The Situationist

Archive for 2007

Neuroscience and the Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 9, 2007


Last month, Dean Mobbs, Hakwan Lau, Owen Jones & Christopher Frith (from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL) published a thoughtful article in Plos Biology entitled “Law, Responsibility, and the Brain.” The article summarizes some of the recent discoveries of neuroscience that may have “implications for the way government institutions, including education and legal systems, operate.”

Although the article is itself quite accessible both in substance and length, we are pasting a helpful overview provided by Moheb Costandi, the sole blogger behind Neurophilosophy:

The authors . . . briefly review how damage to various parts of the frontal or temporal lobe is correlated with anti-social behaviour patterns. To summarize, frontal lobe damage is now generally assumed to result in “acquired sociopathy” – it is associated with increased aggression or violence . . . . On the other hand, damage to the amygdala, a structure found on the medial surface of the temporal lobe, is associated with an impaired ability to recognize emotions in others, which often leads to impaired social and moral reasoning.

The authors of the essay note that neuroimaging studies suggest a link between brain damage and some forms of criminal behaviour, and discuss the legal implications of these findings. They are skeptical of the use of neuroimaging data in the courtroom, and suggest that such “evidence” will only be reliable after research provides us with a better understanding of the neural correlates of criminality. They believe that advances in our understanding of brain function will eventually change our views of responsibility, free will and culpability, and could have a major impact on how the American and British legal systems treat and punish criminals.

And, unlike most considerations of this topic, which have focused on the criminal, they emphasize that neuroscience also provides a possibility of gaining insight into the cognitive processes of judges and jurors, and of learning more about the limitations of eyewitness testimonies.

Popular Science 7/1939 from

To read the entire article, click here. For a related Situationist post on “Law & the Brain,” click here.


Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Our Food – Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 8, 2007

WWII posterThis three-part series is based on Michael Pollan’s recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Part I describe the puzzling fact that a hyper-processed and heavily packaged hostess Twinkie is cheaper than a bundle of “yanked from the soil” carrots. Part II helped to solve that puzzle by summarizing the role of the “farm bill” on prices and incentives — showing how “market outcomes” are contingent on the seemingly irrelevant but highly determinative regulatory backdrop — and their ill-health consequences on the American populace.

This Part (excerpting the last portion of Pollan’s article) looks at the still-broader untoward effects of such laws and briefly considers what is being, and might still be, done in response.

* * *

Given all [its harmful effects], you would think the farm-bill debate would engage the nation’s political passions every five years, but that hasn’t been the case. If the quintennial antidrama of the “farm bill debate” holds true to form this year, a handful of farm-state legislators will thrash out the mind-numbing details behind closed doors, with virtually nobody else, either in Congress or in the media, paying much attention. Why? Because most of us assume that, true to its name, the farm bill is about “farming,” an increasingly quaint activity that involves no one we know and in which few of us think we have a stake. This leaves our own representatives free to ignore the farm bill, to treat it as a parochial piece of legislation affecting a handful of their Midwestern colleagues. Since we aren’t paying attention, they pay no political price for trading, or even selling, their farm-bill votes. The fact that the bill is deeply encrusted with incomprehensible jargon and prehensile programs dating back to the 1930s makes it almost impossible for the average legislator to understand the bill should he or she try to, much less the average citizen. It’s doubtful this is an accident.

But there are signs this year will be different. The public-health community has come to recognize it can’t hope to address obesity and diabetes without addressing the farm bill. The environmental community recognizes that as long as we have a farm bill that promotes chemical and feedlot agriculture, clean water will remain a pipe dream. The development community has woken up to the fact that global poverty can’t be fought without confronting the ways the farm bill depresses world crop prices. They got a boost from a 2004 ruling by the World Trade Organization that U.S. cotton subsidies are illegal; most observers think that challenges to similar subsidies for corn, soy, wheat or rice would also prevail.


And then there are the eaters, people like you and me, increasingly concerned, if not restive, about the quality of the food on offer in America. A grass-roots social movement is gathering around food issues today, and while it is still somewhat inchoate, the manifestations are everywhere: in local efforts to get vending machines out of the schools and to improve school lunch; in local campaigns to fight feedlots and to force food companies to better the lives of animals in agriculture; in the spectacular growth of the market for organic food and the revival of local food systems. In great and growing numbers, people are voting with their forks for a different sort of food system. But as powerful as the food consumer is — it was that consumer, after all, who built a $15 billion organic-food industry and more than doubled the number of farmer’s markets in the last few years — voting with our forks can advance reform only so far. It can’t, for example, change the fact that the system is rigged to make the most unhealthful calories in the marketplace the only ones the poor can afford. To change that, people will have to vote with their votes as well — which is to say, they will have to wade into the muddy political waters of agricultural policy.

Doing so starts with the recognition that the “farm bill” is a misnomer; in truth, it is a food bill and so needs to be rewritten with the interests of eaters placed first. Yes, there are eaters who think it in their interest that food just be as cheap as possible, no matter how poor the quality. But there are many more who recognize the real cost of artificially cheap food — to their health, to the land, to the animals, to the public purse. At a minimum, theseTemescal Farmers’ Market, Oakland eaters want a bill that aligns agricultural policy with our public-health and environmental values, one with incentives to produce food cleanly, sustainably and humanely. Eaters want a bill that makes the most healthful calories in the supermarket competitive with the least healthful ones. Eaters want a bill that feeds schoolchildren fresh food from local farms rather than processed surplus commodities from far away. Enlightened eaters also recognize their dependence on farmers, which is why they would support a bill that guarantees the people who raise our food not subsidies but fair prices. Why? Because they prefer to live in a country that can still produce its own food and doesn’t hurt the world’s farmers by dumping its surplus crops on their markets.

The devil is in the details, no doubt. Simply eliminating support for farmers won’t solve these problems; overproduction has afflicted agriculture since long before modern subsidies. It will take some imaginative policy making to figure out how to encourage farmers to focus on taking care of the land rather than all-out production, on growing real food for eaters rather than industrial raw materials for food processors and on rebuilding local food economies, which the current farm bill hobbles. But the guiding principle behind an eater’s farm bill could not be more straightforward: it’s one that changes the rules of the game so as to promote the quality of our food (and farming) over and above its quantity.

Such changes are radical only by the standards of past farm bills, which have faithfully reflected the priorities of the agribusiness interests that wrote them. One of these years, the eaters of America are going to demand a place at the table, and we will have the political debate over food policy we need and deserve. This could prove to be that year: the year when the farm bill became a food bill, and the eaters at last had their say.

* * *

Situationist eaters of the world, UNITE!

The following video provides an illuminating (56-minute) panel discussion – “Fast Food World: Perils and Promises of the Global Food Chain” — sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. The panelists, who were asked to assess the impact of globalization on food production and consumption, include Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Vandava Shiva, and Carlo Petrini.

Posted in Deep Capture, Food and Drug Law, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

Red Sox Magic

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on May 6, 2007

Red Sox FansBack in February, fellow Situationist Contributor Emily Pronin wrote a great post about her recent research with Daniel Wegner, Sylvia Rodriguez, and Kimberly McCarthy on how people sometimes claim magical powers—and thus personal responsibility—for events that they couldn’t possibly have controlled. This phenomenon is quite apparent in sports fandom. We can be sure, for instance, that on last Thursday night countless Dallas Mavericks’ fans were wishing and voodooing their team to a playoff victory against the underdog Golden State Warriors (unfortunately for them, we know some wishes don’t come true).

In her article “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?,” Pronin described how, although most people do not believe that their thoughts alone can cause external events, they also, in certain situations, claim responsibility for events that they had only willed to occur. As to why we believe in the power of situational magic, Pronin wrote:

Belief in magic gives us hope, causal explanations, and the illusion of control – all of which we tend to crave – at times when any of those things might be hard to come by. Fears can be assuaged, threats can be tamed, stress can be eased, physical constraints can be transcended, and smoldering embers of hope can be rekindled when magic is possible.

Breaking the CursePronin’s findings certainly hit close to home for Boston Red Sox fans (a.k.a. Red Sox Nation), of which at least two Situationists are full-fledged members. Just go back to 2004, when the Sox, by winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, reversed what many thought was an 86-year “curse” (resulting, of course, from the team selling the contractual rights to Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920). Many commentators attributed the victory in part to the “faith” of Sox fans–their faith in the team, their wishing, their believing–it all mattered in helping to break the curse.

And on one level, there may be some truth to the idea that passionate fans in a ballpark, especially one as close to the field and as always sold out as Fenway Park, can make a difference in the outcomes of games. That’s because these fans likely raise the stress level the-twelth-man.jpgof the opposing team’s players, perhaps through good natured poking; perhaps through obscenity-laced tirades. Their encouragement might also help the home team’s players do well — perhaps by creating expectations of success.

In football, such effects are called “The 12th Man,” which might be defined as the capacity of fans collectively to enhance the playing situation of the home team and to diminish that of the opposing team. To the extent the 12th Man can matter, it can also benefit the Sox away from Fenway, as many diehard Sox fans travel to cheer their team in other ballparks. When there, they presumably mute the opposing team’s 12th Man. (However, as the video below — taken by a Red Sox fan — suggests, the presence of Red Sox fans at Yankee Stadium may actually stoke the the ugly groupist passions of the Yankees’ 12th.)

But what about fans who merely wish? Does wishing make a difference? And if not, why would they still wish? Pronin’s research, again, indicates that wishing satisfies our urge for control at those times when actual control over outcomes we care about is in short supply.

This phenomenon was certainly apparent in the buildup to Red Sox victory in 2004. Fenway ParkConsider the classic thread “Win it For” on the popular Red Sox fan messageboard Sons of Sam Horn (also known as “SoSH,” of which principal owner John Henry and ace pitcher Curt Schilling are members). The thread was started by high school teacher and diehard Sox fan Shaun Kelly right before Game 7 of the Sox-Yankees American League Championship Series. By urging fellow fans to dedicate the game to “the special people in their lives who had loved the team through thick and thin,” Kelly hoped that he would create some “mojo” for the Sox. He concluded his message with the following:

Most of all, win it for James Lawrence Kelly, 1913-1986. This one’s for you, Daddy. You always told me that loyalty and perseverance go hand in hand. Thanks for sharing the best part of you with me.

Kelly’s comments, and particularly his endearing conclusion, prompted a massive // of similar comments from other members of Red Sox Nation:

Win it for my Grandfather (1917-2004) who never got to see the Red Sox win it all but always believed. And for my Dad who watches each and every game wishing his Dad was there to watch with him.

Win it for my boss, a dear friend who lost his dad unexpectedly in March of this year. More than once this season, I’ve seen him glance at the phone after a game, half-expecting his father to call to commiserate, rejoice, or just shoot the breeze — I’ve also seen the sadness in his eyes as he realizes that the call isn’t coming. Win it for his dad, a lifelong fan who never had the opportunity to witness his beloved team taking it all.

Win it for my 10-year-old son Charlie who fell asleep listening to Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS assuming the Sox would win. When he awakened the next morning, he asked me, eagerly, “Did we win, Dad?” When I told him, gently, No, we did not win, his anguished moan startled me. I knew I had raised him as a Red Sox fan and I began to question whether that was a good thing.

The “Win it For” thread would eventually become a book, “Win it For . . . : What a World Championship Means to a Generation of Red Sox fans.” It wasn’t alone in representing the spirit of Red Sox Nation. Many other books and videos were published celebrating Sox fans as much as Sox players. Of course, there is the 2005 love story, Fever Pitch, in which Jimmy Fallon’s character plays a devout Red Sox fan(atic) who must learn to temper his life-long zeal in order to maintain his relationship with Drew Barrymore’s character. Then there was the video “Faith Rewarded” and the book “Faithful,” which was co-authored by horror writer and diehard Sox fan Stephen King. King had examined Red Sox foxlore earlier in his career, as in 2000 he published “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” a novel about a young girl lost in the woods of Maine finding solace and, dare we say it, “faith,” in the pitching of then Sox closer Tom Gordon. We now learn through Michael Fleming of Variety Magazine that the “faith” of Red Sox fans will be featured in an upcoming HBO miniseries based on King’s book. We apparently can’t get enough of these stories.

So maybe there is something magical about the Sox. Or at least something profitable.

David Ortiz Wins Game

Posted in Entertainment, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

Justice Thomas and the Conservative Hypocrisy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 4, 2007

supreme-discomfort.jpgKevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, both journalists with The Washington Post, are on tour with their new biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas. The book’s webiste includes this brief overview :

Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher . . . crafted a haunting portrait of an isolated and bitter man, savagely reviled by much of the black community, not entirely comfortable in white society, internally wounded by his passage from a broken family and rural poverty in Georgia to elite educational institutions to the pinnacle of judicial power. He has clearly never recovered from the searing experience of his Senate confirmation hearings and the “he said/she said” drama of the accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill.

Supreme Discomfort tracks the personal odyssey of perhaps the least understood man in Washington, from his poor childhood in Pin Point and Savannah, Georgia, to his educational experiences in a Catholic seminary and Holy Cross, to his law school years at Yale during the black power era, to his rise within the Republican political establishment. It offers a window into a man who straddles two different worlds and is uneasy in both—and whose divided personality and conservative political philosophy will deeply influence American life for years to come.

clarence-thomas2.jpgNPR has two worthwhile interviews of the authors — one from Fresh Air (27 minutes) and the other from All Things Considered (8 minutes).

Both interviews highlight themes of the book involving complexities, tensions, even hypocrisies in the life and policy positions of Justice Thomas.

Translated into the language of this blog, some of those tensions and hypocrisies involved Justice Thomas’s focus on his own situational impediments (and victim status) while admonishing African Americans to turn in their victim mentality in exchange for a “no-excuses” disposition. On the other side of the coin is Thomas’s weak memory of the the numerous ways in which he was situationally advantaged by affirmative action policies in the past while eagerly cutting back those policies today.

Such tensions were the subject of the following op-ed by Situationist Contributors Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson, originally published in the Baltimore Sun in December of 2005:

* * *

The Conservative Hypocrisy

When it comes to Supreme Court nominees, conservatives are in agreement: Situation matters.

Pundits on the right shouted down Harriet E. Miers over concerns that her evangelicalHarriet Miers backbone would whither under Washington winds. Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. stepped into her spot seeming of far more stalwart vertebrae, but as his backers have stressed recently, he is a creature of situation as well.

Responding to liberal criticism over a 1985 document in which Judge Alito championed the position “that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion,” conservatives quickly pointed out that the assertion was made in the context of an “advocate seeking a job” and thus could offer no insight into how Judge Alito would behave as a justice confronting an actual abortion case.

What makes all of this confusing is that conservatives are more or less devoted to a legal system and a policymaking approach that assumes situational influence is, in the vast majority of circumstances, trivial and irrelevant. Get the government out of our lives so that we can be “free to choose,” the argument goes. Unchain markets so that people can pursue their own ends as they see fit.

According to those extremely influential policy scripts, the consumer is sovereign and the outcomes of market transactions are good – no matter the nutritional content of the food, no matter the racial composition of the neighborhood, no matter the annual interest rate of the credit card, no matter the distribution of wealth. People choose freely and have no one no-excuses.jpgbut themselves to blame for any adverse consequences.

As Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – dubbed “America’s leading conservative” by The Weekly Standard – wrote in his essay “Personal Responsibility,” in the 1999-2000 Regent University Law Review, “Success (as well as failure) is the result of one’s own talents, morals, decisions and actions.”

Many of the most basic conservative policy scripts in our ownership society are thus built on a conception of the person as independent and autonomous – the stuff of individualism and personal responsibility. The environment isn’t the problem; focus on the bad acts of a bad actor.

The poor, the overweight, the unemployed, the discriminated-against need to stop blaming others; they need to get to the gym, get to work and get busy. Just do it. The law owes them little more than a few more options and the knowledge that they will bear the consequences of, and full liability for, their choices. The situation is given and immaterial. Just ignore it. Again quoting Justice Thomas’ essay, there needs to be “much less of an emphasis on victimage.”

Similarly, when it comes to proper judging, the right approach is to “apply the law” and “stick to the Constitution” as originally written, as if the document has a clear disposition. Conservatives urge judges to ignore the context and focus on the plain meaning of the words. To venture beyond the “plain meaning” is to engage in politics. Situational considerations are to be shunned.

“But, again, the right does sometimes underscore the importance of situation. According to the conservative narrative, the situational force that is most harmful and significant is that of the “intellectual class” and the institutions where its ideas are developed, employed and advanced.

Elite academic institutions, by this reckoning, are a danger. The New York Times is a menace. And the Supreme Court, too, poses a threat. As Robert H. Bork put it in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, “the left-liberal liberationist” ideology promoted by such groupsRobert Bork is leading to “moral anarchy.” The liberal intelligentsia that has seduced so many justices is, with those justices’ help, deeply influencing our lives. As a result, according to Mr. Bork, “the struggle over the Supreme Court is not just about law; it is about the future of our culture.” We are, by this account, being victimized by a victim culture.

Hence, the same individuals who are eager to point out how Supreme Court justices are vulnerable to situational manipulation – who suggest that our country is being destroyed because of the powerful influence of liberal elites over our culture and, in turn, our culture over us – are otherwise adamant in denying the role of situation in the lives of consumers, workers, voters, parents, criminals and any justices who happen to be strict constructionists. Situation, in their view, is critical in some contexts and irrelevant in others.

In the end, it should trouble us that those who lament the malleability of judicial behavior to situational forces are simultaneously calling for judges who will, for the most part, ignore the importance of situation.

Acknowledging the truth – that we humans, even the most autonomous among us, are situationally pliant – only when it serves our interests is nothing new, but it is deeply distorting. And it is particularly harmful when we acknowledge it only for the most highly educated, politically connected and powerful members of our country, leaving the weak, the forgotten and the voiceless to fend for themselves through “free choice.”

Posted in Book, Law, Public Policy | 2 Comments »

Women’s Situation in Economics

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 3, 2007

Time 2005Several recent articles that all seem interestingly related to women in Economics are worth highlighting.

First, a story in The Observer this week summarized a study on the effect of feminine names:

Parents are being warned to think long and hard when choosing names for their babies as research has discovered that girls who are given very feminine names, such as Anna, Emma or Elizabeth, are less likely to study maths or physics after the age of 16, a remarkable study has found.

Both subjects, which are traditionally seen as predominantly male, are far more popular among girls with names such as Abigail, Lauren and Ashley, which have been judged as less feminine in a linguistic test. The effect is so strong that parents can set twin daughters off on completely different career paths simply by calling them Isabella and Alex, names at either end of the spectrum. A study of 1,000 pairs of sisters in the US found that Alex was twice as likely as her twin to take maths or science at a higher level.

pygmalion.jpgAccording to David Figlio, the economist who authored the study, the effect of names is largely the consequence of the expectations created by a name. This is old news, revealed in a new way. At least since Rosenthal & Jacobson’s famous 1968 study, described in their book, The Pygmalion in the Classroom, social psychologists (among others) have recognized the powerful effect of expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom. In that classic study, the act of labeling some students “bloomers” dramatically influenced their performance on I.Q. tests. What this more recent study suggests is that there is a labeling effect in our names. “Anna” just doesn’t say “math bloomer” the way that “Chris” does.

As if that story weren’t depressing enough, the online version had nestled within it the following advertisement (linking to here).



Apparently, the advertising department saw opportunity in the story on stereotypes. For any “Isabella” reading the article, some advice on keeping men will seem that much more valuable.

Fortunately, there has been some recent, promising news about women – even those with feminine names – achieving great things in Economics. As reported in the HarvardDr. Susan Athey Gazette this week:

The American Economic Association has announced [last week] that Susan Athey, professor of economics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) at Harvard University, is the 2007 recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal. Harvard Economist Susan Athey won the highly distinguished John Bates Clark Medal. Widely considered one of the most prestigious awards in the field of economics, the biannual award goes to an economist, under the age of 40, who has made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge. Athey is the first woman to receive the medal.

Additionally, the Rice Sallyport reports in its current issue some great news about the journal, Feminist Economics, which has been an important contributor to increased dr-strassmann.jpgawareness of gender bias in math- and science-related fields like Economics:

Since Feminist Economics was named the best new journal in 1997, it’s been obvious the publication fills a need—and does it well. A recent report of a jump in the journal’s citation rankings adds more proof.

Founded by Diana Strassmann, a Rice professor of the practice in humanities, the journal was ranked 35th—up from 135th last year—among 172 economics journals in the ISI Social Science Citation Index, the most prestigious index for scholarly social science journals. Among women’s studies journals, it placed third out of 27.

Congratulations to Dr. (Susan) Athey and Dr. (Diana) Strassmann! We can only hope that such trends will continue and that, eventually, “Emily” will have as good a shot at becoming a scientist, mathematician, or economist as “Alex” – and that neither will be focused on “Creating ATTRACTION So Intense He Never Leaves You.”

Posted in Life, Marketing | 9 Comments »

Gross & Evil

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 2, 2007

Terry Gross and Phil Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect


On the May 1 edition of NPR’ Fresh Air, you can find a terrific (18 minute) interview of Situationist Contributor, Phil Zimbardo regarding his best-selling book, The Lucifer Effect. For other audio-video recordings of Professor Z. on his book tour go to here and here.

Posted in Events, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Survival of the Cutest

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 1, 2007

cute-baby-chimp.jpgThrough the bottleneck moments of the evolutionary process, cuteness may have played a significant role in helping our species survive. And, though some of us might like to believe that we are “looks-blind,” it seems, to the contrary, that there is a great deal of prejudice based on looks. Naomi Miles posted an interesting article on this week, discussing some research regarding the situational causes and consequences of cuteness. We have excerpted portions of her article below.

* * *

Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian ethnologist, looked into the science of cuteness in the 1940s. He compiled a list of the esthetic and behavioural characteristics we are particularly attracted to, and found that we are drawn to relatively large heads, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheeks, short and thick arms and legs, springy elastic skin, and clumsy movements.

Typically, these are the attributes of a child. Juveniles are not simply miniature adults; they have distinctive body proportions. A newborn has a large head in relation to the restBy Jérome Maison for the New York Times - of its body, stubbier arms and legs and tiny hands and feet. As a baby grows up, the relative head size diminishes, the jaw gets bigger and the limbs become longer and leaner. A baby’s esthetic proportions are instantly recognisable, and we are hardwired to regard them as ‘cute’.

Lorenz noted that childish characteristics trigger a parental instinct. Cute things make us feel warm and exhilarated and we want to look after them. They awaken affection and feelings of nurture, making us want to pet and coo.

But when and why did our instinctive responses to cuteness develop? How has cuteness been an advantage in human development?

A couple of million years ago, human brain size began to increase. Childbirth became more painful, as fitting a bigger-brained baby through a narrow birth canal was a dangerous squeeze. Birth limited how big our brains could become.

Nature’s solution was for human babies to be born with highly undeveloped brains. Unlike other mammals, our grey matter does about 75% of its growing outside of the womb.

Since human babies are born helpless and take so long to develop, they are totally dependent upon adult care for everything. It takes about 17 months for newborns to become as independent and mobile as chimpanzees are at birth, and so we have an extremely extended childhood. For years, we rely on the love, attention and goodwill of our parents. If they abandon us, we don’t stand a chance.

But what would inspire parents of these immature babies to invest such a high level of care? Cuteness seems to play a major role.

* * *


. . . Jeffrey Kurland, an associate professor of Biological Anthropology and Human Development from Penn State University, believes that our responses are truly innate, inherited from our primate ancestors. Kurland thinks that babies evolved to be cute, their cuteness perhaps conveying biological information about strong genes and good health. Women developed an appreciation of cuteness and, choosing to lavish more care on the cuter babies, gave them the best chance of survival.

According to scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada, good-looking babies have a definite advantage. A research team lead by Dr Andrew Harrell found that parents of cute newborns were more responsive and affectionate than mothers of less attractive babies. Gorgeous children also seemed to receivebaby-ronald.jpg more notice from teachers and other adults as they grew up.

* * *

Our imagination and abstracting tendencies mean that we also find animals, pictures and even concepts cute. For years, market research has looked into the images that people find appealing and has found that cuteness sells.

* * *

To read the entire article, click here. For a 2004 article in describing research finding that even babies prefer to look at attractive faces, click here. Dr. Andrew Harrell (from the University of Alberta, Canada) has found evidence suggesting that even parents discriminate among their children based on looks. For a brief description of the “halo effect,” and the way in which “good looks” generally advantage individuals, click here.

Growing public awarness has led to the somewhat hopeful trend of some commerical interests cleverly highlighting the role of other commercial interests in defining and exploiting unrealistic conceptions of beauty. For instance, the following ad, aptly titled “evolution,” is part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.


Posted in Emotions, Life, Marketing | 7 Comments »

The Situation of First-Person Shooters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 30, 2007

Half LifeWe have written about possible connections between playing violent videogames and violent acts (“The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Videogames” and “Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson“). In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, Amanda Schaffer of Slate examines whether Cho Seung-Hui’s apparent playing of first-person shooters may have contributed to his shootings. We excerpt portions of her article below.

* * *

Pathological acts of course have multiple, complex causes and are terribly hard to predict. And clearly, millions of people play Counter-Strike, Halo, and Doom and never commit crimes. But the subtler question is whether exposure to video-game violence is one risk factor for increased aggression: Is it associated with shifts in attitudes or responses that may predispose kids to act out? A large body of evidence suggests that this may be so. The studies have their shortcomings, but taken as a whole, they demonstrate that video games have a potent impact on behavior and learning.

Three kinds of research link violent video games to increased aggression. First, there are studies that look for correlations between exposure to these games and real-world aggression. This work suggests that kids who are more immersed in violent video games may be more likely to get into physical fights, argue with teachers, or display anger and hostility. Second, there is longitudinal research (measuring behavior over time) that assesses gaming habits and belligerence in a group of children. One example: A study of 430 third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, published this year by psychologisCraig Andersonts Craig Anderson, Douglas Gentile, and Katherine Buckley, found that the kids who played more violent video games “changed over the school year to become more verbally aggressive, more physically aggressive,” and less helpful to others.

Finally, experimental studies randomly assign subjects to play a violent or a nonviolent game, and then compare their levels of aggression. In work published in 2000, Anderson and Karen Dill randomly assigned 210 undergraduates to play Wolfenstein 3-D, a first-person-shooter game, or Myst, an adventure game in which players explore mazes and puzzles. Anderson and Dill found that when the students went on to play a second game, the Wolfenstein 3-D players were more likely to behave aggressively toward losing opponents. Given the chance to punish with blasts of noise, they chose to inflict significantly louder and longer blasts than the Myst kids did. Other recent work randomly assigned students to play violent or nonviolent games, and then analyzed differences in brain activation patterns using fMRI scans, but the research is so far difficult to assess.

Each of these approaches has its flaws. The first kind of correlational study can never prove that video-game playing causes physical aggression. Maybe aggressive people are simply more apt to play violent games in the first place. Meanwhile, the randomized trials, like Anderson and Dill’s, which do imply causation, necessarily depend on lab-based measures of aggression, such as whether subjects blast each other with noise. This is a respected measure, but obviously not the same as seeing whether real people hit or shoot each other. The longitudinal work, like this year’s elementary-school study, is a useful middle ground: It shows that across the board, playing more-violent video games predicts higher levels of verbal and physical aggression later on. It doesn’t matter why the kids started playing violent games or whether they were already more aggressive than their peers; the point is that a year of game-playing likely contributes to making them more aggressive than they were when they started. If we had only one of the three kinds of Grand Theft Auto San Andreasstudies, the findings wouldn’t mean much. But taken together, the body of research suggests a real connection.

The connection between violent games and real violence is also fairly intuitive. In playing the games, kids are likely to become desensitized to gory images, which could make them less disturbing and perhaps easier to deal with in real life. The games may also encourage kids (and adults) to rehearse aggressive solutions to conflict, meaning that these thought processes may become more available to them when real-life conflicts arise, Anderson says. Video games also offer immediate feedback and constant small rewards—in the form of points, or access to new levels or weapons. And they tend to tailor tasks to a player’s skill level, starting easy and getting harder. That makes them “phenomenal teachers,” says Anderson, though “what they teach very much depends on content.”

Critics counter that some kids may “use games to vent anger or distract themselves from problems,” as psychiatry professor Cheryl Olson writes. This can be “functional” rather than unhealthy, depending on the kid’s mental state and the extent of his game playing. But other studies suggest that venting anger doesn’t reduce later aggressive behavior, so this thesis doesn’t have the most solid support.

* * *

To read all of Schaffer’s article, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Life | 6 Comments »

The Situation of Our Food – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 29, 2007

// I of this series, built around Michael Pollan’s recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine . . . ended with the following observation and question from Pollan:

* * *

Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

* * *

This Part excerpts (immediately below) another section of Pollan’s article, which examines one of the answers – not the market, but the laws and regulations that govern the market – and suggests its connection to the still-ballooning national girth.

* * *


For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

Image from hansonjourney.comThat’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives. And the subsidies are only part of the problem. Thebig-gulp.jpg farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.

To speak of the farm bill’s influence on the American food system does not begin to describe its full impact — on the environment, on global poverty, even on immigration.

* * *

Part III of this series will pick up there, but there is more to say about the connection of corn subsidies to the obesity epidemic. The fact that the link between our laws the harms that those laws have contributed to requires explantion is itself a function of our general failure to see situation and to focus on disposition. That is a point that several Situationist contributors have made in other work as follows:

* * *

Lobbying by corn processors has had an undoubted effect on the expansion of corn subsidies, but it is only the most obvious part of the story. When asked about whether he saw any link between the subsidy programs and obesity, Tommy Thompson answered as if the question were silly: “I really don’t . . . [b]ecause the subsidy programs are things // are done through Congress, much more so than trying to come up with an overall strategy as, as fars as nutrition is concerned.”

The point seems to be that because Congress did not have a disposition to contribute to the obesity epidemic, Congressional policies are not at all responsible. This dispositionism stems in part, we believe from the fact that subsidies were not “intended” to influence public health – rather, they were intended as a means of helping certain farmers – and in part because the connections to our health are situational. Farm subsidies embody especially hard-to-see situation not only because they have been around so long that they feel natural and are accepted as given, but also because understanding how they increase health problems in the United States requires dealing with a long explanation. Marching down the causal chain is hard work, and given our resistance to explanations that do not comport with our dispositionist tendencies, few regulators make the trek.


Posted in Food and Drug Law, Law, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

Unrecognized Injustice — The Situation of Rape

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 27, 2007

Sir Matthew HaleSeventeenth-century English Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale wrote, rape “is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved.” At least since then, that sort of thinking has been a major impediment to protecting women against sexual violence.

Of course, the impediments are many. In fact, social psychologists have discovered that one of the biggest challenges is in the way we categorize an occurrence. There is a “rape prototype” that influences what counts as a “rape” and what counts as something else — say, consensual sex or a seduction. (Legal scholar Martha Chamallas has a compelling article on that topic.) The purest form of the rape prototype, complete with racial details, includes a brutish man (usually black), unknown to the victim, bounding out of the bushes or breaking into a home and violently forcing himself on a young, innocent, white (probably blonde) woman.


Elements of this prototype can be found throughout our culture, from the cinema (see above) to political ads (see below). And that same prototype, many have argued, has interfered with our ability or willingness to recognize or respond to the harms associated with atypical forms of sexual violence, such as marital rape, date rape, same-sex rape, prison rape, and party rape.


Amesty International has just published a disturbing study about the sexual violence against Native American women in the U.S. To be sure, there are Amnesty International Report Covernumerous causal factors (including jurisdictional ambiguity, budgetary constraints, and bureaucratic indifference) behind the trends described. But, in additon to those situational factors, a less obvious causal contributor, we suspect, is the rape prototype.

In the eyes of many Americans, the brutalization of Native American women, because they do not match the prototypical victim, does not seem quite as bad and the perpetrators do not seem quite as heinous as they might, were the similar trends occuring to women in a midwestern suburb. In fact, the legacy of cultural stereotypes and historical practices might well contribute to the sexual violence against Native American women, or so the Amnesty International Report suggests. To paraphrase Justice Hale, in many contexts, rape is easily proved, but rarely prosecuted. We excerpt the summary of that Report below.

* * *

Sexual violence against Indigenous women in the USA is widespread — and especially brutal. According to US government statistics, Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the USA. Some Indigenous women interviewed by Amnesty International said they didn’t know anyone in their community who had not experienced sexual violence. Though rape is always an act of violence, there is evidence that Indigenous women are more like than other women to suffer additional violence at the hands of their attackers. According to the US Department of Justice, in at least 86 per cent of the reported cases of rape or sexual assault against American Indian and Alaska Native women, survivors report that the perpetrators are non-Native men.

From Amnesty International

Sexual violence against Indigenous women is the result of a number of factors including a history of widespread and egregious human rights violations against Indigenous peoples in the USA. Indigenous women were raped by settlers and soldiers in many infamous episodes including during the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk. Such attacks were not random or individual; they were tools of conquest and colonization. The underlying attitudes towards Indigenous peoples that supported these human rights violations committed against them continue to be present in society and culture in the USA. They contribute to the present high rates of sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and help to shield their attackers from justice.

Treaties, the US Constitution and federal law affirm a unique political and legal relationship between federally recognized tribal nations and the federal government. There are more than 550 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes in the USA. Federally recognized Indian tribes are sovereign under US law, with jurisdiction over their citizens and land and maintaining government to government relationships with each other and with the US federal government. The federal government has a legal responsibility to ensure protection of the rights and wellbeing of Native American and Alaska Native peoples. The federal government has a unique legal relationship to the tribal nations that includes a trust responsibility to assist tribal governments in safeguarding the lives of Indian women.

Tribal law enforcement agencies are chronically under-funded – federal and state governments provide significantly fewer resources for law enforcement on tribal land than are provided for comparable non-Native communities. The lack of appropriate training in all police forces — federal, state and tribal — also undermines survivors’ right to justice. Many officers don’t have the skills to ensure a full and accurate crime report. Survivors of sexual violence are not guaranteed access to adequate and timely sexual assault forensic examinations which is caused in part by the federal government’s severe under-funding of the Indian Health Service.

amnesty-international-images1.jpgThe Federal Government has also undermined the authority of tribal governments to respond to crimes committed on tribal land. Women who come forward to report sexual violence are caught in a jurisdictional maze that federal, state and tribal police often cannot quickly sort out. Three justice systems — tribal, state and federal — are potentially involved in responding to sexual violence against Indigenous women. Three main factors determine which of these justice systems has authority to prosecute such crimes:

– whether the victim is a member of a federally recognized tribe or not;
– whether the accused is a member of a federally recognized tribe or not; and
– whether the offence took place on tribal land or not.

The answers to these questions are often not self-evident and there can be significant delays while police, lawyers and courts establish who has jurisdiction over a particular crime. The result can be such confusion and uncertainty that no one intervenes and survivors of sexual violence are denied access to justice.

Tribal prosecutors cannot prosecute crimes committed by non-Native perpetrators. Tribal courts are also prohibited from passing custodial sentences that are in keeping with the seriousness of the crimes of rape or other forms of sexual violence. The maximum prison sentence tribal courts can impose for crimes, including rape, is one year. At the same time, the majority of rape cases on tribal lands that are referred to the federal courts are reportedly never brought to trial.

As a consequence Indigenous women are being denied justice. And the perpetrators are going unpunished.

* * *

For the full summary, click here. For the full report, click here. And to listen to an NPR (All Things Considered) story on the report, click here.


Posted in History, Law, Life, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Alone Together – The Commuter’s Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 26, 2007

New Yorker Image for Paumgarten essayNick Paumgarten has a thoughtful essay in the April 16 edition of the New Yorker, entitled “There and Back Again: The Soul of the Commuter.” We’ve excerpted some of the more situationist components of his essay below.

* * *

Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. Recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger asked nine hundred working women in Texas to rate their daily activities, according to how much they enjoyed them. Commuting came in last. (Sex came in first.) The source of // unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.

I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is, Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller Bowling Alone, about the disintegration of American civic life.) There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.


Drivers often say they prize the time alone—to gather their wits, listen to music, or talk on the phone. They also like the freedom, the ability, illusory though it may be, to come //,GGGL:2006-23,GGGL:en%26sa%3DGand go as they please; schedules can seem an imposition, as can a crowded train’s cattle-car ambience. But the driver’s seat is a lonely place. People tend to behave in their cars as though they are alone in a room. Road rage is one symptom of this; on the street or on the train, people don’t generally walk around calling each other assholes. Howard Stern is another; you can listen to lewd evocations without feeling as though you were pushing the bounds of the social contract. You could drive to work without your pants on, and no one would know.

The loneliness quotient might also account for some of the commute tolerance in New York. On the train or the bus, one can experience an illusion of fellowship, even if you disdain your fellow-passengers or are revolted by them. Perhaps there’s succor in inadvertent eye contact, the presence of a pretty woman, shared disgruntlement (over a // or a spilled Pepsi), or the shuffle through the doors, which requires, on a subconscious level, an array of social compromises and collaborations. Train riding has other benefits. Passengers can sleep or read, send e-mails or play cards. Delays are out of their control.

Three years ago, two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, released a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that, if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as “satisfied” with life as a noncommuter is. (Their data come from Germany, where you’d think speedy Autobahns and punctual trains would bring a little Freude to the proceedings, and their methodology is elaborate and thorough, if impenetrable to the layman . . . .) The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory, at least), commute even though it makes them miserable. They are not, in the final accounting, adequately compensated.

“People with long journeys to and from work are systematically worse off and report significantly lower subjective well-being,” Stutzer told me. According to the economicAlden Couch 101 year old driver concept of equilibrium, people will move or change jobs to make up for imbalances in compensation. Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living. It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring. They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute—money, house, prestige—and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun.

“They have to trade off social goods for material goods,” Stutzer said. “This is very difficult for people. They make systematic mistakes. We are very good at predicting whether we’ll like something but not at knowing for how long.” People adapt to a higher living standard but not to social isolation. Frey and Stutzer infer that some people, even when the costs become clear, just lack the will power to change. “People have limited self-control and insufficient energy, inducing some people to not even try to improve their lot,” they write. In this regard, they say, commuting resembles smoking and failing to save money.

from analysis presupposes that commuting represents what economists call a rational choice, as opposed to a constrained choice. Postwar zoning laws aggressively separated living space from commercial space, requiring more roads and parking lots—known to planners as Euclidean zoning (after a Supreme Court decision involving Euclid, Ohio), and to civilians as sprawl. Putnam likes to imagine that there is a triangle, its points comprising where you sleep, where you work, and where you shop. In a canonical English village, or in a university town, the sides of that triangle are very short: a five- minute walk from one point to the next. In many American cities, you can spend an hour or two travelling each side. “You live in Pasadena, work in North Hollywood, shop in the Valley,” Putnam said. “Where is your community?” The smaller the triangle, the happier the human, as long as there is social interaction to be had. In that kind of life, you have a small refrigerator, because you can get to theBologna Italy store quickly and often. By this logic, the bigger the refrigerator, the lonelier the soul.

Putnam’s favorite city is Bologna, in Italy, which has a population of three hundred and fifty thousand; it’s just small enough to retain village-like characteristics. “It would be interesting to swap the citizens of Bologna with the population of New Jersey,” Putnam said. “Do the Bolognese become disconnected and grouchy? Is there a sudden explosion of malls in Bologna? How much of the way we live is forced on us? How much is our choice?”

* * *

To read all of Paumgarten’s interesting essay, click here.

Posted in Life | 3 Comments »

The Situation of our Food – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 25, 2007

As many of our readers likely already know, Michael Pollan is an environmental journalist and educator of unparalleled eloquence and unusual influence. What many people may not realize is that Pollan is (as far as we’re concerned) also a first-rate situationist.


His best-selling and award winning books, include “The Botany of Desire” and more recently, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

This week, Pollan has a great piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled “You Are What You Grow.” The article touches on themes and sheds light on issues that have come up in previous posts, including here, here, and here.

We have excerpted the opening section of that article below.

* * *

A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 processed-food.jpgcalories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.

This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

* * *

For the answer, go to the full article here, or check back here next week for Part II of this series. For those interested, there are two worthwhile audio interviews of Michael Pollan on NPR’s Fresh Air, available here and here). For a longer law review article on the situational sources of obesity, by several Situationist contributors, click here. If your situation permits, take a look at the video below, in which Michael Pollan speaks (in 2002) at Berkeley about “Cannibis, Forgetting, and the Botany of Desire.”


Posted in Food and Drug Law, Life | 3 Comments »

The Situation of the NBA Draft

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 24, 2007

NBA Draft LotteryAs most fans of the National Basketball Association know, the NBA Draft lottery will be held on May 22. It will determine the draft order of the 14 NBA teams that did not make the playoffs, as those teams will be assigned a pick between 1 and 14 in the 2007 NBA Draft, which will be held on June 28. The 16 teams that made the playoffs will not participate in the lottery, but will instead select between 15 and 30 based on inverse order of record. Picks 31 through 60 in the second and final round of the NBA draft will be based on inverse record of all teams. Typically, the drop off in talent after the first five or so drafted players is quite significant, and few players selected after 15 will become NBA stars. Nevertheless, a good number of drafted players will enjoy NBA careers of at least two or three years, which for some can mean the difference between becoming a millionaire and becoming someone who doesn’t earn much doing anything.

So the lottery, and the draft in general, matter a great deal to NBA teams and prospective draft picks. Mechanically, the lottery works as follows: it features 14 ping bolls in a standard lottery machine and four are drawn at random. There are 24,024 possible combinations, but the NBA eliminates the importance of the combinations’ order, thus reducing the number of relevant combinations to 1,001, of which 1,000 are divided among the 14 non-playoff NBA teams. The number of combinations assigned to each team are weighted in favor of the NBA’s worst teams, so the team with the worst record obtains the most number of combinations and so on. To illustrate, the Memphis Grizzlies, by virtue of possessing the worst record from this past NBA season, will have a 25.0% chance of landing the first pick and a 46.5% chance of landing either of the first two picks; the Boston Celtics, holders of the second worst record, will have a 19.9% chance of landing the first pick and a 38.7% chance of landing either of the first two picks.

Greg Oden and Kevin Durant

In a draft that features two potential “franchise” players, Ohio State freshman Greg Oden and University of Texas freshman Kevin Durant, this year’s lottery has taken on extra meaning. Indeed, several teams, such as the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, have been accused of “tanking” or purposefully losing games in order to obtain a worse record and thus better odds at landing one of the first two picks. Ironically, the lottery was instituted in 1985 as a way of discouraging teams from tanking, as they would no longer be assured the first pick by virtue of having the worst record, which had been the existing procedure. This change was made after the Houston Rockets were alleged to haveHakeem Olajuwon and David Stern in 1985 purposefully lost games in the 1984-85 season in order to secure the worst record, thereby enabling them to select star center Hakeem Olajuwon from nearby University of Houston. Nevertheless, NBA teams still appear to purposefully lose games when the potential reward of a franchise player exists.

After the lottery is drawn on May 22, the draft order will be determined. Many websites, such as, Draft Express, and Chad Ford on ESPN, will then conduct “mock drafts” projecting how teams will draft on June 28. These websites also evaluate the players and assess their potential for success in the NBA. The evaluations are thorough and quite good. And we find out how correct they are when the draft is held on June 28 in Madison Square Garden.

Over the summer, the drafted players will join their respective NBA teams, and basketball commentators like ESPN’s Henry Abbott and Sports Illustrated‘s Kelly Dwyer will keep us informed as to how well these players adjust to their new situations. Some will play well, some won’t. Some will make general managers look like geniuses; others will make them look like fools. Some will be drafted into the right situation, with the right teammates, right coaches, right style of play, and, perhaps most importantly, the right opportunity to play rather than sit on the bench; others will land in a place that doesn’t suit them well, Doc Rivers and former Celtic Marcus Bankssuch as with a coach that takes a disliking or a team that has too many better players at the same position or a city that seems too far from home, and their careers will stagnate and perhaps suffer irreparable harm.

And therein lies the situation of the NBA Draft: the success of drafted players depends largely on the situation in which they are drafted. While some drafted players, like Tim Duncan or LeBron James, are likely to excel in any situation (and, conversely, some are likely to falter in any situation), many, if not most, drafted players are situationally-dependent. Put differently, the legacies of most NBA players will depend largely on the situations in which they find themselves, even though most fans will remember them from a dispositional perspective (e.g., this guy was a great player, he should have been drafted earlier; what a bust this guy was, he never should have been a lottery pick).

Last May, Eric Weiss of Draft Express evidenced these points in a wonderful article entitled, “It’s About Situation, Not Position.” We excerpt portions of Weiss’ article below.

* * *

[S]uccess is predicated on opportunity, and opportunity is afforded to those fortunate few who find the proper situational environment for them to excel in. There are players in this league who have had great talent, but lost their moment to shine because the opportunity never came to pass. Other players have gone unnoticed and underappreciated until the right situation sprung them from the depths of anonymity and into the spotlight. . . .

[T]here are varying degrees of patience and persistence when it comes to finding opportunity and realizing potential. Players such as Ryan Gomes this past season had only to deal with the initial disappointment of an extremely low draft position and a half-season wait to prove the pundits wrong. Gomes was a highly decorated player, earning first team All-American honors during his collegiateRyan Gomes career. But, questions about his NBA position as well as a perceived lack of athleticism found this once highly thought of prospect plummeting down to pick 50 in the draft. But, injuries to Boston’s main rotation players coupled with Gomes’ relentless approach to preparation finally paid dividends and Gomes went on to earn Second-Team All-Rookie honors despite being benched for months. . . .

It’s easy to assume that a player with great natural ability will automatically realize his potential in any situation given such basics as playing time and coaching. But, the game is so much more intricate than that, just as life is more complicated than simply waking up and driving to work in the morning. The interactions and relationships one has with coworkers, supervisors, teammates and coaches are going to be the foundation elements of happiness and productivity in the workplace.

Going off the logic that simple draft position and the talent that earned it was enough to determine success, what is the explanation for players such as Jermaine O’Neal, and Boris Diaw, who realized little of their ability with their initial teams, only to blossom in different circumstances. Truly, Darko Milicic and Kwame Brown have just started to give a glimpse of similar metamorphoses as players after failing to live up to expectation and buckling under the weight of lofty draft position.

The bottom line is this: Success is predicated on variables far beyond anyone’s ability to measure with complete accuracy. No person’s true worth in any sense of the word can be summed up by a number ranked 1 through 30. Rarely do players such as Tim Duncan and LeBron James come along. Most players rely on far more than physical talent to succeed, and even those such as James are special because of the so-called intangibles they possess. At the end of the day, players are remembered for what they accomplish after they’re drafted, and the number they got selected at holds little significance. It’s the situation one gets drafted into that allows for all the rest to unfold and that is a measure yet unquantifiable.

* * *

For the complete article, click here.

Posted in Situationist Sports | 17 Comments »

Infant Death Rates in Mississippi

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 22, 2007

Erik Eckholm had an interesting but disheartening article in yesterday’s New York Times, In Turnabout, Infant Deaths Climb in South,” about the escalating infant mortality rates in the deep south, particularly Mississippi. The article raises and briefly examines the common attributional question: Is the trend a consequence of disposition (“Some women just don’t have the get up and go”) or situation (from lack of transportation to hopelessness). We have excerpted a few pieces of the longer article below. But first, consider the following two maps depicting, from top to bottom, rates of childhood poverty and adult obesity.

Childhood Poverty - Adult Obesity Rates

* * *

For decades, Mississippi and neighboring states with large black populations and expanses of enduring poverty made steady progress in reducing infant death. But, in what health experts call an ominous portent, progress has stalled and in recent years the death rate has risen in Mississippi and several other states.


The setbacks have raised questions about the impact of cuts in welfare and Medicaid and of poor access to doctors, and, many doctors say, the growing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and hypertension among potential mothers, some of whom tip the scales here at 300 to 400 pounds.

Dr. Christina Glick“I don’t think the rise is a fluke, and it’s a disturbing trend, not only in Mississippi but throughout the Southeast,” said Dr. Christina Glick, a neonatologist in Jackson, Miss., and past president of the National Perinatal Association.

To the shock of Mississippi officials, who in 2004 had seen the infant mortality rate — defined as deaths by the age of 1 year per thousand live births — fall to 9.7, the rate jumped sharply in 2005, to 11.4. The national average in 2003, the last year for which data have been compiled, was 6.9. . . .

* * *

Most striking, here and throughout the country, is the large racial disparity. In Mississippi, infant deaths among blacks rose to 17 per thousand births in 2005 from 14.2 per thousand in 2004, while those among whites rose to 6.6 per thousand from 6.1. (The national average in 2003 was 5.7 for whites and 14.0 for blacks.)

The overall jump in Mississippi meant that 65 more babies died in 2005 than in the previous year, for a total of 481.

NYTimes Image

* * *

Dr. William Langston, an obstetrician at the Mississippi Department of Health, said in a telephone interview that officials could not yet explain the sudden increase and were investigating. Dr. Langston said the state was working to extend prenatal care and was experimenting with new outreach programs. But, he added, “programs take money, and Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation.”

Doctors who treat poor women say they are not surprised by the reversal.

“I think the rise is real, and it’s going to get worse,” said Dr. Bouldin Marley, an obstetrician at a private clinic in Clarksdale since 1979. “The mothers in general, black or white, are not as healthy,” Dr. Marley said, calling obesity and its complications a main culprit.

Obesity makes it more difficult to do diagnostic tests like ultrasounds and can lead to hypertension and diabetes, which can cause the fetus to be undernourished, he said.

Another major problem, Dr. Marley said, is that some women arrive in labor having had little or no prenatal care. “I don’t think there’s a lack of providers or facilities,” he said. “Some women just don’t have the get up and go.”

But social workers say that the motivation of poor women is not so simply described, and it can be affected by cuts in social programs and a dearth of transportation as well as low self esteem.

“If you didn’t have a car and had to go 60 miles to see a doctor, would you go very often?” said Ramona Beardain, director of Delta Health Partners. The group runs a federally financed program, Healthy Start, that sends social workers and nurses to counsel pregnant teenagers and new mothers in seven counties of the Delta. “If they’re in school they miss the day; if they’re working they don’t get paid,” Ms. Berdain said.

Poverty has climbed in Mississippi in recent years, and things are tougher in other ways for poor women, with cuts in cash welfare and changes in the medical safety net.

In 2004, Gov. Haley Barbour came to office promising not to raise taxes and to cut Medicaid. Face-to-face meetings were required for annual re-enrollment in Medicaid and CHIP, the children’s health insurance program; locations and hours for enrollment changed, and documentation requirements became more stringent.

As a result, the number of non-elderly people, mainly children, covered by the Medicaid and CHIP programs declined by 54,000 in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years. According to the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program in Jackson, some eligible pregnant women were deterred by the new procedures from enrolling.

One former Medicaid official, Maria Morris, who resigned last year as head of an office that informed the public about eligibility, said that under the Barbour administration, her program was severely curtailed.

* * *

Nicole Bengiveno for The New York Times

Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund, said: “When you see drops in the welfare rolls, when you see drops in Medicaid and children’s insurance, you see a recipe for disaster. Somebody’s not eating, somebody’s not going to the doctor and unborn children suffer.”

Visits with pregnant women and mothers in several Delta towns suggest that many poverty-related factors — including public policies, personal behaviors and health conditions — may contribute to infant deaths.

Krystal Allen, a cousin of Jamekia Brown’s, was 17 when she had her first baby. When he was 4 months old, she said, he developed breathing problems. Ms. Allen took the child to an emergency room, where he was put on a vaporizer and given an antibiotic and a prescription and they were sent home, where they slept for a few hours.

“When I woke up I thought he was sleeping, and I was getting ready for church,” Ms. Allen said. “But he was dead.”

Now 21, a mother of two with a third on the way, Ms. Allen lives in a sparsely furnished house in Hollandale with her unemployed boyfriend and his mother. Her children live with her parents.

Ms. Allen greeted visitors with breakfast in hand: a bottle of Mountain Dew and a bag of chips.

Janice Johnson, a social worker with Delta Health Partners, urged her to eat more healthily. “I’m going to change my diet one day,” Ms. Allen replied.

She had been to a doctor for one visit but had to sign up for Medicaid to get continued care. That required a 36-mile trip to an office in Greenville.

“Can’t you go this Friday?” Ms. Johnson asked.

“Well, if my mom is going to Greenville,” Ms. Allen replied, “and if she has gas in the car.”

* * *

For the complete article and additional images click here.

Posted in Life, Public Policy | 2 Comments »

Promoting Dispostionism through Entertainment – Part III

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 20, 2007

rocky.jpgIn Part I of this series, we described how Americans pursue happiness by watching heroes like Rocky Balboa and Chris Gardner pursue theirs. In Part II, we examined why the basic scripts for films like Rocky Balboa and Pursuit of Happyness–placing the individual in charge, making him sovereign, and letting power and responsibility fall to that person, while minimizing the role of the paternalistic and intermeddling “regulator” or “social program”–are the same foundational scripts employed by most influential policymakers and legal theorists today.

While these scripts are compelling, intuitive, and often affirming, social science indicates that they are upside-down. These scripts miss the power of the situation and how our schemas are primed to find (or imagine) causation and disposition in others’ behaviors and attitudes.

But there is no need to exhaustively review the social psychological evidence to make this point. All we have to do is go back to those same two films to see how, even by each movie’s own account, the bigger part of the story is about luck and situational forces that have little to do with the main character’s choices!

Remember back to the original Rocky — before it was known as Rocky I. Recall the setup. Rocky’s boxing career was done, finished, never having even reached the level of a has-been. Rock had hit bottom and found himself firmly anchored to a “never was” and more clearly, “never will be” status. Although Rocky may have shown flashes of talent as a boxer in previous years, and although he had a strong jaw and a never-broken nose when the story begins, he was also a second-rate club fighter who had just been thrown out of his locker, and his future seemed more intertwined with breaking legs for a small-time loan shark than with bustin’ face for the world title.

philly-market2.jpg Rocky was without assets, without family, without reliable friends, and without his youth. His best friend was a manipulative and self-serving alcoholic. Completely by fluke – owing nothing whatsoever to Rocky’s will, choices, preferences, or character, Apollo Creed, the world champion, arrives in Philadelphia to take on a challenger, who, at the last moment backs out because of an injury. It was to be a bicentennial bout, and canceling it was going to cost a lot of dough. Creed wanted a substitute – some local guy who the city might get behind but who posed no real threat. He thumbed through a book looking at names of local boxers and picked Rocky for one reason — a reason that had nothing to do with our hero’s talent, drive, intelligence, or merit. Creed selected Rocky simply because of his nickname, the “Italian Stallion.” The opportunity is as much the product of Rocky’s hard work as a lottery winner’s take can be attributed to good choices — more or less random luck.

Rocky MeatBut Rocky’s good fortune didn’t end there. When the opportunity arose, Rocky’s other options were bleak. At that moment, he had one foot into a dead-end life of low-level organized crime and thuggery. Had his alternative career options been more promising, the tiger’s eye may have remained dormant.

Pauly, who as friends go, left much be desired. But he happened to work at the slaughterhouse where Rock could spar against a warehouse full of bovine carcases. Rocky was also blessed to have an experienced trainer and manager, Mickey, who had immense knowledge of the sport and — owing to his age and his own star-crossed fighting career — something to prove. Mickey’s lessons were integral in Rocky’s battle with Creed.

Other sources of luck were Rocky’s idiosyncratic physical endowments. As five movies would demonstrate, Rocky had an unbreakable jaw. Rocky’s lackluster boxing skills rocky-apollo.jpgmeant that more punches landed, but his steel jaw absorbed blows that would have flattened most fighters. Similarly Rock was a south-paw, a factor that even Creed’s trainer worried about and that Mickey exploited. Fighters, if the movie is to be believed, expect power from the right side, and are taken by surprise when hammered from the southside. It was also plain luck that this aging pugilist didn’t pull a groin running steps, or break a finger glovelessly pounding cow cadavers , or otherwise injure himself from that unorthodox, treacherous, and full-on training regimen.

Rocky was also extremely lucky that his opponent, Creed, was himself situationally constrained — preoccupied as he was with the business side of the faux fight and unconcerned with the challenge Rocky posed. It’s a truism that being underestimated by one’s opponent is an enormous advantage.

Rocky and Adrian

Most important, at the very moment of Creed’s serendipitous selection, Rocky’s wooing of Adrian was just paying off. The growing mutual admiration between those two quirky and lonesome souls gave Rocky someone to impress, someone to show that he was more than he seemed. And as their love developed, Adrian provided Rocky confidence, inspiration, and someone who would be there for him win or lose.

In short, Rocky had all upside and no downside. Rocky’s situation created his disposition, not the other way around.

* * *

In our next post in this series, we will discuss the situational sources of Chris Gardner’s success.

*****See also Part I and Part II of this Series.*****

Posted in Choice Myth, Entertainment, Life | 6 Comments »

The Lucifer Effect Lecture at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 19, 2007


Renowned scholar, writer, speaker and Situationist Contributor Dr. Phil Zimbardo, spoke at Harvard Law School on April 3, 2007. An unedited version of his talk is now available on the Project on Law and Mind Sciences Website, and can be accessed by clicking here. (For an article about his Harvard Law talk, click here.)

Professor Zimbardo’s lecture, like the book it was based on (The Lucifer Effect), takes its audience on a journey through the psychological processes of character transformation that are engaged when ordinary, good people turn into perpetrators of evil. The abuses and tortures of Abu Ghraib prison serve as the case study for understanding such horrors not as the work of a “few bad apples,” but rather as the consequence of a set of identifiable Situational variables and Systemic forces – “the bad barrel” and “the bad barrel makers.”

The two-hour video includes an 18 minute introduction, which can be skipped by dragging the “clip position” button the right by that amount.  (This summer, the Project on Law and Mind Sciences hopes to offer an edited version of the lecture, which will include several camera angles and clearer images.)

For a helpful summary of Phil Zimbardo’s recent “whirlwind” travels and interviews, go to the terrific blog, Psychology and Crime News.  For a look at what he is up to this week in London, visit his Lucifer Effect Website, which includes a page devoted to his interview and lecture schedule.  Finally, for an article published yesterday by BBC News, about Professor Zimbardo’s work, click here.

Posted in Public Policy, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

Industry-Funded Research

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 18, 2007

//’s/Candid%20Commercial.htmOn March 28, Richard Paddock published an excellent article in the Los Angeles Times about (tobacco) industry funding of university research. Paddock’s article, like previous postings on The Situationist, indicates some of the way that “knowledge” is situationally influenced – including the way that individual scholars and industries rely on university affiliation for credibility, and the way that they gain that affiliation by providing a scarce and valuable resource to universities and their researchers – namely, money.

Paddock’s story illustrates a common dynamic: the scientist needs the industry’s money to maintain her research and affiliation with a university and, thus, her credibility, at the same time that the industry needs that scientist’s research and that affiliation to protect its wealth against regulatory interventions and costs that might otherwise accrue. The mutual dependence all takes place under the cover of “scientific method” and “peer review,” and absent any evidence of “bad apple” scientists, as if the marketplace of ideas isn’t influenced by the very funds that the scientist craves and the industry provides. We excerpt portions of Paddock’s article below.

* * *

James Enstrom For more than three decades, epidemiologist James Enstrom has labored quietly at UCLA, studying the effect of tobacco smoke on human health. In recent years, his work has challenged the conventional view that second-hand smoke poses a serious health risk.

* * *

Enstrom once worked closely with the American Cancer Society, but today his sponsor is the tobacco industry. Over the last 15 years, he has received $1.4 million plus undisclosed consulting fees from the industry while producing research that supports industry views. One study used the American Cancer Society’s database to contend that second-hand smoke was not a serious health hazard.

Now Enstrom has become a symbol of industry influence for activists who support a proposal to bar University of California researchers from receiving tobacco industry money. The regents will take up the issue in May. Mirroring divisions elsewhere in UC, some university regents back a ban, while others oppose it on grounds of academic freedom. The 63-year-old Enstrom maintains that he is simply a scholar in “pursuit of truth.”

“If I was so corrupt, how could I survive for 33 years at UCLA?” he asks. “The effort is to smear me and libel me.”

Royce Hall UCLA campus

Unfortunately for Enstrom, much of his correspondence with the tobacco industry became public during lawsuits filed by government agencies against the companies. Some of his letters are more revealing than he would have wished.

Racketeering Case

Seven months ago, his research and correspondence were cited by a federal judge in a racketeering case as evidence of the tobacco industry’s manipulation of the scientific process. In January, the ethics of his research were called into question at a public meeting of the UC Board of Regents.

Enstrom, tall, forceful and passionate, believes the proposed ban at UC is aimed personally at him and says he is being vilified by a powerful lobby that places “political correctness” above science. He denies that tobacco money influenced his results, says no one has found errors in his calculations and contends that other studies corroborate his findings.

BMJ 2003 CoverIt’s unfortunate to end up in a racketeering lawsuit for writing an article in a British medical journal,” he said ruefully.

University officials have kept their distance from Enstrom but note that he has faced tremendous pressure from his critics.

In some sense I will stand up for Dr. Enstrom,” said Roberto Peccei, UCLA vice chancellor for research. “He’s got all these people beating on him. I’m not here to defend him, but I do think he was hit by a Mack truck.”

* * *

In 1973, [Enstrom] . . . got a postdoctoral fellowship in epidemiology at UCLA. . . .

He has remained at UCLA since, not on faculty but as a researcher in the School of Public Health. He receives no salary and has no university staff but supports himself through grants and contracts, using the money to hire part-time assistants.

During the first half of his career in epidemiology, he received funding from the [American] [C]ancer [S]ociety and collaborated with two of its top scientists. In the late 1980s, the society gave him permission to use data from a survey of 1 million Americans conducted between 1959 and 1972.

But by 1992, the society deemed his work marginal and refused to fund more research. A grant from the state’s anti-smoking fund was short-lived. Enstrom said he reluctantly turned to the tobacco industry.

If you want to do research, you have to get money from somewhere,” says Enstrom, a lifelong nonsmoker from a family of nonsmokers. “In an ideal world, I would not have taken it.”

According to documents filed by prosecutors in the racketeering case, Enstrom received $94,500 from the industry between 1992 and 1997, becoming “a key tobacco industry researcher and consultant.”

From 1993 to 1996, he also worked as a consultant for the North Carolina law firm of Womble Carlyle, analyzing other scientists’ studies for Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. He declines to say how much he was paid.


Despite his industry funding, Enstrom kept the cancer society data. In 1996, he sought industry funds to use the data to study the effect of second-hand smoke by analyzing the cause of death of survey participants who never smoked but were married to smokers.

The society had earlier rejected his plan, noting that there had been no follow-up since 1972 to learn whether subjects had remained married or changed their smoking habits.
“I told him repeatedly that the results would not be meaningful,” said Michael Thun, the American Cancer Society’s chief epidemiologist.

Without informing the society, Enstrom asked Philip Morris for funding. In a letter to the company — cited in court documents — he wrote:

“A substantial research commitment on your part is necessary in order for me to effectively compete against the large mountain of epidemiologic data and opinions that already exist regarding the health effects of ETS [environmental tobacco smoke] and active smoking.”

Enstrom says the letter was part of the normal grant process and his words were “taken out of context” by the court.

In 1997 and 1998, he received three grants from the tobacco industry totaling $700,000, most of it for his study using the cancer society database. Industry officials also lined up a coauthor, Geoffrey Kabat of the American Health Foundation in New York, court documents show.

* * *

// In 2003, Enstrom and Kabat published their peer-reviewed study in the British Medical Journal concluding that the link between second-hand smoke and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed. Since then, the tobacco industry has cited the study — and its connection to the American Cancer Society and UCLA — when arguing against local smoking bans.

“They are misusing the research process,” said Thun, “by sponsoring invalid studies and then using them as part of their public relations campaign.”

* * *

Last August, Enstrom’s ties to the tobacco industry took on a higher profile when U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler in Washington, D.C., ruled in a lawsuit that had been in court for seven years that the major U.S. cigarette companies were guilty of racketeering, a crime usually associated with the Mafia.

Kessler concluded that the companies conspired for decades to deceive the public and had manipulated research to make it appear that scientists disagreed on the effects of second-hand smoke. As evidence, she cited the study by Enstrom and Kabat.

* * *

no-smoking.jpg Enstrom’s inclusion in the lawsuit has made him Exhibit A in the continuing clash between anti-smoking activists and tobacco companies as the battle shifts to academic research, one of the last bastions of tobacco industry influence in the U.S.

Across the nation, more than 20 academic institutions have banned tobacco industry funding of tobacco research.

Within the 10-campus University of California, seven academic units attempted to ban tobacco funding in 2004, including the UCLA School of Nursing, but were overruled by UC President Robert Dynes, who said the schools lacked that authority.

No oversight

Opponents of the ban maintain that academic freedom means researchers should be free to study whatever they wish and to receive money from whomever they want.

Under UC’s code of conduct, researchers can accept money from any source to finance their work. UC does not review any research projects except to ensure that human and animal subjects are not mistreated.

There is no oversight at all,” said Peccei, the vice chancellor. Enstrom says there is no reason to restrict research money because the peer review process safeguards scientific integrity.

* * *

According to UC, scientists at four campuses — UCLA, Berkeley, Davis and San Diego — are getting $15.9 million from Philip Morris for 19 tobacco-related research projects. For a study on smoking and mortality, Enstrom is receiving $661,443.

In October, the American Cancer Society wrote to the regents, urging them to adopt the ban and accusing Enstrom of “scientific misconduct.” After a two-month inquiry, the university concluded March 22 that evidence provided by the group did not show misconduct.

Enstrom recently founded the Scientific Integrity Institute to air his views. He says it gets no tobacco money and consists mainly of a website . . . . The website mounts a spirited and lengthy defense of his life’s work.

* * *

For more web-based discussions of the criticisms and defenses of Enstrom’s work click here, here, here, and here.

Posted in Deep Capture | 5 Comments »

Havard Law Panel on Situation of NBA Players

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2007

Allen Iverson on the BenchTomorrow (Wednesday April 18), Harvard Law School’s Committee on Sports and Entertainment Law will host a panel entitled “On & Off the Court: The NBA’s Regulation of Player Expression.” The panel will discuss the new NBA age limit, new technical foul rules, the dress code, and other issues that relate to the situation of being an NBA player or prospective NBA player.

The panel will include The Situationist’s Michael McCann, who has written extensively on NBA legal issues from a situationist perspective, and the following distinguished guests: Hal Biagas, Deputy Counsel of the National Basketball Player’s Association; Maverick Carter, LeBron James’ representative and CEO of LRMR Marketing; Kurt Schoeppler, Business Manager of Vince Carter and LeBron James; and Jason Whitlock, Columnist of the Kansas City Star and AOL Sports. The panel will be moderated by Peter Carfagna, Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and former Chief Legal Counsel at IMG.

The panel will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Pound 107 (directions to HLS/campus map). It will be open to the public. For more information, please e-mail Mike Menitove at

Posted in Events, Situationist Sports | Leave a Comment »

The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent – Part II

Posted by Mahzarin Banaji on April 16, 2007

I have authored a preface for a book that is being edited by Eugene Borgida and fellow Situationist contributor Susan Fiske called Beyond Common Sense: Psychological Science in Court. For The Situationist, I am posting a two-part series derived from that preface. Earlier this month I posted Part I, which described the bounds on our ability to be who we’d like to be, and how, depending upon the situation, good people can not only be bad, but just as bad as bad people. Part II of this post highlights the “good news” associated with our moral obligation to be intelligent and indicates how Beyond Common Sense can be a guide in the fulfillment of that obligation.

* * *

Restaurant SceneThe good news comes from observations that we are flexible, sensitive to context and adapting to changing demands. As just one example, fellow Situationist contributor Susan Fiske has shown that although social groups dictate how we look at individuals, we see people as individuals rather than as members of social groups – if knowledge about their groups becomes irrelevant to the task at hand.

We change our behavior – actively, by placing ourselves at tables where the food tastes like nothing we’ve eaten before. First we spit it out, then we become addicted. Likewise, first we might shy away or fight, but if the stakes change we are equally naturally able to cooperate and help. We also change our minds, or rather our minds are changed. Phoebe Ellsworth and Samuel Gross’s analysis of radical shifts in attitude toward capital punishment is worth scrutiny not just because of what it says about that blemish but also for what it says about the very concept of attitude. So this remarkable flexibility is also a part of what we’ve discovered it means to be human. Attitudes, preferences, beliefs, values and the behaviors that reflect them aren’t fixed even though they may appear that way, perhaps because the world they reflect is relatively stable.

Death Penalty in the United States of America

In both – understanding the limits and the capacities of humans in the context of social relationships, social groups and social institutions – lies the stuff of what the law must be intelligent about. To be intelligent means many things of course. For the present purpose, I’ll underscore that intelligence is knowing how to weigh the evidence that flies in the face of steadfast assumptions. It means to know when causality can be inferred and not, to know when the weight of correlational evidence must be taken seriously, to know that a replication is worth much more than a single demonstration, to know that when new methods divulge strange truths about us and our brethren, it may be the theory that has to go. The moral obligation to be intelligent requires that we keep abreast of discoveries that require old views to be bagged and put out on the curb for recycling – every week.

Eugene Borgida and Susan Fiske have blown life into John Erskine’s idea that we are morally obliged to be intelligent. They understand that although this requirement should be everywhere, it is so much more urgent where decisions carry the authority of the law, where decisions wield justice, where the difference between suffering and happiness lies in the power given to a few and chosen to defend the many and less chosen.

Over the last decade as my own conversations with judges and lawyers has increased, I have been filled with admiration for their ability to understand large and obscure areas of knowledge they are required to for every case before them, only to learn entirely new domains required by the next one. But let me push here a bit. To understand, forChallenger Shuttle Disaster example, the technicalities of the Challenger disaster in order to assign legal responsibility, is one thing. It is quite another to develop a feeling for the tectonic movements of a science so as to be ready to anticipate and cope with the big breaks when they occur. It is this latter form of education that Borgida and Fiske’s volume offers.

The research presented in this book shows what the mind and behavioral sciences have discovered about perception, memory, judgment and decision-making; about discrimination generally, about racial profiling, harassment, and capital punishment more specifically. But these papers do more than tackle a set of topics. As a totality they also reveal a way of knowing, of a unique type of expertise that has developed iteratively about human nature and social circumstances that stands ready to be absorbed into the bones of the law.

Treat this book as a sanctuary in which to allow the mind to change its view of itself. Reading it, I was struck by the strength of the experimental evidence in some cases, the strength of the integration and argument in others, and above all the singular message it offers up: common sense may be plenty common, but it isn’t always sense.

The building blocks of concepts the law fundamentally deals with – mental states and social structures – are the topics of this volume, and in them lies much of what we are morally obliged to be intelligent about.

Posted in Book, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Robin Hood Motives

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 15, 2007


In the April issue of Nature, there is an fascinating artcle by Chistopher Dawes, James Fowler, Tim Johnson, Richard McElreath & Oleg Smirnov, titled “Egalitarian Motives inApril 12 Cover of Nature Humans.” The article summarizes research that the group did regarding just how willing individuals are to spend their own resources to equalize others’ resources.

In the study, a computer broke 120 students into groups of four and assigned a sum of money to each one. The subjects knew how much others in their group had but didn’t know precisely who had how much. They were then each given the option to so use some their own money to buy the right to have their cohort’s wealth augmented or reduced.

The subjects played the “game” five times, each with a different group of four, and each time they exhibited what one of theSummary of Results researchers calls the “Robin Hood effect.” Accordingto James Fowler, “People want to give rewards to the lowest [paid] member of the group and take away from the highest [paid] member of the group.” That is, they paid to take from the rich and to give to poor and the effect was to equalize the distribution of wealth across players. And that was true even when, in previous iterations, those same subjects had had their wealth plundered in order that it would be shared more widely.

For a Reuters story about the research, James Fowler explained that, “[i]n essence, what we found is that our taste for equality is one of the important reasons why we cooperate with each other, much more so than, say, other species of primates.”

According to Ernst Fehr, a renowned scholar at the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, those findings indicate how we feel about free riders. The results, he added, “are also interesting in view of the anthropological evidence from many small-scale societies that indicates food sharing has been widespread, and that these small-scale societies developed a kind of mini–welfare state that redistributes income through food sharing regardless of hunting success.”

Posted in Emotions, Legal Theory | 2 Comments »

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