The Situationist

Archive for February, 2008

The Situation of Helping

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 29, 2008

Genovese book cover from amazon

Psychologists Rachel Manning, Mark Levine and Alan Collins challenge the factual accuracy of the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in an American Psychologist article excerpted below. The Genovese murder, a legend in social psychology courses, stands for the proposition that people are more likely to exhibit helping behavior when alone than when in crowds (the “bystander effect”). Excerpts from the article follow:

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The story of the 38 witnesses who watched from their apartments (and then failed to intervene) while Kitty Genovese was murdered on the street below, has an iconic place in social psychology. [It led to the development] of the idea that bystanders do not intervene because of a diffusion of responsibility, and that their perceptions of and reactions to potential intervention situations can be negatively affected by the presence (imagined or real) of others. And yet, as we will show with extracts from transcripts of the trial of Winston Mosley for the murder of Kitty Genovese (and other legal documents associated with the case), the story of the 38 witnesses is not supported by the available evidence.

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Kitty Genovese was murdered and sexually assaulted early in the morning of March 13th, 1964 in the Kew Garden’s District of Queens, New York. While a report of the killing appears the same day in the Long Island Press (“Woman Knifed,” 1964), the story of the 38 witnesses was developed by two journalists, Martin Gansberg and A.M. Rosenthal. Gansberg wrote the first article on the 38 witnesses for the New York Times two weeks after the Genovese murder. Gansberg’s now famous article, published on March 27th on page 1 of the New York Times, opened under the headline ’38 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police. Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector’:

For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.

street from google image search for “kitty genovese”

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All [psychology] textbooks give the impression that Kitty Genovese was killed on the street where the murder could be seen by others. Almost all texts suggest that the 38 witnesses watched from their windows as the murder unfolded before them . . . . All claim that nobody intervened, or called the police, until after Kitty Genovese was dead…

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An analysis of the court transcripts from the trial of Winston Moseley, plus an examination of other legal documents associated with the case and a review of research carried out by a local historian and lawyer (Joseph De May Jr.), suggests a rather different picture of the events on that night . . . . De May Jr. has identified errors of fact and misleading wording in the original report by Gansberg.

[A detailed analysis of the factual inaccuracies is given by the authors, but we omit it here.]

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We argue that stories like Kitty Genovese and the 38 witnesses play a key role in populating the psychological imagination in a way that precludes thinking about the positive contributions that groups can make to intervention. The point here is not to challenge the findings from the wealth of research that has led from this story. Rather that by problematising the story that has such a conceptual grip on the discipline, the power of the story itself is challenged, and we might begin to look at this area of inquiry in new ways . . . . By debunking the myth, and reconsidering the stories that we present in textbooks, we might open up the imaginative space for social psychologists to develop new insights into the problem of promoting helping in emergency situations.

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The entire article can be accessed here.

Posted in Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Whose Eyes are You Going to Believe?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 28, 2008

Situationist Contributor Dan Kahan and his co-authors David Hoffman and Donald Braman, have an important and fascinating new paper available on SSRN (and forthcoming in Volume 122 of The Harvard Law Review): “Whose Eyes are You Going to Believe? Scott v. Harris and the Perils of Cognitive Illiberalism.” We’ve posted the abstract below:

This paper accepts the unusual invitation to see for yourself issued by the Supreme Court in Scott v. Harris, 127 S. Ct. 1769 (2007). Scott held that a police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he deliberately rammed his car into that of a fleeing motorist who refused to pull over for speeding and instead attempted to evade the police in a high-speed chase. The majority did not attempt to rebut the arguments of the single Justice who disagreed with its conclusion that no reasonable juror could find the fleeing driver did not pose a deadly risk to the public. Instead, the Court uploaded to its website a video of the chase [see six-minute video below], filmed from inside the pursuing police cruisers, and invited members of the public to make up their own minds after viewing it. We showed the video to a diverse sample of 1,350 Americans. Overall a majority agreed with the Court’s resolution of the key issues, but within the sample there were sharp differences of opinion along cultural, ideological, and other lines. We attribute these divisions to the psychological disposition of individuals to resolve disputed facts in a manner supportive of their group identities. The paper also addresses the normative significance of these findings. The result in the case, we argue, might be defensible, but the Court’s reasoning was not. Its insistence that there was only one reasonable view of facts itself displayed a characteristic of a form of bias – cognitive illiberalism – that consists in the failure to recognize the connection between perceptions of societal risk and contested visions of the ideal society. When courts fail to take steps to counteract that bias, they needlessly invest the law with culturally partisan overtones that detract from the law’s legitimacy.

For some first-rate blogging about this paper, click here (Kahan) here (Braman) and here (Hoffman). To review previous Situationist posts discussing cultural cognition, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Cultural Cognition, Law, Video | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Earmarks

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 27, 2008

The February 22 edition of Bill Moyers Journal (PBS) “profiles Seattle Times reporters on the trail of how members of Congress have awarded federal dollars for questionable purposes to companies in local Congressional districts—often to companies whose executives, employees or PACs have made campaign contributions to their legislators.”  It’s a fascinating 30-minute story that illustrates some of the situational sources of political manipulation and capture.

Vodpod videos no longer available. from posted with vodpod

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To provide a flavor of the half-hour report, we’ve included a few transcript excerpts below.

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Tonight our subject is the growing scandal surrounding earmarks. Once upon a time an earmark was just that — a mark farmers made on the ears of livestock for identification. No longer. An earmark is how politicians fund their pet projects — including some that reward their pet donors. In this year’s spending bills alone Congress has inserted 12,881 earmarks worth over 18 billion dollars. . . .

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NARRATOR: Reporters David Heath and Hal Bernton [reporters for the Seattle Times] have come to a tiny Washington town in pursuit of a big story.

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Heath and Bernton are here in Bremerton following a money trail chasing down what are known as “earmarks” — the federal dollars that members of Congress slip into spending bills, often at the last minute, usually to benefit individuals, companies or institutions in their state or district.

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Earmarks are a perfectly legal form of political pork — and nearly everyone in Congress sponsors them. But as these reporters have learned, they’re not always easy to track.

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DAVID HEATH: There were a lot of scandals going on at the time. You had a Congressman in San Diego, Duke Cunningham, who was taking bribes . . .

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JIM LEHRER: Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty today in a major investigation of influence peddling. He appeared in federal court on…

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NARRATOR: In each of these cases, a crime occurred; people went to jail.

But every year, private interests donate millions of dollars to congressional campaigns, and Congress doles out tens of billions in earmarks and it’s all business as usual.

DAVID HEATH: Sometimes you have scandals where you have a Congressman taking bribes and you think, “Okay, well that was a bad actor.” The question is, is that all there is or is it, or is this something bigger that’s going on? Is there something wrong with the whole culture?

NARRATOR: To try to answer that question, Heath would ultimately have to leave the comfortable terrain of the state of Washington for the back room dealings of that other Washington. But first, he would do some reporting with his computer. A specialist in data analysis, he decided to home in on Congress’s 2007 defense spending bill all 400 billion dollars of it. His plan seemed simple: he’d create a database jammed with everything he could find on the bill’s earmarks. He just needed to get the list of them. But there was no list to be found.

DAVID HEATH: They’re literally hidden. I mean they, they’re not in the bill. They’re not in the defense bill. And I finally had to call an expert, a guy who, named Winslow Wheeler, and ask him, “Where are these earmarks anyway? How do you find them?”

NARRATOR: Few understand earmarks better than Winslow Wheeler. The former Capitol Hill staffer spent more than 30 years serving powerful senators from both parties often helping to craft earmarks for his bosses.

WINSLOW WHEELER: If you look at a Department of Defense appropriations bill, you’ll, you’ll not find very much pork in it. What you need to do is look at the committee report — 99% of the pork is in the committee report, not in the statute.

NARRATOR: That is -the “Conference Committee Report. Before a bill is passed, both Houses meet in conference. It’s there that they hammer out all their differences, and they finalize their earmarks. When Heath found the 2007 Defense Appropriations Conference Committee Report online, he struck gold: 2700 earmarks, worth nearly 12 billion dollars. Now it was simply a matter of transferring the earmarks into his own database. He’d get some assistance from two college interns.

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NARRATOR: In fact, deciphering Congress’s earmarks proved nearly impossible.

DAVID HEATH: They’d actually taken simple text and they shrunk it down, tiny little type.seattle-times-logo.gif

LIZ BURLINGAME: You couldn’t copy and paste any of the information into the database.

DAVID HEATH: And on top of that, the earmarks themselves are in language that’s like a code.

CHANEL MERRITT: Four million dollars, this is just an example, uhm, for NG4BW. And you’re like, “What?”

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DAVID HEATH: It was like they had hired a consultant to figure out how to make this as hard as possible.

NARRATOR: Winslow Wheeler told Heath that to unscramble the earmarks, he should take advantage of Congress’s penchant for self-promotion.

WINSLOW WHEELER: A lot of these members of Congress put out press releases that delineate the pork they’ve added to the various bills. And in there you can probably find out who the manufacturer is. You can get, rather than three words to describe it, you can get maybe three sentences. And you start unraveling the string.

DAVID HEATH: There’s 535 members of Congress. And I had to go through their individual websites and basically spend all that time hunting through their Web sites for that press release about their earmarks.

DAVID HEATH: I got to know, by the end of the process, the name of every single company that got an earmark. OK, there was a company that sells shock absorbers had gotten an earmark. There was an eye doctor, you know, one-man shop that had gotten an earmark.

NARRATOR: It took Heath and his team months of full-time work, but in the end they had produced an unprecedented database containing a list of all the earmarks in the defense bill, the congressional sponsors and the private-sector recipients. They also added information on six years’ worth of campaign contributions made by those earmark recipients, plus data on the millions they spent lobbying Congress.

DAVID HEATH: For lobbying expenses they had spent, in 2006 alone, one year, 160 million dollars lobbying Congress. Big money, but they got 12 billion dollars in earmarks.

NARRATOR: But unless a bribe can be proven, earmarks aren’t illegal. And for all David Heath knew, they might well be critical to the nation’s defense. To find out, Heath would look into what taxpayers were buying with all the earmarked money.

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NARRATOR: After nearly a year’s painstaking work, it was time for Mr. Heath to go to Washington. In the fall of 2007, Heath journeyed to the nation’s Capitol and sat down to interview Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Norm Dicks. Both defended their earmarks, and denied any wrongdoing.

NORM DICKS (audio): There’s never, ever been any quid pro quo. You know, people, if they want to support me they support me. If they don’t want to support me, I still might do their earmark. I mean, if I thought it was a worthy project. If you went to a system where you couldn’t take a campaign contribution, then the only people you could get- the.only people you could get money from are people that you’ve never helped.

NARRATOR: Senator Murray told Heath that her earmarks gave Washington State businesses a fair shot at federal dollars:

PATTY MURRAY (audio): People tend to talk about earmarks as something that is a bad thing. I see it as a way to make sure that the tax dollars that are spent are spent in a very wise way and help our state economically.

NARRATOR: When pressed specifically on the problems Heath had uncovered with the Nomad, Murray admitted things don’t always turn out well:

PATTY MURRAY (audio): I wish every single dollar that I put in to any project was a thousand percent successful. It’s unfortunate that there is one that isn’t working well and nobody regrets it more than I do. None of us bat a thousand, and obviously this one didn’t or potentially hasn’t and, you know, we’ll just keep trying to get close to a thousand as we can. That’s what my job is.

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NARRATOR: The TIMES “did the story” in the fall of 2007: the earmarks, the campaign contributions, the money spent on products the military didn’t want or couldn’t use and the response from the legislators.

And on its Web site, the paper has posted David Heath’s one-of-a-kind database. Now, anybody can find out about those 2700 defense bill earmarks.

And Heath is not stopping there. He’s writing follow-up stories, and is creating an earmark database for all 2008 appropriations bills.

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BILL MOYERS: Don’t, for a moment, think that the “favor factory” uncovered by SEATTLE TIMES reporter David Heath is unique to the Pacific Northwest. To the contrary there are 535 members of Congress and only 13 of them requested no earmarks last year. Thirteen out of 535.

Top prize in the house for raking in the earmarks goes to Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi with over 177 million dollars. Before moving to the Senate this year he was on the House Appropriations Committee, which attracts campaign contributions like honey attracts bees. Others on the top ten list: Murtha $176 million, Young $169 million, Hoyer $139 million, and on and on.

Over in the Senate the champion earmarker is Thad Cochran also of Mississippi. He’s the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, that’s another big honey pot. Runners up after Thad Cochran’s $837 million dollars are: Landrieu, Stevens, Bond, Shelby, Inouye, Byrd, Murray, Clinton, Durbin.

JEFF FLAKE: I rise today for concern over what earmarks are doing to this body.

BILL MOYERS: Republican Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona has been fighting earmarks.

JEFF FLAKE: For every group that directly benefits from earmarks there are hundreds who see it as a transparent gimmick to ensure our own reelection. Mr. Speaker, our constituents deserve better. This institution deserves better than we’re giving it. Let’s return to the time honored practice of authorization, appropriation, and oversight that has served us so well.

BILL MOYERS: But look what happens when you take on the system. Jeff Flake wanted a seat on the House Appropriations Committee but the party’s leaders turned him down.

Public discontent over the corruption of earmarks has produced some modest results. The House now requires members to put their names next to the projects receiving the money. At least citizens have a better chance at finding out who’s getting the loot. Go to our Web site on and you’ll find links to several watchdog groups like the Sunlight Foundation and Taxpayers for Common Sense, who have made it easier for all of us to follow the money.

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Related links:


Posted in Deep Capture, Politics, Public Policy, Uncategorized, Video | Leave a Comment »

Journal of Personality & Social Psychology – Articles of Interest

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 27, 2008

Journal of Personality & Social Psychology CoverJournal of Personality & Social Psychology CoverJournal of Personality and Social Psychology

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Volume 94, Issue 2

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Sex differences in mate preferences revisited: Do people know what they initially desire in a romantic partner?

In paradigms in which participants state their ideal romantic-partner preferences or examine vignettes and photographs, men value physical attractiveness more than women do, and women value earning prospects more than men do. Yet it remains unclear if these preferences remain sex differentiated in predicting desire for real-life potential partners (i.e., individuals whom one has actually met). In the present study, the authors explored this possibility using speed dating and longitudinal follow-up procedures. Replicating previous research, participants exhibited traditional sex differences when stating the importance of physical attractiveness and earning prospects in an ideal partner and ideal speed date. However, data revealed no sex differences in the associations between participants’ romantic interest in real-life potential partners (met during and outside of speed dating) and the attractiveness and earning prospects of those partners. Furthermore, participants’ ideal preferences, assessed before the speed-dating event, failed to predict what inspired their actual desire at the event. Results are discussed within the context of R. E. Nisbett and T. D. Wilson’s (1977) seminal article: Even regarding such a consequential aspect of mental life as romantic-partner preferences, people may lack introspective awareness of what influences their judgments and behavior.

Expect the unexpected: Failure to anticipate similarities leads to an intergroup forecasting error.

People often expect interactions with outgroup members to go poorly, but little research examines the accuracy of these expectations, reasons why expectations might be negatively biased, and ways to bring expectations in line with experiences. The authors found that intergroup interactions were more positive than people expected them to be (Pilot Study, Study 1). One reason for this intergroup forecasting error is that people focus on their dissimilarities with outgroup members (Study 1). When the authors focused White participants’ attention on the ways they were similar to a Black participant, their intergroup expectations changed to match their positive experiences (Studies 2 & 3). Regardless of focus, Whites expected to have pleasant intragroup interactions, and they were accurate (Study 4). (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2008 APA, all rights reserved)

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How attributional ambiguity shapes physiological and emotional responses to social rejection and acceptance.

The authors examined White and Black participants’ emotional, physiological, and behavioral responses to same-race or different-race evaluators, following rejecting social feedback or accepting social feedback. As expected, in ingroup interactions, the authors observed deleterious responses to social rejection and benign responses to social acceptance. Deleterious responses included cardiovascular (CV) reactivity consistent with threat states and poorer performance, whereas benign responses included CV reactivity consistent with challenge states and better performance. In intergroup interactions, however, a more complex pattern of responses emerged. Social rejection from different-race evaluators engendered more anger and activational responses, regardless of participants’ race. In contrast, social acceptance produced an asymmetrical race pattern–White participants responded more positively than did Black participants. The latter appeared vigilant and exhibited threat responses. Discussion centers on implications for attributional ambiguity theory and potential pathways from discrimination to health outcomes.

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Not yet human: Implicit knowledge, historical dehumanization, and contemporary consequences.

Historical representations explicitly depicting Blacks as apelike have largely disappeared in the United States, yet a mental association between Blacks and apes remains. Here, the authors demonstrate that U.S. citizens implicitly associate Blacks and apes. In a series of laboratory studies, the authors reveal how this association influences study participants’ basic cognitive processes and significantly alters their judgments in criminal justice contexts. Specifically, this Black-ape association alters visual perception and attention, and it increases endorsement of violence against Black suspects. In an archival study of actual criminal cases, the authors show that news articles written about Blacks who are convicted of capital crimes are more likely to contain ape-relevant language than news articles written about White convicts. Moreover, those who are implicitly portrayed as more apelike in these articles are more likely to be executed by the state than those who are not. The authors argue that examining the subtle persistence of specific historical representations such as these may not only enhance contemporary research on dehumanization, stereotyping, and implicit processes but also highlight common forms of discrimination that previously have gone unrecognized.

Go to Journal’s full Table of Contents

Posted in Table of Contents | 1 Comment »

Harvard Conference: “Ideology, Psychology & Law”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 26, 2008

The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School is hosting its second conference on March 8, 2008. To learn more about the conference or to register, go to the conference webpage. We’ve posted a tentative agenda, including abstracts of the presentations, below.


Second Conference on Law and Mind Sciences

“Ideology, Psychology & Law”

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Tentative Agenda

9:25 – 9:55: Continental Breakfast
10:00 – 10:15: Opening Remarks
10:20 – 12:30: Session 1
Social Psychologists:

  • 10:20 – 10:45: Mahzarin R. Banaji, “The Hammer of Ideology”:

If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Ideology is like that, psychologically orienting us to hammer (almost) every judgment and decision with it. I will offer data on the conscious and unconscious manner in which the mind so hammers, and its consequences for fairness in law.

  • 10:50 – 11:15: Brian Nosek, “Ideology and Automaticity”:

Listen to a partisan, and you might believe that ideology is the result of reasoned analysis of social life. Listen to the evidence, and you might be convinced that the partisans’ reasons are the product of ideology, rather than the cause of it. My research group investigates the automatic basis of ideology and moral judgment, and how deliberative reasoning is a secondary act that emboldens or corrects the initial “gut” judgment.

  • 11:20 – 11:45: Aaron Kay, “The Psychological Power of the Status Quo”:

Although people tend to view their beliefs, values, and ideology as entirely the product of thoughtful deliberation, it is becoming increasingly clear that such a view is largely mistaken. In this talk, I will describe how the motivation to perceive the current status quo as just, legitimate, and desirable — an implicit motive known as “system justification” — exerts powerful and consequential effects on social perception and judgment. My remarks will focus particularly on the role of system justification in maintaining social inequalities.

11:50 – 12:20: Legal Scholars (Moderated Q&A):

  • Yochai Benkler
  • Elizabeth Warren

12:25 – 1:00: Lunch

1:05 – 1:15: Michael McCann, The Situationist

1:20 – 3:15: Session 2
Social Psychologists:

  • 1:20 – 1:45: Dan Kahan, “Cultural Cognition of” or “Political Ideology in” Law: What Difference Does It Make?”:

Recent scholarship in law and political science identifies “political ideology” as a major determinant of judicial decisionmaking. My talk will consider the possibility that much if not all the evidence this work rests on might be attributed to the influence of cultural cognition, a set of mechanisms that motivate individuals to conform their factual perceptions to their values. I will suggest why this account might not only furnish a psychologically richer and more complete description of dissensus (and consensus) in law, but also how it complicates the normative implications of judicial disagreements attributed to “ideology.”

  • 1:50 – 2:15: Geoffrey Cohen, “Identity, Belief, and Bias”:

The presented research explores the way in which motivations to protect long-held beliefs and identities contribute to bias, resistance to probative information, and ideological intransigence.

  • 2:20 – 2:45: Emily Pronin, “Implications of Personal and Social Claims and Denials of Bias”:

People’s efforts to make accurate, fair, and sound judgments and decisions often are compromised by various cognitive and motivational biases. Although this is clearly a problem, the solution is less clear due to the fact that people generally deny, and often are literally unaware of, their own commissions of bias – even while they readily impute bias to those around them. I will discuss evidence for this asymmetry in bias perception and for the sources that underlie it, and I will discuss its relevance to three policy concerns – i.e., corruption, discrimination, and conflict. Finally, I will discuss solutions, with a focus on potential pitfalls and how to avoid them.

2:50 – 3:20: Legal Scholars (Moderated Q&A):

  • Jennifer Brown
  • Joseph Singer

3:25 – 3:40: Coffee Break

3:40 – 5:20: Session 3

  • 3:45 – 4:05: Jim Sidanius, “Under Color of Authority: Terror, Intergroup Violence and ‘The Law'”:

While instances of inter-communal violence and genocide are obvious and immensely tragic, what is not as readily appreciated is the widespread extent and ferocity of the intergroup violence that is channeled through legal and criminal justice systems. Given the fact that the legal and criminal justice systems are disproportionately controlled by members of dominant rather than subordinate social groups, social dominance theory argues that a substantial portion of the output of the criminal justice system can be seen as a form of intergroup violence, the function of which is to maintain the structural integrity of group-based social hierarchy.

  • 4:10 – 4:35: Jon Hanson, “The Situation of Ideology”

The frames, categories, schemas, and ideologies that dominate legal and policy discourse did not just emerge fully formed. Nor are they a gift of nature or the product of some well-functioning marketplace of ideas. Instead they reflect the interaction of numerous forces that operate more or less invisibly within us and around us. For instance, they reflect many of the subconscious proclivities discussed by the other presenters. My talk will focus on some of the external situational forces that are devoted to promoting some ideologies and undermining others by tapping into, manipulating, and exploiting those subconscious tendencies.

  • 4:40 – 5:00: Large Panel Discussion
  • 5:00 – 5:20: Audience Q&A

5:25 – 5:30: Closing Remarks

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Events, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Legal Theory, Politics, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Leave a Comment »

Journalists as Social Psychologists & Social Psychologists as Entertainers

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 25, 2008

Joshua Bell in Subway — from Washington Post Magazine

Daniel Weiss has a fantastic essay, titled “What Would You Do?: The Journalism that Tweaks Reality, then Reports What Happens,” in a recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. His essay surveys a broad range of journalistic experiments—ranging from the sensationalistic to the profound, some executed in collaboration with social psychologists and some by journalists flying solo—and argue that they are essentially homages (conscious or not) to experiments conducted by such “golden age” social psychologists as Stanley Milgram and Situationist contributor Phil Zimbardo. Weiss also explores the appeal and scientific merits of those journalistic experiments. The essay is well worth reading in its entirety. For those interested in a sampler, we offer some representative excerpts below.

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On a Friday morning last January, a group of Washington, D.C., commuters played an unwitting role in an experiment. As they emerged from the L’Enfant Plaza metro station, they passed a man playing a violin. Dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt, baseball cap, and jeans, an open case for donations at his feet, he looked like an ordinary busker. In reality, he was Joshua Bell, an internationally renowned musician. The idea was to gauge whether Bell’s virtuosic playing would entice the rushing commuters to stop and listen.The experiment’s mastermind was Washington Post staff writer Gene Weingarten, who had dreamed it up after seeing a talented keyboardist be completely ignored as he played outside another metro station. . . .

For three-quarters of an hour, Bell played six pieces, including some of the most difficult and celebrated in the classical canon. Of 1,097 passersby, twenty-seven made donations totaling just over $30. Seven stopped for more than a minute. The remaining 1,070 breezed by, barely aware of the supremely talented violinist in their midst. [See video below.]

When Weingarten’s account of the experiment ran in the Post’s magazine three months later, readers followed the narrative with rapt attention that contrasted starkly with the indifference of the commuters. The article was discussed on blogs and other forums devoted to classical music, pop culture, politics, and social science [For a previous Situtionist post on this experiment, click here.]

Weingarten said he received more feedback from readers than he had for any other article he had written in his thirty-five-year career. Many were taken with the chutzpah of disguising Joshua Bell as a mendicant just to see what would happen. Others were shocked that people could ignore a world-class musician. Still others argued that the results were insignificant: rerun the experiment outdoors on a sunny day, they said, and Bell would draw a massive crowd.

I was one of those rapt readers, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the piece’s appeal. Was it just a clever gimmick or was there something more profound going on? At the same time, the story felt familiar. Indeed, Weingarten’s experiment was a recent entry in a journalistic genre with deep, quirky roots.

Working on a hunch that begs to be tested or simply struck with an idea for a good story, journalistic “experimenters,” for lack of a better term, step out of their customary role as observers and play with reality to see what will happen. At their worst, these experiments are little more than variations on reality-TV operations that traffic in voyeurism and shame. At their best, they manage to deliver discussion-worthy insights into contemporary society and human nature. The very best, perhaps, serve up a bit of both. In any case, the growing number of journalists and news operations who do this sort of thing are heirs to a brand of social psychology practiced from the postwar years through the early seventies. During this period, considered by some the golden age of the discipline, experiments were bold and elaborately designed and frequently produced startling results. Many were conducted outside the laboratory and often placed subjects in stressful or disturbing situations.

These experiments also have roots in forms of investigative, immersion, and stunt journalism that have been practiced for more than a century. In 1887, while working on an exposé of asylum conditions, muckraker Nellie Bly demonstrated that one could feign insanity to gain admission to a madhouse—and when she began to insist that she was in fact perfectly sane, doctors interpreted her claims as delusions. In so doing, Bly anticipated psychologist David Rosenhan’s classic 1972 experiment in which “pseudopatients” claiming to hear voices were admitted to psychiatric hospitals and then kept for an average of several weeks despite reverting to sane behavior.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the genre shifted, but by 1974, when New York City’s WNBC-TV asked its viewers to call in and pick the perpetrator of a staged purse snatching from a lineup of suspects, the journalistic experiment had attained its modern form. The station was flooded with calls and, after fielding over 2,100, cut the experiment short. The results: respondents picked the correct assailant no more frequently than they would have by guessing.

Over the last decade, as best-sellers such as The Tipping Point and Freakonomics have lent social science a sheen of counterintuitive hipness and reality television has tapped into a cultural fascination with how people behave in contrived situations, journalistic experimentation has become increasingly common. In addition to The Washington Post Magazine, it has been featured in The New York Times, Harper’s, and Reader’s Digest. Its most regular home, however, has been on network-television newsmagazines.

ABC’s Primetime has staged a series of experiments in recent years under the rubric “What Would You Do?” which enact provocative scenarios while hidden cameras capture the reactions of the public. Chris Whipple, the producer who conceived the series, refers to it as a “Candid Camera of ethics.” Starting with a nanny verbally abusing a child, the series has gone on to present similar scenarios: an eldercare attendant ruthlessly mocking an old man; a group of adolescents bullying a chubby kid; a man viciously berating his girlfriend, seeming on the verge of violence; etc.

The sequences tend to begin with the narrator pointing out that many pass right by the incident. Several witnesses are confronted and asked to explain why they didn’t step in. One man, who gave the fighting couple a long look before continuing on his way, reveals that he is an off-duty cop and says he determined that no laws were being broken, so there was nothing for him to do. The focus shifts to those who did intervene, and the camera lingers over the confrontations, playing up the drama.

These experiments are, in a sense, the flip side of the reality-TV coin: rather than show how people act in manufactured situations when they know they’re being watched, they show us how people act when they don’t. . . .

In the world of print, Reader’s Digest has come closest to making such experiments a franchise. Over the last two years, the magazine has pitted cities around the world against each other in tests of helpfulness and courtesy, to determine which city is most hospitable. The first round used the following three gauges to separate the rude from the solicitous in thirty-five cities: the percentage of people who picked up papers dropped by an experimenter; the percentage who held the door for experimenters when entering buildings; and the percentage of clerks who said “Thank you” after a sale. When the scores were tallied, it was clear that Reader’s Digest had hit the counterintuition jackpot: the winner was New York City. New York Subway - iStock . . .

The notion that New Yorkers are more polite than commonly believed was also at the center of a 2004 experiment conducted by The New York Times. Reenacting an experiment originally performed by graduate students of social psychologist Stanley Milgram at the City University of New York in the early seventies, two Times reporters asked riders on crowded subway cars to relinquish their seats. Remarkably, thirteen of fifteen did so. But the reporters found that crossing the unspoken social boundaries of the subway came at a cost: once seated, they grew tense, unable to make eye contact with their fellow passengers. Jennifer Medina, one of the reporters, says that she and Anthony Ramirez, her partner on the story, found the assignment ludicrous at first. “It was like, ‘What? Really? You want me to do what?’” she says. “We made so much fun of it while we were doing it, but we got so much feedback. It was one of those stories that people really talked about.” And papers around the world took notice: within weeks, reporters in London, Glasgow, Dublin, and Melbourne had repeated the experiment. [To read the Times article, click here.]

* * *

The appeal of the best journalistic experiments . . . runs much deeper than their entertainment value. Medina [the Times reporter] came to see her role in the subway experiment as that of a “street anthropologist or something, which is essentially what [reporters] are supposed to be doing every day.” . . .

In that quirky, postwar “golden age” of the discipline that informs today’s journalistic experimenters, researchers captured the public imagination with bold, elaborately choreographed experiments that frequently drove subjects to extreme behavior or confronted them with seemingly life-or-death situations.

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Given the dramatic nature of these experiments, it’s little wonder they’ve provided such inspiration to journalists. Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s, started the flash mobsFlash Mob - Wikipedia trend in 2003 as an homage to Milgram, whom he considers as much performance artist as scientist. Flash mobs were spontaneous gatherings in which participants showed up at a given location for a brief period and did something absurd, such as drop to their knees en masse before a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex at Toys “R” Us. In a piece published in Harper’s, Wasik explained that he saw the mobs as a Milgram-esque test of hipster conformity. Like a hot new indie band, he hypothesized, the mobs would rapidly gain popularity before being discarded as too mainstream and, ultimately, co-opted by marketers, which is more or less what happened.

Wasik argues that the popular resonance of experiments by Milgram and others of the golden age derives from the compelling narratives they created. “It’s like a demonstration whose value is more in the extremes that you can push people to and the extremes of the story that you can get out of what people do or don’t do,” he says. . . .

Due in part to the rise of ethical concerns, contemporary social psychologists rarely do experiments that take place outside the laboratory or that involve deception or stressful situations. This has left journalistic experimenters as a sort of lost tribe of devotees of the golden-age social psychologists. . . .

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Journalistic experiments have been criticized far more consistently for their scientific, rather than ethical, shortcomings. Robert Cialdini, an Arizona State University social psychologist, believes strongly in the value of communicating psychological insights via the media, but he has found that journalists don’t always value the same material that he does. For a 1997 Dateline segment on conformity, he conducted an experiment showing that the number of people who donated to a New York City subway musician multiplied eightfold when others donated before them. A fascinating result, but even more fascinating to Cialdini was that people explained their donations by saying that they liked the song, they had some spare change, or they felt sorry for the musician. These explanations did not end up in the finished program. “To me, that was the most interesting thing, the fact that people are susceptible to these social cues but don’t recognize it,” says Cialdini. “I think that’s my bone to pick with journalists—they’re frequently interested in the phenomenon rather than the cause of the phenomenon.”

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So maybe journalists can and should be more careful in how they design experiments, but that debate, in many ways, is beside the point. The best examples of the genre are undeniably good journalism, and the lesser lights, for the most part, amount to innocuous entertainment. Indeed, my hope is that some enterprising reporter is even now hatching a plan to find out whether Joshua Bell really would draw such a big crowd outdoors on a sunny day in D.C.

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To read the entire essay, click here. For related Situationist posts, see “Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation” and “The Milgram Experiment Today?


Posted in Entertainment, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

Blinking on the Bench

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 24, 2008

Scales of JusticeChris Guthrie, Jeff Rachlinski, & Andrew Wistrich have an interesting new paper, “Blinking on the Bench: How Judges Decide Cases.” Here is the abstract:

How do judges judge? Do they apply law to facts in a mechanical and deliberative way, as the formalists suggest they do, or do they rely on hunches and gut feelings, as the realists maintain? Debate has raged for decades, but researchers have offered little hard evidence in support of either model. Relying on empirical studies of judicial reasoning and decision making, we propose an entirely new model of judging that provides a more accurate explanation of judicial behavior. Our model accounts for the tendency of the human brain to make automatic, snap judgments, which are surprisingly accurate, but which can also lead to erroneous decisions. Equipped with a better understanding of judging, we then propose several reforms that should lead to more just and accurate outcomes.

The paper is available on SSRN. For some blogging on the paper, check out the posts on and Legal Blog Watch.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, Law, Legal Theory, Table of Contents | Leave a Comment »

Seeing Faces

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 23, 2008

Do you see a face?

It’s amazing how little it takes for people to see a human face — a tendency sometimes referred to as pareidolia.

In 1757, David Hume described the propensity this way:

“There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good- will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us.”

Carl Sagan wrote in 1995:

“As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face, and to respond with a goony grin.”

In February of 2007, Elizabeth Svoboda wrote an article in the New York Times titled “Faces, Faces Everwhere.” We’ve pasted some sections of Svoboda’s article below.

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More than a decade ago, Diana Duyser of Hollywood, Fla., received a religious message through an unlikely medium: a grilled cheese sandwich she had made herself. As she gazed at the brown skillet marks on the surface of the bread, a familiar visage snapped into focus.

“I saw a face looking up at me; it was the Virgin Mary staring back,” she told reporters in 2004. “I was in total shock.”

Grilled Cheese Virgin MaryAfter holding onto the stale relic for 10 years, Ms. Duyser put it up for sale on eBay. The auction generated so much excitement that the sandwich eventually sold for $28,000, proving that she was not alone in seeing a face where none should reasonably exist. . . .

Such faces made headlines again near the end of 2006, when Mars Express, an orbiter from the European Space Agency, captured the highest-quality three-dimensional images to date of what looks like a face in the Cydonia region of Mars. The photos reignited conspiracy theories that governments on Earth are trying to hide the existence of intelligent life on Mars.

Why do we see faces everywhere we look: in the Moon, in Rorschach inkblots, in the interference patterns on the surface of oil spills? Why are some Lay’s chips the spitting image of Fidel Castro, and why was a cinnamon bun with a striking likeness to Mother Teresa kept for years under glass in a coffee shop in Nashville, where it was nicknamed the Nun Bun?

Compelling answers are beginning to emerge from biologists and computer scientists who are gaining new insights into how the brain recognizes and processes facial data.

Long before she had heard of Diana Duyser’s grilled-cheese sandwich, , a neuroscientist at the University of Bremen in Germany, had an inkling that people might process faces differently from other objects. Her suspicion was that a particular area of the brain gives faces priority, like anMother Teresa or a Bun? airline offering first-class passengers expedited boarding.

“Some patients have strokes and are then able to recognize everything perfectly well except for faces,” Dr. Tsao said. “So we started questioning whether there really might be an area in the brain that is dedicated to face recognition.”

Dr. Tsao used functional magnetic resonance imaging to record which areas of the brain were activated when macaque monkeys were presented with stimuli including fruits, gadgets, scrambled patterns — and faces. She discovered almost immediately that groups of cells in three regions of the brain’s temporal lobe seemed to be strongly attuned to faces.

“The first day we put the electrode in, it was shocking,” Dr. Tsao said. “Cell after cell responded to faces but not at all to other objects.” Her results were published in October in the journal Science.

Dr. Tsao’s investigation yielded a surprising related finding: areas of the brain she had identified as face-specific occasionally lighted up in response to objects that bore only a passing resemblance to faces.

“Nonface objects may have certain features that are weakly triggering these face cells,” she said. “If you go above a certain threshold, the monkeys might think that they’re seeing a face.” In the same way, she said, objects like cinnamon buns, rocky outcroppings and cloud formations may set off face radar if they bear enough resemblance to actual faces.

Pawan Sinha, a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has devoted years of research to figuring out just what attributes touch off these face-specific pings. Security software that is being developed for identifying potential terrorists or detecting intruders must be able to reliably recognize faces. In teaching the software to do this, Dr. Sinha and his colleagues have arrived at unexpected insights into the question of why we sometimes see a cinnamon bun as a cinnamon bun, and other times as the earthly incarnation of a sainted nun.

To develop detector software optimized to pick out any human face, even in less-than-ideal surroundings, Dr. Sinha began by putting into his computer hundreds of faces as varied as those in a Benetton advertisement famous for its diversity.

As the computer amassed the information, it was able to discover relationships that were of great significance to almost all faces, but very few nonfaces. “These turn out to be very simple relationships, things like the eyes are always darker than the forehead, and the mouth is darker than the cheeks,” Dr. Sinha said. “If you put together about 12 of these relationships, you get a template that you can use to locate a face.”

Most people think of the cartoon smiley face, with its discrete eyes, nose and mouth, as the quintessential face template, but Dr. Sinha’s computer can identify faces even when the pictures are of low resolution.

Tom Hanks Creates WilsonWhen he presented human subjects with blurry face images, containing only 12 by 14 pixels’ worth of visual information, they performed similarly well, recognizing 75 percent of the face images accurately. This suggests that like the computer, the human brain processes faces holistically, like coherent landscapes, rather than one feature at a time.

These images are just “ dark blobs on a big blob,” Dr. Sinha said. “So clearly there’s not enough diagnostic information in the individual features. Yet something about the overall organization of the image, the gestalt, is still allowing us to recognize the face.”

Once in a while, the computer emits a false alarm. “This is a good analogy for what the human brain might be doing,” Dr. Sinha said. “Like the computer, it’s trying to determine what the regularities are in all of these faces to create a prototype.

“But this prototype is not perfect,” he said. “Sometimes genuine faces do not match these regularities, and sometimes nonfaces satisfy them.”

* * *

While the human tendency to see faces in other objects is rooted in neural architecture, the large number of actual faces we see every day may also be partly responsible for the Nun Bun phenomenon, said Takeo Watanabe, a neuroscientist at Boston University. His studies of learning processes show that after the brain is bombarded with a stimulus, it continues to perceive that stimulus even when it is not present.

To demonstrate this effect, Dr. Watanabe had subjects sit in front of a computer screen with faint dots cascading across it. At first, the participants could not figure out which direction the dots were moving. Then they went through another round of tests in which they were to identify letters superimposed on the dots as they moved across the screen.

When the subjects were then presented with a blank screen and asked to describe what they saw, a strange thing happened: not only did they insist they were seeing dots, but they tended to say the dots were moving in the direction they had been moving during the previous session.

Dr. Watanabe says the results suggest that subliminally learning something “too well” interferes with perceptions of reality. “As a result of repeated presentation, theface-on-mars.jpg subjects developed enhanced sensitivity to the dots,” he said. “Their sensitivity got so high that they saw them even when there was nothing there.”

Because faces make up such a significant part of the visual backdrop of life, he added, they may fall into the same category as the dots: people have gotten so used to seeing faces everywhere that sensitivity to them is high enough to produce constant false positives. This tendency to become hyperattuned to common stimuli may represent a survival advantage. “If you lived in primeval times, for instance,” Dr. Watanabe said, “it would be good to be very sensitized to tigers.”

Dr. Sinha of M.I.T. says that whether the hair-trigger response to faces is innate or learned, it represents a critical evolutionary adaptation, one that dwarfs side effects like seeing Beelzebub in a crumpled tissue.

“The information faces convey is so rich — not just regarding another person’s identity, but also their mental state, health and other factors,” he said. “It’s extremely beneficial for the brain to become good at the task of face recognition and not to be very strict in its inclusion criteria. The cost of missing a face is higher than the cost of declaring a nonface to be a face.”

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To read all of the article, click here. For a related Situationist post, see “A Look Into the Way Culture Affects Facial Expression.” :)

Posted in Social Psychology | 10 Comments »

Neurolaw Sampler

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 22, 2008

From ForaTV, we’ve pasted  a video of the 95-minute “Battle of Ideas” panel discussion hosted by the Institute of Ideas in London and titled “My Brain Made Me Do It.

“[H]ow much can science tell us about behaviour? Do scientific findings justify the government’s many interventions into the early years of children’s lives? Should neuroscience enjoy an exalted place in the courtroom? Are policies being developed because of genuine advances in scientific knowledge – or is science being (mis)used, perhaps in the place of political conviction, to justify policies?”

The panel is composed of the following speakers: Steve Yearley; Raymond Tallis; Jeffrey Rosen; Pierre Magistretti; and David Perks.

Vodpod videos no longer available. from posted with vodpod

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A recent episode of Justice Talking, a weekly radio program of the National Public Radio network, is devoted to Neurolaw: The New Frontier:

“Some lawyers are using brain scans showing defects to argue that their clients aren’t responsible for criminal behavior. In recent years, this neuroscientific evidence has been increasingly used in our courtrooms. But some scientists argue that the imaging is still new and unreliable, while others question whether juries should be ruling on what counts as a ‘defective’ brain. As neurolaw grows in influence, it could potentially revolutionize our notions of guilt and punishment as criminals say ‘my brain made me do it.’ Might we be, one day, just a brain scan away from a form of lie detection and prediction of criminal behavior?”

The show is broken into five parts among which you can pick and choose. Guests include neurologist Dr. Larry Farwell, attorney Mary Kennedy, Professor Carter Snead, Professor Joshua Greene, Professor Stephen Morse, and Dr. Daniel Amen.

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For a few related Situationist posts, see “Law & the Brain,” “Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” “The Science of Morality,” and Your Brain and Morality.”

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Video | 3 Comments »

History of Groupthink

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 21, 2008

Janis Groupthink CoverThe January/February issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine contains a fascinating history of Irving Janis’s famous insight about the process he coined as “groupthink,” which Janis defined as the “mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” That history is then followed by four very brief essays by academics describing the relevance of Janis’s work for issues and research today: (1) “Avoiding Enrons”Getting off the Bus to Abilene.” We’ve included a few pieces of that history and the second of the four essays (written by Situationist contributor Phil Zimbardo).

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Thirty-five years ago, Yale psychologist Irving Janis published an essay in the Yale Alumni Magazine explaining how a group of intelligent people working together to solve a problem can sometimes arrive at the worst possible answer. He called his radical new theory “groupthink”; it changed the way we think about decision making. . . . Janis’s essay is still the alumni magazine’s most requested reprint. His book on the subject went into a second edition that is still in print as a college textbook. (Janis died in 1990.)

Janis came up with the idea of groupthink during a Yale seminar on the psychology of small groups. His reading about the Bay of Pigs fiasco had led him to wonder how intelligent people like John F. Kennedy and his advisers could have been “taken in by such a stupid, patchwork plan as the one presented to them by the CIA representatives.” During his seminar, he found himself suggesting that what had happened in the White House might be similar to what happened among ordinary citizens in the groups he studied for his research: they often developed a “pattern of concurrence-seeking . . . when a ‘we’ feeling of solidarity is running high.”

To investigate further, Janis studied several policy fiascoes, including the Bay of Pigs, the failure to protect Pearl Harbor, and the escalation of the Vietnam War. In each case, the participants “adhered to group norms and pressures toward uniformity, even when their policy was working badly and had unintended consequences that disturbed the conscience of the members,” he wrote. “Members consider loyalty to the group the highest form of morality.”

Participants in those critical decisions, Janis found, had failed to consider the full range of alternatives or consult experts who could offer different perspectives. They rejected outside information and opinion unless it supported their preferred policy. And the harsher the preferred policy — the more likely it was to involve moral dilemma — the more zealously members clung to their consensus: “Each member is likely to become more dependent than ever on the in-group for maintaining his self-image as a decent human being and will therefore be more strongly motivated to maintain group unity.”

Janis suggested several steps for preventing groupthink, though he cautioned that they were hypothetical. His recommendations include careful impartiality on the part of the leader as to what decision the group should make; formation of competing teams to study the same problem; and giving “high priority to airing objections and doubts.”

* * *

“The secret power of leaders,”

Within most academic fields, the ideas that are perpetuated are ideas that can be turned into PhD dissertations by graduate students. Groupthink is complex enough that it was never hot in that sense. Nobody today says, My area is groupthink. But what emerged subsequent to groupthink was an area called “judgment and decision making,” which is one of the most important areas in all of psychology. In fact Danny Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize based on his research into howwoodward-state-of-denial.jpg rational people make irrational decisions.

Groupthink also preceded the development of an area called political psychology. Janis’s work, plus the work of many others, has led many psychologists to say that what’s really important is applying psychology to the political domain — understanding ideology, understanding how political leaders work and why constituents follow as they do.

Janis showed that members of a group who are smart and rational and well trained may make irrational decisions because they look only for evidence that will confirm their stated objectives, their stated goals. And the key is whether the leader makes his position clear in advance of the group’s deliberations. Not sufficiently emphasized in reviews of groupthink is that it revealed the secret power of leaders to influence group decision making by simply having their values or perspective become known. Groupthink becomes worse when the leader creates the concept that everybody has to be a team player. History will record that nobody has done this more than George W. Bush.

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To read the entire article, click here. For a sample of previous Situationist posts discussing group decision-making, see “The Situation of Group Membership,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part IV and Part V,” and “Some Situational Sources and Consequences of Diversity.”

Posted in Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Perspectives on Psychological Science – Articles of Interest

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 20, 2008

Perspectives on Psychological Science CoverPerspectives on Psychological Science CoverPerspectives on Psychological Science

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Introduction: From Philosophical Thinking to Psychological Empiricism – Page 1

By Constantine Sedikides: “The authors of [the articles in this issue] received a rather tall order. They were requested to (a) identify an important, broad, and vibrant topic in their area of expertise; (b) trace historically the foundations of this topic to philosophers (and, if needed, to thinkers in other fields such as sociology, politics, or economics); (c) cover briefly how knowledge on this topic progressed to the present; (d) provide an overview of psychology’s contribution by explaining how psychology has framed ideas about this topic and how empirical research has provided answers; and (e) identify new questions for this topic and highlight how psychological research is likely to shape them new questions.”

Free Will in Scientific Psychology – Pages 14 -19

By Roy F. Baumeister: ABSTRACT—Some actions are freer than others, and the difference is palpably important in terms of inner process, subjective perception, and social consequences. Psychology can study the difference between freer and less free actions without making dubious metaphysical commitments. Human evolution seems to have created a relatively new, more complex form of action control that corresponds to popular notions of free will. It is marked by self-control and rational choice, both of which are highly adaptive, especially for functioning within culture. The processes that create these forms of free will may be biologically costly and therefore are only used occasionally, so that people are likely to remain only incompletely self-disciplined, virtuous, and rational.

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Why Heuristics Work – Pages 20 – 29

By Gerd Gigerenzer: ABSTRACT—The adaptive toolbox is a Darwinian-inspired theory that conceives of the mind as a modular system that is composed of heuristics, their building blocks, and evolved capacities. The study of the adaptive toolbox is descriptive and analyzes the selection and structure of heuristics in social and physical environments. The study of ecological rationality is prescriptive and identifies the structure of environments in which specific heuristics either succeed or fail. Results have been used for designing heuristics and environments to improve professional decision making in the real world.

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Language: A Toolbox for Sharing and Influencing Social Reality – Pages 38 -47

By Klaus Fiedler: ABSTRACT—The key role of language is often neglected in explicitly formulated theories of cognition, affect, and social behavior. Implicitly, though, the relationship between language and mind is at the heart of psychological science. Two major research programs—linguistic universals and linguistic relativity—originate in opposite philosophical positions, assuming either that language reflects the mind’s ideas and free will or that language differences govern and restrict the mind. However, modern psychological research was able to begin illuminating the power and richness of linguistic influences only after the priority debate was given up and language and cognition were treated as integral parts of the same process. Beyond the confines of referential communication, conceived as cooperative transfer of symbols referring to common world knowledge, some of the most intriguing phenomena are detached from referential bonds, reflecting unintended, emergent, or even random outcomes of verbal interaction. Indeed, the effectiveness of verbal priming may be actually contingent on language users’ failure to understand the primes’ referential meanings and implications.

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Understanding the Vital Human Quest for Self-Esteem – Pages 48 – 55

By Jeff Greenberg: ABSTRACT—Authors have long noted the human penchant for self-esteem. Experimental research has revealed that this desire for self-esteem has wide-ranging effects on cognition, emotion, and behavior. Terror management theory explains that this desire for self-esteem results from a fundamental need for psychological security, which is engendered by humans’ awareness of their own vulnerability and mortality. A large body of evidence has supported this explanation. Specifically, substantial lines of research have shown that self-esteem buffers anxiety and reduces defenses against death and that reminders of mortality increase efforts to defend and bolster self-esteem. Complementary findings have helped clarify the role of culture in self-esteem striving and the ways in which people can vary in their level, stability, and sources of self-esteem. I conclude by briefly considering how this contemporary knowledge regarding the quest for self-esteem informs current events and daily life.

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Morality – Pages 65 – 72

By Jonathan Haidt: ABSTRACT—Moral psychology is a rapidly growing field with two principle lineages. The main line began with Jean Piaget and includes developmental psychologists who have studied the acquisition of moral concepts and reasoning. The alternative line began in the 1990s with a new synthesis of evolutionary, neurological, and social-psychological research in which the central phenomena are moral emotions and intuitions. In this essay, I show how both of these lines have been shaped by an older debate between two 19th century narratives about modernity: one celebrating the liberation of individuals, the other mourning the loss of community and moral authority. I suggest that both lines of moral psychology have limited themselves to the moral domain prescribed by the liberation narrative, and so one future step for moral psychology should be to study alternative moral perspectives, particularly religious and politically conservative ones in which morality is, in part, about protecting groups, institutions, and souls.

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The Unconscious Mind – Pages 73 – 79

By [Situationist Contributor] John A. Bargh & Ezequiel Morsell: ABSTRACT—The unconscious mind is still viewed by many psychological scientists as the shadow of a “real” conscious mind, though there now exists substantial evidence that the unconscious is not identifiably less flexible, complex, controlling, deliberative, or action-oriented than is its counterpart. This “conscious-centric” bias is due in part to the operational definition within cognitive psychology that equates unconscious with subliminal. We review the evidence challenging this restricted view of the unconscious emerging from contemporary social cognition research, which has traditionally defined the unconscious in terms of its unintentional nature; this research has demonstrated the existence of several independent unconscious behavioral guidance systems: perceptual, evaluative, and motivational. From this perspective, it is concluded that in both phylogeny and ontogeny, actions of an unconscious mind precede the arrival of a conscious mind—that action precedes reflection.

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Love: What Is It, Why Does It Matter, and How Does It Operate? – Page 80 – 86

By Harry T. Reis, Arthur Aron: ABSTRACT—Love is a perennial topic of fascination for scholars and laypersons alike. Whereas psychological science was slow to develop active interest in love, the past few decades have seen considerable growth in research on the subject, to the point where a uniquely psychological perspective on love can be identified. This article describes some of the more central and well-established findings from psychologically informed research on love and its influence in adult human relationships. We discuss research on how love is defined, the significance of love for human activity and well-being, and evidence about the mechanisms by which love is believed to operate. We conclude by describing several key questions and potentially important new directions for the next wave of psychological science.

Go to Journal’s full Table of Contents

Posted in Emotions, Implicit Associations, Morality, Social Psychology, Table of Contents | Leave a Comment »

Project on Law and Mind Sciences 2008 Conference: “Ideology, Psychology, and Law”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 18, 2008

Ideology plays a central role in both law and legal theory. The most elemental human distinctions – right and left, red and blue – are popular shorthand for political creeds. Candidates for office are said to face two challenges: “rallying the base” and “reaching across the aisle.” The first requires the emphasis of deep ideological divisions; the second, the suggestion that a wise lawmaker can transcend them. Despite their apparent contradiction, both strategies accept theback-of-invitation.jpg political primacy of ideology.Judges, by contrast, often describe their role as uniquely free from ideology, because (they say) their legitimacy depends upon their neutrality. Chief Justice Roberts famously compared a good judge to a baseball umpire, anonymously striving to ensure that everyone knows and obeys the accepted rules. Most citizens endorse this model of judging, and describe controversial decisions – Roe v. Wade for some, Bush v. Gore for others – as a departure from it.

Most legal scholars, however, doubt the descriptive accuracy and normative plausibility of an account in which judges merely apply the self-sufficient law. Many scholars – and some judges – respond to the specter of an ideological judiciary by introducing norms from outside the law as an aid to umpiring. Meanwhile, critical theorists maintain that neither rights nor economic efficiency nor any other principle can be ideologically neutral yet practically decisive. At all levels of debate, ideology remains a central preoccupation in both the practice and the study of law.

Strikingly, since World War II, social scientists have paid no mind to ideology. They were convinced that the concept lacked coherence and stability. That view is now rapidly changing, as social psychologists and other mind scientists have begun to study the characteristics and situations of people drawn to different dogmas. Indeed, John Jost recently declared “the end of the end of ideology” for the field. The latest research suggests that ideology is more a manifestation of implicit processes, motives, and human needs than a product of careful reasoning and explicit choices. Ideology, the new evidence suggests, is one of the names we give to causal forces beyond our grasp. When we embrace an ideology or claim to rise above it – whether as citizens, judges or scholars – our efforts are motivated and often undermined by our social and psychological situations.

At the Second Conference on Law and Mind Sciences on March 8 2008, leading social scientists and law professors will present their research and discuss the implications of a psychological understanding of ideology for politics, law and legal theory. To register or to learn more details, go to the conference webpage.

We will post the tentative conference agenda later this week.

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Events, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Law, Legal Theory, Politics, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Leave a Comment »

Power and Willingness to Listen

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 17, 2008

CEOA new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reveals a phenomenon that most may have suspected: the more powerful a person becomes, the less he or she listens to others. Below we excerpt an article from Science Daily that examines the study and its implications.

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“Powerful people have confidence in what they are thinking. Whether their thoughts are positive or negative toward an idea, that position is going to be hard to change,” said Richard Petty, co-author of a new study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

The best way to get leaders to consider new ideas is to put them in a situation where they don’t feel as powerful, the research suggests.

“If you temporarily make a powerful person feel less powerful, you have a better chance of getting them to pay attention,” said Pablo Briñol, lead author of the study and a social psychologist at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain. Briñol is a former postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State.

This research looks at an issue that has been largely ignored by social scientists, Petty said. Many studies have looked at how the power of a person delivering a message impacts those who receive it. But this appears to be the first study that looks at how the power of the message recipient affects persuasion.

In several related studies, the researchers told college students they would be participating in two supposedly separate experiments. In one experiment, the students role-played in a situation in which one was a boss – in other words, had a position of power – and the other was an employee who simply took orders.

In the second experiment, the participants viewed a fake advertisement for a mobile phone. The ad was designed to see if participants were paying attention to the message, so half the participants received ads with particularly weak arguments for buying the phone (for example, touting that it had a broad currency converter), while the others received strong arguments (the phone could be recharged in just 5 minutes). Participants were then asked to rate how favorably they viewed the phone.

When the role-playing exercise was conducted before viewing the phone ad, those who played boss were more likely than those playing employees to rate the phone similarly — whether they received the strong or the weak arguments.

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What this all means is that it matters when people are feeling powerful – before or after they receive a persuasive message. If the message comes right after their power is made relevant to them, then powerful people will be difficult to persuade because they are confident in their existing opinions. However, if people can be made to feel powerful right after a strong persuasive message, attitude change is more likely because powerful individuals will feel confident in the positive thoughts they generate to the message, Petty said.

For example, if you have strong arguments to get a raise, try not to ask the boss in herBusiness Lunch office, where she is surrounded by the trappings of power. Bring up the topic in a lunch room or somewhere where there aren’t reminders of who is in charge.

But if you do have to talk in the boss’s office, try to say something that shakes his or her confidence.

“Our research shows that power makes people more confident in their beliefs, but power is only one thing that affects confidence,” Petty said. “Try to bring up something that the boss doesn’t know, something that makes him less certain and that tempers his confidence.”

But once you do make your argument, assuming it is cogent, it is good to remind the boss that he is in charge.

“You want to sow all your arguments when the boss is not thinking of his power, and after you make a good case, then remind your boss of his power. Then he will be more confident in his own evaluation of what you say. As long as you make good arguments, he will be more likely to be persuaded,” Petty said.

Petty said the research casts doubt on the classic assertion that power corrupts people and leads them to negative actions. Instead, what power does is make people more likely to unquestionably believe their own thoughts and act on them, he said.

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For the rest of the article, click here.

Posted in Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Love

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 15, 2008

Time Magazine Cover - Science of Romance
As part of our our St. Valentine’s Day series, we offer some excerpts from an interesting article, titled “Why We Love,” by Jeffrey Kluger in a recent issue of Time Magazine. The article offers some possible situational explanations for love:
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The last time you had sex, there was arguably not a thought in your head. . . . [I]f it was that kind of sex that’s the whole reason you took up having sex in the first place–the out-of-breath, out-of-body, can- you-believe-this- is-actually-happening kind of sex–the rational you had probably taken a powder.Losing our faculties over a matter like sex ought not to make much sense for a species like ours that relies on its wits. A savanna full of predators, after all, was not a place to get distracted. But the lure of losing our faculties is one of the things that makes sex thrilling–and one of the very things that keeps the species going. As far as your genes are concerned, your principal job while you’re alive is to conceive offspring, bring them to adulthood and then obligingly die so you don’t consume resources better spent on the young. Anything that encourages you to breed now and breed plenty gets that job done.

But mating and the rituals surrounding it make us come unhinged in other ways too, ones that are harder to explain by the mere babymaking imperative. There’s the transcendent sense of tenderness you feel toward a person who sparks your interest. There’s the sublime feeling of relief and reward when that interest is returned. There are the flowers you buy and the poetry you write and the impulsive trip you make to the other side of the world just so you can spend 48 hours in the presence of a lover who’s far away. That’s an awful lot of busywork just to get a sperm to meet an egg–if merely getting a sperm to meet an egg is really all that it’s about.

Human beings make a terrible fuss about a lot of things but none more than romance. . . .

* * *

On its good days (and love has a lot of them), all this seems to make perfect sense. Nearly 30 years ago, psychologist Elaine Hatfield of the University of Hawaii and sociologist Susan Sprecher now of Illinois State University developed a 15-item questionnaire that ranks people along what the researchers call the passionate-love scale. Hatfield has administered the test in places as varied as the U.S., Pacific islands, Russia, Mexico, Pakistan and, most recently, India and has found that no matter where she looks, it’s impossible to squash love. “It seemed only people in the West were goofy enough to marry for passionate love,” she says. “But in all of the cultures I’ve studied, people love wildly.”

What scientists, not to mention the rest of us, want to know is, Why? What makes us go so loony over love? Why would we bother with this elaborate exercise in fan dances and flirtations, winking and signaling, joy and sorrow? “We have only a very limited understanding of what romance is in a scientific sense,” admits John Bancroft, emeritus director of the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Ind., a place where they know a thing or two about the way human beings pair up. But that limited understanding is expanding. The more scientists look, the more they’re able to tease romance apart into its individual strands–the visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, neurochemical processes that make it possible. None of those things may be necessary for simple procreation, but all of them appear essential for something larger. What that something is–and how we achieve it– is only now coming clear.

* * *

If human reproductive behavior is a complicated thing, part of the reason is that it’s designed to serve two clashing purposes. On the one hand, we’re driven to mate a lot. On the other hand, we want to mate well so that our offspring survive. If you’re a female, you get only a few rolls of the reproductive dice in a lifetime. If you’re a male, your freedom to conceive is limited only by the availability of willing partners, but the demands of providing for too big a brood are a powerful incentive to limit your pairings to the female who will give you just a few strong young. For that reason, no sooner do we reach sexual maturity than we learn to look for signals of good genes and reproductive fitness in potential partners and, importantly, to display them ourselves.

“Every living human is a descendant of a long line of successful maters,” says David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “We’ve adapted to pick certain types of mates and to fulfill the desires of the opposite sex.”

One of the most primal of those desires is that a possible partner smells right. Good smells and bad smells are fundamentally no different from each other; both are merely volatile molecules wafting off an object and providing some clue as to the thing that emitted them. Humans, like all animals, quickly learn to assign values to those scents, recognizing that, say, putrefying flesh can carry disease and thus recoiling from its smell and that warm cookies carry the promise of vanilla, sugar and butter and thus being drawn to them. Other humans carry telltale smells of their own, and those can affect us in equally powerful ways.

The best-known illustration of the invisible influence of scent is the way the menstrual cycles of women who live communally tend toNose Kiss synchronize. . . .

But how does one female signal the rest? The answer is almost certainly smell. Pheromones–or scent-signaling chemicals–are known to exist among animals, and while scientists have had a hard time unraveling the pheromonal system in humans, they have isolated a few of the compounds. One type, known as driver pheromones, appears to affect the endocrine systems of others. Since the endocrine system plays a critical role in the timing of menstruation, there is at least a strong circumstantial case that the two are linked. “It’s thought that there is a driver female who gives off something that changes the onset of menstruation in the other women,” says chemist Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

It’s not just women who respond to such olfactory cues. One surprising study published last October in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior showed that strippers who are ovulating average $70 in tips per hour; those who are menstruating make $35; those who are not ovulating or menstruating make $50. Other studies suggest that men can react in more romantic ways to olfactory signals. In work conducted by Martie Haselton, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA, women report that when they’re ovulating, their partners are more loving and attentive and, significantly, more jealous of other men. “The men are picking up on something in their partner’s behavior that tells them to do more mate-guarding,” Haselton says.

Scent not only tells males which females are primed to conceive, but it also lets both sexes narrow their choices of potential partners. Among the constellation of genes that control the immune system are those known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which influence tissue rejection. Conceive a child with a person whose MHC is too similar to your own, and the risk increases that the womb will expel the fetus. Find a partner with sufficiently different MHC, and you’re likelier to carry a baby to term.

Studies show that laboratory mice can smell too-similar MHC in the urine of other mice and will avoid mating with those individuals. In later work conducted at the University of Bern in Switzerland, human females were asked to smell T shirts worn by anonymous males and then pick which ones appealed to them. Time and again, they chose the ones worn by men with a safely different MHC. And if the smell of MHC isn’t a deal maker or breaker, the taste is. Saliva also contains the compound, a fact that Haselton believes may partly explain the custom of kissing, particularly those protracted sessions that stop short of intercourse. “Kissing,” she says simply, “might be a taste test.”

* * *

[We’ve omitted the articles summary of fascinating research on the way the birth-control pill can disable or distort some of those processes, the effect of how a potential partner looks and sounds, the possible interactions between those features, and the “trip-wire” effect of a kiss. We’ve also omitted the article’s summary of Helen Fisher’s research, which we’ve described in other posts.]

Love Gone Wrong

The problem with romance is that it doesn’t always deliver the goods. For all the joy it promises, it can also play us for fools, particularly when it convinces us that we’ve found the right person, only to upend our expectations later. Birth-control pills that mask a woman’s ability to detect her mate’s incompatible MHC are one way bad love can slip past our perimeters. Adrenaline is another. Any overwhelming emotional experience that ratchets up your sensory system can distort your perceptions, persuading you to take a chance on someone you should avoid.

Psychologist Arthur Aron of the State University of New York at Stony Brook says people who meet during a crisis–an emergency landing of their airplane, say–may be much more inclined to believe they’ve found the person meant for them. “It’s not that we fall in love with such people because they’re immensely attractive,” he says. “It’s that they seem immensely attractive because we’ve fallen in love with them.”

If that sounds a lot like what happens when people meet and date under the regular influence of drugs or alcohol, only to sober up later and wonder what in the world they were thinking, that’s because in both cases powerful chemistry is running the show. When hormones and natural opioids get activated, explains psychologist and sex researcher Jim Pfaus of Concordia University in Montreal, you start drawing connections to the person who was present when those good feelings were created. “You think someone made you feel good,” Pfaus says, “but really it’s your brain that made you feel good.”

Of course, even a love fever that’s healthily shared breaks eventually, if only because–like any fever–it’s unsustainable over time. Fisher sees the dangers of maladaptive love in fMRI studies she’s conducting of people who have been rejected by a lover and can’t shake the pain. In these subjects, as with all people in love, there is activity in the caudate nucleus, but it’s specifically in a part that’s adjacent to a brain region associated with addiction. If the two areas indeed overlap, as Fisher suspects, that helps explain why telling a jilted lover that it’s time to move on can be fruitless–as fruitless as admonishing a drunk to put a cork in the bottle.

Happily, romance needn’t come to ruin. Even irrational animals like ourselves would have quit trying if the bet didn’t pay off sometimes. middle-aged coupleThe eventual goal of any couple is to pass beyond serial dating–beyond even the thrill of early love–and into what’s known as companionate love. That’s the coffee-and-Sunday-paper phase, the board-games-when-it’s-raining phase, and the fact is, there’s not a lick of excitement about it. But that, for better or worse, is adaptive too. If partners are going to stay together for the years of care that children require, they need a love that bonds them to each other but without the passion that would be a distraction. As early humans relied more on their brainpower to survive–and the dependency period of babies lengthened to allow for the necessary learning–companionate bonding probably became more pronounced.

That’s not to say that people can’t stay in love or that those couples who say they still feel romantic after years of being together are imagining things. Aron has conducted fMRI studies of some of those stubbornly loving pairs, and initial results show that their brains indeed look very much like those of people newly in love, with all the right regions lighting up in all the right ways. “We wondered if they were really feeling these things,” Aron says. “But it looks like this is really happening.”

These people, however, are the exceptions, and nearly all relationships must settle and cool. That’s a hard truth, but it’s a comforting one too. Long for the heat of early love if you want, but you’d have to pay for it with the solidity you’ve built over the years. “You’ve got to make a transition to a stabler state,” says Barry McCarthy, a psychologist and sex therapist based in Washington. If love can be mundane, that’s because sometimes it’s meant to be.

Calling something like love mundane, of course, is true only as far as it goes. Survival of a species is a ruthless and reductionist matter, but if staying alive were truly all it was about, might we not have arrived at ways to do it without joy–as we could have developed language without literature, rhythm without song, movement without dance? Romance may be nothing more than reproductive filigree, a bit of decoration that makes us want to perpetuate the species and ensures that we do it right. But nothing could convince a person in love that there isn’t something more at work–and the fact is, none of us would want to be convinced. That’s a nut science may never fully crack.

* * *

To read the entire article, which we recommend, click here. For related Situationist posts, go to Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “The Situation of Cupid’s Arrow,” “How System Threat Affects Cupid,” and “The Situation of Flirting.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Life | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Flirting

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 14, 2008

istock-peacock.jpgFor our Valentine’s-Day series, we’ve mashed up several recent articles summarizing some of the possible situational causes of flirting. The articles are Belinda Luscombe’s article in Time Magazine titled “Why We Flirt,” Joann Ellison Rodgers’s article in Psychology Today, “Flirting Fascination,” and Deborah A. Lott and Frank Veronsky’s piece in Psychology Today, “The New Flirting Game.”

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Long trivialized and even demonized, flirtation is gaining new respectability thanks to a spate of provocative studies of animal and human behavior in many parts of the world. The capacity of men and women to flirt and to be receptive to flirting turns out to be a remarkable set of behaviors embedded deep in our psyches. Every come-hither look sent and every sidelong glance received are mutually understood signals of such transcendent history and beguiling sophistication that only now are they beginning to yield clues to the psychological and biological wisdom they encode.

This much is clear so far: flirting is nature’s solution to the problem every creature faces in a world full of potential mates-how to choose the right one. We all need a partner who is not merely fertile but genetically different as well as healthy enough to promise viable offspring, provide some kind of help in the hard job of parenting and offer some social compatibility.

Our animal and human ancestors needed a means of quickly and safely judging the value of potential mates without “going all the way” and risking pregnancy with every possible candidate they encountered. Flirting achieved that end, offering a relatively risk-free set of signals with which to sample the field, try out sexual wares and exchange vital information about candidates’ general health and reproductive fitness.

“Flirting is a negotiation process that takes place after there has been some initial attraction,” observes Steven W. Gangestad, Ph.D., an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who is currently studying how people choose their mates. “Two people have to share with each other the information that they are attracted, and then test each other” on an array of attributes. Simply announcing, ‘I’m attracted to you, are you attracted to me?’ doesn’t work so well. “It works much better to reveal this and have it revealed to you in smaller doses,” explains Gangestad. “The flirting then becomes something that enhances the attraction.”

It is an axiom of science that traits and behaviors crucial to survival-such as anything to do with attraction and sex-require, and get, a lot of an animal’s resources. All mammals and most animals (including birds, fish, even fruit flies) engage in complicated and energy-intensive plots and plans for attracting others to the business of sex. That is, they flirt.

* * *

But what about people?

Contrary to widespread belief, only two very specific types of people flirt: those who are single and those who are married. Single people flirt because, well, they’re single and therefore nobody is really contractually obliged to talk to them, sleep with them or scratch that difficult-to-reach part of the back. But married people, they’re a tougher puzzle. They’ve found themselves a suitable–maybe even superior–mate, had a bit of productive fun with the old gametes and ensured that at least some of their genes are carried into the next generation. They’ve done their duty, evolutionarily speaking. Their genome will survive. Yay them. So for Pete’s sake, why do they persist with the game?

And before you claim, whether single or married, that you never flirt, bear in mind that it’s not just talk we’re dealing with here. It’s gestures, stance, eye movement. Notice how you lean forward to the person you’re talking to and tip up your heels? Notice the quick little eyebrow raise you make, the sidelong glance coupled with the weak smile you givebasic-flirting-behavior.jpg, the slightly sustained gaze you offer? If you’re a woman, do you feel your head tilting to the side a bit, exposing either your soft, sensuous neck or, looking at it another way, your jugular? If you’re a guy, are you keeping your body in an open, come-on-attack-me position, arms positioned to draw the eye to your impressive lower abdomen?

Scientists call all these little acts “contact-readiness” cues, because they indicate, nonverbally, that you’re prepared for physical engagement. (More general body language is known as “nonverbal leakage.” Deep in their souls, all scientists are poets.) These cues are a crucial part of what’s known in human-ethology circles as the “heterosexual relationship initiation process” and elsewhere, often on the selfsame college campuses, as “coming on to someone.” In primal terms, they’re physical signals that you don’t intend to dominate, nor do you intend to flee–both useful messages potential mates need to send before they can proceed to that awkward talking phase. They’re the opening line, so to speak, for the opening line.

One of the reasons we flirt in this way is that we can’t help it. We’re programmed to do it, whether by biology or culture. The biology part has been investigated by any number of researchers. Thirty years ago, Ethologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, then of the Max Planck Institute in Germany (now honorary director of the Ludwig-Bohzmann Institute for Urban Ethology in Vienna), was already familiar with the widespread dances and prances of mate-seeking animals. Then he discovered that people in dozens of cultures, from the South Sea islands to the Far East, Western Europe, Africa and South America, similarly engage in a fairly fixed repertoire of gestures to test sexual availability and interest.

Having devised a special camera that allowed him to point the lens in one direction while actually photographing in another, he “caught” couples on film during their flirtations, and discovered, for one thing, that women, from primitives who have no written language to those who read Cosmo and Marie Claire, use nonverbal signals that are startlingly alike. On Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s screen flickered identical flirtation messages: a female smiling at a male, then arching her brows to make her eyes wide, quickly lowering her lids and, tucking her chin slightly down and coyly to the side, averting her gaze, followed within seconds, almost on cue, by putting her hands on or near her mouth and giggling. (The technical name for the head movement is a “cant.” Except in this case it’s more like “can.”)

Regardless of language, socioeconomic status or religious upbringing, couples who continued flirting placed a palm up on the table or knees, reassuring the prospective partner of harmlessness. They shrugged their shoulders, signifying helplessness. Women exaggeratedly extended their neck, a sign of vulnerability and submissiveness.

For Eibl-Eibesfeldt, these gestures represented primal behaviors driven by the old parts of our brain’s evolutionary memory. A woman presenting her extended neck to a man she wants is not much different, his work suggested, than a gray female wolf’s submissiveness to a dominant male she’s after.

* * *

Why this elaborate dance?

From nature’s standpoint, the goal of life is the survival of our DNA. Sex is the way most animals gain the flexibility to healthfully sort and mix their genes. Getting sex, in turn, is wholly dependent on attracting attention and being attracted. And flirting is the way a person focuses the attention of a specific member of the opposite sex. If our ancestors hadn’t done it well enough, we wouldn’t be around to discuss it now.

A silent language of elaborate visual and other gestures, flirting is “spoken” by intellect-driven people as well as instinct-driven animals. The very universality of flirting, preserved through evolutionary history from insects to man, suggests that a flirting plan is wired into us, and that it has been embedded in our genes and in our brain’s operating system the same way and for the same reasons that every other sexual trait has been-by trial and error, with conservation of what works best.

Like any other language, flirting may be deployed in ways subtle or coarse, adolescent or suave. Nevertheless, it has evolved just like pheasant spurs and lion manes: to advertise ourselves to the opposite sex.

Evolutionary biologists would suggest that those individuals who executed flirting maneuvers most adeptly were more successful in swiftly finding a mate and reproducing and that the behavior therefore became widespread in all humans. “A lot of people feel flirting is part of the universal language of how we communicate, especially nonverbally,” says Jeffry Simpson, director of the social psychology program at the University of Minnesota.

Simpson is currently studying the roles that attraction and flirting play during different times of a woman’s ovulation cycle. His research suggests that women who are ovulating are more attracted to flirty men. “The guys they find appealing tend to have characteristics that are attractive in the short term, which include some flirtatious behaviors,” he says. He’s not sure why women behave this way, but it follows that men who bed ovulating women have a greater chance of procreating and passing on those flirty genes, which means those babies will have more babies, and so on. Of course, none of this is a conscious choice, just as flirting is not always intentional. “With a lot of it, especially the nonverbal stuff, people may not be fully aware that they’re doing it,” says Simpson. “You don’t see what you look like. People may emit flirtatious cues and not be fully aware of how powerful they are.”

Recently, researchers have been studying compressed bouts of flirting and courtship in their natural habitat-hotel bars and cocktail lounges. From observations at a Hyatt hotel cocktail lounge, researchers documented a set of signals that whisks a just-met man and woman from barroom to bedroom. Her giggles and soft laughs were followed by hair twirling and head-tossing; he countered with body arching, leaning back in the chair and placing his arms behind head, not unlike a pigeon puffing his chest.

If all went well, a couple would invariably progress from touching themselves to touching each other. The first tentative contacts could be termed “lint-picking.” She would lift an imaginary mote from his lapel; he would brush a real or imaginary crumb from her lips. Their heads moved closer, their hands pressed out in front of them on the table, their fingers inches from each other’s, playing with salt shakers or utensils. Whoops! An “accidental” finger touch, then perhaps some digital “dirty dancing,” more touching and leaning in cheek to cheek. By body language alone, the investigators could predict which pairs would ride up the elevators together.

Social psychologist Timothy Perper, Ph.D., an independent scholar and writer based in Philadelphia, and anthropologist David Givens, Ph.D., spent months in dimly lit lounges documenting these flirtation rituals. Like the ear wiggles, nose flicks and back arches that signal “come hither” in rodents, the women smiled, gazed, swayed, giggled, licked their lips, and aided and abetted by the wearing of high heels, they swayed their backs, forcing their buttocks to tilt out and up and their chests to thrust forward.

The men arched, stretched, swiveled, and made grand gestures of whipping out lighters and lighting up cigarettes. They’d point their chins in the air with a cigarette dangling in their mouth, then loop their arms in a wide arc to put the lighter away. Their swaggers, bursts of laughter and grandiose gestures were an urban pantomime of the prancing and preening indulged in by male baboons and gorillas in the wild. Man or monkey, the signals all said, “Look at me, trust me, I’m powerful, but I won’t hurt you.” And “I don’t want anything much . . . yet.”

All the silent swaying, leaning, smiling, bobbing and gazing eventually brought a pair into full frontal alignment. Face to face, they indulged in simultaneous touching of everything from eyeglasses to fingertips to crossed legs. Says Perper, “This kind of sequence–attention, recognition, dancing, synchronization–is fundamental to courtship. From the Song of Songs until today, the sequence is the same: look, talk, touch, kiss, do the deed.”

* * *

The rational brain is always on the lookout for dangers, for complexities, for reasons to act or not act. If every time man and woman met they immediately considered all the possible risks and vulnerabilities they might face if they mated or had children, they’d run screaming from the room.

It’s no secret that the brain’s emotionally loaded limbic system sometimes operates independently of the more rational neocortex, such as in the face of danger, when the fight-or-flight response is activated. Similarly, when the matter is sex–another situation on which survival depends–we also react without even a neural nod to the neocortex. Instead, the flirtational operating system appears to kick in without conscious consent.

The fact that flirting is a largely nonexplicit drama doesn’t mean that important information isn’t being delivered in those silent signals. By swaying her hips, or emphasizing them in a form-fitting dress, a flirtatious woman is riveting attention on her pelvis, suggesting its ample capacity for bearing a child. By arching her brows and exaggerating her gaze, her eyes appear large in her face, the way a child’s eyes do, advertising, along with giggles, her youth and “submissiveness.” By drawing her tongue along her lips, she compels attention to what many biologists believe are facial echoes of vaginal lips, transmitting sexual maturity and her interest in sex. By coyly averting her gaze and playing “hard to get,” she communicates her unwillingness to give sex to just anyone or to someone who will love her and leave her.

For his part, by extending a strong chin and jaw, expanding and showing off pectoral muscles and a hairy chest, flashing money, laughing loudly or resonantly, smiling, and doing all these things without accosting a woman, a man signals his ability to protect offspring, his resources and the testosterone-driven vitality of his sperm as well as the tamer side of him that is willing to stick around, after the sex, for fatherhood. It’s the behavioral equivalent of “I’ll respect you in the morning.”

The moment of attraction, in fact, mimics a kind of brain damage. At the University of Iowa, where he is professor and head of neurology, Antonio Damasio, M.D., has found that people with damage to the connection between their limbic structures and the higher brain are smart and rational-but unable to make decisions. They bring commitment phobia to a whole new level. In attraction, we don’t stop and think, we react, operating on a “gut” feeling, with butterflies, giddiness, sweaty palms and flushed faces brought on by the reactivity of the emotional brain. We suspend intellect at least long enough to propel us to the next step in the mating game-flirtation.

Somewhere beyond flirtation, as a relationship progresses, courtship gets under way, and with it, intellectual processes resume. Two pam-jim.jpgadults can then evaluate potential mates more rationally, think things over and decide whether to love, honor and cherish. But at the moment of attraction and flirtation, bodies, minds and sense are temporarily hostage to the more ancient parts of the brain, the impulsive parts that humans share with animals.

Flirtation occurs even among those who are not consciously or intentionally seeking a mate.

And there are some schools of thought that teach there’s nothing wrong with that. Flirtation is a game we play, a dance for which everyone knows the moves. “People can flirt outrageously without intending anything,” says . . . Timothy Perper . . . . “Flirting captures the interest of the other person and says ‘Would you like to play?'” And one of the most exhilarating things about the game is that the normal rules of social interaction are rubberized. Clarity is not the point. “Flirting opens a window of potential. Not yes, not no,” says Perper. “So we engage ourselves in this complex game of maybe.”

Once we’ve learned the game of maybe, it becomes second nature to us. Long after we need to play it, we’re still in there swinging (so to speak) because we’re better at it than at other games. Flirting sometimes becomes a social fallback position. “We all learn rules for how to behave in certain situations, and this makes it easier for people to know how to act, even when nervous,” says Antonia Abbey, a psychology professor at Wayne State University. Just as we learn a kind of script for how to behave in a restaurant or at a business meeting, she suggests, we learn a script for talking to the opposite sex. “We often enact these scripts without even thinking,” she says. “For some women and men, the script may be so well learned that flirting is a comfortable strategy for interacting with others.” In other words, when in doubt, we flirt.

The thing that propels many already committed people to ply the art of woo, however, is often not doubt. It’s curiosity. Flirting “is a way of testing one’s mate-value and the possibility of alternatives–actually trying to see if someone might be available as an alternative,” says Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. To evolutionary biologists, the advantages of this are clear: mates die, offspring die. Flirting is a little like taking out mating insurance.

If worst comes to worst and you don’t still have it (and yes, I’m sure you do), the very act of flirting with someone else may bring about renewed attention from your mate, which has advantages all its own. So it’s a win-win.

* * *

In our culture today, it’s clear that we do not always choose as the object of our desire those people the evolutionists might deem the most biologically desirable. After fill, many young women today find the pale, androgynous, scarcely muscled yet emotionally expressive Leonardo DiCaprio more appealing than the burly Tarzans (Arnold Schwartzenegger, Bruce Willis, etc.) of action movies. Woody Allen may look nerdy but he’s had no trouble winning women–and that’s not just because he has material resources, but because humor is also a precious cultural commodity. Though she has no breasts or hips to speak of, Ally McBeal still attracts because there’s ample evidence of a quick and quirky mind.

In short, we flirt with the intent of assessing potential lifetime partners, we flirt to have easy, no-strings-attached sex, and we flirt when we are not looking for either. We flirt because, most simply, flirtation can be a liberating form of play, a game with suspense and ambiguities that brings joys of its own. As . . . Tim Perper says, “Some flirters appear to want to prolong the interaction because it’s pleasurable and erotic in its own right, regardless of where it might lead.”

Flirting is also emotional capital to be expended in return for something else. Not usually for money, but for the intangibles–a better table, a juicier cut of meat, the ability to return an unwanted purchase without too many questions. It’s a handy social lubricant, reducing the friction of everyday transactions, and closer to a strategically timed tip than a romantic overture. . . .

But . . . . [f]lirt the wrong way with the wrong person, and you run the risk of everything from a slap to a sexual-harassment lawsuit. And of course, the American virtue of plainspokenness is not an asset in an activity that is ambiguous by design. Wayne State’s Abbey, whose research has focused on the dark side of flirting–when it transmogrifies into harassment, stalking or acquaintance rape–warns that flirting can be treacherous. “Most of the time flirtation desists when one partner doesn’t respond positively,” she says. “But some people just don’t get the message that is being sent, and some ignore it because it isn’t what they want to hear.”

One of the most fascinating flirting laboratories is the digital world. Here’s a venue that is all words and no body language; whether online or in text messages, nuance is almost impossible. And since text and e-mail flirting can be done without having to look people in the eye, and is often done with speed, it is bolder, racier and unimpeded by moments of reflection on whether the message could be misconstrued or is wise to send at all. “Flirt texting is a topic everyone finds fascinating, although not much research is out there yet,” says Abbey. But one thing is clear: “People are often more willing to disclose intimate details via the Internet, so the process may escalate more quickly.”

Most people who flirt–off-line at least–are not looking for an affair. But one of the things that sets married flirting apart from single flirting is that it has a much greater degree of danger and fantasy to it. The stakes are higher and the risk is greater, even if the likelihood of anything happening is slim. But the cocktail is in some cases much headier. It is most commonly the case with affairs, therapists say, that people who cheat are not so much dissatisfied with their spouse as with themselves and the way their lives have turned out. There is little that feels more affirming and revitalizing than having someone fall in love with you. (It follows, then, that there’s little that feels less affirming than being cheated on.) Flirting is a decaf affair, a way of feeling more alive, more vital, more desirable without actually endangering the happiness of anyone you love–or the balance of your bank account. So go ahead and flirt, if you can do it responsibly. You might even try it with your spouse or partner.

* * *

For related Situationist posts, go to Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “The Situation of Cupid’s Arrow,” and “How System Threat Affects Cupid.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Life, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

How System Threat Affects Cupid

Posted by Aaron Kay on February 13, 2008

IStock image - System Threat

Can a challenge to the stability of the federal government change individual romantic preferences? A study that I recently published with Grace Lau and Steven Spencer suggests that in reaction to such a challenge, system justification can cause males to prefer female partners with “benevolently stereotypical” characteristics, including vulnerability, purity, and suitability for making men complete. This study is the first to link system justification processes with interpersonal attraction.

System justification theorists have found that when an individual’s socio-political system is threatened, the person will restore his faith in the system by engaging in psychological processes that bolster the system’s legitimacy. One important way in which justificationIStock image - Wedding Cake Bride & Groom occurs is via the activation of stereotypes that justify social inequality.

The relevant stereotypes in our recent study are traits related to “benevolent sexism,” in which women are believed to be pure creatures who require protection, support, and love, and without whom a man would be incomplete. Exposure to such stereotypes leads to increased endorsement of the status quo.

In our experiment, single male Canadian undergraduates were presented with an article that either threatened or supported the current Canadian government. They were then asked to rate their interest in the online dating profiles of several women, half of which portrayed women with classic benevolent-stereotype characteristics, and half of which depicted women inconsistent with such stereotypes (for instance, career-oriented, athletic, or involved in social causes). Pretesting showed that all the women were seen as equally attractive, and photos of the women were also randomly paired with descriptions to avoid any confounding effect of physical attractiveness.

When participants were presented with the system-threatening article, they showed more interest in benevolent stereotypic women than in the other women. This divergence was not present when there was no system threat. The threat also increased the average ratings of attractiveness and interest for the benevolent stereotypic women, but not for the other women.

Our study suggests that men who experience system threat have greater romantic interest in women who embody benevolent sexist ideals than women who do not embody those ideals. In addition, men are more attracted to women who embody benevolent sexist ideals when they are experiencing system threat compared to when they are not. Acting on their preferences for benevolent stereotypic women may create a self-fulfilling prophecy encouraging women to embody these ideals and accept subordinate roles.

* * *

For a brief summary of this study in Sunday’s Boston Globe, click here. For a sampler of previous Situationist posts discussing system justification, see “Ideology is Back!,” Ideology Shaping Situation or Vice Versa,” “Thanksgiving as ‘System Justification,’” “Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” Cheering for the Underdog,” “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!,” “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism,” and “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers.’

Posted in Choice Myth, Ideology, Life, System Legitimacy | 3 Comments »

Phil Zimbardo on Colbert Report – Video

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 12, 2008

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Posted in Social Psychology, Video | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Kissing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 12, 2008

Scientific American Mind Cover - 1/31/08Chip Walter has an interesting article in a recent issue of Scientific American Mind on “Why We Kiss,” examining what researchers are discovering about the powerful messages relayed to your brain, body, and partner through a kiss. As part of Valentine’s Day theme, we’ve excerpted a few sections of the article below.

* * *

When passion takes a grip, a kiss locks two humans together in an exchange of scents, tastes, textures, secrets and emotions. We kiss furtively, lasciviously, gently, shyly, hungrily and exuberantly. We kiss in broad daylight and in the dead of night. We give ceremonial kisses, affectionate kisses, Hollywood air kisses, kisses of death and, at least in fairytales, pecks that revive princesses.

Lips may have evolved first for food and later applied themselves to speech, but in kissing they satisfy different kinds of hungers. In the body, a kiss triggers a cascade of neural messages and chemicals that transmit tactile sensations, sexual excitement, feelings of closeness, motivation and even euphoria.Not all the messages are internal. After all, kissing is a communal affair. The fusion of two bodies dispatches communiqués to your partner as powerful as the data you stream to yourself. Kisses can convey important information about the status and future of a relationship. So much, in fact, that, according to recent research, if a first kiss goes bad, it can stop an otherwise promising relationship dead in its tracks.Some scientists believe that the fusing of lips evolved because it facilitates mate selection. “Kissing,” said evolutionary psychologist Gordon G. Gallup of the University at Albany, State University of New York, last September in an interview with the BBC, “involves a very complicated exchange of information—olfactory information, tactile information and postural types of adjustments that may tap into underlying evolved and unconscious mechanisms that enable people to make determinations … about the degree to which they are genetically incompatible.” Kissing may even reveal the extent to which a partner is willing to commit to raising children, a central issue in long-term relationships and crucial to the survival of our species.

Satisfying Hunger
Whatever else is going on when we kiss, our evolutionary history is embedded within this tender, tempestuous act. In the 1960s British zoologist and author Desmond Morris first proposed that kissing might have evolved from the practice in which primate mothers chewed food for their young and then fed them mouth-to-mouth, lips puckered. Chimpanzees feed in this manner, so our hominid ancestors probably did, too. Pressing outturned lips against lips may have then later developed as a way to comfort hungry children when food was scarce and, in time, to express love and affection in general. The human species might eventually have taken these proto-parental kisses down other roads until we came up with the more passionate varieties we have today.
* * *
Good Chemistry
Since kissing evolved, the act seems to have become addictive. Human lips enjoy the slimmest layer of skin on the human body, and the lips are among the most densely populated with sensory neurons of any body region. When we kiss, these neurons, along with those in the tongue and mouth, rocket messages to the brain and body, setting off delightful sensations, intense emotions and physical reactions.Ro

Of the 12 or 13 cranial nerves that affect cerebral function, five are at work when we kiss, shuttling messages from our lips, tongue, cheeks and nose to a brain that snatches information about the temperature, taste, smell and movements of the entire affair. Some of that information arrives in the somatosensory cortex, a swath of tissue on the surface of the brain that represents tactile information in a map of the body. In that map, the lips loom large because the size of each represented body region is proportional to the density of its nerve endings.

Kissing unleashes a cocktail of chemicals that govern human stress, motivation, social bonding and sexual stimulation. In a new study, psychologist Wendy L. Hill and her student Carey A. Wilson of Lafayette College compared the levels of two key hormones in 15 college male-female couples before and after they kissed and before and after they talked to each other while holding hands. One hormone, oxytocin, is involved in social bonding, and the other, cortisol, plays a role in stress. Hill and Wilson predicted that kissing would boost levels of oxytocin, which also influences social recognition, male and female orgasm, and childbirth. They expected this effect to be particularly pronounced in the study’s females, who reported higher levels of intimacy in their relationships. They also forecast a dip in cortisol, because kissing is presumably a stress reliever.

But the researchers were surprised to find that oxytocin levels rose only in the males, whereas it decreased in the females, after either kissing or talking while holding hands. They concluded that females must require more than a kiss to feel emotionally connected or sexually excited during physical contact. Females might, for example, need a more romantic atmosphere than the experimental setting provided, the authors speculate. The study, which Hill and Wilson reported in November 2007 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, revealed that cortisol levels dropped for both sexes no matter the form of intimacy, a hint that kissing does in fact reduce stress.

* * *

Kissing has other primal effects on us as well. Visceral marching orders boost pulse and blood pressure. The pupils dilate, breathing deepens and rational thought retreats, as desire suppresses both prudence and self-consciousness. . . .

Litmus Test
Although a kiss may not be wise, it can be pivotal to a relationship. . . .

. . . . In a recent survey Gallup and his colleagues found that 59 percent of 58 men and 66 percent of 122 women admitted there had been times when they were attracted to some­one only to find that their interest evaporated after their first kiss. The “bad” kisses had no particular flaws; they simply did not feel right—and they ended the romantic relationship then and there—a kiss of death for that coupling.

Here to Eternity KissThe reason a kiss carries such weight, Gallup theorizes, is that it conveys subconscious information about the genetic compatibility of a prospective mate. His hypothesis is consistent with the idea that kissing evolved as a courtship strategy because it helps us rate potential partners.

* * *

Despite all these observations, a kiss continues to resist complete scientific dissection. Close scrutiny of couples has illuminated new complexities woven throughout this simplest and most natural of acts—and the quest to unmask the secrets of passion and love is not likely to end soon. But romance gives up its mysteries grudgingly. And in some ways, we like it like that.

* * *

To read the entirety of Chip Walter’s article, click here. To read some related blogging from our blogroll, here ( and here ( To listen to a 30-minute BBC radio program on “The Kiss” (its origin, chemistry, physiology and cultural significance”), click here. For related posts, go to Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “The Situation of Cupid’s Arrow.” Kisses.

Posted in Emotions, Life | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Cupid’s Arrow

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 11, 2008

Helen Fisher BooksThis week, on NPR’s Living on Earth, Steve Curwood spoke with anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University to find the science behind love at first sight and happily ever after. Fisher is the author of several books, including her most recent, “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.” We’ve included a few excerpts below. To read or listen to the entire interview, click here.

* * *

CURWOOD: You call your book “Why We Love.”. . . Tell me please about your research on this topic.

FISHER: I have a theory that we’ve evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction. The sex-drive being one, that craving for sexual gratification. The second is romantic love, that obsession, the craving, the ecstasy, the focused attention, the motivation to win a particular mating partner; that early, intense romantic love. And the third brain system is attachment, that sense of calm and security that you can feel with a long-term partner.

I decided that I had already written quite a bit about the sex drive, and actually I’d written quite a bit about attachment. So I began to think to myself, ‘well, you know, this is probably the most powerful experience on Earth, romantic love, and maybe I could get some people into a functional MRI brain scanner and see if I can’t find out what happens. What the chemistry actually is of this experience.’

* * *

What we did is we put – I and my colleagues – put 32 people who were madly in love into this brain scanner. Seventeen who were madly in love and their love was accepted, they were happily in love; and 15 who were, had just been dumped, they had just been rejected in love. But both groups were intensely in love.

* * *

. . . . I had hypothesized that we would find evidence for elevated activity of the dopamine system and the norepinephrine system. These are natural stimulants in the brain; they give you feelings of elation, giddiness, euphoria, focused attention, motivation, heightened energy, sleeplessness, loss of appetite. These are basic characteristics of romantic love. So I thought we would also find low activity of serotonin because low activity of serotonin is associated with obsessive compulsive behaviors, and certainly the main characteristic of romantic love is you can’t stop thinking about this individual. It is an obsession. So that was my hypothesis as I went in.

What we ended up finding is activity in this ventral tegmental area in a region that actually makes dopamine and sends dopamine to many brain regions. We did not find activity of norepinephrine, but I really think that that’s also involved. We just haven’t found it yet; it doesn’t mean it’s not there. The reason I think norepinephrine will be involved is because it’s norepinephrine that gives you what they call the sweaty palms syndrome: the pounding heart, the dry mouth, the sweaty palms. The kind of things that happen when you’re really incredibly in love with somebody and don’t know yet whether they love you.

CURWOOD: So romance is as important as eating? drinking? breathing?

FISHER: Well, it can be stronger . . . . I think that romantic love evolved for a very fundamental reason.

* * *
I think it evolved to enable us to focus our mating energy on just one individual at a time, thereby conserving mating time and energy and starting the most important thing we’ll do with our lives, which is forming a pair bond and raising, creating a child. I think the sex drive evolved to get you out there looking for a whole range of partners. I mean, you can have sex with somebody you’re not in love with. And I think that attachment, that third brain system, that third drive, evolved to enable us to tolerate this individual, at least long enough to rear a child together.

So I think these three different drives – the sex drive, romantic love, and attachment – all are operating in all kinds of combinations to direct our reproductive lives. And you asked me, is this more important than eating and drinking? Sure. It is.

* * *

CURWOOD: What about the sex drive? What are the chemicals there? Are they different from romance chemicals?

FISHER: The main chemical of the sex drive is testosterone, in both men and women. In fact, you know, you inject testosterone in any kind of animal and sex drive goes up. And the brain system is different, too. I mean, there’s at least five brain scanning studies of the sex drive, and the various brain regions involved are – they overlap, but they’re different from those regions associated with romantic love. So there’s two different systems. But they interact, and that’s what’s so interesting to me.

For example, you know, when you fall in love with somebody, suddenly that person becomes enormously sexually attractive to you. Three weeks ago it was just a nice, another nice person at the office or in your social circle or at the gym. But suddenly everything they do becomes attractive to you. And I think that it is in part because elevated activity of the dopamine circuits associated with romantic love trigger testosterone and trigger the sex drive. So this is why it is that you suddenly become almost, you know, totally fixated sexually on somebody who you’re in love with.

What I find most remarkable about these three drives – the sex drive, romantic love, and attachment – is that they’re often unconnected. You can feel a powerful sense of attachment to a long-term partner while you feel intense romantic love for somebody else, while you feel this sex drive for a whole range of people. So this is what gets the human animal in so much trouble.

Psychology Today June 2007 CoverCURWOOD: I bet. Now, let’s go back to lust, or the sex drive, and romance. You say that romance can kindle the sex drive. What about the other way around? Can lust lead to romance?

FISHER: Not always, of course. You know, most liberated adults have copulated with somebody who they never fell in love with. In fact, they would have liked to have fallen in love with them and couldn’t do it. But it certainly can happen, and it can happen I think in part because with orgasm there’s a spike of dopamine – it just shoots up and shoots down again. And that I think can help change the threshold for your ability to fall in love and just turn you over that edge. Also with orgasm you get a real flood in the brain of oxytocin and vasopressin, and these are the chemicals associated with attachment.

So, casual sex isn’t always that casual. As a matter of fact I think women are more vulnerable than men are because, as it turns out, seminal fluid has in it all the chemicals in it for the sex drive, the testosterone and estrogen; oxytocin and vasopressin, associated with attachment; and dopamine and norepinephrine, associated with romantic love. So a man is actually doing some chemical finagling when he deposits his sperm. So, you know, casual sex can be casual, but generally it’s not.

CURWOOD: Now, you also said that you looked at people who had just been jilted or dumped or crushed.

* * *
FISHER: . . . . [T]hey did the same experiment. You know, they would look at a photograph of their sweetheart and they would also look at a neutral photograph. We found a lot of things, but among the things that we found is we found activity in a brain region, the insular cortex, where other experiments have shown that this particular region is associated with physical pain in the skin and muscles. Not just psychological pain when you’re rejected, but physical pain.

We also found activity in a brain region called the nucleus accumbens. It’s a brain region, this particular part of the nucleus accumbens is associated with risking, taking big risks. Actually gambling, gambling for money. Taking big risks for big gains and big losses. And, of course, that’s what you do when you’ve been rejected, you’re just willing to do just about anything to win this person back.

And then we also found activity in a brain region near the front of the brain called the lateral orbital frontal cortex. And this brain region, this particular part of the cortex, is associated with three things. Obsessive and compulsive behaviors, and of course you obsessively think about this person. With controlling anger, and that’s one thing that happens when you get dumped, you get angry, most people do.

And last but not least, this is a brain region associated with what scientists call a “theory of mind.” And what theory of mind is is when people do it, probably much more than other animals, projecting yourself into another person’s shoes and thinking, ‘What is he thinking about? What is he doing? What is he planning? He’s thinking about this or that.’ That’s theory of mind, and that’s what happens when you get rejected. You feel physical pain, you’re willing to take huge risks, you’re constantly wondering what this other person is thinking, you’re obsessively thinking about them and you’re trying to control your anger.

CURWOOD: What is the secret of making love last? I mean, can you tell us what you’ve found about this?

FISHER: I want to say, first of all, that there’s very nice data that in long-term attachments you can make love last. That, indeed, if it’s a very good relationship there often is a continual thread of romantic love in the relationship as well as deep attachment to the person. . . .

But, anyway, one of the ways to sustain romantic love in a long-term marriage is to do novel, exciting, slightly dangerous things together. Because novelty drives up the activity of dopamine in the brain. This is why vacations can be so exciting. Just doing something new.

* * *

For a previous, related post, see “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” To watch an 8-minute video interview of Helen Fisher about her researsh, click on the video below.


* * *

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Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Neuroscience, Video | 4 Comments »

Crazy Little Thing Called Love

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 10, 2008

Thing Called LoveThis week, to help celebrate Valentines Day, the Situationist staff will be posting on the situation of love. We begin by republishing a slightly edited version of a post first published on May 19, 2007.

* * *

Queen sang it this way:

This (This Thing) called love
(Called Love)
It cries (Like a baby)
In a cradle all night
It swings (Woo Woo)
It jives (Woo Woo)
It shakes all over like a jelly fish,
I kinda like it
Crazy little thing called love

There goes my baby
She knows how to Rock n’ roll
She drives me crazy
She gives me hot and cold fever
Then she leaves me in a cool cool sweat

I gotta be cool relax, get hip
Get on my track’s
Take a back seat, hitch-hike
And take a long ride on my motor bike
Until I’m ready
Crazy little thing called love

Have you ever been obsessed with, wild for, smitten by, hot for, or crazy about someone? What about a crush or an infatuation? Do you recall how you were unable to think of anything but that other person? How ’bout the mood swings from euphoria to despair? Do you recall feeling addicted or the way separation only amplified the longing? Do you recall the depression, frustration, and embarassment associated with an unreciprocated crush? What about the craving for union and the possessiveness?

If so, then you know first-hand something about this crazy little thing called “love.” It is sweet and bitter both – a craving we won’t let go of and that won’t release us even if we want it to. That intense romantic focus provides a sense of complete and permanent devotion (which turns out to be inaccurate in fact) – even as it generates immense pain when it is unrequited or otherwise impossible. What creates this wonderful source of pain, this ache of passion – Cupid’s hurts-so-good arrow piercing the heart?

Earlier this year, the Washington Post’s Neely Tucker attempted to shed some light on those questions in an article titled “An Affair Of the Head: They Say Love Is All About Brain Chemistry.” We have excerpted portions of the article below.

* * *

It’s all about dopamine, baby, this One Great True Love, this passionate thing we’d burn down the house and blow up the car and drive from Houston to Orlando just to taste on the tip of the tongue.

You crave it because your brain tells you to. . . .


God’s little neurotransmitter. Better known by its street name, romantic love.

Also, norepinephrine. Street name, infatuation.

These chemicals are natural stimulants. You fall in love, a growing amount of research shows, and these chemicals and their cousins start pole-dancing around the neurons of your brain, hopping around the limbic system, setting off craving, obsessive thoughts, focused attention, the desire to commit possibly immoral acts with your beloved while at a stoplight in the 2100 block of K Street during lunch hour, and so on.

“Love is a drug,” says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.” “The ventral tegmental area is a clump of cells that make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and sends it out to many brain regions” when one is in love. “It’s the same region affected when you feel the rush of cocaine.”

Passion! Sex! Narcotics!

Why do we suspect this isn’t going to end well?

Because these things are hard-wired not to last, all of them. Short shelf lives. The passion you fulfill is the passion you kill. The most wonderful, soaring feeling known to all mankind . . . amounts to no more than a narcotic high, a temporal state of mania.

“Being in love, having a crush on someone is wonderful . . . but our bodies can’t be in that state all the time,” says Pamela C. Regan, a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and author of “The Mating Game: A Primer on Love, Sex and Marriage.” “Your body would fizzle out. As a species, we’d die.”

Some of these love chemicals in the brain, scientists measure by the picogram, which is a trillionth of a gram.

How fragile, this [crazy little] thing called love.

* * *

In her most recent research, Fisher and colleagues gave 32 love-struck subjects an MRI scan while they viewed a picture of their beloved.

Boy, did their brains light up!

There are two shrimp-size things on either side of your brain called the caudate nuclei. This is the gear that operates bodily movements and the body’s reward system: “the mind’s network for general arousal, sensations of pleasure, and the motivation to acquire rewards,” Fisher writes. And when the test subjects looked at their sweeties, these things started singing “Loosen Up My Buttons” with the Pussycat Dolls!

This, then, kicked the party over to the tiny ventral tegmental area, a little peapod-size thingy that sends dopamine bopping around your// head.

This is what scientists call lots of fun.

A separate study by Italian researchers several years ago showed something else.

Serotonin, another neurotransmitter in the brain associated with obsession, depression and racing thoughts, was greatly affected — right down to the molecular level — by romance and surging dopamine. People newly in love and people with obsessive-compulsive disorder showed the same lowered levels of the “platelet 5-HT transporter.” In other words, dopamine appears to suppress serotonin, which in turn triggers obsessive-compulsive thought patterns.

You can’t stop thinking about Dave. No wonder! Dave’s hiding under a wet flap of cortex!

Your brain is officially in love, and it officially is driving you crazy.

* * *

Cupid can’t last, you know.

Oxytocin and other chemicals kick in, running around your brain to make you bond with your lover, producing a mellower, more sustainable relationship.

* * *

Dopamine leaves the scene of the affair, now running off into the nucleus accumbens, the insular cortex, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, research by Fisher and others shows. Jilted lovers’ brains now light up in these areas when they look at pictures of their former flames — this brain matter is associated with taking big risks, addiction, physical pain and obsessive-compulsive disorders. This is why, researchers theorize, people become obsessed with lost love, and are driven, in extreme cases, to stalking, suicide, homicide, rubber tubing.

Regan, the California researcher, notes that such cases are rare, and may have more to do with existing mental issues than simple unrequited love. Still, she says, passion is destined to end . . . . Given this, she wonders if “we do our self a disservice by glorifying passionate love so much.”

“The search for eternal passion is very misguided,” she says. “It’s the search for the perfect high that keeps people discarding relationships right and left . You don’t feel the same way you did; people want to break up, instead of seeing it as normal.”

And so, alas. Even neurologists, to go with Shakespeare’s priest, now tell us passion is true love’s fool’s gold, a flamboyant dead end on the evolutionary chain of primate happiness.

The only problem with this insight is that no one pays it any mind. Doomed passion may not make us right, and it may not even make us very happy.

It only makes us human. It only makes us who we are.

* * *

Understanding something about what leads to our romantic love, unfortunately, does little to protect us from Cupid’s overwhelming power. Good luck lovers. Remember, you “gotta be cool . . . relax.”

For the complete article, click here. To watch a lengthy but fascinating lecture by Professor Fisher on the “Drive to Love,” click here. A shorter talk by Professor Fisher, providing an overview of her research on romantic love can be viewed in the video below:

P.S. For a valuable critique of an earlier version of this post, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Events, Neuroscience, Video | 53 Comments »

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