, is drawn from our 2003 article, “The Situation” (downloadable here).

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, History, Marketing | 6 Comments »

A Closer Look at the Interior Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 9, 2007

Cover The Body Has a Mind of Its OwnSandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee (mother and son) co-authored a terrific new book, The Body Has a Mind of its Own, which we recommended and provided a review of a couple of weeks ago (here). In this post, we offer a brief excerpt from the book — a section providing a brief, fascinating description of the brain’s organization and the process of perception.

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[It is helpful to understand] a bit more about how the brain is organized. Almost all of your higher mental functions are carried out in the cortex—a thin sheet of tissue that is wrapped around older brain structures. About the size of a formal dinner napkin, it is massively folded so it can fit inside your skull. The entire cortical sheet has six layers of cells, each as thick as a single business card.

Although the cortex physically resembles a thin sheet, it is functionally organized into regions that specialize in different tasks, such as vision, hearing, touch, movement, and making plans. Furthermore, these regions are organized in hierarchies. Imagine a deck of cards laid out, faceup, side by side. Functionally the ace is higher than the jack, which is functionally higher than the eight, which is functionally higher than the two. The functional hierarchies in your brain are far more complex than playing cards, but the analogy should give you an idea of how hierarchies can exist in a nearly two-dimensional plane.

In the cortex, so-called lower areas absorb raw sensory information and pass it over to higher areas where it is processed and then passed over to still higher areas. But there is no ultimate top area where everything “comes together” . . . . On the contrary. Once information Cerebral Cortexreaches higher regions, it is fed back down the hierarchy. Anatomists have found that in most areas of the cortex, for every fiber carrying information up the hierarchy, there are as many as ten fibers carrying processed information back down the hierarchy.

Researchers are still exploring the meaning of this massive feedback architecture, but one function is now clear: Your mind operates via prediction. Perception is not a process of passive absorption, but of active construction. When you see, hear, or feel something, the incoming information is always fragmentary and ambiguous. As it percolates up the cortical hierarchy, each area asks: “Is this what I expect? Is this what I predict? Does this conform to what I already know is the case?” So your brain is constantly comparing incoming information to what it already knows or expects or believes. As higher areas make sense of the input—“Yes, this is something I have seen before”—the information is fed back to lower areas to confirm that what you believe is happening really is happening.

But in many cases it goes beyond mere confirmation, and the back-fed prediction or belief actually alters the upward-flowing information to make it conform. The fact that the information travel “backward” down the cortical hierarchy all the way from higher, mentally sophisticated regions into lower levels of basic sensory processing means your predictions and beliefs can work against you. They do this by interfering with your ability to see things afresh, or even notice major contradictions between your expectation and what is actually present to your senses. For example, pity the ubiquitous husband who totally fails to notice that his wife has come home with a new hairstyle.

In other words, your understanding of reality is a far cry from reality itself. Your understanding of reality is constructed in large part according to your expectations and beliefs, which are based on all your past experiences which are held in the cortex as predictive memory. This is worth repeating: Many of your perceptions—what you see, hear, feel, and think is real—are profoundly shaped and influenced by your beliefs and expectations. And this includes beliefs about your body.

Posted in Book, Neuroscience | 2 Comments »

Susan Fiske — on Teaching Situationism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 7, 2007


In 2004, social psychologist Amy Hackney interviewed Situationist contributor Susan Fiske for the journal, Teaching of Psychology. (The full interview is available as a pdf file here.) Below, we have excerpted several of the sections of the interview in which Professor Fiske describes (1) some of the challenges she faces when teaching students stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, (2) pedagogical tactics for meeting those challenges, as well as (3) some of her path-breaking research on stereotyping.

For teachers and students of social psychology, social cognition, and related fields, the interview contains some valuable insights.

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Hackney: It seems that today’s cultural climate is not as vigilant against injustices as the climate in the 1960s and 1970s was. Do you have any teaching strategies to help undergraduate students become aware of social justice issues?

Fiske: Oh yes. One of the first things I do in my Psychology of Racism class—but you could easily do it in Introductory Psychology)—is to get everyone to list several answers to the question “Who am I?” Then I ask them to draw a line under what they have written so far and list their ethnicity. Almost to a person, the White students do not spontaneously list their race (a few will say Italian-American, and so on, but almost never White or European American). Almost to a person, the students of color (especially Black, Latino, and Asian, but sometimes also the Jewish students) will spontaneously list their ethnicity. I collect my students’ anonymous answers and when I present the data to them in a 2 x 2 matrix (White/Non-White Student x Mention/No Mention of Ethnicity), they are impressed. Another thing I do as a didactic exercise is the Implicit Association Test (IAT) in class (see here). People can feel how much longer the counterstereotypic associations take. A third exercise involves calling out students’ names to separate them into groups, then asking them why they think they have been divided up—what their group has in co9mmon, and so on. This exercise prompts them to discuss social identity. All three exercises provoke a lot of discussion. . . .

* * *

Hackney: You’ve shown recently that stereotypes of outgroups are composed of two independent dimensions—warmth and competence (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002). Can you describe these research findings?

Fiske: People want to know if strangers are friend or foe (i.e., allies or competitors). From this perception follows strangers’ alleged warmth, friendliness, and trustworthiness. People then want to know whether the strangers can act on their own intentions (e.g., high status or not). From this perception follows the strangers’ alleged competence, intelligence, and skill. We have found the Warmth x Competence space in every culture we have tested, with their own societal groups, so we think it is a basic human proclivity to group people this way (Cuddy et al., in press). In most cultures, perceived competitors, and in every culture, perceived status predicts perceived competence. It’s odd that we would assume our competitors are not nice people and that high-status people automatically deserve it, but we do.

Hackney: Why do you think that warmth and status are such important dimensions? Do these dimensions have some special meaning to humans?

Fiske: I think people have a core social motive to belong. Thus, the first thing people want to know about other people is whether they are with them or against them—in my group or not in my group. You can make a social evolutionary argument for this point. I tell students about the health psychology data showing cardiovascular and immune risks to social isolates. I point out that throughout human history, being banished from the group has amounted to a death sentence. People need other people to survive and thrive, so they are motivated to identify and stay close to ingroup others. The other dimension, status, tells you whether the others can act effectively on their intentions. Some ingroup others are low status and cannot act on behalf of the group but instead need the group’s help (e.g., children, older people, those with disabilities, some people down onfiske-quotation.jpg their luck). Outgroup others who are low status can be ignored. High-status people can enact their will, whether it is in your favor or not. One attends upward because those people control one’s outcomes.

Hackney: How do you introduce these ideas to your students?

Fiske: I sometimes introduce the ingroup-outgroup idea by walking into class and reading students’ names off a list, dividing them into a few groups, as if there is a pattern. I ask them to figure out the basis for the division—what they have in common within their group. Usually they find something, but then someone suggests that maybe the groups are random, which in fact they are. As for status and power, I’ve never done this activity, but I think the Star Power exercise (people are divided randomly into arbitrary groups and given subtle rules for trading points, which results in one group becoming privileged over time. . . ) would be a brilliant, though time-consuming way to demonstrate status differences. It creates a microcosm of status hierarchies in the classroom.

Hackney: You’ve also written a lot about the importance of social power in the development of stereotypes and prejudice (Fiske, 1993; Fiske & Berdahl, in press). Can you describe this research?

Fiske: By our definition, people with power (often correlated with status) control resources. Therefore they do not depend as much on other people. They can do what they want, which may mean that they act for good or ill. Because they do not depend on others, they do not need to attend to them as much. I think this tendency makes them vulnerable to using their most available stereotypes, by default. Stephanie Goodwin, my collaborator in some of this work, pointed out that they may also want actively to maintain their position, so they may also stereotype by design to justify their position (Goodwin, Gubin, Fiske, & Yzerbyt, 2000). Sometimes, because of personality, values, or situation, power holders may feel responsible for others and so attend carefully to them as individuals. People may use power for greed or for good.

Hackney: Do these research findings imply that the content of stereotypes will change as the power of different groups change or is the content of stereotypes stable?

Fiske: Our work on the stereotype content model suggests that as groups’ perceived status and perceived cooperativeness improves, stereotypes of them will change accordingly (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, . . . [2004]). We have seen this process happen historically with Chinese immigrants in the 1850s, who were seen as peasant laborers, versus now when they are seen as highly competent entrepreneurs. Blacks are not viewed entirely differently depending on whether they are perceived to be rich or poor. Women are also viewed differently depending on their social status, which is the basis of Peter Glick’s and my ambivalent sexism theory (Glick & Fiske, 1996, 2001). So definitely, yes, as groups change social position, te stereotypes of them also change. These stereotypes are not accurate, though, because the entire group gets lumped wherever the prototypic members are located.

Hackney: You’ve mentioned stereotypes based on ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and so on. Does there seem to be any qualitative differences in these kinds of stereotypes?

Fiske: Some stereotypes are unambivalently positive (e.g., us and our allies) or negative (e.g., drug dealers, poor people, homeless people), whereas others are ambivalent. One kind of ambivalence targets pitied groups (e.g., older people, people with disabilities), and the other kind targets envied groups (e.g., Asians, Jews, rich people). The pitied and envied groups each elicit a mix of positive and negative behavior, according to work with Amy Cuddy (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, . . . [2004]). Pitied groups get active help but passive neglect, whereas envied groups get passive cooperation but active harm when the chips are down. Both of these kinds of stereotypes differ from the active and passive harm (attack and neglecting) directed toward the unambivalently negative groups.

Hackney: After the recent presidential election, my students and I discussed whether Americans would elect a White female president or a Black male president first. Interestingly, the White female students felt certain that a Black male would be elected first, but both male and fhilary-barak.jpgemale Black students felt that a White female would be elected first. Can social psychological research give insight to these contrasting answers? That is, do we know what the quantitative difference is in the extent to which we stereotype or are prejudiced against different group members?

Fiske: Quantitative degrees of prejudice differ on two dimensions. Black professionals are seen as highly competent but not very warm. Female professionals are seen as less warm than male professionals, so I suspect the White female students are right, but we’ll see. These of course, are public reports. The IAT data indicate warmth toward women generically, but that picks up people’s own mothers, not female political candidates. People like and respect women, as Alice Eagly has often noted, but it is less clear that people want women in positions of power, as her work also indicates (Eagly, Makhijani, & Klonsky, 1992). It’s hard to compare apples and oranges. I always avoid talking about which group is most oppressed. It’s divisive and it doesn’t end up prioritizing any group’s concerns. It is better to acknowledge that there are unique historical and current features to each group’s situation, but that some common ground occurs in the press for social justice. Prejudices run in packs, so combating one may well combat others.

Hackney: You’ve also written about the importance of social motivation (Fiske, 2004). How do social motives lead to stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination? Does one motivation seem to be more important than another? Or are the motivations dependent on the situation?

Fiske: From teaching introductory social psychology in public and private universities, to large lecture, small honors, and graduate proseminars, I became frustrated with the lack of integrative themes for teaching this fabulous material. In class I identify the core social motives that personality and social psychologists keep nominating over the years. I lay out an argument that belonging is the most basic of the core social motives, and of course, it means that we are inherently oriented toward other people in order to survive and thrive. From this point follows “cognitive” motives for socially shared understanding and for a sense of control, as well as “affective” motives for enhancing self and trusting others. These motives appear and reappear throughout social psychology, but the point here is that intergroup biases relate to each of these motives.

Hackney: What have you found to be the most effective way to explain this complex point to students?

Fiske: As a BUC(k)ET of motives (belonging, understanding, controlling, enhancing self, and trusting others), and then weaving them into every topic in the course. I believe in teaching from integrative themes. Social psychology is wonderful, but it is often taught like by throwing a handful of confetti at students. I believe in streamers, so I constructed these themes, from what social and personality psychologists have been saying for 100 years. It tends to pull things together.

Hackney: Going back to the quantitative differences in stereotypes and prejudice, some of my minority students feel that racial prejudice will never end in the U.S. and that it is pointless to keep hoping and trying. Have you run across these feelings in your students? How do you respond?

Fiske: Every time I teach psychology of racism, the students get depressed halfway through the semester after I tell them how automatic and natural it is to favor people like themselves. We spend the rest of the semester looking at solutions (constructive contact, liberal education, multicultural population shifts). I remind them, though, of how far we have come.

Hackney: Speaking of solutions, I have my students participate in a day of social justice, in which they are challenged to live each minute of that day in an inclusive, unprejudiced, and nondiscriminatory way as possible (adopted from Plous, 2003). Some students commented that this assignment was mentally exhausting, even stressful, and for that reason, they did not think it was possible to live each day with social justice in mind. How would you respond to these students?

Fiske: It takes practice. Everyone slips up. However, it can become a habit of the head and mind, even becoming an enthusiasm for new cultural experiences. Being a student of psychology (especially social psychology and psychology of prejudice) shows how open they already are.

Hackney: As a final note, can you suggest any tips on effective ways of helping students see the value of social psychology in dealing with the many social ills of our time?

Fiske: Become a social psychologist—or a research assistant to one!

* * *

To read the entire interview, click here for the pdf. For related Situationist posts, see “Women’s Situational Bind,” “Being Smart about ‘Dumb Blonde’ Jokes,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”


Cuddy, A. J. C., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2004). When professionals become mothers, warmth doesn’t cut the ice. Journal of Social Issues, 60, 701-718.

Eagly, A.H., Makhijani, M.G., & Klonsky, B.G. (1992). Gender and the evaluation of leaders: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 111, 3-22.

Fiske, S. T. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping. American Psychologist, 48, 621-628.

Fiske, S. T. (2004). Intent and ordinary bias: Unintended thought and social motivation create casual prejudice. In M. Bazerman & M. Banaji (Eds.), Social psychology of ordinary unethical behavior, special issue of Social Justice Research, 17, 117-127.

Fiske, S. T. & Berdahl. J. L., “Social power,” In A. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Social Psychology: A Handbook of Basic Principles, 2007, 678-692.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 878-902.

Fiske, S. T., & Cuddy, A. J. C. (2006). Stereotype content and relative group status across cultures. In S. Guimond (Ed.). Social comparison processes and levels of analysis: Understanding culture, intergroup relations and cognition (249-263). UK: Cambridge University Press.

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 491-512.

Glick, P. & Fiske, S. T. (2001). An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications of gender inequality. American Psychologist, 56, 109-118.

Goodwin, S. A., Gubin, A., Fiske, S. T., & Yzerbyt, V. (2000). Power can bias impression formation: Stereotyping subordinates by default and by design. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 3, 227-256.

Plous, S. (Ed.). (2003). Understanding prejudice and discrimination. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 6, 2007

// is the fourth in a series of posts summarizing the research on the hidden situation of our consciousness. This post excerpts a New York Times article (07/31/07) by Benedict Carey. In the article, “Who’s Minding the Mind,” Carey summarizes some of the fascinating new research–including studies by Situationist contributors John Bargh and Aaron Kay–that reveals the power of those activities of our mind and body that fly hidden below the radar of our consciousness.

* * *

In a recent experiment, psychologists at Yale altered people’s judgments of a stranger by handing them a cup of coffee.The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java.

Findings like this one, as improbable as they seem, have poured forth in psychological research over the last few years. New studies have found that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if there’s a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words like “dependable” and “support” — all without being aware of the change, or what prompted it.

Psychologists say that “priming” people in this way is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

More fundamentally, the new studies reveal a subconscious brain that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known. Goals, whether to eat, mate or devour an iced latte, are like neural software programs that can only be run one at a time, and the unconscious is perfectly capable of running the program it chooses.

The give and take between these unconscious choices and our rational, conscious aims can help explain some of the more mystifying realities of behavior, like how we can be generous one moment and petty the next, or act rudely at a dinner party when convinced we are emanating charm.

“When it comes to our behavior from moment to moment, the big question is, ‘What to do next?’ ” said John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale and a co-author, with Lawrence Williams, of the coffee study, which was presented at a recent psychology conference. “Well, we’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness.”

Dr. Bargh added: “Sometimes those goals are in line with our conscious intentions and purposes, and sometimes they’re not.”

* * *
Some scientists also caution against overstating the implications of the latest research on priming unconscious goals. The new research “doesn’t prove that consciousness never does anything,” wrote Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, in an e-mail message. “It’s rather like showing you can hot-wire a car to start the ignition without keys. That’s important and potentially useful information, but it doesn’t prove that keys don’t exist or that keys are useless.”

Yet he and most in the field now agree that the evidence for psychological hot-wiring has become overwhelming. In one 2004 experiment, psychologists led by Aaron Kay, then at Stanford University and now at the University of Waterloo, had students take part in a one-on-one investment game with another, unseen player. [For a slightly more detailed description of this experiment, click here.]

Half the students played while sitting at a large table, at the other end of which was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio. These studentsbargh-quotation.png were far stingier with their money than the others, who played in an identical room, but with a backpack on the table instead.

The mere presence of the briefcase, noticed but not consciously registered, generated business-related associations and expectations, the authors argue, leading the brain to run the most appropriate goal program: compete. The students had no sense of whether they had acted selfishly or generously.

* * *
The brain appears to use the very same neural circuits to execute an unconscious act as it does a conscious one. In a study that appeared in the journal Science in May, a team of English and French neuroscientists performed brain imaging on 18 men and women who were playing a computer game for money. The players held a handgrip and were told that the tighter they squeezed when an image of money flashed on the screen, the more of the loot they could keep.

As expected, the players squeezed harder when the image of a British pound flashed by than when the image of a penny did — regardless of whether they consciously perceived the pictures, many of which flew by subliminally. But the circuits activated in their brains were similar as well: an area called the ventral pallidum was particularly active whenever the participants responded.

“This area is located in what used to be called the reptilian brain, well below the conscious areas of the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Chris Frith, a professor in neuropsychology at University College London who wrote the book “Making Up The Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World.”

The results suggest a “bottom-up” decision-making process, in which the ventral pallidum is part of a circuit that first weighs the reward and decides, then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions later, if at all, Dr. Frith said.

Scientists have spent years trying to pinpoint the exact neural regions that support conscious awareness, so far in vain. But there’s little doubt it involves the prefrontal cortex, the thin outer layer of brain tissue behind the forehead, and experiments like this one show that it can be one of the last neural areas to know when a decision is made.

This bottom-up order makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The subcortical areas of the brain evolved first and would have had to help individuals fight, flee and scavenge well before conscious, distinctly human layers were added later in evolutionary history. In this sense, Dr. Bargh argues, unconscious goals can be seen as open-ended, adaptive agents acting on behalf of the broad, genetically encoded aims — automatic survival systems.

In several studies, researchers have also shown that, once covertly activated, an unconscious goal persists with the same determination that is evident in our conscious pursuits. . . .

* * *
Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, has done research showing that when self-protective instincts are primed — simply by turning down the lights in a room, for instance — white people who are normally tolerant become unconsciously more likely to detect hostility in the faces of black men with neutral expressions.

“Sometimes nonconscious effects can be bigger in sheer magnitude than conscious ones,” Dr. Schaller said, “because we can’t moderate stuff we don’t have conscious access to, and the goal stays active.”

handwipes-and-pencils.jpgUntil it is satisfied, that is, when the program is subsequently suppressed, research suggests. In one 2006 study, for instance, researchers had Northwestern University undergraduates recall an unethical deed from their past, like betraying a friend, or a virtuous one, like returning lost property. Afterward, the students had their choice of a gift, an antiseptic wipe or a pencil; and those who had recalled bad behavior were twice as likely as the others to take the wipe. They had been primed to psychologically “cleanse” their consciences.

Once their hands were wiped, the students became less likely to agree to volunteer their time to help with a graduate school project. Their hands were clean: the unconscious goal had been satisfied and now was being suppressed, the findings suggest.

Using subtle cues for self-improvement is something like trying to tickle yourself, Dr. Bargh said: priming doesn’t work if you’re aware of it. Manipulating others, while possible, is dicey. “We know that as soon as people feel they’re being manipulated, they do the opposite; it backfires,” he said.

And researchers do not yet know how or when, exactly, unconscious drives may suddenly become conscious; or under which circumstances people are able to override hidden urges by force of will. . . .

Yet the new research on priming makes it clear that we are not alone in our own consciousness. We have company, an invisible partner who has strong reactions about the world that don’t always agree with our own, but whose instincts, these studies clearly show, are at least as likely to be helpful, and attentive to others, as they are to be disruptive.

* * *

To access the entire article, click here. Part I and Part II drew from a 2003 article by Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon The Situational Character.” Part III summarized research by Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and his collaborators, Christian Wheeler and Lee Ross.

For a sample of previous posts (that are not part of this series) discussing the role of unconscious and automatic causes of behavior, see “The Situation of Reason,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” and “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

The Situation of the Dreaded “Freshman 15”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 5, 2007

freshman-15.jpgEvery August, millions of young adults matriculate to colleges and universities across the country. A good number of them will put on weight during their first-year. Many will appear noticeably heavier–and we’re not talking about added muscle, either.

This phenomenon is sometimes called the “Freshman 15,” and suggests that first-year college students tend to put on about 15 pounds over the course of their first year. The Freshman 15 has been attributed to a host of situational explanations, including increased access to alcohol, peer pressure to consume the alcohol, more demanding classes and heightened expectations for studying, continuous exposure to unhealthy foods in college cafeterias, the prevalence of low-cost, fast food restaurants in and around campus, and the late night studying- or partying-induced “midnight munchies,” where a student has stayed up too late and craves food, with Dominoes Pizza and the like catering to their hunger needs into the wee hours of the morning.

Some believe that the Freshman Fifteen is exaggerated. Nutrition Professors Alison Duncan and Janis Randall Simpson of the University of Guelph, for instance, recently published a study finding that at least among female first-year students at their university (which is located in Ontario, Canada), the average weight gain is only 5 pounds. Yet other observers believe the Freshman Fifteen is quite true.

A new article by Steve Gershman and Hai-Jung Kim in the Tufts Observer examines the Freshman 15 through a survey of Tufts students. We excerpt portions of their article below.

* * *

A vast majority of students interviewed in an Observer survey set times for eating meals. In addition, many of them provided unprompted insights into their behavioral patterns. “I eat lunch around 12:30 and dinner around seven depending on classes,” says senior Josh Yellin. Likewise, other students claimed that their class or work schedules were the most influential factors determining when they ate meals.

Robin Kanarek, a psychology professor at Tufts, says these abnormal eating habits are largely due to a “society of work,” and how “people have set lives in our society” in terms of what is done at what times. In deciding when to eat, students maneuver around classes, part-time jobs, studying for tests, and extracurricular and other activities. Additionally, most students prefer to wake up as late as they can without sacrificing theirCollege Cafeteria commitments. Since eating breakfast is not considered a commitment, the majority of students surveyed said they eat only two meals each day. Every person who responded that he or she eats fewer than three meals a day also refrained from eating in the morning. However, breakfast is considered by medical professionals to be the most important meal of the day since it restores the glucose levels and essential nutrients necessary for the body to perform to its potential.

Prof. Kanarek provided a glimpse into a working person’s life as being even more stringently regulated in terms of eating times. “Get up, go to breakfast, work, lunch at meetings,” she says, noting that “dinner varies more than other meals.” She contrasted this routine with eating patterns she observed in Africa. She studied a group of Bushmen — indigenous people of the Kalahari Desert — who “didn’t go to work, but ate much more often than we do [and] in smaller proportions.”

People’s snacking habits depend, therefore, on the society in which they live and on their schedule. Because students are generally busy with classes, homework, errands, and extracurricular activities, they tend to eat infrequently and have large meals at the buffet-style dining halls.

* * *

Beer and Pizza 2There is an additional evolutionary basis to eating in groups. Prof. Karanek conducted a study with foods that smelled different. In her experiment, a rat ate a food that smelled like licorice or basil, while another rat stood watching. The rat that saw another rat eating licorice was more likely to eat licorice. Likewise, the rat that saw another rat eating basil was more likely to eat basil. Through observation, the rats learned something about each food and found out whether it was safe to ingest.

The study exemplifies the psychological term “mere exposure effect,” in which simply sensing a person or thing brings it to the forefront of one’s mind and therefore is more familiar and often consequently more desirable. The idea that choosing to eat one thing over another as a matter of life or death is far removed from our daily reality. But the next time we decide to eat ice cream after watching a friend eat ice cream, it is interesting to note that there may be millions of years of survival at play.

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For the rest of the article, click here. For related Situationist articles on eating and food, click here.

Posted in Food and Drug Law, Life | 2 Comments »

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