The Situationist

Archive for January, 2008

The Situation of Political Animals

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 30, 2008

Political AnimalsWith Americans’ political juices flowing at full capacity, this is a apt moment to consider the situational origins of those juices. Last week Natalie Angier wrote a fascinating article, “Political Animals (Yes, Animals)” for the New York Times. We offer a few excerpts below.

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. . . . Researchers who study highly gregarious and relatively brainy species like rhesus monkeys, baboons, dolphins, sperm whales, elephants and wolves have lately uncovered evidence that the creatures engage in extraordinarily sophisticated forms of politicking, often across large and far-flung social networks. Male dolphins, for example, organize themselves into at least three nested tiers of friends and accomplices, said Richard C. Connor of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, rather like the way human societies are constructed of small kin groups allied into larger tribes allied into still larger nation-states. The dolphins maintain their alliances through elaborately synchronized twists, leaps and spins like Blue Angel pilots blazing their acrobatic fraternity on high.

Among elephants, it is the females who are the born politicians, cultivating robust and lifelong social ties with at least 100 other elephants, a task made easier by their power to communicate infrasonically across miles of savanna floor. Wolves, it seems, leaven their otherwise strongly hierarchical society with occasional displays of populist umbrage, and if a pack leader proves a too-snappish tyrant, subordinate wolves will collude to overthrow the top cur.

Wherever animals must pool their talents and numbers into cohesive social groups, scientists said, the better to protect against predators, defend or enlarge choice real estate or acquire mates, the stage will be set for the appearance of political skills — the ability to please and placate, manipulate and intimidate, trade favors and scratch backs or, better yet, pluck those backs free of botflies and ticks.

Over time, the demands of a social animal’s social life may come to swamp all other selective pressures in the environment, possibly serving as the dominant spur for the evolution of ever-bigger vote-tracking brains. And though we humans may vaguely disapprove of our political impulses and harbor “Fountainhead” fantasies of pulling free in full glory from the nattering tribe, in fact for us and other highly social species there is no turning back. A lone wolf is a weak wolf, a failure, with no chance it will thrive.

Dario Maestripieri, a primatologist at the University of Chicago, has observed a similar dilemma in humans and the rhesus monkeys he studies.

“The paradox of a highly social species like rhesus monkeys and humans is that our complex sociality is the reason for our success, but it’s also the source of our greatest troubles,” he said. “Throughout human history, you see that the worst problems for people almost always come from other people, and it’s the same for the monkeys. You can put them anywhere, but their main problem is always going to be other rhesus monkeys.”

As Dr. Maestripieri sees it, rhesus monkeys embody the concept “Machiavellian” (and he accordingly named his recent popular book about the macaques “Macachiavellian Intelligence”Macachiavellian Intelligence”).

“Individuals don’t fight for food, space or resources,” Dr. Maestripieri explained. “They fight for power.” With power and status, he added, “they’ll have control over everything else.”

Rhesus monkeys, midsize omnivores with ruddy brown fur, long bearded faces and disturbingly humanlike ears, are found throughout Asia, including in many cities, where they, like everybody else, enjoy harassing the tourists. The monkeys typically live in groups of 30 or so, a majority of them genetically related females and their dependent offspring.

A female monkey’s status is usually determined by her mother’s status. Male adults, as the ones who enter the group from the outside, must establish their social positions from scratch, bite, baring of canines and, most importantly, rallying their bases.

“Fighting is never something that occurs between two individuals,” Dr. Maestripieri said. “Others get involved all the time, and your chances of success depend on how many allies you have, how wide is your network of support.”

Monkeys cultivate relationships by sitting close to their friends, grooming them at every possible opportunity and going to their aid — at least, when the photo op is right. “Rhesus males are quintessential opportunists,” Dr. Maestripieri said. “They pretend they’re helping others, but they only help adults, not infants. They only help those who are higher in rank than they are, not lower. They intervene in fights where they know they’re going to win anyway and where the risk of being injured is small.”

In sum, he said, “they try to gain maximal benefits at minimal cost, and that’s a strategy that seems to work” in advancing status.

Not all male primates pursue power by appealing to the gents.

Among olive baboons, for example, a young male adult who has left his natal home and seeks to be elected into a new baboon group begins by making friendly overtures toward a resident female who is not in estrous at the moment and hence not being contested by other males of the troop.

“If the male is successful in forming a friendship with a female, that gives him an opening with her relatives and allows him to work his way into the whole female network,” said Barbara Smuts, a biologist at the University of Michigan. “In olive baboons, friendships with females can be much more important than political alliances with other males.”

Because males are often the so-called dispersing sex, while females stay behind in the support network of their female kin, females form the political backbone among many social mammals; the longer-lived the species, the denser and more richly articulated that backbone is likely to be.

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To read the rest of the fascinating article, which goes on to describe the political habits of elephants and sperm whales, click here.  For other posts examining the situational features of politics, click here.

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments »

Deep Capture – Part VIII

Posted by J on January 29, 2008

// is the eighth part of a series on what Situationist Contributor David Yosifon and I call “deep capture.” The most basic prediction of the “deep capture” hypothesis is that there will be a competition over the situation (including the way we think) to influence the behavior of individuals and institutions and that those individuals, groups, entities, or institutions that are most powerful will win that competition. I review the previous posts in this series at the bottom of this post, which contrasts different cultures for evidence of commercial interests in promoting dispositionism.

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

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“My research has led me to the conviction that two utterly different approaches to the world have maintained themselves for thousands of years. These approaches include profoundly different social relations, views about the nature of the world, and characteristic thought processes. Each of these orientations–the Western and the Eastern–is a self-reinforcing, homeostatic system. The social practices promote the worldviews; the worldviews dictate the appropriate thought processes; and the thought processes both justify the worldviews and support the social practices.”

~Richard E. Nisbett

The previous [posts in this series] provided a sample of evidence suggesting that various regulatory institutions are, indeed, highly dispositionist. This evidence should not be surprising, given that social psychologists have demonstrated that we humans tend to see the world dispositionally. So, although the evidence might be consistent with our deep capture hypothesis and might well reveal a major cause for concern, it may only evince a shared cognitive illusion–a worldview that emerges solely from forces outside of anyone’s control.

An important implication of deep capture is that our dispositionism is, at least in this market-oriented culture, more profound than it would otherwise be. Corporations exercise their enormous power over situation to encourage and reinforce dispositionism because it is valuable to them. This presumes that the basic contours of our outlook are malleable, that even dispositionism is not stable but is subject to situational influence.

A question thus emerges as to whether dispositionism reflects anything more than our hardwiring as humans–a shared interior situation. The answer seems to be that it does. As we have already indicated, dispositionism varies somewhat across contexts. Thus, exterior situation matters too. Social psychologists have begun looking more specifically at the significance of culture. In a revealing study by Takahiko Masuda and Richard Nisbett, for example, students at Kyoto University and the University of Michigan were shown animated underwater scenes containing images of various undersea objects, such as rocks, small fish, plants, and a “focal fish.” The focal fish was larger, brighter and faster moving than the others–the sort of characteristics that would, according to conventional understandings, make them more salient to the observer. After viewing the scenes, students were asked to describe what they saw. Predictably, American students spoke immediately of the focal fish (e.g., “a trout, moving off to the left”) and only later added references to its surroundings. The Japanese students, on the other hand, tended to begin by describing the context (e.g., “It looked like a pond”). During the course of their descriptions, students from both universities made roughly equal references to the focal fish, but the Japanese participants made over sixty percent more references to contextual elements and twice as many references to relationships with inanimate aspects of the environment (e.g., “the big fish swam past a rock”).Nisbett fish image

According to Nisbett, such evidence confirms the hypothesis that members of some cultures are more inclined to take in the world as if through a wide-angle lens, whereas members of other cultures tend to see the world as if through a zoom. Nisbett argues that this distinction across cultures has ancient roots and may even help explain why the Chinese made connections that Aristotle and Galileo, with their telescopic vision, missed:

The Greeks’ focus on the salient object and its attributes led to their failure to understand the fundamental nature of causality. Aristotle explained that a stone falling through the air is due to the stone having the property of ‘gravity.’ But of course a piece of wood tossed into water floats instead of sinking. This phenomenon Aristotle explained as being due to the wood having the property of ‘levity’! In both cases the focus is exclusively on the object, with no attention paid to the possibility that some force outside the object might be relevant. But the Chinese saw the world as consisting of continuously interacting substances, so their attempts to understand it caused them to be oriented toward the complexities of the entire ‘field,’ that is, the context or environment as a whole. The notion that events always occur in a field of forces would have been completely intuitive to the Chinese. The Chinese therefore had a kind of recognition of the principle of ‘action at a distance’ two thousand years before Galileo articulated it. They had knowledge of magnetism and acoustic resonance, for example, and believed it was the movement of the moon that caused the tides, a fact that eluded even Galileo. Thus, the tendency goes beyond perception of non-human objects and is revealed as well in how “Easterners” and “Westerners” conceptualize and construe social contexts.

The evidence about cultural variations in dispositionism provides some additional support for our hypothesis that humans are both “individually” and “culturally” dispositionist, but it may go further. It suggests that dispositionism is greatest where the situational influence of large corporate interests has likely been greatest.

Recall the fundamental attribution error that is at the heart of dispositionism fallacy–the tendency to miss the influence of situation and to overstate the power of disposition in understanding one’s own and other people’s behavior. Earlier, we described the centrality of that bias to human perception and experience. Cross-cultural comparisons, however, indicate that the fundamental attribution error may be more fundamental in Western societies than it is in other societies. People in Asia, for example, appear to be less prone to see disposition than are Westerners. The “focal fish” experiment provides some support for that conclusion. This disparity has been demonstrated in numerous experiments, including variations of the famous pro-Castro, anti-Castro speech experiment . . . .

In the basic version of that study, recall, subjects who knew that a student had been instructed to write and deliver a pro-Castro speech nevertheless thought that the views the student expressed in her speech were representative of her true dispositional beliefs. The same dispositionist mistake appeared when the study was conducted with a group of East Asian subjects–that is, subjects at first overstated the role of disposition in the students’ speeches. A number of similar studies have documented this basic commonality between Westerners and Easterners in the tendency to overstate disposition. Social psychologists therefore do believe that dispositionism, in its most basic form, is a widely shared human tendency.

Differences begin to emerge, however, when the basic design of the experiment is altered to highlight the role of the situational pressure even more prominently to subjects–by, for example, placing the subject in the target’s shoes and requiring her to write an essay that takes a particular stance. American subjects continue to exhibit the fundamental attribution error in significant proportions, while East Asians become far more likely to acknowledge the role of situation in the speeches they hear. This variation in dispositionism has recurred in several studies comparing Eastern to Western subjects. Such cross-cultural differences in the power of the fundamental attribution error suggest that, although dispositionism may be universal, the degree of dispositionism varies across cultures. Overall, the findings suggest that dispositionism is itself subject to situational influence, a reality that helps to make deep capture possible.

Another dimension to these cross-cultural experiments confirms that hypothesis. In a number of studies, people who are from the East but living in the West exhibit an outlook that falls between the strong dispositionism seen in Western subjects and the weaker dispositionism seen in Eastern subjects. A compelling explanation for these findings is that when subjected to different situational influences–that is, different cultures– people develop differences in how they perceive behavior. In other words, situation, not dispositional factors such as biology or race, makes the difference. And importantly for our deep capture thesis, the Western cultural situation appears to drive people into a deeper dispositionism and away from situationism. Undoubtedly, differences in basic outlook remain among the many subcultures within Western society. The general patterns, however, are reasonably clear that dispositionism is stronger in the West than in the East, and that the situational influences of Western culture powerfully alter outlooks toward dispositionism.

earth-brain.pngThe evidence suggesting a greater sensitivity in Eastern society than in Western society to situational influences over behavior at first appears to challenge explanations of the fundamental attribution error that are rooted in the mechanics of human perception. In our earlier discussion we stressed, as have social psychologists, that one reason for the fundamental attribution error is the relative facility of seeing individual behavior compared to the situational influences that may give rise to it. Our limited perceptual and cognitive resources focus on what is stark and miss what is subtle. Therefore, we see the person who would administer painful shocks to a test-subject as dispositionally bad or sadistic, rather than account for the myriad of situational influences that help account for that behavior. Notably for our thesis, social psychologists have not abandoned the basic perceptual explanation of the human tendency to overstate dispositionist explanations of behavior. Indeed, this basic perceptual account explains the baseline of similarity seen in the cross-cultural Castro speech experiments.

According to social psychologists, the ultimate divergence in the commitment to dispositionist explanations is a product of the difference in the two cultures’ lay theories of the relationship between individuals and society. In the West, the perceptual foundation of the fundamental attribution error is surrounded by lay theories of the self as an autonomous, free, dispositionally stable individual. In this fashion, the fundamental attribution error serves to confirm the dispositional worldview for Westerners. On the other hand, cultures in the East entertain lay theories that portray the individual as situated in an array of interdependent social relationships in which roles, rather than individual actors, are emphasized. Social psychologists, thus, attribute to culture the fact that Eastern subjects appear to correct more easily for the fundamental attribution errors received from basic perceptual cues than do Western subjects. That explanation finds support in a number of cross-cultural studies. For instance, individuals who have been “multiply enculturated”–that is, exposed extensively to two or more cultures–can be situationally primed to activate the causal schemas characteristic of either culture. In one study, students in Hong Kong were shown one of the following: Western images (such as a cowboy on a horse), Eastern images (such as a dragon), or neutral images (such as a landscape). Afterwards, when making causal attributions, subjects in the first group were most dispositionist, subjects in the second group were most situationist, and those in the control group fell in between. Studies by developmental psychologists have found that Eastern and Western children exhibit common fundamental attribution errors and, unlike their parents, Eastern children do not correct for those errors when situational constraints are highlighted. Having not yet learned the situational lay-theories that their culture provides, their perceptions appear to rest on the limitations that give rise to the fundamental attribution error in Easterners and Westerners alike.

It is important to note that Easterners’ tendency to correct for dispositional overstatements is itself an unseen, subtle process. The studies revealing the relative depth or shallowness of the fundamental attribution error show that the adjustments for situation are often made automatically; they are not the result of a conscious, explicit, intentional adherence to an ideology or worldview. The difference in outlook, driven by cultural differences, is attributable to unseen processes, not dispositional choice. Consequently, while exterior situation helps explain the depth of our dispositionism, that influence is registered automatically, beneath our conscious control in the situations of our interiors.

The fact that situational influence determines the depth of our dispositionism is extremely advantageous to corporations, which, as we have indicated, have an interest in encouraging such an outlook. The capture of this outlook can be accomplished by exercising power over situation, a pursuit that is itself enabled by the strength of the dispositionist theories that support corporate power.

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Part I of this series explained that our “deep capture” story is analogous to the (shallow) capture story told by economists (such as Nobel laureate George Stigler) and public choice theorists for decades regarding the competition over prototypical regulatory institutions. Part II looked to history (specifically, Galileo’s recantation) for another analogy to the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has implications far broader and deeper than he or others realized. Part IV examined the relative power (measured as the ability to influence situation) of large commercial interests today, much like the power of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day. Part V described other parallels between the Catholic Church and geocentrism, on one hand, and modern corporate interests and dispositionism, on the other. Part VI laid out the “deep capture hypothesis” a bit more and began loosely testing it by examining the role that it may have played in the “deregulatory” movement. Part VII provided some illustrative examples of how atypical “regulators,” from courts to hard-hitting news networks, reflect and contribute to deep capture.

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Deep Capture, Ideology | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Regret

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 28, 2008

Fortune Regrets from WPRDavid Dudley has a worthwhile article on regret in the current edition of the AARP Magazine. We have excerpted some portions of it below.

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Regret, according to those who study it, is all but universal, spanning age and culture in its agonizing variations. For every choice we make—good and bad—a numberless multitude of options are left untried, each one an opportunity to second-guess, brood, and ask yourself the perilous question: What if? Social psychologists call this “counterfactual thinking,” and it’s among the most complex feats of cognition the human mind is capable of. “If you talk about the emotion of regret, you want to differentiate that from simpler emotions like pain and fear, which seem to be experienced pretty much the same way by animals,” says Neal Roese, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Illinois. “Regret is a very complicated emotion that involves all these things coming together—it’s raw feeling plus all the complicated imaginings of future possibility.”Thinking about the what-ifs requires a complex mix of real and imagined events, and it’s essential to our decision-making process. Faced with a choice, we automatically spin out alternative worlds in which we marry the other woman, don’t order the clams, buy the bigger car, or stay in school. This endless procession of possibilities is essential for helping us make sense of the world: the sharp, corrective sting of regret teaches us where we went wrong and how to do better the next time. But when the system breaks down—when reflecting on a flawed past becomes a crippling fixation—the results can be devastating, physically and mentally. Carsten Wrosch, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Concordia University in Montreal, has linked high regret with a variety of maladies, including sleep problems, migraines, chest pains, and skin conditions.

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. . . “There’s anecdotal evidence that this generation, and this society, really has a harder time with regret,” says Hamilton Beazley, Ph.D., a scholar-in-residence at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, and the author of No Regrets: A Ten-Step Program for Living in the Present and Leaving the Past Behind (Wiley, 2004). . . . “In a sense,” he says, “it can be said we’re in an Age of Regret.”If regret is a growth industry, that may be partly a reflection of the vast number of graying boomers entering their regretting years. “One of the primary psychological tasks of people between the ages of 40 and 65 is to go through a period of re-evaluation and introspection regarding their lives,” Beazley says. “And because the baby boomers have always had such an impact on society, we drive the Zeitgeist of our time.” But there’s more to it than that. In Beazley’s view, the prevailing sunniness of growing up in postwar America—the “can-do sense of prosperity and faith in technology” that the boomers were inculcated with as they came of age amid revolutions in science and culture and personal expression—has primed a nation to have its youthful dreams dashed by the narrowing of options that time brings. “This generation has greater idealized expectations—the ones that can’t be met—than previous generations,” Beazley says. “The baby boomers really believe that negative events, even things like getting older, shouldn’t happen.” . . .

”Regret is also a topic of growing interest to cognitive researchers, says Roese, whose book If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity (Broadway, 2005) explores the role of what-if thinking in behavior, history, and popular culture. Studies of people with a neurological inability to experience regret show just how essential this mental skill is: without regret, basic decision-making and social skills are severely impaired. “There’s a value in negative emotions,” Roese says. “Regret in particular is useful for signaling to people that it’s time to change their strategy. If you’re ruminating daily on how things could have been better, that’s not good, but a sharp, rapid emotional response followed by a behavioral change, followed by the disappearance of the emotion—that’s perfectly good for us.”

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In other words, regret—and our acute desire to avoid it—is a major part of healthy living. “Regret is not something that’s just a curse or a nuisance to our daily living,” says Roese. “It’s an indicator of our brains trying their best to guide us throughRegret complicated social environments.”

Researchers have noticed age-related distinctions in how and why we experience regret. The young are more likely to regret things they did rather than things they didn’t do. After all, at that stage in life there’s still time to see Australia, climb K2, or write a novel. But as we age, this tendency reverses, and it’s what you didn’t do that stings. When you look back and see all the mountains left unclimbed, the sense of loss can be devastating.

How we respond to regret depends on several factors, including our ability to correct whatever we did (or didn’t do) wrong. It’s the element of control that makes the regret powerful. “If you can fix it, the negative emotions, especially regret, tend to be stronger and longer lasting,” Roese says. “If you can’t fix it, something in our brain kicks in and shuts it down. ” In studies on consumer satisfaction, shoppers seem to prefer not having the option to return an item. “The mere fact of being able to return it makes you less satisfied—you’re still wringing your hands about it a month later,” Roese says. “If you can’t take it back, it’s a done deal, and you’re actually more satisfied.”

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Barry Schwartz, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, has termed this the paradox of choice—the more choices we have, whether in televisions or careers, the greater the likelihood we’ll be dissatisfied with the results. Or, like Jane, we’ll defer making any decision at all: in one study, subjects presented with dozens of kinds of jams proved less likely to buy any jam than did participants who could choose from only a few. Applying the model to life decisions, a mild case of buyer’s remorse becomes a major source of life regret. “In a world where there are an almost infinite number of choices, the number of things you could have done will be much greater,” says Schwartz, who argues that the more-than-tripling rate of clinical depression in the past two generations is related to the concurrent explosion in choice, consumer and otherwise.

The problem, Schwartz warns, could be exacerbated as people face a new supermarket of options for health care and retirement planning—and a society that places unprecedented responsibility on the individual to choose his or her own doctors and savings plans. “One of the things all these choices do is make it very hard not to blame yourself for the things that go wrong,” he says. “It’s going to be hard to convince tomorrow’s 70-year-olds that everything in their lives isn’t their fault.”

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Plus, there’s evidence that elderly people subconsciously immunize themselves to the kinds of corrosive regret that prey on younger or middle-aged people. It’s called the positivity effect, according to Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University. Older people generally score higher in self-reported tests of happiness than younger people do—in part, she believes, because they are more likely to remember events and memories that improve their emotional well-being and selectively ignore ones that might make them unhappy. She believes this selectivity is a function of the relative importance of being happy in the present. “As people age, they take into account the amount of time they have left,” Carstensen says. But instead of aggravating regret, this awareness in late life can redirect emotional attention away from potential regret-producers. “When time is perceived as being constrained, people tend to pursue goals related to feeling states that pay off in the moment.” Carstensen predicts that even the Me Generation will navigate the golden years in the traditional fashion, gradually adjusting goals to accommodate the time they have left. “People will be motivated to accept the choices they made in order to achieve happiness,” she says.

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To read the article in its entirety, click here. For other posts discussing other problems, in addition to a heightened chance for regret, posed by to much choice, read “Why You Bought That,” “Just Choose It,” and “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” (Part 2).

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Life | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Eating

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 26, 2008

People EatingOn many occasions, we have discussed how one’s situation can play a major role in his or her eating patterns, often in ways that go undetected. Along those lines, though obesity is often attributed to a lack of will, laziness, or poor eating habits, it likely better reflects one’s situation and the constraints placed on it.

Shari Roan of the Los Angeles Times offers a great summary of situational influences on eating, and we excerpt her list below.

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People can be influenced to eat unhealthful food, or more food than they should, without even realizing it.

Advertising matters

One study, published last year in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that people think they are eating healthfully if it’s advertised that way. Researchers had people eat Subway meals that contained the same amount of calories as a McDonald’s meal, but the people estimated that the Subway meal contained 35% fewer calories.

Eating is automatic

A 2004 study in the journal Appetite showed that people who are served bigger portions will eat more. Men given large bags of potato chips ate triple the number of chips — an extra 311 calories — compared with men given a small bag of chips.

Visual cues prompt eating

A 2004 study in the Annual Review of Nutrition found that people ate 69% more jelly beans when they were offered in a mixed assortment than a group offered jelly beans sorted by color.

The setting matters

A 2005 study in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that the more pleasant the environment, the more people will eat. People shown a picture of a smiling person poured more of a drink, drank more and rated the drink more favorably than people shown pictures of a frowning person.

Portions direct eating

A 2003 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that doubling the size of an entree increased overall food intake 25%. The consumers did not compensate for the bigger entree by decreasing the intake of other food on their plates.McDonald’s

Other people influence eating

A 1992 study in Physiology & Behavior found that food consumption increased 28% when one other person was present and 71% when six or more companions were present.

Eating is contagious

A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that obesity can spread through social networks. A person’s chances of becoming obese increased 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in the same time period. If one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased 40%.

Marketing matters

Several studies published in the 1970s and 1980s show that doubling the shelf space of an item in a grocery store increases sales of the item as much as 40%.

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For more on the situation of eating, see Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion’s law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in AmericaFor a listing of numerous Situaitonist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Food and Drug Law, Life, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

On Being a Mindful Voter

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 24, 2008

Our intense scrutiny of the presidential candidates has produced a relentless stream of questions, some thoughtful and relevant, others spectacularly irrelevant and even embarrassing: Why are you not more likable, Hillary? How good a Christian can he be with the name Hussein?

With our focus solely on the candidates, however, we have neglected to examine the other powerful determinant of the election: the state of our own minds. And yet we know that the voter’s mind, the very thing doing the questioning, probing and judging, is itself prone to limitations no less profound than those of the candidates themselves.

Keeping one’s own mind “in mind” and being aware of its limitations is the first step toward making a conscious choice of who is best for us, the country and the world.

Human minds have a remarkable capability for self-reflection — the envy of every chimpanzee. This fanciest bell and whistle of the brain bestows on us the ability to consciously look into our own mind, recognize its contents, report on it and even change it.

As remarkable as this ability is, however, it tends to mask the fact that we are nonetheless unaware of the vast majority of our minds’ work.

It keeps us from knowing, and therefore from accepting, that the reasons we offer for our choices may not actually be driving those choices. This blindness should not be underestimated, because it is always accompanied by an insidious if honest denial of facts.

The mind sciences tell us much about the invisible mental gymnastics that end up dictating what we like and dislike, what we believe to be true and not, what drives us toward particular people and their ideologies.

My colleagues and I have posed two kinds of questions to understand these two sides of the mind, the conscious and the less conscious. Measuring the conscious side is familiar, tried and true. In the context of race, we ask, “Whom do you like? Whom will you vote for? Why?”

The other question is not only unfamiliar, it isn’t a question at all. To measure race preferences that may be less conscious, we measure the speed and accuracy of the mind at work. How quickly and how accurately do we — can we — perform the simple task of associating black and white with both good and bad? In the gender case, do we associate female or male more easily with “commander-in-chief”?

Such tests do not seek a reasoned answer but an automatic one, a response we form without “thinking.” From such responses we can derive an estimate of our less-conscious likes and dislikes, called automatic preferences. If the results of the two tests agree; that is, if you say you prefer black and you show the same level of preference for black on the automatic test, the two are boringly consistent.

But in ordinary people like me, we often don’t see consistency. Rather we see disparities between what we say and what we reveal. I, for example, report a seemingly genuine attitude of equal liking for black and white, but the automatic test reveals that I have a preference for white over black (as do the majority of whites and Asians in the United States and at least a third of African-Americans). Likewise, although I might express and even have an automatic preference for women, I struggle more than I’d like when I am asked to associate “female” with commander-in-chief.

Such disparity tells me that my spoken preference and beliefs, my intended egalitarian values are out of sync with my less explicit, less conscious preference for white (or for a male leader).

It tells me that I may not be fully aware of who I am or wish to be. What I take away from such a fracture in my own mind is a skepticism that I am color-blind or that I can look past gender to the truly competent candidate. Without awareness of the slippage in my own mind, I am likely to believe that all the relevant data are embedded in the candidates, not in me.

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In the Democratic primaries, we have been given two candidates who represent what was unthinkable in any previous election. Both represent what it means to be American in the broadest, most optimistic sense possible.

From First Friday Collective Blog

One represents the gender of half the people of this country and half the people of the world, but who after 232 years of independence is the first viable female candidate for president.

We also have a candidate who captures another aspect of a changing America: a person with parents from two continents, who is both black and white, from two cultures, rich and poor, with their own languages and religions.

But wait, we have a third candidate, whose demographics represent the familiar — a white, Southern male candidate — but whose actions reflect virtues so powerful that we might indeed set aside the strengths of the first two.

Everything that is tribal and ignorant about us should move us away from them. And that’s the mind’s natural, unexamined inclination. But I see millions taking these candidates seriously. The crossing over is thrilling to watch. Black, male and young, casting for Clinton. Women, white and elderly, voting for Obama. Northerners, the rich supporting Edwards.

These voters have overcome the easy inclination to go with the familiar past. They have broken a tribal cord that bound their predecessors. Their minds have seen through those candidates who create false fears of the enemy outside, who even now fail to recognize what is clearly a futile and unjust war, who lie about taxes, who hold religious beliefs contradictory to physical reality.

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The next election will again be determined not by Democrats or Republicans but by the sizable bloc of independents. Independents cannot be proud of the opportunities they missed four and eight years ago.

But now, there’s a new moment. From the research evidence, I know that to support any of the three Democratic candidates will not come easily. They demand that you give up a preference for the status quo, for what looks familiar, for what sounds superficially “presidential.”

* * *
If that tribal preference is at all attractive, any of the throwbacks on the Republican slate will do.

But if Americans are ready to do what they have occasionally done before . . . the time to cast a similar vote is 2008.

Hillary, Barack and John, as much as we are testing them, are testing us.

* * *

To read the entire editorial, click here. To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. To review previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin or, for a list of such posts, click here.

For a sample of previous posts examining situational elements of voting or, specifically, the 2008 presidential election, see “Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns.”

Posted in Implicit Associations, Politics | 2 Comments »

The Devil You Know . . .

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 23, 2008

Phil Zimbardo & The Lucifer EffectThe paperback version of (Situationist contributor) Phil Zimbardo’s bestselling book, The Lucifer Effect, is now available! To mark the event, we’re posting a recent essay, “The Evil Crowd,” by Professor Zimbardo. The uplifting essay explains why knowing the sources of evil may help us to better confront it.

* * *

Why do good, ordinary people sometimes become perpetrators of evil? The most extreme transformation of this kind is, of course, the story of God’s favorite angel, Lucifer – a story that has set the context for my psychological investigations into lesser human transformations in response to the corrosive influence of powerful situational forces.

Such forces exist in many common behavioral contexts, distorting our usual good nature by pushing us to engage in deviant, destructive, or evil behavior. When embedded in new and unfamiliar settings, our habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting no longer function to sustain the moral compass that has guided us reliably in the past.

Over the past three decades, my research and that of my colleagues has demonstrated the relative ease with which ordinary people can be led to behave in ways that qualify as evil. We have put research participants in experiments where powerful situational forces – anonymity, group pressures, or diffusion of personal responsibility – led them blindly to obey authority and to aggress against innocent others after dehumanizing them.

My recent book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil describes the radical transformations that took place among college students playing randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison created at Stanford University. It goes on to establish direct parallels with the abuses committed by American soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, presenting much of the social science research illustrating the power of social situations to dominate individual dispositions.

This body of work challenges the traditional focus on the individual’s inner nature, dispositions, and personality traits as the primary – and often the sole – factors in understanding human failings. Instead, I argue that while most people are good most of the time, they can readily be led to act anti-socially, because most people are rarely solitary figures improvising soliloquies on the empty stage of life.

On the contrary, people are often in an ensemble of different players, on a stage with various props, costumes, scripts, and stage directions from producers and directors. Together, they comprise situational features that can dramatically influence behavior. What individuas bring into any setting is important, but so are the situational forces that act on them, as well as the systemic forces that create and maintain situations.

Most institutions that are invested in an individualistic orientation hold up the person as sinner, culpable, afflicted, insane, or irrational. Programs of change follow either a medical model of rehabilitation, therapy, reeducation, and treatment, or a punitive model of incarceration and execution. But all such programs are doomed to fail if the main causal agent is the situation or system, not the person.

Zimbardo QuotationAs a result, two kinds of paradigm shift are required. First, we need to adopt a public health model for prevention of violence, spouse abuse, bullying, prejudice, and more that identifies vectors of social disease to be inoculated against. Second, legal theory must reconsider the extent to which powerful situational and systemic factors should be taken into account in punishing individuals.

Although much of The Lucifer Effect examines how easy it is for ordinary people to be seduced into engaging in evil deeds, or to be passively indifferent to the suffering of others, the deeper message is a positive one. It is by understanding the how and why of such deeds that we are in a better position to uncover, oppose, defy, and triumph over them. By becoming more “evil smart,” we build up resistance to having our moral compass reset negatively.

In this sense, The Lucifer Effect is a celebration of the human capacity to choose kindness over cruelty, caring over indifference, creativity over destructiveness, and heroism over villainy. At the end of my narrative, I invite readers to consider fundamental strategies of resisting and challenging unwanted social influences, and I introduce the notion of “the banality of heroism.” After all, most heroes are ordinary people who engage in extra-ordinary moral actions.

With this in mind, I propose a situational perspective for heroism, just as I do for evil: the same situation that can inflame the hostile imagination and evil in some of us can inspire the heroic imagination in others. We must teach people, especially our children, to think of themselves as “heroes-in-waiting,” ready to take heroic action in a particular situation that may occur only once in their lifetime.

* * *

For other Situationist posts discussing The Lucifer Effect, click here. To buy the paperback version of the book, click here.

Posted in Book, Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Hair Color

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 22, 2008

Blonde Stereotypes

This post is a mashup of several newspaper articles, including Shelley Emling’s article, Blondes, ready for some bad news?,” Tom Spears’s piece, “Paris Hilton factor’ sucks IQ points from men and women equally,” and, from Psychology Today, an excerpt from the book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, which explores, among other “politically incorrect truths about human nature,” the mystery of the “blond bombshell”

* * *

Maybe that’s not shocking. But here’s the blondness bombshell: Women’s intelligence drops the same way.

This shows that men and women treat blond women without much respect, says the group working with Clémentine Bry of the University of Paris X, in Nanterre.

The key is that men and women equally carry the “dumb blond” stereotype in the backs of their minds, the group believes. “They (blonds) were perceived as pretty, but stupid.” Surrounded by blonds, men and women alike think they’re in the company of dummies, and they relax their own thinking to match this. At least that’s the theory.

From Marilyn Monroe to Paris Hilton, “blonde” has long been code for a woman who’s long on looks and light on brains. French blogs have started calling Ms. Bry’s work the “Paris Hilton factor.” The researchers have a fancier name for it: “Blond Like Me: When Britney SpearsSelf-Construals Moderate Stereotype Priming Effects on Intellectual Performance.”

Given that common stereotype, the social psychologists believe, men and women react accordingly.

When blonds are present, even just in photos, the subconscious is saying: Let’s think at a lower level, like them.

The researchers say it’s a variation of common behaviour. If we sit near someone who fiddles with a pen, we tend to fiddle with a pen, too. And if we think we’re surrounded by the not-so-intelligent . . . .”There’s a decrease in performance after an unobtrusive exposure to a stereotype about people who have the reputation to be cognitively impaired,” he said.

In plainer language, blondes might make people act in a less intelligent manner because the people believe — whether they want to admit it or not — that they are in the presence of someone who’s not very smart.

Previous studies also have shown how information from a person’s social context can influence their behavior.

For example, when people are exposed to elderly people, they tend to walk and talk more slowly. When people sit beside someone who is fidgeting, they tend to fidget as well.

“The mere knowledge of a stereotype can influence our behavior,” said . . . Bry . . . .
“We do not pretend that blondes are dumb or dumber than other women. There are absolutely no scientific studies to support this stereotype. Stereotypes are cultural beliefs about social groups, they are not truthful pictures of who people are. The reasons why such a stereotype emerged are unknown and were not the point of interest of our work.”

Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa, authors of the book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, go out on what seems (to us) like a flimsy limb to provide an evolutionary solution to the mystery of the “blonde bombshell”:

Long before TV—in 15th- and 16th- century Italy, and possibly two millennia ago—women were dying their hair blond. Women’s desire to look like Barbie—young with small waist, large breasts, long blond hair, and blue eyes—is a direct, realistic, and sensible response to the desire of men to mate with women who look like her. There is evolutionary logic behind each of these features.

* * *

Blond hair is unique in that it changes dramatically with age. Typically, young girls with light blond hair become women with brown hair. Thus, men who prefer to mate with blond women are unconsciously attempting to mate with younger (and hence,Anna Nicole Smith on average, healthier and more fecund) women. It is no coincidence that blond hair evolved in Scandinavia and northern Europe, probably as an alternative means for women to advertise their youth, as their bodies were concealed under heavy clothing.

* * *

Women with blue eyes should not be any different from those with green or brown eyes. Yet preference for blue eyes seems both universal and undeniable—in males as well as females. One explanation is that the human pupil dilates when an individual is exposed to something that she likes. For instance, the pupils of women and infants (but not men) spontaneously dilate when they see babies. Pupil dilation is an honest indicator of interest and attraction. And the size of the pupil is easiest to determine in blue eyes. Blue-eyed people are considered attractive as potential mates because it is easiest to determine whether they are interested in us or not.

* * *

The irony is that none of the above is true any longer. Through face-lifts, wigs, liposuction, surgical breast augmentation, hair dye, and color contact lenses, any woman, regardless of age, can have many of the key features that define ideal female beauty. And men fall for them. Men can cognitively understand that many blond women with firm, large breasts are not actually 15 years old, but they still find them attractive because their evolved psychological mechanisms are fooled by modern inventions that did not exist in the ancestral environment.

* * *

For a sample of previous posts discussing the role of unconscious and automatic causes of behavior, see Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV of the series titled “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness,” “The Situation of Reason,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” and “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.”

Posted in Entertainment, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by J on January 20, 2008

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

* * *

Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:


“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”


So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person’s] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Posted in System Legitimacy | 2 Comments »

Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections

Posted by Goutam Jois on January 18, 2008

(Full disclosure: in 2006, I was a summer associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, LLP, which has been involved in some of the amicus briefing in support of the plaintiffs in this case. In 2008-09, I will clerk for Judge Chester J. Straub of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, who authored the now-reversed Second Circuit opinion affirming the preliminary injunction.)

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court decided New York Board of Elections v. Lopez-Torres, a case involving the system of selecting New York trial court judges. For over eight decades, Supreme Court (i.e., trial court) judges in New York have been chosen by election. The elections were explicitly partisan: candidates would be nominated by a political party’s elected delegates at a nominating convention, and each party’s nominee would stand in the general election.Candidates not affiliated with a party (as the term is defined in the statutes) could, assuming they meet some basic qualifications, run as independents. All in all, the system seems fairly reasonable. Or maybe it’s only reasonable in theory. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, which litigated the case, the situation is much different in practice:

In practice, however, New York Supreme Court judges are selected through a de facto appointment system, which is largely controlled by county leaders of the two major political parties. Onerous structural obstacles designed to ensure that county leaders– not voters– select Supreme Court judges have prevented Lopez Torres and other highly qualified judges from becoming justices on the New York Supreme Court. The process thus silences rank-and-file party members and voters, and violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal Constitution.

In a 77-page opinion, Judge John Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York agreed. In early 2006, he issued a preliminary injunction, enjoining the State of New York from enforcing its Supreme Court election laws as currently in force. Judge Gleeson wrote that the elections were illusory; the party leaders exerted so much control over the process that the state had “effectively transferr[ed] the power to choose to major party leaders.” 411 F. Supp. 2d at 254. Judge Gleeson held that “[a] State may not choose to have judicial elections and then stifle the electoral process . . . , by creating electoral practices that effectively keep candidates out of contention entirely . . . .” Id. As a remedy, Judge Gleeson ordered the state to implement a direct primary election system, as is done in New York for other trial courts.

The Second Circuit affirmed the lower-court decision for substantially the same reasons. Judge Straub wrote:

All of the evidence presented, and accepted by the District Court, reduces to this bottom line: through a Byzantine and onerous network of nominating phase regulations employed in areas of one-party rule, New York has transformed a de jure election into a de facto appointment. “[I]n every practical sense,” these regulations preclude all but candidates favored by party leadership “from seeking the nomination of their chosen party, no matter how qualified they might be, and no matter how broad or enthusiastic their popular support.” 462 F.3d at 200-01.

The Supreme Court reversed. Writing for an eight-member majority, Justice Scalia asserted that the political parties’ dominance of the election process posed no constitutional problems. In so doing, Justice Scalia echoed some classic dispositionist themes — themes that, as with most dispositionist narratives, placed an undue emphasis of rational choice while slighting situational factors. For example, Justice Scalia conceded that the candidates favored by the political parties might win election. “But this says nothing more than that the party leadership has more widespread support than a candidate not supported by the leadership.” Slip Op. at 8. In other words, the voters are merely expressing a preference; the leadership’s candidate must win because he appeals to more voters’ preferences. The plaintiffs in Lopez-Torres also complained that the general elections for judges were not competitive: Democratic or Republican party leaders would select the nominee, and since most districts were dominated by one party, the party’s nominee would easily win. Justice Scalia finds no problem with this outcome either. “The reason one-party rule is entrenched may be (and usually is) that voters approve of the positions and candidates that the party regularly puts forward. It is no function of the First Amendment to require revision of those positions or candidates.” Slip. Op. at 11.

Again, the candidate must be winning because the voters’ preferences align with his views.

What Justice Scalia fails to note is that there are strong psychological factors that weigh in favor of one-party rule. A variety of phenomena, including status quo bias, loss aversion, and the endowment effect — or even just plain old inertia — combine to make voters highly unlikely to unseat an incumbent or to go against the way things have always been. Finally, we humans tend to exhibit the system justification motive in our reasoning — a tendency to view existing social, political, and economic arrangements as fair.

Because of these cognitive biases, it is also highly unlikely that voters, individually or collectively, would express a “rational” “preference” for a given existing arrangement if squarely presented with that possibility. Under the New York system of nominating conventions, however, it is impossible to know.

Unlike the lower courts’ opinions, Justice Scalia’s analysis is blind to the situational factors that bear heavily on the outcome of the nominating conventions. New York’s state law clearly calls for these judgeships to be filled by election; yet, as Judge Straub wrote, the system had morphed into one where party leaders essentially appoint nominees. But how can this be the case if there is a competitive election among the potential nominees? Again, social psychology offers some insight into this question.

First, there is the well-known framing effect. Political endorsements surely matter; that is one reason party leaders in this case (and others, in other cases) make them in the first place. By framing the choices in terms of the “party’s slate” and “all others,” the party leaders exert strong influence over who the delegates ultimately vote for. This phenomenon is well known, and it is the same reason, for example, that boards of directors recommend to their shareholders how they should vote, or that Randy, Paula, and Simon nudge the audience/voters on American Idol. If we as voters were really “rational actors” expressing their “preferences,” then endorsements from party leaders or Simon Cowell should be irrelevant. We are not, and so such endorsements matter a great deal.

Indeed, as other posts on this blog have discussed some of the unseen situational effects on elections. For example, a candidate’s position on a ballot can affect the vote totals. Similarly, the presence of an irrelevant third candidate, who actually does not appeal to the stated preferences of a given voter, might actually change his vote. Across a variety of contexts, the data show ways that people’s choices are shaped by the way they are presented.

The theme running through Justice Scalia’s opinion is one of choice and preferences, that is, the rhetoric of naïve psychology that underlies most market-based arguments. And Justice Scalia draws on the market analogy as well: “The First Amendment creates an open marketplace where ideas, most especially political ideas, may compete without government interference. See Abrams v. United States, 250 U. S. 616, 630 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting). It does not call on the federal courts to manage the market by preventing too many buyers from settling upon a single product.” Slip Op. at 11. Yet the tension between this passage and others is notable. Justice Scalia repeatedly makes reference to the various limits that the court has imposed on states’ abilities to conduct elections. See, e.g., id. at 5-7 (noting that a political party’s racially discrimination can become state action, that a state has a legitimate interest in prescribing the fairness of a nominating process, that excluding non-party-members from a partisan primary is permissible, and that certain petitioning requirements are constitutional). Thus, even under Justice Scalia’s analysis, the question is not one of “government interference” versus “no interference.” Whether in markets or in elections, “interference” of some kind, as I have argued elsewhere, is inevitable. The more interesting questions revolve around the types of interference their extent. By deferring to the straw men of “government interference” and voters’ “preferences,” Justice Scalia thus avoids the more difficult question of how (if at all) to justify certain types of interference but not others.

Justice Scalia is careful to note, however, that the Supreme Court is by no means requiring New York to stick with the status quo: “If it wishes to return to the primary system that it discarded in 1921, it is free to do so.” Slip Op. at 12. Of course, status quo bias, the endowment effect, &c. make it similarly unlikely that the legislature will radically break from its past practice. Elsewhere, Situationist co-founder Jon Hanson and situationist contributor David Yosifon referred to us humans as “cognitive misers.” And just as humans manage their scare cognitive resources with decisional short-cuts, so too do legislatures manage their very scarce resources with similar shortcuts. Justice Scalia’s comment that the legislature is free to revise its system therefore rings somewhat hollow.

Finally, it is worth noting the important role that processes and procedures play in Justice Scalia’s analysis. Margarita Lopez-Torres, a judicial candidate who enjoyed significant popular support, was essentially blacklisted from the local Democratic Party because she refused to hire an under-qualified man as her law secretary. This refusal was fatal to her aspirations to become a Supreme Court Justice because the recommended candidate had “’work[ed] hard for the Democratic Party’s political clubs to get candidates elected’ and the law secretary ‘job is the way to reward [him].’” 462 F.3d 179. Justice Scalia’s dismisses Lopez-Torres, and people like her, as just a group of people who were crying sour grapes after losing an election. “Here respondents complain not of the state law, but of the voters’ (and their elected delegates’) preference for the choices of the party leadership.” Slip Op. at 8. The message is clear: an election procedure is in place, and it seems reasonably fair (after all, “No New York law compels election of the leadership’s slate—or, for that matter, compels the delegates elected on the leadership’s slate to vote the way the leadership desires.” Id.). Thus, absent a ‘gun to the head’ or some statutory equivalent, there is no constitutional violation. As Situationist contributor Tom Tyler has pointed out, the perceived legitimacy of a given procedure can induce people to accept outcomes they would otherwise find unjust. Justice Scalia’s appeal to the ostensible fairness of the election procedures appears to be an attempt to generate just that kind of acceptance.

The Lopez-Torres case illustrates some of the Constitutional issues that are implicated by New York’s method for selecting Supreme Court justice. However, the fundamental questions raised run much deeper. Unfortunately, Justice Scalia’s analysis in Lopez-Torres suggests that any electoral disputes will be decided with a view to heavily dispositionist theories of human behavior, to the near-exclusion of things like framing, context, and other situational factors. If we are truly committed to democratic politics, then we would do well to re-examine our fundamental (dispositionist) assumptions about ourselves — and to base our analysis of constitutional claims on the most realistic model of the human actor that we have available to us. posts have discussed the insights social psychology can give us into elections in general and this year’s presidential election in particular.

Posted in Choice Myth, Law, Politics, Public Policy, System Legitimacy | 6 Comments »

The Market as Situation and Situational Character

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 16, 2008


Publisher’s Weekly describes Michael Shermer’s new book, The Mind of the Market, as follows:

Shermer provides an in-depth examination of evolutionary economics. Using fascinating examples — from monkeys that balk at unfair distributions of rewards after completing a task to humans who feel cheated when offered $10 of free money if a partner is given $90 — Shermer explores the evolutionary roots of our sense of fairness and justice, and shows how this rationale extends to the market. Drawing upon his expertise as a scientist and the works of noted economists, Shermer argues convincingly that human beings are not exclusively self-centered, the market itself is moral, and modern economies are founded on our virtuous nature. He explores how we mind our money, the value of virtue, why money can’t buy happiness and whether we are really free to make choices. Though dense in places, this book offers much insight into human behavior and rationales regarding money and fairness and will be of interst to serious readers of science or business.

Below we’ve excerpted a brief section of the book’s prologue (the entire prologue is here) and included a 14-minute video of Shermer’s TED talk on “Why People Believe Strange Things.”

* * *

In Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, recounted in Matthew 25:14–29, the gospel author recalls the messiah as saying in the final verse: “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.” Out of context this hardly sounds like the wisdom of the prophet who proclaimed that the meek shall inherit the earth, but in context, Jesus’ point was that properly investing one’s money (as measured in “talents”) generates even more wealth. The servant who was given five talents invested it and gave his master ten talents in return. The servant who was given two talents invested it and gave his master four talents in return. But the servant who was given one talent buried it in the ground and gave his master back just the one talent. The master then ordered his risk-averse servant to give the one talent to the servant who had doubled his investment of five talents, and so he who earned the most was rewarded with even more. And thus it is that the rich get richer.

Jesus probably had in mind something more than an economic allegory about selecting the right investment tool for your money, but I want to employ the story as a parable about the mind of the market. In the 1960s, the sociologist of science Robert K. Merton conducted an extensive study of how scientific ideas are discovered and credited in the marketplace of ideas — in this case treating science as a market — and discovered that eminent scientists typically receive more credit than they deserve simply by dint of having a big name, while their junior colleagues and graduate students, who usually do most of the work, go largely unnoticed. A similar well-known effect can be seen in how both innovative ideas and clever quotes gravitate up and are given credit to the most famous person associated with them.

Merton called this the Matthew Effect. Marketers know it as Cumulative Advantage. In a broader economic context I shall refer to it here as the Bestseller Effect. Once a product gets a head-start in sales it signals to consumers that other people want that product and therefore it must be good thereby causing them to desire it as well, which leads even more people to purchase the product, sending more signals to other consumers that they too must have it, and so it climbs up the bestseller list. Everyone in business knows about the effect, which is why authors and publishers, for example, try so fervently to land their book on the New York Times bestseller list. Once you are on the list bookstores move your title to the “bestseller” bookcase (sometimes even labeled “New York Times Bestseller List”) and to the front of the store where copies of the book are stacked like cordwood. This sends a signal to potential book buyers entering the store that this must be a good read, triggering an increase in sales that gets reported to the New York Times book review editors, who bump the title up the list, sending another signal to bookstore buyers to order even more copies, which secures the title more time in the bestseller list that increases sales even further, and round and round the feedback loop goes as the richest authors get even richer.3

To find out if the Bestseller Effect is real, the Columbia University sociologist Duncan Watts and his collaborators Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodds tested it in a web-based experiment in which 14,000 participants registered at a Web site where they had the opportunity to listen to, rate, and download songs by unknown bands. One group of registrants were only given the names of the songs and bands, while a second group of registrants were also shown how many times the song had been downloaded. The researchers called this the “social influence” condition, because they wanted to know if seeing how many people had downloaded a song would influence subjects’ decision on whether or not to download it. Predictably, the Web participants in the social influence condition were influenced by the download rate figures: songs with a higher download number were more likely to be downloaded by new participants, whereas subjects in the independent group who saw no download rates, revealed dramatically different song preferences. This is not to deny that the quality of a song or a book or any other product does not matter. Of course it does, and this too is measurable. But it turns out that subjective consumer preferences grounded in relative rankings by other consumers can and often does wash out the effects of more objective ratings of product quality.

Markets that traffic in rankings, ratings, and bestseller lists seem to operate on their own volition, almost like a collective organism. In fact, this is only one of many effects we shall see in this book that demonstrate just how much the mind influences the market, and in a broader sense how markets seem to have a mind of their own. Consider another economic parable with an evolutionary lesson related to the Bestseller Effect.

Shermer’s Mind of the MarketImagine that you are a banker with a limited amount of money to lend. If you advance loans to people who are the poorest credit risks, you are taking a great gamble that they will default on their loans and you will go out of business. This sets up a paradox: the people who most need the money are also the worst credit risks and thus cannot get a loan, whereas the people who least need the money are also the best credit risks and thus once again the rich get richer. The evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides call this the Banker’s Paradox, and they apply it to a deeper evolutionary problem: to whom should we extend our friendship? The Banker’s Paradox, they suggest, “is analogous to a serious adaptive problem faced by our hominid ancestors: exactly when an ancestral hunter-gatherer is in most dire need of assistance, she becomes a bad ‘credit risk’ and, for this reason, is less attractive as a potential recipient of assistance.”

If we think of life as an economy, and if we count resources as anything we have that could help others — including and especially friendship — by the logic of the Banker’s Paradox we have to make difficult choices in assessing the credit risk of people we encounter. In evolutionary theory the larger problem to be solved here is altruism: why should I sacrifice my genes for someone else’s genes? Or, more technically, an altruistic act is one that lowers my reproductive success while simultaneously raising the reproductive success of someone else.

Standard theory suggests two evolutionary pathways to altruism: kin selection (“blood is thicker than water”) and reciprocal altruism (“I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine”). By helping my kin relations, and by extending a helping hand to those who will reciprocate my altruism, I am helping myself. Thus, there will be a selection for those who are inclined to be altruistic … to a point. With limited resources we can’t help everyone and so we must assess credit risks, and some people are better risks than others. Here again is the Banker’s Paradox: those most in need of assistance are the least likely to be given help, and so yet again the rich get richer. But not always, because fair weather friends may be faking their signs of altruistic tendencies and later fail to come to our aid when the weather turns decidedly stormy. By contrast, true friends are those who are deeply committed to our welfare regardless of the potential for reciprocity. “It is this kind of friend that the fair weather friend is the counterfeit of,” Tooby and Cosmides continue. “If you are a hunter-gatherer with few or no individuals who are deeply engaged in your welfare, then you are extremely vulnerable to the volatility of events — a hostage to fortune.” The worse the environment the more important it is that we have true friends, and the environment of our evolutionary past was no picnic.

Evolution, it is suggested, would have selected for adaptations to work around the Banker’s Paradox dilemmas, including selecting us to

1. seek recognition from our fellow group members for our trustworthiness and reliability,
2. cultivate those attributes most desired by others in our group,
3. participate in social activities that recognize and reinforce such pro-social attributes,
4. avoid social activities that lead to untrustworthy actions and therefore a negative reputation,
5. notice similar attributes of trustworthiness in others, and
6. develop the ability to discriminate between true and fair weather friends.

Thus, Tooby and Cosmides conclude, the Banker’s Paradox leads us to an evolved psychology where “if you are unusually or uniquely valuable to someone else — for whatever reason — then that person has an uncommonly strong interest in your survival during times of difficulty. The interest they have in your survival makes them, therefore, highly valuable to you. The fact that they have a stake in you means…that you have a stake in them. Moreover, to the extent they recognize this, the initial stake they have in you may be augmented.” Through such augmentation can the poor become rich through the evolved foundation of friendship.

If this sounds like I have reduced human relationships to nothing more than credit calculations and reciprocal relations, in my previous book, The Science of Good and Evil, I demonstrate how kin selection and reciprocal altruism led to the evolution of deep and real moral emotions that include love, friendship, and trust, because it is not enough to fake being a good and faithful spouse, friend, or partner; you actually have to believe it yourself, and actions follow beliefs. Thus it is that morality is real and transcendent, and human relations genuine and deeply ingrained in our nature.

* * *

One view that I am writing against in this book, ironically, is the belief that Darwin and the theory of evolution have no place in the social sciences, especially in the study of human social and economic behavior. Whereas scientists are up in arms about attempts to teach creationism and Intelligent Design in public school biology classrooms (see my book Why Darwin Matters), and are distraught by the dismal state of science education and the lack of acceptance of Darwin’s theory (less than half of Americans believe that humans evolved), most scientists — especially social scientists — have resisted with the emotional intensity of a creationist any attempts to apply evolutionary thinking to psychology, sociology, and economics. The reason for this resistance — understandable at the time — was the equation of evolutionary theory with Social Darwinism and especially the extreme hereditarian views that led to enforced sterilization of the mentally retarded in America, and to the Nazi eugenics program that led to the Holocaust. As a consequence, post-World War Two social scientists steered a wide course around any attempts to employ evolutionary theory to the study of human behavior, and instead focused almost exclusively on socio-cultural explanations.

A second view that I am writing against is the theory of Homo economicus, which holds that “Economic Man” has unbounded rationality, self-interest, and free will, and that we are selfish, self-maximizing, and efficient in our decisions and choices. When evolutionary thinking and modern psychological theories and techniques are applied to the study of human behavior in the marketplace, we find that the theory of Homo economicus — which has been the bedrock of Traditional Economics — is often wrong or woefully lacking in explanatory power. It turns out that we are remarkably irrational creatures, driven as much (if not more) by deep and unconscious emotions that evolved over the eons, as we are by logic and conscious reason developed in the modern world.

* * *

* * *

To read the entire prologue to The Mind of the Market, click here. To watch a one-hour talk by Shermer about his new book at the CATO Institute, click here.

Posted in Book, Choice Myth | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Prognostication

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 15, 2008

expert-political-judgment-tetlock.jpgThe results of the New Hampshire Democratic primary seem to have caught many pundits by surprise. It’s a topic that we touched on recently in “Ballot Framing Effects and the New Hampshire Primary.” But with the season of political predictions, promises and prognostications ahead, we thought this was a nice moment to excerpt a 2006 review of Philip Tetlock‘s book “Expert Political Judgmentby Situationist contributor John Jost in Science.

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We are all dilettantes in many, if not most, areas of life and learning. When we ponder possible futures and appropriate courses of action and we encounter the limits of our own understanding, what can we do but turn to the experts on matters ranging from the weather and the stock market to the health of our bodies and our nations and so much in between? We realize (at least sometimes) that we don’t know what the future holds, but at least the experts have a pretty good idea. Don’t they? For anyone who gains solace or inspiration from the conviction displayed by Sunday morning political pundits or “I told you so” Monday morning quarterbacks that populate every field, Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment will be sobering.

The results of his painstaking research are complex, nuanced, and contingent, but the bottom line is clear enough. Tetlock’s data “plunk human forecasters into an unflattering spot along the performance continuum, distressingly closer to the chimp than to the formal statistical models.” In fact, “it is impossible to find any domain in which humans clearly outperformed crude extrapolation algorithms, less still sophisticated statistical ones” (emphasis in original). Worst of all, those experts with the poorest track records are the most likely to show up on TV screens and blogsites everywhere.

Tetlock is a social psychologist by training, a political scientist by choice, and now a business school professor (at the University of California, Berkeley) by avocation. For over 20 years, he has been a pioneer in the relatively young interdisciplinary field of political psychology. His wide-ranging, partially overlapping interests in lay theories of epistemology and philosophy of science, cognitive styles, motivated reasoning, political ideology, domestic and foreign policy decision-making, counterfactual thinking, and accountability are all brought together in this, his most ambitious, profound, and integrative book to date. In many ways, it is a tour de force, providing as it does a vivid, sophisticated illustration of our limitations in forecasting and, at the same time, the analytical power of our psychological tools when applied in retrospect.

Tetlock asked 284 experts with advanced educational and professional training in international relations, political science, law, economics, business, public policy, and journalism to make thousands of predictions between 1988 and 2003. Participants rendered both short-term and long-term subjective probability estimates of hypothetical events that were inside and outside their domain of expertise, including the Persian Gulf War, the transition from Communism in Eastern bloc countries, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the outcomes of U.S. presidential elections, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, and the bursting of the Internet bubble. These topics are so intriguing that one wants to see detailed information concerning their predictions on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, Tetlock keeps the reader fairly removed from the raw, unprocessed data and offers instead more abstract generalizations concerning the characteristics of better and worse judges.

To cope with the mind-boggling complexity involved in processing over 80,000 expert predictions and distilling the concomitants of accuracy, Tetlock boils things down to a single dimension of cognitive style that captures most of the good judgment he could find. Drawing on an essay by Isaiah Berlin, Tetlock distinguishes between “foxes,” who “‘know many little things,’ draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradiction as inevitable features of life” and “hedgehogs,” who “‘know one big thing,’ toil devotedly within one tradition, and reach for formulaic solutions to ill-defined problems.”

How does Tetlock measure the location of each of his experts on the fox-hedgehog continuum? In the book’s Methodological Appendix, we learn that he used a factor analysis of responses to a “styles of reasoning” questionnaire comprising 13 items. Eight items were drawn from the “need for cognitive closure” scale [See, e.g., D. M. Webster, A. W. Kruglanski, J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 67, 1049 (1994)]. One item provides respondents with Berlin’s definition and asks them to classify themselves as either foxes or hedgehogs. The remaining four items focus on relative preferences for simplicity, parsimony, predictability, and decisiveness (all of which are more appealing to hedgehogs than to foxes). Tetlock’s hedgehog-fox score is based on the seven items that had the highest loadings (above 0.25) on the first factor.

Much of the book details the ways in which foxes outperform hedgehogs as prognosticators and Bayesian updaters. Foxes scored higher than others on measures of calibration; their subjective probability estimates were better correlated with the objective frequencies of the events they were predicting, especially in the short term. The worst judges were hedgehog extremists who made long-term predictions in their own areas of expertise. They correctly anticipated war in the former Yugoslavia, but they also predicted several wars that did not happen. Even more than others, they frequently overestimated the likelihood of drastic changes from the status quo.

When unexpected outcomes occurred, hedgehogs were less likely than foxes to revise their beliefs in light of new realities. They were also more likely to display hindsight bias, believing that they “knew it all along,” even when they did not, and they were less charitable toward their competition, exaggerating the extent to which rivals were mistaken. The only advantage hedgehogs enjoyed–other than greater media exposure–was a tendency to swing for the home-run fences. They were almost twice as likely as foxes to declare certain events as either inevitable or impossible, and when they did so they were usually correct.

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To read the entire review (by the way, we excluded several interesting paragraphs on ideology) click here. For a sample of previous Situationist posts examining elements of the 2008 presidential election, see “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns.

Posted in Book, Politics, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Pinker on the Situation of Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 14, 2008

NYTimes Magazine CoverIn Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Steven Pinker’s cover story includes an accessible synthesis of some of the recent work in the mind sciences on the sources, consequences, types, meaning, and implications of morality. The entire article is worth reading. Here is a taste of what Pinker has to say.

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It’s not just the content of our moral judgments that is often questionable, but the way we arrive at them. We like to think that when we have a conviction, there are good reasons that drove us to adopt it. That is why an older approach to moral psychology, led by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, tried to document the lines of reasoning that guided people to moral conclusions. But consider these situations, originally devised by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?

* * *

Most people immediately declare that these acts are wrong and then grope to justify why they are wrong. It’s not so easy. In the case of Julie and Mark, people raise the possibility of children with birth defects, but they are reminded that the couple were diligent about contraception. They suggest that the siblings will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the community, but then recall that it was kept a secret. Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.” People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

The gap between people’s convictions and their justifications is also on display in the favorite new sandbox for moral psychologists, a thought experiment devised by the philosophers Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson called the Trolley Problem. On your morning walk, you see a trolley car hurtling down the track, the conductor slumped over the controls. In the path of the trolley are five men working on the track, oblivious to the danger. You are standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that will divert the trolley onto a spur, saving the five men. Unfortunately, the trolley would then run over a single worker who is laboring on the spur. Is it permissible to throw the switch, killing one man to save five? Almost everyone says “yes.”

Consider now a different scene. You are on a bridge overlooking the tracks and have spotted the runaway trolley bearing down on the five workers. Now the only way to stop the trolley is to throw a heavy object in its path. And the only heavy object within reach is a fat man standing next to you. Should you throw the man off the bridge? Both dilemmas present you with the option of sacrificing one life to save five, and so, by the utilitarian standard of what would result in the greatest good for the greatest number, the two dilemmas are morally equivalent. But most people don’t see it that way: though they would pull the switch in the first dilemma, they would not heave the fat man in the second. When pressed for a reason, they can’t come up with anything coherent, though moral philosophers haven’t had an easy time coming up with a relevant difference, either.

When psychologists say “most people” they usually mean “most of the two dozen sophomores who filled out a questionnaire for beer money.” But in this case it means most of the 200,000 people from a hundred countries who shared their intuitions on a Web-based experiment conducted by the psychologists Fiery Cushman and Liane Young and the biologist Marc Hauser. A difference between the acceptability of switch-pulling and man-heaving, and an inability to justify the choice, was found in respondents from Europe, Asia and North and South America; among men and women, blacks and whites, teenagers and octogenarians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and atheists; people with elementary-school educations and people with Ph.D.’s.

Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist, suggests that evolution equipped people with a revulsion to manhandling an innocent person. This instinct, he suggests, tends to overwhelm any utilitarian calculus that would tot up the lives saved and lost. The impulse against roughing up a fellow human would explain other examples in which people abjure killing one to save many, like euthanizing a hospital patient to harvest his organs and save five dying patients in need of transplants, or throwing someone out of a crowded lifeboat to keep it afloat.

By itself this would be no more than a plausible story, but Greene teamed up with the cognitive neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen and several Princeton colleagues to peer into people’s brains using functional M.R.I. They sought to find signs of a conflict between brain areas associated with emotion (the ones that recoil from harming someone) and areas dedicated to rational analysis (the ones that calculate lives lost and saved).

When people pondered the dilemmas that required killing someone with their bare hands, several networks in their brains lighted up. One, which included the medial (inward-facing) parts of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in emotions about other people. A second, the dorsolateral (upper and outer-facing) surface of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in ongoing mental computation (including nonmoral reasoning, like deciding whether to get somewhere by plane or train). And a third region, the anterior cingulate cortex (an evolutionarily ancient strip lying at the base of the inner surface of each cerebral hemisphere), registers a conflict between an urge coming from one part of the brain and an advisory coming from another.

But when the people were pondering a hands-off dilemma, like switching the trolley onto the spur with the single worker, the brain reacted differently: only the area involved in rational calculation stood out. Other studies have shown that neurological patients who have blunted emotions because of damage to the frontal lobes become utilitarians: they think it makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the bridge. Together, the findings corroborate Greene’s theory that our nonutilitarian intuitions come from the victory of an emotional impulse over a cost-benefit analysis.

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When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the diversity. People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.

The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture. Haidt asks us to consider how much money someone would have to pay us to do hypothetical acts like the following:

Stick a pin into your palm.

Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know. (Harm.)

Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it at no charge because of a computer error.

Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family. (Fairness.)

Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in your nation.

Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in a foreign nation. (Community.)

Slap a friend in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit.

Slap your minister in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit. (Authority.)

Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 minutes, including flubbing simple problems and falling down on stage.

Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage. (Purity.)

In each pair, the second action feels far more repugnant. Most of the moral illusions we have visited come from an unwarranted intrusion of one of the moral spheres into our judgments. A violation of community led people to frown on using an old flag to clean a bathroom. Violations of purity repelled the people who judged the morality of consensual incest and prevented the moral vegetarians and nonsmokers from tolerating the slightest trace of a vile contaminant. At the other end of the scale, displays of extreme purity lead people to venerate religious leaders who dress in white and affect an aura of chastity and asceticism.

* * *

All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

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The entire article is worth the read (click here). To give you a sense of what we’ve omitted, here is Pinker’s concluding paragraph:

Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

For those with more time still to spare, we’ve included the video below of Steven Pinker’s 75-minute talk at Google about his book, The Stuff of Thought.

If you’re interested in previous Situationist posts discussing the situation of morality, check out “Your Brain and Morality,” “Why We Punish,” “The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Science of Morality,” “Another Century of Genocide?,” and “Law & The Brain.”

Posted in Conflict, Life, Morality, Neuroscience, Philosophy | 4 Comments »

Some Situational Sources and Consequences of Diversity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 13, 2008

Scott Page - The Difference - CoverClaudia Dreifus has an interesting interview (in last week’s New York Times) with Scott Page. Page is a University of Michigan professor of complex systems, political science, and economics, and author of the new book, “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies.” Here are a few excerpts from the interview.

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Rather than ponder moral questions like, “Why can’t we all get along?” Dr. Page asks practical ones like, “How can we all be more productive together?” The answer, he suggests, is in messy, creative organizations and environments with individuals from vastly different backgrounds and life experiences. . . .

An edited version of the interview and a subsequent phone conversation follow:

Q. In your book you posit that organizations made up of different types of people are more productive than homogenous ones. Why do you say that?

A. Because diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it.

People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call “tools.” The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways.

The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.

But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it. There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse.

Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. That’s why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research.

Q. The term “diversity” has become a code word for inclusion of racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. Is that what you’re talking about?

A. I mean differences in how people think. Two people can look quite different and think similarly. Having said that, there’s certainly a lot of evidence that people’s identity groups — ethnic, racial, sexual, age — matter when it comes to diversity in thinking.

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Q. Give us an example of where diversity has improved an organization or profession?

A. I’ve seen it in my own field, economics. Before women got really involved in the 1970s, a lot of the actual labor of women wasn’t included in calculations of the gross domestic product. It was as if you had Ma Ingalls sitting around the Little House on the Prairie, eating bonbons, and only Pa Ingalls’s labor was counted in.

After you got women into the profession, they started saying: “What if Ma Ingalls opened up a business and charged for the cleaning, pie making, tending of the animals. Wouldn’t there be a lot of G.D.P. in there?”

When you only had men thinking about the economy, they were ignoring the productivity of half the population. By including the perspectives of females, the estimates got more accurate. This was important for looking at the American past and for understanding contemporary societies like those in Africa, where women are usually the farmers.

Q. In your book, you advocate affirmative action, an unpopular social policy these days. What’s your argument?

A. That it’s a flat-out good because, as I said earlier, it makes everything we do more powerful.

For a while, I chaired admissions in the graduate political science department at the University of Michigan. We didn’t just look at high test scores. We looked at things like whether an applicant had worked with Teach for America. We wanted to bring in people who had experiences and modes of thinking that would improve everyone else.

At a university, people learn from each other as well as their professors. Another suburban kid who was raised to score high on tests doesn’t add all that much to the mix.

Q. What’s your critique of standardized testing?

A. After a certain threshold, it doesn’t give you enough information. Anyone who scores above 600 on a Graduate Record Exam will probably do well in graduate school. But we were looking for future social science researchers. The ability to do innovative research requires creativity and originality, something the G.R.E. won’t predict.

Q. How do you know you’re right about diversity?

A. One of the things social scientists do is create math models to prove our theories. With Lu Hong — she’s an economist at Chicago’s Loyola University — I constructed a formal model that showed mathematically that diversity can trump ability, and also when it does.

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What the model showed was that diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems. The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly.

The other thing we did was to show in mathematical terms how when making predictions, a group’s errors depend in equal parts on the ability of its members to predict and their diversity. This second theorem can be expressed as an equation: collective accuracy = average accuracy + diversity.

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To read the interview in its entirety, click here. For a collection of previous Situationist posts discussing problems with standardized tests, click here.

Posted in Education, Public Policy | 3 Comments »

Ballot Framing Effects and the New Hampshire Primary

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 11, 2008

New Hampshire Democratic PrimaryNumerous psychology studies have found that people tend to miss the power of framed choices on their decision-making. That is, when presented with different options, we tend to believe we are looking inside ourselves to make a decision, when in fact we are being moved, often in ways we don’t appreciate, by the presentation of those options, including their order. Compounding this effect, we tend to accept the given frame of a choice as presumptively acceptable. Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion examine those points in their article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America.

According to Stanford University political science and social psychology professor Jon Krosnick, framing may have played a role in Senator Hillary Clinton’s surprising victory over Senator Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary earlier this week. Below we excerpt a piece from Raw Story on his analysis.

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A Stanford University professor of political science and psychology claims a decision New Hampshire made to change the ordering of their primary ballot may have pushed Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) over the top.

Clinton’s New Hampshire victory left pundits scratching their heads, citing polls that showed Obama with a relatively consistent lead. Writing Wednesday on ABC News, professor Jon Krosnick believes he has part of the answer.

Until this year, he says, the Granite State rotated candidate’s names on the ballots, citing a statistical analysis that showed those who were listed earlier generally did better.

“Without a doubt, a big source of the discrepancy between the pre-election surveys and the election outcome in New Hampshire is the order ofBallot Box candidates’ names on the ballot and in the surveys,” Krosnick wrote. “Our analysis of all recent primaries in New Hampshire showed that there was always a big primacy effect — big name, big-vote-getting candidates got 3 percent or more votes more when listed first on the ballot than when listed last.”

“Until this year, New Hampshire rotated candidate name order from precinct to precinct, which allowed us to do that analysis,” he added. “This year, the secretary of state changed the procedure so the names were alphabetical starting with a randomly selected letter, in all precincts.”

The randomly selected letter for 2008 was Z. Thus, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) was listed first, with Clinton near the top — “the first serious contender listed” — and Sen. Barack Obama (D-NH) close to last of the 21 candidates.

“I’ll bet that Clinton got at least 3 percent more votes than Obama simply because she was listed close to the top,” he writes. “More importantly, if New Hampshire had rotated name order in the voting booth as it has always done in the past, the race would probably have been too close to call without a recount and might even have been an Obama victory.”

Still, the professor’s analysis doesn’t account for the fact that pre-election polls showed Obama with as much as a nine-point lead prior to the vote.

* * *

For the rest of the story, click here. For a sample of previous Situationist posts examining elements of the 2008 presidential election, see “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns.”

Posted in Politics, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Deep Capture – Part VII

Posted by J on January 10, 2008


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

I review the previous posts in this series at the bottom of this post, which provides some illustrative examples of how atypical “regulators,” from courts to hard-hitting news networks, reflect and contribute to deep capture.

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

* * *

“The myth that holds that the great corporation is the puppet of the market, the powerless servant of the consumer, is, in fact, one of the devices by which its power is perpetuated.”

~John Kenneth Galbraith

Consider briefly courts. Consider, for instance, the 1979 dispositionist language of then-Chief Judge Irving Kaufman of the Second Circuit:

[N]o one can determine with any reasonable assurance whether one product is “superior” to another. Preference is a matter of individual taste. The only question that can be answered is whether there is sufficient demand for a particular product to make its production worthwhile, and the response, so long as the free choice of consumers is preserved, can only be inferred from the reaction of the market.

Kaufman, in now-common fashion, treats the market as little more than a highly responsive conduit of stable, exogenous consumer preferences. The preferences and free choices of the consumers come first, and the success or failure of the product comes second, depending on its ability to satisfy those preferences. More recently, Judge Frank Easterbrook has expressed a similar deference to markets, adding that, with respect to reducing at least some kinds of personal injury risks, courts should defer to the incentives of the marketplace rather than attempt to fashion judge-made incentives. As he puts it, market incentives, “[i]mperfect as they are, . . . work better than the alternatives the legal system can offer.”

In this vein, too, we could go on. After all, like Judge Easterbrook, many of the most prominent and influential judges today made their careers as academics devoted to promoting the dispositionist views of law and economics and libertarianism, including: Judge Ralph Winter, Judge Stephen Williams, Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Antonin Scalia, and, of course, Judge Richard Posner. Moreover, some who did not begin as academics nonetheless rose to fame and influence in significant part because hard-core dispositionism was central to their judicial identity, such as Judge Alex Kozinski, Judge Michael Luttig, and Justice Clarence Thomas. Indeed, at this moment in history, it is difficult to imagine that any federal judge will be appointed or promoted who does not substantially embrace the hard-core dispositionism promoted by President Bush, his advisors, and the Federalist Society, which now has immense influence over the judicial selection process.

Dispositionism, as we have already indicated and will return to below, also dominates legal academia. For instance, when, in the mid-1980s, the American Law Institute (ALI) amassed a large, somewhat representative, cast of influential tort scholars to assess the tort system and to recommend possible reforms, those scholars began their substantial work by embracing dispositionism. In their words:

Utilitarian theorists . . . accept as a factual premise that people are generally the best judges of what actions will maximize their own utility. This premise implies that society should strive to let states of affairs be determined by the choices of the individuals affected rather than by public decision makers.
. . . .
We reject hard paternalism here both because we find it unpersuasive and because we think that most Americans do not accept it. Hence, we suppose that, presumptively at least, consumers should choose the accident level.

The idea that consumers “choose the accident level,” might strike some readers as an unfamiliar notion. Few of us are conscious of having much influence over, much less selecting, the accident level. But what the ALI Reporters are indicating, of course, is that through decentralized individual choice, a collective determination or variety of determinations is made by consumers. The belief that consumers best know their own interests and, through choice-based behavior, are best able to act on that knowledge, is sometimes known as consumer sovereignty–the normative principle that the ALI Reporters explicitly endorsed.

The ALI Reporters’ terms are revealing (not to mention, constraining). “Hard paternalism” conjures up notions of considerable governmental interference–something akin to central planning. In underscoring the rejection of such an approach by “Americans,” the Reporters seem again to be implicitly using the shadow of the then-freshly fallen Soviet Union as an important justification for embracing pro-market dispositionism and rejecting any alternative.

Whether the ALI Reporters were in fact making such an analogy, we (and perhaps they) cannot know. But we do know that legal scholars have been explicit in making just that comparison. For example, in a recent article, Robert Lande writes:

An optimal level of consumer choice, which has elsewhere been termed “consumer sovereignty” is the state of affairs where the consumer has the power to define his or her own wants and the ability to satisfy these wants at competitive prices. The concept of consumer choice even embodies some implicit notions about the rights of the individual in the broader society; it is implicitly part of the Western world’s response to Marxism and the other totalitarianisms of the Twentieth Century. Again, the belief in dispositionism appears to be motivated, at least in part, by a fear that any other belief would place us on a slippery slope toward totalitarianism.

But there is more to it than that. If one looks beyond the legal reporters and law reviews, one will encounter many other, far less formal, “regulatory” institutions that seek to promote dispositionism. In these contexts, the goal seems to be to present to consumers a vision of ourselves that we want to hold–a self-affirming image that we are not being moved by the situation. For example, Fidelity Investments tells us:

You are not the kind of investor who blindly reacts to each and every new market condition. You’re informed. You’re involved. You’re focused.
. . . .
Being in control of your financial future has never been more important.
. . . .

In other words, you, unlike all the other animals on the planet, are uninfluenced by situation. You think, you prefer, you choose, and you thereby enjoy dispositional control of your life.

Advertisers do not mind casting the shadow of those un-American totalitarian regimes to drive the self-affirmingFox News Ad dispositionist point home. For instance, one cable news network recently placed this ad:

What makes America . . . America? It’s the freedom to have an opinion . . . the freedom to speak your mind. . . . [W]e know you can think for yourself. When it comes to covering the news, we don’t have an agenda . . . and don’t take orders from anyone. Just like every American. Just like you. America’s News Channel MSNBC.

The point seems to be not just that Americans are situationally independent (able to think what they want to think and speak what they want to speak), but also that MSNBC is uninfluenced by outside forces.

MSNBC’s competitor, FOX News Channel, takes the dispositionist view a step further and credits its own success to the free-choice-making dispositions of its viewers:

Thanks to the American people. You’ve made FOX News Channel the most watched, most trusted name in news. As active participants in the American experience, you ensure a free and fair press for all.
We Report. You decide.


For the 3 out of 4 Americans who believe the news is biased, we present something quite rare: a news network dedicated to providing fair and balanced coverage. It’s cable news for the independent thinker, 24 hours a day.

This practice of portraying the consumer as nobody’s fool is extremely widespread. According to some analysts, two of the most common themes of cigarette advertising historically were “choice” and “autonomy.” The Marlboro Man, as we will highlight below, was nothing if not free and autonomous. And this imagery was not exclusive to men. The demise of the taboo against women smoking, and the concomitant doubling of potential cigarette consumers, was reinforced by a clever public relations campaign devised by Edward L. Bernays. To cap off that campaign, Bernays enlisted the cooperation of feminist Ruth Hale to organize a contingent of ten cigarette-puffing women to walk down New York’s Fifth Avenue in the 1929 Easter Parade. The feminists’ involvement was billed and reported as an act of protest and a call for equality. And the cigarettes were, themselves, described as “torches of freedom.” So it was that American Tobacco managed, through public relations, to promote smoking in the name of liberation and autonomy. A look at Virginia Slims’ more recent advertising campaign slogans from 1968 until today reveals that the beat goes on: “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby,” “It’s a Woman Thing,” “Find Your Voice,” and “See Yourself as a King.”

The similarity of “seeing yourself as a king” and “consumer sovereignty” is hard to miss and may not be an accident. The message not only encourages consumers to purchase cigarettes, it also suggests some of the larger possible stakes Virginia Slim Ad - Make My Decisionthat commercial interests have in dispositionism. After all, if the consumer is king, then it is hard to justify making manufacturers pay for simply following orders. And this ability to place responsibility squarely on consumers–to say in a tort case, for instance, that they “assumed the risk” of their actions–has been fundamental to the tobacco industry’s success in selling a product believed to cause more than 440,000 premature deaths per year in the United States alone. Thus, an important reason that sellers might embrace and encourage dispositionism is their hope of shifting responsibility and avoiding costly regulation or liability.

A recent Pfizer Forum advertisement echoed that message: “Medical professionals must help patients understand that in return for greater power, control, and choice over the services and treatments they receive, they must bear greater responsibility for their own care.” The pharmaceutical company’s message, which comes at a time when it seems to be facing growing threats of liability, taps into a well-established human tendency: where we see the ingredients of autonomous, volitional, preference-satisfying disposition, we place responsibility.

And so we see countless instances of groups latching on to consumer sovereignty in order to meet the threats of heightened regulation and liability. Take, for example, the Center for Consumer Freedom, “a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies, and consumers working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.” The group is one of several created by Berman and Company, a public relations firm headed by Richard Berman, whose numerous projects have been heavily funded by the tobacco, alcohol, and restaurant industries. The Center for Consumer Freedom has, among other things, published and broadcast numerous advertisements purporting “to stand up for common sense and personal choice”–by which it seems to mean, stereotypes and dispositionism. In one advertisement, the group warns:

YOU ARE TOO STUPID . . . to make your own food choices. At least according to the food police and government bureaucrats who have proposed “fat taxes” on foods they don’t want you to eat. Now the trial lawyers are threatening class-action lawsuits against restaurants for serving America’s favorite foods and drinks. We think they’re going too far. It’s your food. It’s your drink. It’s your freedom.

To those suggesting that the food industry is partially responsible for the obesity epidemic, the Center for Consumer Freedom maintains its hard-line dispositionism: “We need individual solutions for individual problems. And the best individual solution is personal responsibility.” And just behind that dispositionism lurks the totalitarian bogeyman. Richard Berman, for instance, describes those with whom he disagrees as

aggressors [who] are a blend of self-anointed “food police” activists; overzealous public health “experts” who’d like to raise our children for us; advocates of “Twinkie taxes”; lawmakers who use the cudgel of government to appear “enlightened” enough to be re-elected; and, yes, those trial lawyers who smell a payday where most of us just smell dinner. And to underscore the point, the Center for Consumer Freedom labels a recent book criticizing the food industry’s role in contributing to the obesity epidemic as a “‘Big Brother’ Manifesto.”

* * *

The next post in this series reviews some cross-cultural evidence of deep capture.

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

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Marketing, Politics, Public Policy | 5 Comments »

The Racial Situation of Pain Relief

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 9, 2008

Pills - Rights from IStock

Feeling pain? If you go to the ER in hope of relief, you’re chances of finding it are significantly greater if you’re white. That is the conclusion of recent study co-authored by Dr. Mark Pletcher, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.

The findings are reported in the Jan. 2 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Below we’ve excerpted and mashed up several stories about the article, including one piece by Reuters, another by the Associated Press, and a third by U.S. News & World Report.

* * *

An analysis of more than 150,000 emergency room visits over 13 years [found that] [p]rescribing narcotics for pain in emergency rooms rose [generally over that time period], from 23 percent of those complaining of pain in 1993 to 37 percent in 2005.

The increase coincided with changing attitudes among doctors who now regard pain management as a key to healing. Doctors in accredited hospitals must ask patients about pain, just as they monitor vital signs such as temperature and pulse.

[The study, however, also] found differences in prescribing by race in both urban and rural hospitals, in all U.S. regions and for every type of pain.

Emergency room doctors are prescribing strong narcotics more often to patients who complain of pain, but minorities are less likely to get them than whites . . . .

[The] study found 31 percent of whites in pain received opioid drugs — a broad class of narcotic painkillers dispensed only by prescription — compared to 23 percent of blacks and 24 percent of Hispanics.

In contrast, 36 percent of minority patients received less-potent, non-opioid pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen during emergency room visits, compared to 26 percent of white patients.

Even for the severe pain of kidney stones, minorities were prescribed narcotics such as oxycodone and morphine less frequently than whites.

[According to Dr. Plether,] “[t]here’s no difference in the pain severity or types of pain that people are presenting with, but the difference is there consistently.” The reasons for the disparity aren’t clear.

“Studies in the 1990s showed a disturbing racial or ethnic disparity in the use of these potent pain relievers, but we had hoped that the recent national efforts at improving pain management in emergency departments would shrink this disparity,” Pletcher . . . said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, this is not the case,” he said.

Why would doctors be less likely to prescribe the drugs to minorities? The study doesn’t answer that question, but Pletcher said there are a number of potential explanations.

“There could well be an element of pure racial bias,” he said. “But it’s probably more subtle and insidious than that. The interaction that occurs between a patient and a physician is complex in terms of interpersonal communications, and minority patients may be less empowered to complain and to demand good pain control. They may be less willing to show weakness by asking for a pain medication.”

In addition, “there may be poorer communication in general and language barriers,” he said. “A lot of things can get in the way of ideal care.”

Patients . . . have to go through a lot of procedures to get a prescription.

“They have to come in and say they have pain, and convince a nurse and doctor that they have pain that requires an opioid. It has to be prescribed and administered,” Pletcher said. “There’s enough barriers that it doesn’t happen as consistently as it should.”

The study’s authors [also] said doctors may be less likely to see signs of painkiller abuse in white patients, or they may be undertreating pain in minoritypain-relief-quotation.jpg patients.

Whites — who are more likely to have health insurance — may also be overprescribed the drugs, it said.

Another expert voiced similar concerns.

Dr. Thomas Fisher Jr., assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Chicago, said a variety of factors could explain the disparity.

For one, minority patients might be less likely to demand painkillers because of their history of “negative interactions” with authority, he said. “They may not feel comfortable voicing their needs, and they may not be able to given a language barrier or issues of culture,” he added.

And doctors may make assumptions about minority groups and the likelihood that they’ll abuse drugs, he said. “These things probably feed one another,” Fisher said.

“It’s time to move past describing disparities and work on narrowing them,” said Dr. . . Fisher . . . .

Fisher, who is black, said he is not immune to letting subconscious assumptions inappropriately influence his work as a doctor.

“If anybody argues they have no social biases that sway clinical practice, they have not been thoughtful about the issue or they’re not being honest with themselves,” he said.

* * *

For related Situationist posts discussing the situation of medical care . . . . “Infant Death Rates in Mississippi,” “The Situation of Racial Health Disparities,” “Unlevel Playing Fields: From Baseball Diamonds to Emergency Rooms,” and “The Physical Pains of Discrimination.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Life | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Evil

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 8, 2008

Evil DispositionIn light of the cultural habit of seeing evil as a disposition, we wanted to highlight for our readers a potentially interesting program being shown on National Geographic TV tomorrow night (8:00 p.m. eastern), “The Science of Evil,” which promises to shed some light on some of the situational sources of “evil.” The National Geographic website blurb reads as follows:

“What is evil? Is it a spiritual force that only God can understand? Or a meaningless superstition that science can snuff out by explaining the physical machinery of our brains? It depends on whom you ask. NGC travels into the trenches with the individuals who confront so-called evil almost daily.”

The program will include four segments about different aspects of “evil” from researchers and also from United Nations workers in the Congo and a minister who baptized a mass murderer. Those segments will include a section on the Stanford Prison Experiments conducted by Situationist contributor Phil Zimbardo as well as a section more recent researh on the neurobiology of resolving moral dilemmas being conducted at Princeton University.

For a sample of previous Situationist posts exploring the situational sources of evil, check out Parts I, II, and III of Phil Zimbardo’s series on “The Situational Sources of Evil” and “Looking for the Evil Actor” by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann.

Posted in Entertainment, Events, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

Why We Punish

Posted by John Darley & Pam Mueller on January 7, 2008

Scales of JusticeOur justice system often provides tangled rationales for punishment. Is our system based on retribution or deterrence? Which comports better with society’s views of justice?

Previous studies have shown that when individuals are given the opportunity to punish an offender, they sentence retributively, based on the moral wrongfulness of the offender’s actions. However, those initial studies did not assess whether people based these retributive punishments on the harm the act caused or the wrongfulness of the offender’s intent.

Below we summarize a recent study by John Darley, Adam Alter, and Julia Kernochan that explores that distinction.

* * *

The easiest case in criminal law involves one person intending to shoot and kill another person — who aim, fires, and hits the target. The easiest case, however, is never the most interesting. Criminal law is full of cases in which the intended assassin has poor aim, and winds up shooting the wrong person or no one at all, as well as cases in which a hunting or target-shooting bullet goes awry, making an unintentional killer out of a marksman.

Princeton social psychologists (Alter, Kernochan, and Darley) investigated situations in which the harm done and the harm intended were not the same. How much punishment — or, more specifically, how long of a prison sentence — would subjects impose on actors in these situations? Would the harmfulness of the act or the wrongfulness of the act be the primary factor in these judgments? Such sentencing preferences would tap into moral intuitions about the importance of wrongfulness (intent) and harmfulness (consequence).

Modern criminal law requires both actus reus (a wrongful act) and mens rea (a guilty mind) to coincide for a crime to have occurred. Liability is thus contingent on both harmfulness and wrongfulness. Doctrines such as “innocent agency” allow one person’s acts and another person’s intent to be consolidated so that a crime can be found to have occurred. In such a situation, a knowing actor manipulates an innocent individual into committing an act that would be criminal if mens rea were present. The person who acted wrongfully with intent in this situation is the one who is punished, not the person who acted harmfully without intent.

Prior studies (e.g. Carlsmith, Darley, & Robinson, 2002) have found that people sentence offenders based on the “just deserts” theory of punishment, in which individuals are punished in proportion to the perceived moral wrongfulness of their acts, rather than the “deterrence” theory, in which acts are punished in proportion to the costs they impose on society. These studies did not, however, separate the distinct factors of wrongfulness and harmfulness within the acts presented to participants.

The more recent set of studies used stimuli that separated harmfulness and wrongfulness. Stimuli were grouped in triads, in which a given act was manipulated to be 1) harmful, but not wrongful; 2) wrongful, but not harmful; 3) both harmful and wrongful. The first two would separate the issues that had been confounded in past experiments, while the third condition would reveal any interaction between harmfulness and wrongfulness in determining sentence length.

The research hypothesized that participants would impose higher sentences on wrongful acts than on harmful acts and that, given those tendencies, participants would also believe that a legal system that emphasized wrongfulness was fair and just, while a system of punishment rooted in harmfulness was unfair. According to those hypotheses, subjects would see a system as particularly unfair if it assigned heavy punishment to a person who caused harm with no intention to do so.

Juror ChairsThe three situations that were manipulated to create the experimental stimuli were a theft, a shooting homicide, and a simple assault. Participants separately rated the harmfulness and the wrongfulness of each of the three acts on 9-point scales. They then imposed appropriate sentences for the offenders in each of the situations, using a 13-point rating scale (ranging from no sentence to a death sentence) that has been tested in many prior experiments. Finally, after reading fabricated comments in support of a harmfulness- or a wrongfulness-based sentencing system, they rated their agreement with the statements “The legal system is unfair and unjust” and “If I were a citizen, I would feel anger toward the legal system.”

Participants assigned harsher sentences for “wrong only” cases than “harm only” cases, and assigned the harshest sentences in situations where the offenses were both wrongful and harmful. For instance, in the shooting homicide example, participants’ mean sentence was 1.07 on the 13-point scale (essentially, no liability) when there was harm without intent; with intent but no harm, the mean sentence was 7.70 (a 1-3 year prison sentence); and when there was both intent to harm and harm caused, the mean sentence was 10.64 (between 15 and 30 years in prison). Analysis showed that wrongfulness was the primary determinant of sentencing, and judgments of wrongfulness were significantly better predictors of sentence length than judgments of harmfulness.

The last dependent measure assessed participants’ attitudes toward the justice system. As expected, participants expressed greater contempt for a harm-based system than for a wrong-based system.

In the hopes of ensuring that subjects were carefully considering the implications of the sentencing judgments, a second, smaller study brought the situations closer to home for Princeton students. The experiment manipulated the harmfulness and the wrongfulness of behavior surrounding a breach of the Honor Code. Additionally, the Honor Code Board is a quasi-judicial institution meting out punishments that are more immediately relevant to Princeton students; therefore, it is a better vehicle with which to test the hypothesis that isolated unjust outcomes can cause development of contempt for the justice system.

The paradigm was similar to the first experiment: participants rated the three related situations on harmfulness and wrongfulness scales, and then were asked to make a judgment about punishment on a scale of 0 (full exoneration) to 6 (expulsion). Participants were then asked to rate their contempt for the Honor Code Board if one of two amendments were adopted by the Board, codifying either 1) punishment of offenders based on harmfulness of behavior, or 2) punishment of offenders based on wrongfulness of behavior.

As in the first study, punishments were most severe in the “harm and wrong” condition, less severe in the “wrong only” condition, and least severe in the “harm only” condition. Wrongfulness was again a reliable predictor of sentences, but in this study, harmfulness did not significantly predict sentencing. All participants expressed some contempt for the Honor Code Board, whether as a result of general negativity or, potentially, as a result of a desire for balance between evaluation of wrongfulness and harmfulness in sentencing decisions. However, as expected, expressed contempt was greater in the “harmfulness only” condition.Just Deserts

These findings suggest that when individuals seek to apply an appropriate sentence, they rely on the heuristic of how intuitively wrongful the offense feels. Harmfulness is not completely cast aside in the decision; it also plays a direct, albeit small, role, as evidenced by the harsher sentences for the “wrong and harm” conditions. (This role may have been further diminished by the fact the manipulations for wrongfulness were statistically stronger than the manipulations for harmfulness.)

This study provides further evidence that people prefer a “just deserts” theory of punishment to a “deterrence” theory. Thus, the justice system should continue to use wrongfulness as an important part of its punishment calculus. If an entirely harmfulness-based sentencing scheme were implemented, people would view the legal system very negatively; thus, further amendments to the sentencing guidelines should reflect a concern with wrongfulness in order to gain the most public respect.

The results also provide some insight into jurors’ thoughts and behavior in capital cases – the only juries that play a role in sentencing decisions. These jurors are likely to be affected by the same intuitive primacy of wrongfulness over harmfulness. Judges are also likely to be susceptible to these same heuristics, though their behavior will be tempered by sentencing guidelines and other legal duties; certainly, more research is necessary to reliably extend these findings to judges.

* * *

For more information about the study, click here.  To link to a related law-review article co-authored by Paul Robinson & John Darley, titled “Intuitions of Justice: Implications for Criminal Law and Justice Policy,” click here (pdf).

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Public Policy, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

Tony Greenwald on the IAT

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 6, 2008

Jesse Erwin has an article in December’s Observer summarizing a recent talk given by Tony Greenwald, one of the creators of IAT (and frequent collaborator with Situationist contributors, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek), about how and when the implicit association test works. We’ve excerpted portions of Erwin’s article below.

* * *

“Left…right…left…right” could be heard echoing from the Hilton Washington’s Military Room during the APS 19th Annual Convention. And although the chorus may have sounded like boot camp exercises to curious passers-by, it was merely APS Fellow Anthony Greenwald, professor of psychology at the University of Washington and recipient of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology’s 2006 Distinguished Scientist Award, administering the Implicit Association Test (IAT) en masse during his Psi Chi Distinguished Speakers address. Throughout his talk, the University of Washington Professor educated his audience about the history and validity of the IAT and, of course, provided the opportunity to experience the IAT firsthand.

“So what is the IAT?” Greenwald asks his audience. “It’s a measure of associative knowledge. And I don’t describe it as a measure of prejudice or bias, although it can be used to measure implicit prejudice or bias.”

The IAT has risen to prominence since Greenwald first published his findings in 1998; the Brief IAT of race has been taken over a million times. On the surface, the IAT asks participants to categorize words or images on a computer screen with a touch of the keyboard. These categorizations begin to require some cognitive gymnastics, however, as categories become combined. The time it takes to sort out stimuli from the combined categories provides some insight into participants’ mental associations.

“How does it work? Well, fairly simply. If two concepts are associated, it is easy to give the same response to exemplars of both,” says Greenwald. That’s a deceptively uncomplicated explanation behind one of contemporary psychology’s most influential research paradigms. “There’s little more theory underlying the IAT than the idea of association between concepts.”

But the provocative implications of the IAT have sparked controversy in both research circles and the mainstream media. So in his address, “Assessing the Validity of Implicit Association Test Measures,” Greenwald came to the IAT’s defense and discussed its psychometric worthiness.

When discussing internal validity, for example, Greenwald says “empirical research demonstrated that there are several things that might get in the way that in fact did not.” Things like participants’ familiarity with the items or lack thereof, which side of the screen categories are presented on, or whether the person is right or left handed have all been mentioned as possible confounds, but haven’t been borne out in research.

Greenwald went on to illustrate the convergent validity of the IAT with self-report using an example from the 2004 presidential election. Implicit attitudes toward each candidate correlated .73 with self-report measures. “That’s quite high,” Greenwald says. “And that’s evidence of convergence.”

Conversely, research on IAT measures of age attitudes have demonstrated evidence of discriminant validity with self report. Greenwald offers this explanation for the dichotomous results: “I think you get convergent validity when both implicit and explicit attitudes are shaped by the same influences, which means they are formed relatively late in life, such as political preferences.” For those attitudes that are formed earlier in life — in particular racial/ethnic, young/old, and male/female stereotypes — IAT results are likely to diverge from the explicit self report measures.

In a time where social desirability confounds are of pervasive concern in psychological research, one of the IAT’s greatest merits appears to be resistance to faking. Studies have demonstrated that participants rarely devise a successful faking strategy. It appears that taking one’s time is the easiest way to doctor results. “It does work,” Greenwald says of the strategy, “but it also tends to be detectable statistically.”

But as with any test, the IAT has its psychometric vulnerabilities. Greenwald describes the elasticity of the IAT, where experiences with exemplars of test categories shortly before the test can alter results. So, according to Greenwald, having a friendly interaction with a black experimenter just before the test will likely dampen evidence of bias.

* * *

“The last topic is the most interesting one,” Greenwald asserts. “Does the IAT predict anything interesting?” Pointing to a meta-analysis being conducted by Yale University graduate students Andy Poehlman and Eric Uhlmann, Greenwald says that the IAT performs better than self report at predicting behavior. “This IAT has incremental predictive validity relative to self-report. [The results are] statistically significant, and very clearly so in the meta-analysis.”

* * *

To read the entire article, click here. To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. For a list of Situationist posts on implicit associations and attitudes, click here.

Posted in Implicit Associations | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of I.Q.

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 4, 2008

Brain Bulb WattageMalcolm Gladwell has a smart article in this month’s New Yorker, “None of the Above: What I.Q. doesn’t tell you about race.” The lesson, it seems, is that intelligence reflects situational differences, not stable dispositional differences across across racial and ethnic groups or national borders.

* * *

James Flynn, a social scientist at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, . . . found something puzzling. . . .

. . . . He collected intelligence-test results from Europe, from North America, from Asia, and from the developing world, until he had data for almost thirty countries. In every case, the story was pretty much the same. I.Q.s around the world appeared to be rising by 0.3 points per year, or three points per decade, for as far back as the tests had been administered. For some reason, human beings seemed to be getting smarter.

Flynn has been writing about the implications of his findings—now known as the Flynn effect—for almost twenty-five years. His books consist of a series of plainly stated statistical observations, in support of deceptively modest conclusions, and the evidence in support of his original observation is now so overwhelming that the Flynn effect has moved from theory to fact. What remains uncertain is how to make sense of the Flynn effect. . . .

For almost as long as there have been I.Q. tests, there have been I.Q. fundamentalists. . . . To the I.Q. fundamentalist, two things are beyond dispute: first, that I.Q. tests measure some hard and identifiable trait that predicts the quality of our thinking; and, second, that this trait is stable—that is, it is determined by our genes and largely impervious to environmental influences.

. . . . [W]hat Flynn discovered in his mailbox upsets the certainties upon which I.Q. fundamentalism rests. If whatever the thing is that I.Q. tests measure can jump so much in a generation, it can’t be all that immutable and it doesn’t look all that innate.

The very fact that average I.Q.s shift over time ought to create a “crisis of confidence,” Flynn writes in “What Is Intelligence?” . . . , his latest attempt to puzzle through the implications of his discovery. “How could such huge gains be intelligence gains? Either the children of today were far brighter than their parents or, at least in some circumstances, I.Q. tests were not good measures of intelligence.”

The best way to understand why I.Q.s rise, Flynn argues, is to look at one of the most widely used I.Q. tests, the so-called WISC (for Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children). The WISC is composed of ten subtests, each of which measures a different aspect of I.Q. Flynn points out that scores in some of the categories—those measuring general knowledge, say, or vocabulary or the ability to do basic arithmetic—have risen only modestly over time. The big gains on the WISC are largely in the category known as “similarities,” where you get questions such as “In what way are ‘dogs’ and ‘rabbits’ alike?” Today, we tend to give what, for the purposes of I.Q. tests, is the right answer: dogs and rabbits are both mammals. A nineteenth-century American would have said that “you use dogs to hunt rabbits.”

“If the everyday world is your cognitive home, it is not natural to detach abstractions and logic and the hypothetical from their concrete referents,” Flynn writes. Our great-grandparents may have been perfectly intelligent. But they would have done poorly on I.Q. tests because they did not participate in the twentieth century’s great cognitive revolution, in which we learned to sort experience according to a new set of abstract categories. In Flynn’s phrase, we have now had to put on “scientific spectacles,” which enable us to make sense of the WISC questions about similarities. To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.

This is a critical distinction. When the children of Southern Italian immigrants were given I.Q. tests in the early part of the past century, for example, they recorded median scores in the high seventies and low eighties, a full standard deviation below their American and Western European counterparts. Southern Italians did as poorly on I.Q. tests as Hispanics and blacks did. As you can imagine, there was much concerned talk at the time about the genetic inferiority of Italian stock, of the inadvisability of letting so many second-class immigrants into the United States, and of the squalor that seemed endemic to Italian urban neighborhoods. Sound familiar? These days, when talk turns to the supposed genetic differences in the intelligence of certain races, Southern Italians have disappeared from the discussion. “Did their genes begin to mutate somewhere in the 1930s?” the psychologists Seymour Sarason and John Doris ask, in their account of the Italian experience. “Or is it possible that somewhere in the 1920s, if not earlier, the sociocultural history of Italo-Americans took a turn from the blacks and the Spanish Americans which permitted their assimilation into the general undifferentiated mass of Americans?”

. . . . [I]f I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

* * *

IQ Puzzle

Flynn is a cautious and careful writer. Unlike many others in the I.Q. debates, he resists grand philosophizing. He comes back again and again to the fact that I.Q. scores are generated by paper-and-pencil tests—and making sense of those scores, he tells us, is a messy and complicated business that requires something closer to the skills of an accountant than to those of a philosopher.

For instance, Flynn shows what happens when we recognize that I.Q. is not a freestanding number but a value attached to a specific time and a specific test.

* * *

Two weeks ago, Flynn came to Manhattan to debate Charles Murray at a forum sponsored by the Manhattan Institute . Their subject was the black-white I.Q. gap in America. During the twenty-five years after the Second World War, that gap closed considerably. The I.Q.s of white Americans rose, as part of the general worldwide Flynn effect, but the I.Q.s of black Americans rose faster. Then, for about a period of twenty-five years, that trend stalled—and the question was why.

Murray . . . appeared to be pessimistic that the racial difference would narrow in the future. “By the nineteen-seventies, you had gotten most of the juice out of the environment that you were going to get,” he said. That gap, he seemed to think, reflected some inherent difference between the races. “Starting in the nineteen-seventies, to put it very crudely, you had a higher proportion of black kids being born to really dumb mothers,” he said. When the debate’s moderator, Jane Waldfogel, informed him that the most recent data showed that the race gap had begun to close again, Murray seemed unimpressed, as if the possibility that blacks could ever make further progress was inconceivable.

Flynn took a different approach. The black-white gap, he pointed out, differs dramatically by age. He noted that the tests we have for measuring the cognitive functioning of infants, though admittedly crude, show the races to be almost the same. By age four, the average black I.Q. is 95.4—only four and a half points behind the average white I.Q. Then the real gap emerges: from age four through twenty-four, blacks lose six-tenths of a point a year, until their scores settle at 83.4.

That steady decline, Flynn said, did not resemble the usual pattern of genetic influence. Instead, it was exactly what you would expect, given the disparate cognitive environments that whites and blacks encounter as they grow older. Black children are more likely to be raised in single-parent homes than are white children—and single-parent homes are less cognitively complex than two-parent homes. The average I.Q. of first-grade students in schools that blacks attend is 95, which means that “kids who want to be above average don’t have to aim as high.” There were possibly adverse differences between black teen-age culture and white teen-age culture, and an enormous number of young black men are in jail—which is hardly the kind of environment in which someone would learn to put on scientific spectacles.

. . . . “The mind is much more like a muscle than we’ve ever realized,” Flynn said. “It needs to get cognitive exercise. It’s not some piece of clay on which you put an indelible mark.” The lesson to be drawn from black and white differences was the same as the lesson from the Netherlands years ago: I.Q. measures not just the quality of a person’s mind but the quality of the world that person lives in.

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The entire article, which is well worth the read, can be found here. To listen to an an NPR Talk of the Nation interview of Gladwell about this article, click here. For an especially illuminating discussion (guests include Richard Nisbett, James Flynn, and Eric Turkheimer) of this topic on NPR’s On Point, click here. James Flynn was also a guest on BBC Radio.

Finally, for a collection of previous Situationist posts on the situation of intelligence, click here. (Situationist contributors Jon Hanson & Michael McCann are currently at work on a series of papers on the topic of standardized tests — and readers can expect more posts on this topic in 2008.)

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