The Situationist

Archive for June, 2008

A Convenient Fiction

Posted by Peter Ditto on June 30, 2008

Image by Infinite Jeff - FlickrBeing a traditional liberal academic, there is no love lost between me and the Bush Administration. But social psychological research offers a more nuanced take from others I have heard on what happened in the run up to the Iraq War. It is a take that fits comfortably between the Left’s position that Bush, Cheney and company deliberately manufactured a case for war against Iraq (i.e., they lied), and the Right’s position that any reasonable person would have come to the same conclusion about Iraqi WMDs based on the available intelligence.

The Bush administration clearly wanted to believe that Saddam Hussein had an active WMD program. This belief fit both with their general ideological worldview and their specific foreign policy agenda, and there was obviously some foundation for reasonable people to believe that it might be true. When decision makers approach a judgment with a clear preferred outcome, however, this preference biases the processing of information in subtle, unintentional, but potentially powerful ways. One involves a process I have referred to in the past as motivated skepticism.

Research suggests that information that supports a preferred judgment outcome receives relatively little intellectual challenge and its validity is often accepted at face value. It makes us feel good when information supports what we want to believe, and this dampens our tendency to question it. Information that challenges our preferred conclusion, on the other hand, stimulates a more skeptical response. This information makes us feel bad, and this prods us to question its validity more vigorously. Almost inevitably, uncertainty about unwelcome news arises as no information is completely without flaws or is impervious to alternative explanation.

In short, information we don’t want to believe is simply subjected to a higher standard of proof than is information we do want to believe. This does not occur deliberately, and does not allow us to create support for desired beliefs out of whole cloth. But it does tip the judgment scales in favor of our preferred conclusion, and it does so in a way that is subtle enough not to offend our sense of our own objectivity.

Motivated skepticism seems an apt characterization of how the Bush Administration dealt with the mix of intelligence information they received about Iraqi WMDs during the months prior to the decision to invade. In a 2006 interview with the late Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes (video here), retired CIA official Tyler Drumheller described how individuals who came bearing information supporting the existence of an Iraqi WMD program were accepted as solid informants (even in some cases where their credibility was questionable enough to earn them a nickname like “Curveball”). When informants brought forth information that questioned the WMD theory, however, that information was treated more skeptically, its reliability often questioned because of the lack of a second corroborating informant.

“So you’re saying that if there was a single source and that information from that source backed up the case they were trying to build, then that single source was ok, but if it didn’t, then the single source was not ok, because he couldn’t be corroborated,” Bradley asked in that 60 Minutes interview. “Unfortunately, that’s what it looks like,” Drumheller replied.

What this social psychological analysis suggests then is that the Bush administration did not deliberately construct a case for war that they knew in fact to be false. They believed it all right, and thought they had the data to back it up. But it also most certainly was not the case that their decision making process was untainted by their desire to build a justification for invading Iraq. Instead, it was precisely their fervent desire to believe in an Iraqi WMD program that biased their processing of a quite mixed intelligence picture, sharpening its dull edges in favor of their preferred conclusion. The problem wasn’t that President Bush lied or made up data to support the conclusion he wanted the intelligence to show, but that the decision making process was deeply flawed, with no mechanisms built in to counter the powerful ideological biases the administration should have recognized in itself.

So I don’t want to end by letting Bush et al completely off the hook on this. Ideological bias has been a hallmark of this administration. This has been a top-down presidency, with every decision and every piece of data viewed through (and distorted by) an ideological lens. Whether the issue is climate change, the economy, or the war on terror, the Bush team’s intellectual MO has been to bend the facts to fit their politics.

I have no doubt they believe their political ideology is the correct one, and sincerely view facts that don’t fit within it as flawed (often in their view because of left-biased media and scientific establishments), but this is not an excuse for faulty decision making. Ideological bias is a natural tendency, one that all of us, both left and right, fall prey to at times. But this administration’s particularly willful refusal to live in the reality-based community has had clear costs, and our entrapment in a war launched to combat the convenient fiction of an Iraqi WMD program is one of the big ones.

* * *

To link to a PBS Frontline episode on the decision-making behind how the War on Terror was shifted to Iraq, click here. To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Law and Situation of Military Propaganda,” “March Madness,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part II,” “Naive Cynicism – Abstract,” “I’m Objective, You’re Biased,” and “Mistakes Were Made (but not be me).”

The Situationist has a series of posts devoted to highlighting some of situational sources of war. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. Part IV and Part V in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Part VI contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts,” which gives special emphasis to the role of system justification. Part VII includes a video entitled “Resisting the Drums of War.” The film was created and narrated by psychologist Roy J. Eidelson, Executive Director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Vilayanur Ramachandran On Your Mind

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 29, 2008

From TED: “Vilayanur Ramachandran tells us what brain damage can reveal about the connection between celebral tissue and the mind, using three startling delusions as examples.” (24 minutes.)

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Posted in Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of a Name

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 28, 2008

Image by alist - flickrRobin Turner has an interesting article in Wales Online, titled “People’s names linked to self-esteem, says Welsh research.” We’ve pasted a few excerpts below.

* * *

What’s in a name? Future happiness, self-esteem and peace of mind, according to research carried out in a Welsh university.

But Jochen Gebauer, lead author of a new psychological study, warns that people really have to like their own names before the peace of mind, happiness and self- esteem kick in.

He claims to have uncovered a clear link between name-liking and overall self-esteem. “People who have high self-esteem tend to like their name more,” said Mr Gebauer, a PhD student in the school of psychology at Cardiff University.

“The reason is known as the ‘mere-ownership effect’ which essentially means that if we like ourselves, we prefer things that are ours to other options.” “Another study established this effect years ago when people were given toasters and other household appliances to compare. No matter what they were given, they always preferred the item that was theirs.

“When you own a certain object, then you put the value you have for yourself into this object.” But he says the connection to name-liking provides a better way to assess self-esteem.

According to Mr Gebauer, self- esteem is one of the most heavily studied psychological concepts and “the Holy Grail of modern times”.

He said, “If you have high self-esteem, everything is good. You have no social problems, you are less aggressive, you feel better about yourself, you have more friends and people like you more.”

His paper on the link between name-liking and self-esteem will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

* * *

More research into names at America’s Yale University conducted by Joseph Simmons, assistant professor of marketing, indicates that people subconsciously make decisions based on their names.

In a paper titled Moniker Maladies: When Names Sabotage Success, he says someone called Sandy is, for instance, more likely to buy a Saturn (a type of car), move to San Diego, and marry someone called Sandler.

A person called Richard, he argues, is more likely to buy a Renault, move to Richmond, and marry Ricarda. He said,”This phenomenon is called the name letter effect (NLE), and appears to be an unconscious effect.”

In America, baseball strikeouts are represented by a K and he found batters with K initials struck out more often than others.

Similarly, he discovered C or D initialled students tended to have lower exam results than A or B initialled students.

Mr Simmons says future parents should consider the name-letter effect but shouldn’t panic. He told a conference in the US, “I will be the first to admit that the effects that we have observed are quite small, and so there’s no need to panic if you recently named your child Christine or Diana.”

* * *

The entire article is here. To read related Situationist post, take a look at “The Situation of Hair Color,” and “Women’s Situation in Economics.”

Posted in Implicit Associations, Life, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Swift-Boating

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 27, 2008

In case you missed it, there’s an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today, titled “Your Brain Lies to You” by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt. Here’s a brief sample:

* * *

FALSE beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found. Thus it seems slightly less egregious that, according to another poll, 10 percent of us think that Senator Barack Obama, a Christian, is instead a Muslim. The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way.

* * *

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. This could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it took some weeks for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to have an effect on his standing in the polls.

* * *

Journalists and campaign workers may think they are acting to counter misinformation by pointing out that it is not true. But by repeating a false rumor, they may inadvertently make it stronger. In its concerted effort to “stop the smears,” the Obama campaign may want to keep this in mind. Rather than emphasize that Mr. Obama is not a Muslim, for instance, it may be more effective to stress that he embraced Christianity as a young man.

* * *

For the rest of this piece click here. For related Situationist posts, see “On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.”

Posted in Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Crows in Our Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 27, 2008

From TED: “Hacker and writer Joshua Klein is fascinated by crows. (Notice the gleam of intelligence in their little black eyes?) After a long amateur study of corvid behavior, he’s come up with an elegant machine that may form a new bond between animal and human.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Video | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Civil Settlements – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 26, 2008

Blurry Clockface - by Neil101, FlickrJohn Bronsteen, Christopher Buccafusco, and Jonathan Masur recently posted their fascinating article, “Hedonic Adaptation and the Settlement of Civil Lawsuits” (forthcoming in the Columbia Law Review) on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

* * *

This paper examines the burgeoning psychological literature on happiness and hedonic adaptation (a person’s capacity to preserve or recapture her level of happiness by adjusting to changed circumstances), bringing this literature to bear on a previously overlooked aspect of the civil litigation process: the probability of pre-trial settlement. The glacial pace of civil litigation is commonly thought of as a regrettable source of costs to the relevant parties. Even relatively straightforward personal injury lawsuits can last for as long as two years, delaying the arrival of necessary redress to the tort victim and forcing the litigants to expend ever greater quantities of resources. Yet these procedural delays are likely to have salutary effects on the litigation system as well. When an individual first suffers a serious injury, she will likely predict that the injury will greatly diminish her future happiness. However, during the time that it takes her case to reach trial the aggrieved plaintiff is likely to adapt hedonically to her injury – even if that injury is permanent – and within two years will report levels of happiness very close to her pre-injury state. Consequently, the amount of money that the plaintiff believes will fairly compensate her for her injury – will make her whole, in the typical parlance of tort damages – will decrease appreciably. The sum that the plaintiff is willing to accept in settlement will decline accordingly, and the chances of settlement increase – perhaps dramatically. The high costs of prolonged civil litigation are thus likely to be offset substantially by the resources saved as adaptive litigants succeed in settling before trial.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Illusion

Posted by J on June 25, 2008

Magician - from NYPL GalleryIn a paper that Ronald Chen and I wrote a few years ago (part of our “Illusion of Law” series), we summarized a few of the ways that “magic” happens and the key role played by “the way people think.” Here’s an excerpt from that paper (note: we are quoting Nathaniel Schiffman’s book, Abracadabra! Secret Methods Magicians & Others Use To Deceive Their Audience (1997)).

* * *

Explanations that are outside of our schemas – what we believe or what we want to believe about the things we see – will rarely be activated. It is often the case that we simply cannot fathom that the magician might be doing what he is doing:

. . . when Blackstone did his famous birdcage vanish (a cage with a live bird vanished from his bare hands) he would hold his arms outright in front of him, seemingly presenting the cage to the audience for their inspection. . . . The cage was specially designed to collapse on command. At the appropriate time, Blackstone would toss it forward, and the collapsed cage would be pulled up his sleeve – bird and all. Savvy adults watching the show might shake their heads and say, ‘Nah, it couldn’t go up his sleeve because he wouldn’t want to injure the bird.’. . .

* * *

Actually, in many cases the bird was injured or killed.

Convinced that the magician would never rely on a method that might harm the bird, audience members were unable to see the trick. Their “knowledge” that the magician was not the type to harm a bird simply for the purposes a magic trick blinded them to what was the most obvious explanation for the illusion.

Our inability to see the magician as a particular type of person –- capable of, and willing to do, the unexpected in order to achieve magic –- is, like magic, no coincidence. Relying on our schemas, we make assumptions about the magician and her willingness to follow what we might consider to be the “unwritten Fra Diavolo image from NYPL Galleryrules” of magic. Audiences at a magic show

expect the magician to perform his magic in front of them, in full view, while misdirecting away from those certain actions that constitute the trick-to-the-trick. The audience probably doesn’t realize they are making those assumptions, because they have no reason to believe their assumptions are being broken. But very often a magic trick works because the magician has broken the unwritten rules of theatrical performing.

For psychics or “mentalists,” the unwritten rules include the following: first, the assumption “that the man on stage alone is performing the magic”; second, “that all the magic is done in ‘real time’ as the performance is happening”; and, third, “that the magic is done on stage.” The mentalist’s trick is often in breaking those rules – for example, having assistants eavesdrop on conversations in the audience; collecting juicy morsels of information prior to the time the show begins (and sometimes days before); relaying surreptitiously gathered information from off-stage. Doing unglamorous, tedious detective work prior to the show is often exactly the way that the trick is done.

In the end, magic succeeds when the audience believes what the magician wants them to believe: the idea that “[their] act is so awe-inspiring and mystical and magical that how in the world could that amazing magic be due to such lowly subterfuges as microphones and assistants transmitting information?”

* * *

The July issue of Harper‘s includes a remarkable article by Alex Stone, “The Magic Olympics.” Stone’s first-hand account of The World Championships of Magic is stunning, but I want to focus on just a few of his paragraphs that describe a particular illusion (similar to an illusion that we published in a post two weeks ago and re-publish in this post) and that further illustrates the message in the passage above.

* * *

[W]e’re entertained . . . by a . . . hair-raisng sawed-in-half effect. I’v seen hundreds of bisections, but nothing like this. Dressed as a doctor, he chainsaws his patient in half, and then an attractive nurse wheels the torso around on an ersatz gurney, waving her arms hrough the void where his legs ought to be. No box. No curtains. No mirrors. Nothing. What the hell?

* * *

Take a look at the brief Youtube video below.

Social psychology and related fields have demonstrated repeatedly that what we are prepared to see strongly constrains what we can and do see. Those constraints on our thinking leave us vulnerable to manipulation and victims of many illusions in including, as the following excerpt from Stone’s article suggests, the illusion of an illusion

* * *

I board a small plane back to the States. Several of the artists and competitors are on the flight, all looking as haggard as I do, and feel. After a week of biblical astonishments, I feel hardened. Nothing can faze me. But as I file through business class, I see something for which I am wholly unprepared. In the first row sits the illustionist of last night’s sawed-in-half routine, a meaty, florid man with triangular eyebrows and thin red lips. His trick has been gnawing at me since I saw it. No boxes. No mirrors. How? Now suddenly, I understand. Sitting next to him, in th aisle seat, is a slender dark-skinned man who looks normal in all respects save one: his body terminates just below the waist. No legs. No hips. Nothing. I can’t help but stare, and for a moment I wonder if anyone can hear my mind snap.

Magicians will go to great lengths in pursuit of the ultimate illusion, concealing silk inside a thumb tip, or doves in a coat, or any number of small objects within the delicate folds of a well-hemmed topit. But concealing an entire man–or rather, half a man–and flying him across the glove in service of a five-minute routine is something else entirely, something far stranger, something brilliant, yes, but also sad. Did the half-man, kept hidden in a hotel room, see nothing of Stockholm? What sort of non-disclosure agreement had he signed? Can I, too, buy a half-man at my local magic store?

* * *

Assuming that Stone’s revelation helps to explain the same trick that is captured in the video above (and it may not), how does your reaction compare to Stone’s? Please comment.

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Congratulations to Chloe and Marc

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 25, 2008

The Situationist Staff is thrilled to announce the marriage of Situationist fellow Chloe Cockburn and Situationist artist Marc Scheff. The Harvard-Radcliffe Class Notes for 1999 has the story.  The couple was married on June 14, 2008 in Virginia.  They will return to their residence in Brooklyn, NY following their honeymoon.

Congratulations Chloe & Marc! We wish you many fulfilling and happy situations.

Posted in Life | Leave a Comment »

New Situationists

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 25, 2008

We are delighted to introduce a new Situationist Contributor and Situationist Fellow.

Our newest contributor, Peter Ditto, is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of California-Irvine. His research interests include “hot cognition” — the interface between passion and reason. His research examines the role of motivation and emotion in social, political, moral, medical, and legal judgment. Most generally, his work has sought to explain the phenomenon of “motivated reasoning,” or how the desire to reach a particular conclusion biases the processing of information related to that conclusion. Ditto’s early work in this area examined the role such biases play in how people respond to threatening medical information (e.g., denial).

More recently, Ditto’s work has been focused on motivated moral reasoning, particularly how people selectively recruit general moral principles to support desired moral conclusions. Another key focus of his current research is on partisan political bias. This work examines the multiple ways that political ideology biases our political judgments and behavior. Finally, he is interested in a variety of psychological issues involved in end-of-life medical decision making. This work amounts to a psychological critique of policy encouraging the use of “living wills” in end-of-life medical decision making.

Ditto will publish his first post, “A Convenient Fiction,” on Monday.

* * *

Our most recent Situationist Fellow is Elizabeth Johnston. Elizabeth Johnston graduated cum laude from Middlebury College in 2006 with a BA in Psychology. She also minored in U.S. History and Spanish. While in college, Elizabeth interned at a law firm, at two legal service centers, and for a Federal Judge. Additionally, she volunteered for, among others, the Hurricane Relief Committee, WomenSafe, Relay for Life, various local schools, and represented her class in Student Government. In 2005, she was selected as the recipient for the Baldwin Prize, which is “Awarded to a woman in the junior class who best exemplifies the ideal type of Middlebury College student based on character, scholarship, and personality.” Since graduating, Elizabeth has worked at a law firm, been a teaching fellow at Harvard for an undergraduate psychology class, and is now in the process of finishing her Master’s in Applied Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, where she currently has GPA of 4.0. Elizabeth plans to attend law school in the fall. In her free time, Elizabeth enjoys playing sports, traveling, and cooking.

Elizabeth has already put together two terrific staff posts for blog: “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning” and “The Situation of Lawyers and Practicing Law.” You can look forward to more.

Posted in Blogroll | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Lawyers and Practicing Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 24, 2008

The Situationist has examined various implications that social psychology and related fields for law and legal theory. But what about for the practice of law? Martin Seligman, former American Psychological Association president and one of the leaders of the new field of Positive Psychology, examines the relationship between psychology and the practice of law in his fascinating book Authentic Happiness. Here are some relevant excerpts.

* * *

Thirty years ago, the cognitive revolution in psychology overthrew both Freud and the behaviorists, at least in academia. Cognitive scientists demonstrated that thinking can be an object of science, that it is measurable, and most importantly that it is not just a reflection of emotion or behavior. Aaron T. Beck, the leading theorist of cognitive therapy, claimed that emotion is always generated by cognition, not the other way around. The thought of danger causes anxiety, the thought of loss causes sadness, and the thought of trespass causes anger.

* * *

These two opposite views have never been reconciled. The imperialistic Freudian view claims that emotion always drives thought, while the imperialistic cognitive view claims that thought always drives emotion. The evidence, however, is that each drives the other at times. So the question for twenty-first century psychology is this: under what conditions does emotion drive thinking, and under what conditions does thinking drive emotion?

* * *

Our economy is rapidly changing from a money economy to a satisfaction economy. These trends go up and down (when jobs are scarcer, personal satisfaction has a somewhat lesser weight; when jobs are abundant, personal satisfaction counts for more), but the trend for decades is decidedly in favor of personal satisfaction. Law is now the most highly paid profession in America, having surpassed medicine during the 1990s. Yet the major New York law firms now spend more on retention than on recruitment, as their young associates—and even the partners—are leaving law in droves for work that makes them happier. The lure of a lifetime of great riches at the end of several years of grueling eighty-hour weeks as a lowly associate has lost much of its power. The newly minted coin of this realm is life satisfaction.I should be studying by katesheets-flickr

* * *

Law is a prestigious and remunerative profession, and law school classrooms are full of fresh candidates. In a recent poll, however, 52 percent of practicing lawyers described themselves as dissatisfied. Certainly, the problem is not financial. As of 1999, associates (junior lawyers vying to become partners) at top firms can earn up to $200,000 per year just starting out, and lawyers long ago surpassed doctors as the highest-paid professionals. In addition to being disenchanted, lawyers are in remarkably poor mental health. They are at much greater risk than the general population for depression. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found statistically significant elevations of major depressive disorder in only 3 of 104 occupations surveyed. When adjusted for sociodemographics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally. Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than nonlawyers. The divorce rate among lawyers, especially women, also appears to be higher than the divorce rate among other professionals. Thus, by any measure, lawyers embody the paradox of money losing its hold: they are the best-paid profession, and yet they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy. And lawyers know it; many are retiring early or leaving the profession altogether.

Positive psychology sees three principal causes of the demoralization among lawyers. The first is pessimism, defined not in the colloquial sense (seeing the glass as half empty) but rather as the pessimistic explanatory style . . . . These pessimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events to stable and global factors (“It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything”). The pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable, while the optimist sees them as local, temporary, and changeable. Pessimism is maladaptive in most endeavors: Pessimistic life insurance agents sell less and drop out sooner than optimistic agents. Pessimistic undergraduates get lower grades, relative to their SAT scores and past academic record, than optimistic students. Pessimistic swimmers have more substandard times and bounce back from poor efforts worse than do optimistic swimmers. Pessimistic pitchers and hitters do worse in close games than optimistic pitchers and hitters. Pessimistic NBA teams lose to the point spread more often than do optimistic tams.

Thus, pessimists are losers on many fronts. But there is one glaring exception: pessimists do better at law. We tested the entire entering class of the Virginia Law School in 1990. . . . These students were then followed throughout the three years of law school. In sharp contrast to results of prior studies in other realms of life, the pessimistic law students on average fared better than their optimistic peers. Specifically, the pessimists outperformed more optimistic students on the traditional measures of achievement, such as grade point averages and law journal success.

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that nonlawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. And if you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.

* * *

Lawyers by Wrote - FlickrA second psychological factor that demoralizes lawyers, particularly junior ones, is low decision latitude in high-stress situations. Decision latitude refers to the number of choices one has—or, as it turns out, the choices one believes one has—on the job. An important study of the relationship of job conditions with depression and coronary disease measures both job demands and decision latitude. There is one combination particularly inimical to health and morale: high job demands coupled with low decision latitude. Individuals with these jobs have much more coronary disease and depression than individuals in the other three quadrants.

* * *

The deepest of all the psychological factors making lawyers unhappy is that American law has become increasingly a win-loss game. Barry Schwartz distinguishes practices that have their own internal “goods” as a goal for free-market enterprises focused on profits. Amateur athletics, for instance, is a practice that has virtuosity as its good. Teaching is a practice that has learning as its good. Medicine is a practice that has healing as its good. Friendship is a practice that has intimacy as its good. When these practices brush up against the free market, their internal goods become subordinated to the bottom line. Night baseball sells more tickets, even though you cannot really see the ball at night. Teaching gives way to the academic star system, medicine to managed care, and friendship to what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. American law has similarly migrated from being a practice in which good counsel about justice and fairness was the primary good to being a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principal ends.

* * *

Lawyers are trained to be aggressive, judgmental, intellectual, analytical and emotionally detached. This produces predictable emotional consequences for the legal practitioner: he or she will be depressed, anxious, and angry a lot of the time.

Posted in Book, Emotions, Law, Life, Positive Psychology, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Link Between Sideline Rage and Road Rage

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 23, 2008

UPI has an interesting write-up on new research by Jay Goldstein, a kinesiology doctoral student at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. Goldstein links persons susceptible to road rage with those who get upset while watching their kids play youth soccer. We excerpt the piece below.

* * *

Ego defensiveness, one of the triggers that ignites road rage, also kicks off parental “sideline rage” at a child’s soccer game, U.S. researchers said.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, said that if a person has a tendency to become upset while driving, he or she is more likely to be the kind of parent who explodes in anger at a child’s sports matches.

Jay Goldstein, a kinesiology doctoral student at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, surveyed 340 predominantly white middle-class parents at youth soccer games in suburban Washington, and found parents became angry when their ego got in the way.

“When they perceived something that happened during the game to be personally directed at them or their child, they got angry,” Goldstein said in a statement. “That’s consistent with findings on road rage.”

Goldstein defines control-oriented people as far more likely to take something personally and flare up at referees, opposing players and even their own children, than autonomy-oriented parents, who take greater responsibility for their own behavior.

* * *

For the rest of the piece, click here. For some related Situationist posts, see “Do Car Bumper Stickers Signal Driver Aggression?,” “The Psychological Toll of Automobile Traffic,” and “Car Bonding.”

Posted in Life, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Rubber Hand Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 22, 2008

* * *

For related Situationist posts, see “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” and “A Closer Look at the Interior Situation.”

Posted in Illusions, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Situation of Romantic Preferences – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 21, 2008

Image by Vincent BrownRussell Robinson has posted his essay, “Structural Dimensions of Romantic Preferences” (forthcoming 76 Fordham Law Review 787-2819 (2008) on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

* * *

In this essay, I make two main points: First, I call for a focus on the impact of structural conditions on preferences regarding intimacy. We tend to think our preferences are natural and fixed when, in fact, they may be more plastic and susceptible to structural influences than we imagine. To illustrate this theme, I examine a few structures that channel our preferences, namely, racial screening mechanisms on Internet dating web sites and sex segregation in queer social spaces. Second, I provide a warning against uncritical celebrations of increasing interracial intimacy as a sign of reduced prejudice and social progress. Our celebrations should be tempered by the awareness that race structures even our most intimate relationships. Although two people have crossed racial lines and may have even committed to spending their lives together, we cannot easily conclude that they have transcended race. Because race and gender intersect to determine an individual’s value in the romantic marketplace, the two partners are unlikely to be similarly situated in terms of their options for leaving the relationship should it become unhappy. For instance, black heterosexual men enjoy greater options for interracial coupling than do black heterosexual women. Further, people of color who are in interracial relationships may have to suffer racialized microaggressions in order to maintain the relationship. Yet these subtle insults may escape the awareness of the white partner in the relationship, who might not intend to cause any harm or see the comments as racially offensive. One source of such racialized harms is likely to arise from racial disagreements in perceiving discrimination. Because black people and white people tend to view allegations of discrimination through fundamentally different lenses, they are likely to disagree as to the existence of discrimination, even when they are in an intimate relationship.

This essay allows me to extend the analysis from three of my prior publications and explore their intersections. First, I consider whether a proposal I made regarding expressions of racial preference in casting advertisements might be applied to such preferences in the online dating context. Second, I extend to the romantic arena a phenomenon that I identified as “perceptual segregation,” previously examined primarily in the workplace. Third, I have previously argued that, in predominantly white and gay romantic marketplaces, men of color face pressure to conform to certain racialized sex roles, such as the “aggressive black top” and the “submissive Asian bottom.” In the final part of this essay, I present an empirical study of online dating trends that tests this argument.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Life | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Legal Situation of Race Equality – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 20, 2008

Ivan Bodensteiner has posted his paper, “The Supreme Court as the Major Barrier to Racial Equality” on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

* * *

This Article suggests that the U.S. Supreme Court, through its decisions in cases alleging race discrimination, stands as a major barrier to racial equality in the United States. There are several aspects of its decisions that lead to this result. Between 1868 and 1954, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, while it had been interpreted to strike down a few blatant forms of de jure discrimination, allowed government to separate the races based on the separate but equal fiction. Beginning in 1954, Brown and a series of subsequent decisions attacked this fiction and for a period of nearly twenty years the Court was intent on eliminating the vestiges of segregation in the schools, approving broad remedial orders. This changed drastically beginning in 1974 when the Court began limiting the available remedies and relieving school systems of the burdens imposed by court orders. Around the same time, the Court decided that equal protection plaintiffs needed to show a discriminatory governmental purpose in order to trigger meaningful constitutional protection. This meant that facially neutral laws and practices with discriminatory effects were largely constitutional.

Beginning with Bakke in 1978, the Court made it difficult, and eventually nearly impossible, for government to take affirmative steps designed to promote equality. A majority of the Court determined that invidious and benign racial classifications should be treated the same under the Equal Protection Clause, with both subjected to strict scrutiny. This completed the Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in a manner that makes it a real barrier to racial equality: government is free to engage in invidious discrimination as long as it masks the real purpose, and affirmative steps designed by government to promote equality will be struck down as a violation of equal protection. Ironically, the constitutional amendment designed to promote freedom and equality for the newly-freed slaves now stands in the way of true freedom and equality.

Posted in Abstracts, History, Law | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Our Situation Is What We Eat

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 20, 2008

Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Public Policy, Video | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Do Car Bumper Stickers Signal Driver Aggression?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 19, 2008

Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post has an interesting piece on a recent Journal of Applied Social Psychology study by Colorado State University social psychologist William Szlemko that correlates bumper stickers on cars — including stickers that signify peace and other seemingly benign messages — with elevated levels of driver aggression. We excerpt Vedantam’s piece below.

* * *

Watch out for cars with bumper stickers.

That’s the surprising conclusion of a recent study by Colorado State University social psychologist William Szlemko. Drivers of cars with bumper stickers, window decals, personalized license plates and other “territorial markers” not only get mad when someone cuts in their lane or is slow to respond to a changed traffic light, but they are far more likely than those who do not personalize their cars to use their vehicles to express rage — by honking, tailgating and other aggressive behavior.

It does not seem to matter whether the messages on the stickers are about peace and love — “Visualize World Peace,” “My Kid Is an Honor Student” — or angry and in your face — “Don’t Mess With Texas,” “My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student.”

Hey, you clown! This ain’t funny! Aggressive driving might be responsible for up to two-thirds of all U.S. traffic accidents that involve injuries.

Szlemko and his colleagues at Fort Collins found that people who personalize their cars acknowledge that they are aggressive drivers, but usually do not realize that they are reporting much higher levels of aggression than people whose cars do not have visible markers on their vehicles.

Drivers who do not personalize their cars get angry, too, Szlemko and his colleagues concluded in a paper they recently published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, but they don’t act out their anger. They fume, mentally call the other driver a jerk, and move on.

“The more markers a car has, the more aggressively the person tends to drive when provoked,” Szlemko said. “Just the presence of territory markers predicts the tendency to be an aggressive driver.”

The key to the phenomenon apparently lies in the idea of territoriality. Drivers with road rage tend to think of public streets and highways as “my street” and “my lane” — in other words, they think they “own the road.”

Why would bumper stickers predict which people are likely to view public roadways as private property?

Social scientists such as Szlemko say that people carry around three kinds of territorial spaces in their heads. One is personal territory — like a home, or a bedroom. The second kind involves space that is temporarily yours — an office cubicle or a gym locker. The third kind is public territory: park benches, walking trails — and roads.

* * *

For the rest of the piece, click here.

Posted in Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

Arthur Shapiro’s Situationist Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 18, 2008

Arthur Shapiro has posted another of his remarkable illusions this week on his outstanding blog, Illusion Sciences.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

* * *

This illusion has special significance to us because, it is a “situationist illusion.” As Professor Shapiro explains:

One of my favorite places on the web is The Situationist, a blog that explores how the “situation” (or context) affects interpretation. The site has numerous examples of how objects, people, and events in one context are interpreted differently from the same objects, people, and events placed in another context.

* * *

The visual display above presents an example of the effects of the visual “situation.” In one situation (vertical orientation for the disks), the viewer interprets the disks with reference to the background context (i.e., the two curtains). One disk looks like a shadow on the curtain, and the other looks like a spotlight. The disks are therefore interpreted as a dark spot and a lighter spot on the curtains. In another situation (horizontal orientation), the viewer is able to separate the disks from the context of the curtains and therefore will identify the disks as having the same shading.

To learn why the disks look different or similar to one another depending on whether they are oriented vertically or horizontally, or to look at more of Professor Shapiro’s award-winning illusions, click here.

Posted in Blogroll, Illusions, Video | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 17, 2008

Happiness HypothesisWe recently published a post called the “Moral Psychology Primer,” which briefly highlighted the emerging work of several prominent moral psychologists, including Professor Jonathan Haidt from UVA. Haidt’s important work is relevant to law, morality, and positive psychology – all topics of interest to The Situationist. We thought it made sense, therefore, to follow up the primer with some choice excerpts from Jon Haidt’s terrific book, The Happiness Hypothesis. (We are grateful to Professor Haidt for his assistance in selecting some of these excerpts.)

* * *

I first rode a horse in 1991, in Great Smoky National Park, North Carolina. I’d been on rides as a child where some teenager led the horse by a short rope, but this was the first time it was just me and a horse, no rope. I wasn’t alone—there were eight other people on eight other horses, and one of the people was a park ranger—so the ride didn’t ask much of me. There was, however, one difficult moment. We were riding along a path on a steep hillside, two by two, and my horse was on the outside, walking about three feet from the edge. Then the path turned sharply to the left, and my horse was heading straight for the edge. I froze. I knew I had to steer left, but there was another horse to my left and I didn’t want to crash into it. I might have called out for help, or screamed, “Look out!”; but some part of me preferred the risk of going over the edge to the certainty of looking stupid. So I just froze. I did nothing at all during the critical five seconds in which my horse and the horse to my left calmly turned to the left by themselves.

As my panic subsided, I laughed at my ridiculous fear. The horse knew exactly what she was doing. She’d walked this path a hundred times, and she had no more interest in tumbling to her death than I had. She didn’t need me to tell her what to do, and, in fact, the few times I tried to tell her what to do she didn’t much seem to care. I had gotten it all so wrong because I had spent the previous ten years driving cars, not horses. Cars go over edges unless you tell them not to.

Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know. For example, it’s hard to think about life in general, but once you apply the metaphor “life is a journey,” the metaphor guides you to some conclusions: You should learn the terrain, pick a direction, find some good traveling companions, and enjoy the trip, because there may be nothing at the end of the road. It’s also hard to think about the mind, but once you pick a metaphor it will guide your thinking.

* * *

Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

* * *

The point of these studies is that moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful, but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons, as Gazzaniga found in his split-brain studies. You search for a plausible reason for liking the painting, and you latch on to the first reason that makes sense (maybe something vague about color, or light, or the reflection of the painter in the clown’s shiny nose). Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a person’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was already made. If you listen closely to moral arguments, you can sometimes hear something surprising: that it is really the elephant holding the reins, guiding the rider. It is the elephant who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgments happen constantly and automatically . . . , but only the rider can string sentences together and create arguments to give to other people. In moral arguments, the rider goes beyond being just an advisor to the elephant; he becomes a lawyer, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view.

* * *
In my studies of moral judgment, I have found that people are skilled at finding reasons to support their gut feelings: The rider acts like a lawyer whom the elephant has hired to represent it in the court of public opinion.

One of the reasons people are often contemptuous of lawyers is that they fight for a client’s interests, not for the truth. To be a good lawyer, it often helps to be a good liar. Although many lawyers won’t tell a direct lie, most will do what they can to hide inconvenient facts while weaving a plausible alternative story for the judge and jury, a story that they sometimes know is not true. Our inner lawyer works in the same way, but, somehow, we actually believe the stories he makes up. To understand his ways we must catch him in action; we must observe him carrying out low-pressure as well as high-pressure assignments.

* * *

Studies of everyday reasoning show that the elephant is not an inquisitive client. When people are given difficult questions to think about—for example, whether minimum wage should be raised—they generally lean one way or the other right away, and then put a call in to reasoning to see whether support for that position is forthcoming. . . . Most people gave no real evidence for their positions, and most made no effort to look for evidence opposing their initial positions. David Perkins, a Harvard psychologist who has devoted his career to improving reasoning, has found the same thing. He says that thinking generally uses the “makes-sense” stopping rule. We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence—enough so that our position “makes sense”—we stop thinking. But at least in a low-pressure situation such as this, if someone else brings up reasons and evidence on the other side, people can be induced to change their minds; they just don’t make an effort to do such thinking for themselves

* * *

Studies of “motivated reasoning” show that people who are motivated to reach a particular conclusion are even worse reasoners than those in Kuhn’s and Perkins’s studies, but the mechanism is basically the same: a one-sided search for supporting evidence only. . . . Over and over again, studies show that people set out on a cognitive mission to bring back reasons to support their preferred belief or action. And because we are usually successful in this mission, we end up with the illusion of objectivity. We really believe that our position is rationally and objectively justified.

Ben Franklin, as usual, was wise to our tricks. But he showed unusual insight in catching himself in the act. Though he had been a vegetarian on principle, on one long sea crossing the men were grilling fish, and his mouth started watering:

I balanc’d some time between principle and inclination, till I recollectd that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, ‘if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” So I din’d upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet.

Franklin concluded: ‘So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.’

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Reason,” “I’m Objective, You’re Biased,” “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me),” and “Why We Punish.”

[Special thanks and welcome to Elizabeth Johnston, our newest Situationist Fellow, for drafting this post.]

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Life, Morality | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Memory

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 16, 2008

Old and Wise - Image by KoAn, FlickrSara Reistad-Long wrote a short piece for the New York Times last month titled “Older Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain. Here are some excerpts.

* * *

When older people can no longer remember names at a cocktail party, they tend to think that their brainpower is declining. But a growing number of studies suggest that this assumption is often wrong.

Instead, the research finds, the aging brain is simply taking in more data and trying to sift through a clutter of information, often to its long-term benefit.

The studies are analyzed in a new edition of a neurology book, “Progress in Brain Research.”

Some brains do deteriorate with age. . . . But for most aging adults, the authors say, much of what occurs is a gradually widening focus of attention that makes it more difficult to latch onto just one fact, like a name or a telephone number. Although that can be frustrating, it is often useful.

“It may be that distractibility is not, in fact, a bad thing,” said Shelley H. Carson, a psychology researcher at Harvard whose work was cited in the book. “It may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind.”

Posted in Life, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Slight of Head

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 16, 2008

Posted in Illusions, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

%d bloggers like this: