The Situationist

Archive for February, 2008

Zimbardo on Colbert – Monday Night

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 10, 2008

zimbardo2.jpgStephen ColbertMonday night on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, watch Phil Zimbardo share a little situationism with Stephen Colbert.  (See Video Below)

The show airs at 11:30 pm, and is replayed again on Tuesday February 12, 1:30 & 10:30 am and 2:30 & 8:30 pm.

To watch Phil Zimbardo’s interview on The Daily Show interview from last March, click here.


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

Zimbardo Lecture on How Good People Turn Evil

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 9, 2008

Two weeks ago at the World Affairs Council of Northern California, Situaitonist contributor Philip Zimbardo gave a 71-minute lecture discussing the situational sources of evil (available from

Warning: This Program Contains Graphic Imagery.

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For a collection of posts by or about Situationist contributor, Phil Zimbardo, click here.

Posted in Social Psychology, Video | 5 Comments »

The Situation of Financial Risk-Taking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 8, 2008

Liar’s PokerIn 1986, Salomon Brothers, an investment bank, was known as “the King of Wall Street.” The Salomon atmosphere has since been hilariously depicted in Michael Lewis‘s now-classic Liar’s Poker, in which he recounts his experiences at the firm. He opens the book with the following anecdote.

It was sometime early in 1986, the first year of the decline of my firm, Salomon Brothers. Our chairman, John Gutfreund, left his desk at the head of the trading floor and went for a walk. At any given moment on the trading floor billions of dollars were being risked by bond traders. Gutfreund took the pulse of the place by simply wandering around it and asking questions of the traders. An eerie sixth sense guided him to wherever a crisis was unfolding. Gutfreund seemed able to smell money being lost.

He was the last person a nerve-racked trader wanted to see. Gutfreund (pronounced Good friend) liked to sneak up from behind and surprise you. This was fun for him but not for you. . . . You felt a chill in your bones that I imagine belongs to the same class of intelligence as the nervous twitch of a small furry animal at the silent approach of a grizzly bear. An alarm shrieked in your head: Gutfreund! Gutfreund! Gutfreund!

Often as not, our chairman just hovered quietly for a bit, then left. You might never have seen him. The only trace I found of him on two of these occasions was a turd-like ash on the floor beside my chair, left, I suppose, as a calling card. Gutfreund’s cigar droppings were longer and better formed than those of the average Salomon boss. I always assumed that he smoked a more expensive blend than the rest, purchased with a few of the $40 million he had cleared on the sale of SalomonBrothers in 1981 (or a few of the $3. 1 million he paid himself in 1986,more than any other Wall Street CEO).

This day in 1986, however, Gutfreund did something strange. Instead of terrifying us all, he walked a straight line to the trading desk of John Meriwether, a member of the board of Salomon Inc. and also one of Salomon’s finest bond traders. He whispered a few words. The traders in the vicinity eavesdropped. What Gutfreund said has become a legend at Salomon Brothers and a visceral part of its corporate identity. He said: “One hand, one million dollars, no tears. ”

One hand, one million dollars, no tears. Meriwether grabbed the meaning instantly. The King of Wall Street, as Business Week had dubbed Gutfreund, wanted to play a single hand of a game called Liar’s Poker for a million dollars. He played the game most afternoons with Meriwether and the six young bond arbitrage traders who worked for Meriwether and was usually skinned alive. Some traders said Gutfreund was heavily outmatched. Others who couldn’t imagine John Gutfreund as anything but omnipotent-and there were many said that losing suited his purpose, though exactly what that might be was a mystery.

The peculiar feature of Gutfreund’s challenge this time was the size of the stake. Normally his bets didn’t exceed a few hundred dollars. A million was unheard of. The final two words of his challenge, “no tears, ” meant that the loser was expected to suffer a great deal of pain but wasn’t entitled to whine, bitch, or moan about it. He’d just have to hunker down and keep his poverty to himself. But why? You might ask if you were anyone other than the King of Wall Street. Why do it in the first place? Why, in particular, challenge Meriwether instead of some lesser managing director? It seemed an act of sheer lunacy. Meriwether was the King of the Game, the Liar’s Poker champion of the Salomon Brothers trading floor.

On the other hand, one thing you learn on a trading floor is that winners like Gutfreund always have some reason for what they do; it might not be the best of reasons, but at least they have a concept in mind. I was not privy to Gutfreund’s innermost thoughts, but I do know that all the boys on the trading floor gambled and that he wanted badly to be one of the boys. What I think Gutfreund had in mind in this instance was a desire to show his courage, like the boy who leaps from the high dive. Who better than Meriwether for the purpose? Besides, Meriwether was probably the only trader with both the cash and the nerve to play.

The whole absurd situation needs putting into context. John Meriwether had, in the course of his career, made hundreds of millions of dollars for Salomon Brothers. He had an ability, rare among people and treasured by traders, to hide his state of mind. Most traders divulge whether they are making or losing money by the way they speak or move. They are either overly easy or overly tense. With Meriwether you could never, ever tell. He wore the same blank half-tense expression when he won as he did when he lost. He had, I think, a profound ability to control the two emotions that commonly destroy traders fear and greed and it made him as noble as a man who pursues his self-interest so fiercely can be. He was thought by many within Salomon to be the best bond trader on Wall Street. Around Salomon no tone but awe was used when he was discussed. People would say, “He’s the best businessman in the place,” or “the best risk taker I have ever seen,” or “a very dangerous Liar’s Poker player.”

Meriwether cast a spell over the young traders who worked for him. His boys ranged in age from twenty-five to thirty-two (he was about forty). Most of them had Ph.D.’s in math, economics, and/or physics. Once they got onto Meriwether’s trading desk, however, they forgot Financial Risksthey were supposed to be detached intellectuals. They became disciples. They became obsessed by the game of Liar’s Poker. They regarded it as their game. And they took it to a new level of seriousness.

John Gutfreund was always the outsider in their game. That Business Week put his picture on the cover and called him the King of Wall Street held little significance for them. I mean, that was, in a way, the whole point. Gutfreund was the King of Wall Street, but Meriwether was King of the Game. When Gutfreund had been crowned by the gentlemen of the press, you could almost hear traders thinking: Foolish names and foolish faces often appear in public places. . . .

At times Gutfreund himself seemed to agree. He loved to trade. Compared with managing, trading was admirably direct. You made your bets and either you won or you lost. When you won, people will the way up to the top of the firm admired you, envied you, and feared you, and with reason: You controlled the loot. When you managed a firm, well, sure you received your quota of envy, fear, and admiration. But for all the wrong reasons, you did not make the money for Salomon. You did not take risk. You were hostage to your producers. They took risk. They proved their superiority every day by handling risk better than the rest of the risk-taking world. The money came from risk takers such as Meriwether, and whether it came or not was really beyond Gutfreund’s control. That’s why many people thought that the single rash act of challenging the arbitrage boss to one hand for a million dollars was Gutfreund’s way of showing he was a player, too. And if you wanted to show off, Liar’s Poker was the only way to go. The game had a powerful meaning for traders. People like John Meriwether believed that Liar’s Poker had a lot in common with bond trading. It tested a trader’s character. It honed a trader’s instincts. A good player made a good trader, and vice versa. We all understood it.

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The game has some of the feel of trading, just as jousting has some of the feel of war. The questions a Liar’s Poker player asks himself are, up to a point, the same questions a bond trader asks himself. Is this a smart risk? Do I feel lucky? How cunning is my opponent? Does he have any idea what he’s doing, and if not, how do I exploit his ignorance? . . . .

The code of the Liar’s Poker player was something like the code of the gunslinger. It required a trader to accept all challenges.

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You can can read the end of the anecdote here. Our point is to illustrate just how significant the craving for financial risk-taking often is, particularly among those who spend a great deal of time taking such risks. Fascinating recent research by neuroeconomists is teaching us more about the nature and extent of that urge. In yesterday’s New York Times, JennyAnderson has an article, titled “Craving the High That Risky Trading Can Bring,” summarizing some of those findings. To provide a sense of her article, which is worth the read, we’ve included a few tidbits below.

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A small group of scientists, including some psychologists, say they are starting to discover what many Wall Street professionals have long suspected — that people are hard-wired for money. The human brain, these researchers say, responds to high-stakes trading just as it does to the lure of sex. And the riskier the trades get, the more the brain craves them.

. . . . That is no surprise to Brian Knutson, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University and a pioneer in neurofinance, an emerging field that combines psychology, neuroscience and economics, to examine how the brain makes decisions.

Mr. Knutson has sent volunteers through high-power imaging machines to map their brains as they trade. He concludes that sometimes, people get high on making money.

“The more you think you can gain from the risk, the more you take the risk and the more activation in the circuitry,” Mr. Knutson said.

* * *Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, showed that individuals do not always act rationally when faced with uncertainty in decision making. When faced with losses, individuals may seek to take more risk rather than less, contrary to what traditional economic thought might suggest.

“When you are threatened with extinction, you act like nothing matters,” said Andrew Lo, a professor at M.I.T. who has studied the roleStock Traders of emotions in trading. . . .

Mr. Lo and Dmitry V. Repin of Boston University have studied traders to determine how stress and emotions affect investment returns. They monitored traders’ vital signs like heart rate, body temperature and respiration as their subjects darted in and out of trades.

The findings, while preliminary, suggest — perhaps unsurprisingly — that traders who let their emotions get the best of them tend to fare poorly in the markets. But traders who rely on logic alone don’t do that well either. The most successful ones use their emotions to their advantage without letting the feelings overwhelm them.

“The best traders are the ones who have controlled emotional responses,” Mr. Lo said. “Professional athletes have the same reaction — they use emotion to psych them up, but they don’t let those emotions take them over.”

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For related Situationist posts, check out “The Situational Rewards of Wages” and “The Situational Character Goes to the Mall.”

Posted in Neuroeconomics, Neuroscience | 1 Comment »

A (Situationist) Body of Thought

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 7, 2008

Mind Body

In a Boston Globe article last month, Drake Bennett summarized some of the recent research suggesting “that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies.” The entire piece is well worth reading; we’ve excerpted a few highlights below.

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The brain is often envisioned as something like a computer, and the body as its all-purpose tool. But a growing body of new research suggests that something more collaborative is going on — that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies. A series of studies, the latest published in November, has shown that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking. Another recent study suggested that stage actors remember their lines better when they are moving. And in one study published last year, subjects asked to move their eyes in a specific pattern while puzzling through a brainteaser were twice as likely to solve it.

The term most often used to describe this new model of mind is “embodied cognition,” and its champions believe it will open up entire new avenues for understanding — and enhancing — the abilities of the human mind. Some educators see in it a new paradigm for teaching children, one that privileges movement and simulation over reading, writing, and reciting. Specialists in rehabilitative medicine could potentially use the emerging findings to help patients recover lost skills after a stroke or other brain injury. The greatest impact, however, has been in the field of neuroscience itself, where embodied cognition threatens age-old distinctions — not only between brain and body, but between perceiving and thinking, thinking and acting, even between reason and instinct — on which the traditional idea of the mind has been built.

“It’s a revolutionary idea,” says Shaun Gallagher, the director of the cognitive science program at the University of Central Florida. “In the embodied view, if you’re going to explain cognition it’s not enough just to look inside the brain. In any particular instance, what’s going on inside the brain in large part may depend on what’s going on in the body as a whole, and how that body is situated in its environment.”

* * *

. . . [T]oday, neuroscientists, linguists, and philosophers are making much bolder claims. A few argue that human characteristics like empathy, or concepts like time and space, or even the deep structure of language and some of the most profound principles of mathematics, can ultimately be traced to the idiosyncrasies of the human body. If we didn’t walk upright, for example, or weren’t warm-blooded, they argue, we might understand these concepts totally differently. The experience of having a body, they argue, is intimately tied to our intelligence.

* * *

Embodied cognition upends several centuries of thinking about thinking.

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In the 1980s, . . . a group of scholars began to contest this approach.Jane Goodall - Mirror Neurons Fueled in part by broad disappointment with artificial-intelligence research, they argued that human beings don’t really process information the way computers do, by manipulating abstract symbols using formal rules. In 1995, a major biological discovery brought even more enthusiasm to the field. Scientists in Italy discovered “mirror neurons” that respond when we see someone else performing an action — or even when we hear an action described – as if we ourselves were performing the action. By simultaneously playing a role in both acting and thinking, mirror neurons suggested that the two might not be so separate after all.

“You were seeing the same system, namely the motor system, playing a role in communication and cognition,” says Arthur Glenberg, a professor of psychology and head of the embodied cognition laboratory at Arizona State University.

This realization has driven much of the recent work looking at how moving and thinking inform and interfere with each other. For example, a pair of studies published in 2006 by Sian Beilock, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and Lauren Holt, one of her former students, examined how people who were good at certain physical activities thought about those activities.

In one study, Beilock and Holt had college hockey players, along with a non-hockey-player control group, read a sentence, sometimes hockey-related, sometimes not. Then the subjects would be shown a picture and asked if it corresponded with the sentence. Hockey players and non-hockey players alike almost invariably answered correctly, but on the hockey-related sentences the response times of the hockey players were significantly faster than the nonplayers. . . . According to Beilock, the difference in response time wasn’t a matter of knowledge – after all, all of the subjects in the study got the vast majority of the questions right. What it suggested, Beilock argues, is that the athletes’ greater store of appropriate physical experiences served as a sort of mental shortcut.

“People with different types of motor experiences think in different ways,” she argues.

These sorts of results aren’t simply limited to thinking about sports, or other highly physical activities. A 2003 study by Michael Spivey, a psychology professor at Cornell, and his student Elizabeth Grant, found that people who were given a tricky spatial relations brainteaser exhibited a distinctive and unconscious pattern of eye movements just before they arrived at the answer. The subjects seemed to unconsciously work through the problem by enacting possible solutions with their gaze.

* * *

Other studies have looked at non-spatial problems and at memory. Work led by Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, has found that children given arithmetic problems that normally would be too difficult for them are more likely to get the right answer if they’re told to gesture while thinking. . . .

The body, it appears, can subtly shape people’s preferences. A study led by John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, found that subjects (all non-Chinese speakers) shown a series of Chinese Chinese Ideographideographs while either pushing down or pulling up on a table in front of them will say they prefer the ideographs they saw when pulling upward over the ones they saw while pushing downward. Work by Beilock and Holt found that expert typists, when shown pairs of two-letter combinations and told to pick their favorite, tend to pick the pairs that are easier to type – without being able to explain why they did so.

What’s particularly interesting to neuroscientists is the role that movement seems to play even in abstract thinking. Glenberg has done multiple studies looking at the effect of arm movements on language comprehension. In Glenberg’s work, subjects were asked to determine whether a string of words on a computer screen made sense. To answer they had to reach toward themselves or away from themselves to press a button.

What Glenberg has found is that subjects are quicker to answer correctly if the motion in the sentence matches the motion they must make to respond. If the sentence is, for example, “Andy delivered the pizza to you,” the subject is quicker to discern the meaning of the sentence if he has to reach toward himself to respond than if he has to reach away. The results are the same if the sentence doesn’t describe physical movement at all, but more metaphorical interactions, such as “Liz told you the story,” or “Anne delegates the responsibilities to you.”

The implication, Glenberg argues, is that “we are really understanding this language, even when it’s more abstract, in terms of bodily action.”

* * *

“I think these findings are really fantastic and it’s clear that there’s a lot of connection between mind and body,” says Arthur Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. He remains skeptical, though, that the roots of higher cognition will be found in something as basic as the way we walk or move our eyes or arms.

“Any time there’s a fad in science there’s a tendency to say, ‘It’s all because of this,”‘ Markman says. “But the thing in psychology is that it’s not all anything, otherwise we’d be done figuring it out already.”

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To read the entire article, click here. To read related Situationist posts, go to “A Closer Look at Interior Situation,” “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” and “Brainicize: The Situational Malleability of our Brains.”

Posted in Neuroscience, Philosophy | Leave a Comment »

Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on February 5, 2008

Tom Brady

In case you hadn’t heard, the New England Patriots played their worst game of the season last night. A team that had savored, not merely defeating, but blowing out their opponents failed in their quest for perfection. For at least a little longer, the 1972 Miami Dolphins will hold onto their place in NFL history as the last team to end a season with a perfect record.

For Pats fans, like us, last night’s defeat was as shocking as it was untimely. And, really, who in their right mind would have thought that the Giants would win? Sure, some of the Giants players and die-hard fans were confident (or at least claimed to be), but the folks betting in Vegas certainly weren’t: the Pats were favored to win by 12 points. It sort of reminds us of another big and recent Super Bowl upset: the up-start and “lucky” Patriots defeating the allegedly indomitable St. Louis Rams back in 2002 in Super Bowl XXXVI. That one felt good, though.

But, if sports bloggers and commentators are to be believed, perhaps we should take heart. Apparently, much more is revealed by the outcome of this football game than simply the fact that Belichick’s boys are not the best team in the history of the sport. The team’s lackluster performance allegedly proved something far more important than that.

According to these commentators, by losing the Super Bowl in nail-biting fashion, the Patriots revealed that behind imperfection is a deeper and more affirming perfection: the universe is just.

One blogger writes: “We all saw something inexplicable, incredible and possibly supernatural when Eli Manning completed a spellbinding drive with a TD pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds remaining.”

Consider the evidence.:

The Patriots got busted for cheat[ing] during the first game of the season, and when the season came down to it, after Asante Samuel drops an interception that would have ended the game, Eli Manning miraculously escaped the grasp of 200 Patriots pass rushers and heaved a prayer over David Tyree’s head that he pinned against his own helmet and kept from hitting the ground as his body nearly split in two at the waist. If you were rooting for the Patriots, as I was, when that play happened you said to yourself, “uh oh.”

And another asks:

Who ever heard of a helmet-catch? What kind of a play was that where Eli Mannning escaped from the grasp of several Patriot pass-rushers, and then tossed the ball downfield so his receiver could catch it on his helmet? Is that normal? Well, not according to the receiver, David Tyree, who said about the play, “This was all supernatural.”

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As Josh Alper explains: “If you’re a karmic sort, . . . you can’t help but think the Patriots did their fair share to help [the Giants] along.” So, no, this was no mere coincidence. It wasn’t luck. And it wasn’t exactly skill either . . . . This was divine or cosmic intervention intended to even the scales of justice. Writing for the Denver Post, Mark Kizla is downright giddy about the game’s implications:

The only thing that left the Super Bowl undefeated was karma. For everyone who believes in truth, justice and a great American underdog story, the New York Giants kicked New England in the asterisk with a stunning 17-14 victory. Talk about your perfect ending. Sorry, Pats. Cheaters never prosper.

The 18-0 Patriots lost because they deserved to. In the end, writes another blogger, “[i]t was a team not worthy of perfection.” In a post titled “Karma Kicks Patriots In The Butt,” Madhava Gosh lays out the case this way:

Early in the season, [the Patriots] were caught videotaping the defensive signals of their opponents in a game. This is illegal and considered cheating. The results of the game were let stand, but the coach was fined 1 million dollars and the Patriots lost a draft choice in the 2008 draft.


Now, it seems to me, that the perfect season up to the Super Bowl was simply Krishna setting them up, as karma for their cheating, for the ultimate pain — losing not only the Super Bowl but the chance at a historical 19-0 season.


If you wanted to cause the team an enormous amount of pain for the cheating, what better way than to let them get so tantalizingly close. They had the lead with only 2 minutes left in the game, and then victory was snatched from their jaws by the Giants’ game winning miracle drive.


Anyone who has played in a meaningful game knows what the pain of defeat can be, and in this case it was amplified to a huge degree.


The cheating was nectar in the beginning that became poison in the end . . . . Karma is inexorable.

Just like that, the poison of losing a football game is transformed into the sweet nectar of justice. As Kizla puts it: “Karma won. The Patriots lost. No matter how you pour it, there’s nothing so sweet as the taste of justice.”

Yet another commentator sums up the karma effect as follows: “The Bradshaw fumble, holding penalties, false starts, running up the score, Spygate and yes, even the tuck rule from years ago finally caught up to the Patriots. They had a great regular season but at the end of the day, Karma bit the Pats in the ass!”

And still another describes the “karmic payback” this way:

If there was any moment that summed up why the Patriots deserved to lose this Super Bowl, it was Bill Belichick deciding not to remain on the field for the final second of the game.


It was a classless move by a classless coach, but there was also much more to it than that. It was a microcosm of the entire Patriots season. Because . . . the truth is that this year’s Patriots team, and their fans, pushed the envelope like no team ever has before. And in the end, it came back to nail them in crushing fashion.

Just as the single moment was a microcosm for the season, the football season is a microcosm for life. So take heart Patriots fans. Take heart Giants fans. Take heart everyone! What goes around, comes around. If not sooner, then sometime later—perhaps even in the final seconds of the last quarter of the ultimate contest—good will triumph over evil.

Or so the human animal likes to believe.

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For previous posts on the magic of sports, seeThe Unlucky Irish: Celtics Fans and Affective Forecasting,” “Red Sox Magic,” “March Madness,” and “Think you’ve got magical powers?.” For posts discussing the motive to justify the system, see Ideology Shaping Situation of Vice Versa,” and “Thanksgiving as ‘System Justification.’” For a post discussing the system-justifying role of rooting against the expected winner, see “Cheering for the Underdog.”

Posted in Ideology, Situationist Sports, System Legitimacy | 2 Comments »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – January ’08

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 3, 2008

Josh Radovan & Digital Methods Initiative

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of our favorite non-Situationist situationist blogging during January. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

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From In Mind: Are Stereotypes True?

“Are African Americans really better at basketball than Caucasians? Are blonds really dumber than brunettes? Are women really worse at math than men? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is no. Let me explain by focusing on the stereotype that women can’t do math. At first glance, this stereotype seems to be true. For instance, men continue to outperform women on the math sections of the SAT and GRE, and men outnumber women in college math courses and math-related jobs. Surely this is evidence that women are not as good at math as men. But as this article will explain stereotypes are self-perpetuating and not only reflect but also cause performance differences between groups.Read more . . . .

From In Mind: The Naked Power: Understanding Nonverbal Communications of Power

“Because power is something we often avoid discussing openly, its nonverbal communication is fascinating to lay people and psychologists alike. When directly asked, people interpret many different nonverbal signs as indicating high or low power – unfortunately, these ideas are often exaggerated and misguided. Likewise, social psychologists still have no good understanding of the nonverbal cues to power. This article sheds more light on what is actually underlying nonverbal communication of power. We identify two new insights: First, much of the nonverbal communication of power takes places unconsciously and is hard to control. Second, people use abstract schemas to judge power, and they not only apply these schemas to understanding body talk, but also elements of art, advertisement, and architecture.” Read more . . . .

From Laura’s Psychology Blog: Quick judgments of sexual orientation . . .

“We are remarkably good at making quick judgments of people. In an analysis of choices made during speed dating, the authors comment, ‘HurryDate participants are given three minutes in which to make their judgments, but they mostly could be made in three seconds.’ Not too surprisingly, these quick choices are made on the basis of physical appearance. For men in the HurryDate study, choices were dominated by a woman’s thinness. Women preferred men who were physically attractive, young, medium build, and of a similar race to themselves. Nalini Ambady and Nicholas Rule have extended our understanding of these quick judgments to sexual orientation.” Read more . . . .

From Mind Hacks: Mapping emotions onto the city streets

“Christian Nold maps cities. But instead of mapping their physical layout, he maps their emotional geography. He uses a technique he invented called biomapping where participants walk the area connected to a system that measures galvanic skin response – a measure of the electrical resistance of the skin which is known to give a rating of arousal and stress.” Read more . . . .

From Neuromarketing: Why Choose This Book? (Book Review)

Why Choose This Book? How We Make Decisions by Read Montague sounds like the perfect read for neuromarketing and neuroeconomics enthusiasts. In fact, the book does provide some interesting insights but the overall density of actionable information, at least for marketers, is fairly low. The title might lead one to believe that the book is a distillation of consumer purchasing behavior, but in fact it is a wide-ranging discussion of the neuroscience of human decision making.” Read more . . . .

From OrgTheory: violence, individual or relational?

“Violence is a gritty topic. Movies and books often glorify violence and treat it as an individual feat. Some individuals are violent, most are not. This common view of violence – seeing it as an individual outcome – easily leads us to see violence as causally determined by innate tendencies or characteristics, some of which may be products of genes or hormonal differences. Thus, we can say with some confidence that men are more violent than women because of differences in biological makeup. Randall Collins’s new book from Princeton University Press, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, challenges this conception of violence. . . . [A] predisposition is not a sufficient cause for violent behavior. If it were, we’d see much more violence than we actually see. Violence as a behavior is relatively rare and tends to be concentrated in particular kinds of situations.” Read more . . . .

From PsyBlog: The double edged sword of the cabbies’ hippocampi

“With all the conferences that are going on lots of us are starting to look forward to the new 2008 specifications: what are the studies like; what else have the authors done? One of the new studies in the physiological psychology module of the AS is Maguire’s research into the size of London cabbies’ hippocampus. Through the use of MRI scanners her and her team have studied the hippocampi of London cabbies to investigate if their choice of vocation has had any cognitive or physiological effect on their brain. Read more . . . .

From PsyBlog: Is Modern Self-Help Just a Massive Money-Making Scam?

“From humble beginnings, self-help books have now colonised huge and ever-growing areas of bookshops. Best-selling titles like ‘Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus‘, or ‘Don’t Worry, Make Money‘ promise to teach us how to fix our relationships and live ‘more fully’. But are these, and other come-ons, just empty assurances designed to sell a product?Read more . . . .

From Research Digest Blog: The type of interrogation likely to lead to false confessions

“Not surprisingly, confessions are extremely persuasive in court, but according to Jessica Klaver and colleagues, all too often these confessions are false, leading to the wrong person being found guilty. Now Klaver’s team have used an elegant laboratory task to compare two types of interrogation technique and found that it is so-called ‘minimising’ questions and remarks – those that downplay the seriousness of the offence, and which blame other people or circumstances [i.e., situation] – that are the most likely to lead to a false confession.Read more . . . .

From The Splintered Mind: Rationalizing Emotions and The Moral Behavior of Kantians

“I’ve recently been enjoying Joshua Greene’s “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul” (penultimate manuscript available here). Greene’s research suggests that the moral judgments of Kantian deontologists (who focus on such things as rights, duties, and “respect for persons”) tend largely to be rationalizations of evolutionarily-selected emotional responses, while the moral judgments of utilitarians and consequentialists (who focus on such things as maximizing the good of everyone) tend to be more rationally driven (or at least less driven by emotional “alarm systems”). The sorts of cases on which Kantians and consequentialists tend to disagree are cases where maximizing the good violates what we might perceive as someone’s rights. Should you push someone in front of a runaway trolley, thereby killing him, if that’s the only way to save five other innocent people? Should you smother your baby to death if that’s the only way to prevent yourself, your baby, and several other people from being found and killed by Nazis? The Kantian impulse (with caveats and complications, of course) is to say no in such cases, the consequentialist to say yes.Read more . . . .

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For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click on the “Blogroll” category in the right margin. Finally, we want to wish Michael Connelly all the best with the time that he will now spend not blogging. He has “turned out the lights” on his excellent blog Corrections Sentencing, which will be missed.

Posted in Blogroll, Choice Myth, Emotions, Implicit Associations, Law, Life, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 2, 2008

This post was originally published on February 4, 2007.

Superbowl XLI

As I stake out my position on the couch this evening – close enough to reach the pretzels and my beer, but with an optimal view of the TV – it will be nice to imagine that the spectacle about to unfold is a sporting event. It shouldn’t be too hard: after all, there on the screen will be the field, Brian Urlacher stretching out his quads, Peyton Manning tossing a football, referees in their freshly-starched zebra uniforms milling about. Yes, I’ll think to myself, this has all the makings of a football game.

How foolish.

The Super Bowl isn’t about sports; it’s about making money. And with 90 million or so viewers, there is a lot of money to be made.

With CBS charging an estimated $2.6 million for each 30-second advertising spot, it’s no surprise that corporations don’t mess around with guessing what the most effective approach will be for selling their products. They call in the scientists.brain-on-advertising.jpg

For the second year in a row, FKF Applied Research has partnered with the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, to “measure the effect of many of the Super Bowl ads by using fMRI technology.” The research involves “track[ing] the ads on a host of dimensions by looking for activity in key parts of the brain areas that are known to be involved in wanting, choosing, sexual arousal, fear, indecision and reward.” As the FKF website explains, why this research is useful to Fortune 100 companies is that it

shows clearly that what people say in focus groups and in response to poll questions is not what they actually think, feel and do. fMRI scans using our analytical methods allow us to see beyond self report and to understand the emotions and thoughts that are driving (or impeding) behavior.

Looking beyond the spoken word provides immense and actionable insights into a brand, a competitive framework, advertising and visual images and cues.

As it turns out, “brand” lives in a particular place in the human brain:

[W]hen [FKF] did an academic study on the impact of iconic brands, such as Pepsi and Coke and McDonalds, [they] found that the same part of the brain lit up over images of sports logos – say, for the NBA or NFL. There is a clear connection in the human brain between the anticipation of eating that you get from, say, the Coke logo and with the NBA logo.


For someone like me, who has always wondered why I feel so hungry reading the sports page, this is interesting stuff. For a corporate CEO, this is extremely interesting – and actionable – stuff. For everyone else . . . this is a reason to be concerned.

Corporations are using science to figure out how our brains work so they can sell more products and what they are finding is that our brains don’t work the way we think they do.

Anticipating this worry, FKF has an Ethics tab on its website:

We are committed to the highest level of ethical behavior in conducting our work. We are determined to be diligent in carving out a new field, and being a leader and advocate in ensuring the best interests of our subjects, the public, and our clients are protected. . . . We believe that wide dissemination about how people make decisions will empower all concerned – both consumers and purveyors of information. Such information, freely discussed in a democracy, will allow us to understand better how marketing is affecting us, discredit manipulation, promote communication, and help illuminate a process that fundamentally shapes the lives of human beings.

Sounds good – in fact, it sounds like situationism, and I have no reason to think that the founders of FKF, or the university scientists with whom they work, aren’t upstanding citizens with good moral compasses. It’s just that I’m still uneasy.

Corporations don’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to learning counterintuitive information about human decision making and then using it responsibly. Rather, the best approach for maximizing shareholder profit is to discover some seemingly-illogical detail about the human brain, use that knowledge to sell more widgets, and then convince the public that their naïve (and incorrect) beliefs about how they make choices are, in fact, correct.

Take big tobacco: as Jon Hanson and others have documented, after figuring out that nicotine was addictive and could compel people to buy marlboro-sm.jpgMarlboros, cigarette companies made a concerted effort to both up nicotine concentrations in their products and convince people, through advertising, that they were rational actors who were not easily manipulated. From the perspective of an entity that is charged, through our legal rules, with making money (and not with doing social good), it makes little sense to alter peoples’ situations to get them to be better consumers and then tell them that you are doing it and that it matters.

Why, that would be as silly as announcing a weak-side blitz to the quarterback before the play. Sure, it would be the nice, ethical thing to warn decent gentlemen like Manning and Rex Grossman of the imminent threat, but it’s not part of the game we’ve developed. Football is a game where you can get blind-sided.

As corporations and our brains make certain, so is watching football.

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(To read about the results of a brain-scan study of men and women watching the 2006 Super Bowl by UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacobini, click here. To listen to a recent one-hour NPR (On Point) program on “The Changing World of Advertising,” click here.)

Posted in Emotions, Entertainment, Food and Drug Law, Implicit Associations, Life, Marketing, Situationist Sports | Leave a Comment »

These Kids Today . . .

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 1, 2008

Angry Parents Bad KidsLauren Pelley of the Western Gazette writes about a study published in the February issue of Psychological Science that suggests that adults have it wrong when they attribute a sense of entitlement and narcissism to youth. The study’s lead author is Western University psychology professor Kali Trzesniewski. We excerpt portions of Pelley’s article below.

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Ever feel misunderstood by grown-ups? Chances are you have, since many adults think youth are self-absorbed and demanding — but fret not. New research reveals our parents were just as narcissistic as we are. According to the study’s lead author, Western psychology professor Kali Trzesniewski, young adults are no more narcissistic than previous generations. Trzesniewski’s team looked at thousands of student responses to various psychological tests and questionnaires from the 1970s until the present. Over the decades, no major changes in the level of youth narcissism were evident.Trzesniewski’s research suggests many adults feel the younger generation is more self-absorbed since aging minds jump to that conclusion.Good Parents Bad Kids“The exact reason isn’t clear,” Trzesniewski said. “But it’s been going on for generations. Parents and young adults clashing isn’t something new.”

Bertram Gawronski, Western psychology professor and Canada Research Chair of social psychology, agreed the problem has been going on for thousands of years.

“One of the major sources of conflict between generations is once you become a grown-up, you quickly forget what you were like when you were young,” Gawronski added.

Gawronski said emerging research in developmental psychology suggests everyone goes through a certain stage in their youth where self-centered behaviour is predominant.

In her research, Trzesniewski noted a balance between positive and negative narcissism. Overall, negative traits such as superiority have diminished over the years. More positive traits, such as self-sufficiency and leadership, have actually increased.

Trzesniewski said this can be a good thing.

“The average CEO is pretty narcissistic,” she said, noting the positive impact of some forms of narcissism in leadership roles.

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For the rest of the article, click here. For other Situationist posts on parenting, click here.

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

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