The Situationist

Archive for June, 2008

The Situation of Medical Research

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 15, 2008

Harvard Veritas Image by neutralSurfaceGardiner Harris and Benedict Carey wrote an article in last week’s New York Times includes, titled Researchers Fail to Reveal Full Drug Pay.“ In it , they describe yet another instance of industry influence over what research and manipulation of the marketplace of ideas. We’ve included a few excerpts from the story below.

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A world-renowned Harvard child psychiatrist whose work has helped fuel an explosion in the use of powerful antipsychotic medicines in children earned at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007 but for years did not report much of this income to university officials, according to information given Congressional investigators.

By failing to report income, the psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph Biederman, and a colleague in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Timothy E. Wilens, may have violated federal and university research rules designed to police potential conflicts of interest, according to Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa. Some of their research is financed by government grants.

Like Dr. Biederman, Dr. Wilens belatedly reported earning at least $1.6 million from 2000 to 2007, and another Harvard colleague, Dr. Thomas Spencer, reported earning at least $1 million after being pressed by Mr. Grassley’s investigators. But even these amended disclosures may understate the researchers’ outside income because some entries contradict payment information from drug makers, Mr. Grassley found.

In one example, Dr. Biederman reported no income from Johnson & Johnson for 2001 in a disclosure report filed with the university. When asked to check again, he said he received $3,500. But Johnson & Johnson told Mr. Grassley that it paid him $58,169 in 2001 . . . .

The Harvard group’s consulting arrangements with drug makers were already controversial because of the researchers’ advocacy of unapproved uses of psychiatric medicines in children.

In an e-mailed statement, Dr. Biederman said, “My interests are solely in the advancement of medical treatment through rigorous and objective study,” and he said he took conflict-of-interest policies “very seriously.” Drs. Wilens and Spencer said in e-mailed statements that they thought they had complied with conflict-of-interest rules.

John Burklow, a spokesman for the National Institutes of Health, said: “If there have been violations of N.I.H. policy — and if research integrity has been compromised — we will take all the appropriate action within our power to hold those responsible accountable. This would be completely unacceptable behavior, and N.I.H. will not tolerate it.”

* * *

Alyssa Kneller, a Harvard spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement: “The information released by Senator Grassley suggests that, in certain instances, each doctor may have failed to disclose outside income from pharmaceutical companies and other entities that should have been disclosed.”

* * *

Dr. Biederman is one of the most influential researchers in child psychiatry and is widely admired for focusing the field’s attention on its most troubled young patients. Although many of his studies are small and often financed by drug makers, his work helped to fuel a controversial 40-fold increase from 1994 to 2003 in the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder, which is characterized by severe mood swings, and a rapid rise in the use of antipsychotic medicines in children. The Grassley investigation did not address research quality.

Doctors have known for years that antipsychotic drugs, sometimes called major tranquilizers, can quickly subdue children. But youngsters appear to be especially susceptible to the weight gain and metabolic problems caused by the drugs, and it is far from clear that the medications improve children’s lives over time, experts say.

In the last 25 years, drug and device makers have displaced the federal government as the primary source of research financing, and industry support is vital to many university research programs. But as corporate research executives recruit the brightest scientists, their brethren in marketing departments have discovered that some of these same scientists can be terrific pitchmen.

pharmaceutical - istockTo protect research integrity, the National Institutes of Health require researchers to report to universities earnings of $10,000 or more per year, for instance, in consulting money from makers of drugs also studied by the researchers in federally financed trials. Universities manage financial conflicts by requiring that the money be disclosed to research subjects, among other measures.

* * *

Universities ask professors to report their conflicts but do almost nothing to verify the accuracy of these voluntary disclosures.

“It’s really been an honor system thing,” said Dr. Robert Alpern, dean of Yale School of Medicine. “If somebody tells us that a pharmaceutical company pays them $80,000 a year, I don’t even know how to check on that.”

* * *

In the past decade, Dr. Biederman and his colleagues have promoted the aggressive diagnosis and drug treatment of childhood bipolar disorder, a mood problem once thought confined to adults. They have maintained that the disorder was underdiagnosed in children and could be treated with antipsychotic drugs, medications invented to treat schizophrenia.

Other researchers have made similar assertions. As a result, pediatric bipolar diagnoses and antipsychotic drug use in children have soared. Some 500,000 children and teenagers were given at least one prescription for an antipsychotic in 2007, including 20,500 under 6 years of age, according to Medco Health Solutions, a pharmacy benefit manager.

Few psychiatrists today doubt that bipolar disorder can strike in the early teenage years, or that many of the children being given the diagnosis are deeply distressed.

“I consider Dr. Biederman a true visionary in recognizing this illness in children,” said Susan Resko, director of the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation, “and he’s not only saved many lives but restored hope to thousands of families across the country.”

Longtime critics of the group see its influence differently. “They have given the Harvard imprimatur to this commercial experimentation on children,” said Vera Sharav, president and founder of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, a patient advocacy group.

* * *

Controlling for bias is especially important in such work, given that the scale is subjective, and raters often depend on reports from parents and children, several top psychiatrists said.

* * *

“The price we pay for these kinds of revelations is credibility, and we just can’t afford to lose any more of that in this field,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, which finances psychiatric studies. “In the area of child psychiatry in particular, we know much less than we should, and we desperately need research that is not influenced by industry money.”

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The entire article is here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of University Research,” The company ‘had no control or influence over the research’ . . . .,” Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Promoting Smoking through Situation,” “Industry-Funded Research,” “Industry-Funded Research – Part II,” and “Captured Science.”


Posted in Deep Capture, Education, Food and Drug Law, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Ten Optical Illusions – and an Ad

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 14, 2008

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Gatekeepers Inside Out – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 13, 2008

gate by starrynight1 - flickrSituationist contributor Sung Hui Kim recently posted her forthcoming article, “Gatekeepers Inside Out” (forthcoming in the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics), on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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Gatekeepers Inside Out challenges the conventional wisdom that in-house counsel are simply “too captured” by their senior managers in their corporations to serve as effective gatekeepers of our securities markets. The author revises classical gatekeeping theory introduced by Prof. Reinier Kraakman in his seminal article (Gatekeepers: Anatomy of a Third Party Enforcement Strategy, 2 J.L. Econ. & Org. 53 (1986)). In that article, Kraakman clarified that a gatekeeping strategy requires gatekeepers “who can and will prevent misconduct reliably, regardless of the preferences and market alternatives of wrongdoers.” Although Kraakman did not make much of the distinction, he recognized that successful gatekeepers must not only be “willing” but also “able” to prevent misconduct. Now, consider also that gatekeepers must not only be prepared to “interdict” misconduct but also to “monitor” to detect such happenings in the first place. By combining these two simple observations, we see that potential gatekeepers can be evaluated by their: (1) willingness to interdict, (2) willingness to monitor, (3) capacity to monitor, and (4) capacity to interdict. Using this new framework of analysis, the author compares inside and outside counsel for the gatekeeping role. Along the way, the author departs from traditional gatekeeping theory’s exclusive reliance on rational choice theory and imports empirical findings from social psychology and sociology that illuminate the four conditions of effective gatekeeping. By running inside and outside counsel through this rigorous mill of analysis, the author comes to unexpected conclusions. The analytical framework set forth by the author can also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of other traditional gatekeepers, including investment bankers, securities analysts, accountants, and, yes, even credit agencies.

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To read related Situationist posts by Professor Kim, see “Why Do Lawyers Acquiesce In Their Clients’ Misconduct?,” Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Posted in Abstracts, Law, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Kevin James Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 13, 2008

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Four Failures of Deliberating Groups – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 12, 2008

Image by jurvetson - FlickrCass Sunstein and Reid Hastie have posted their new paper, “Four Failures of Deliberating Groups” on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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Many groups make their decisions through some process of deliberation, usually with the belief that deliberation will improve judgments and predictions. But deliberating groups often fail, in the sense that they make judgments that are false or that fail to take advantage of the information that their members have. There are four such failures. (1) Sometimes the predeliberation errors of group members are amplified, not merely propagated, as a result of deliberation. (2) Groups may fall victim to cascade effects, as the judgments of initial speakers or actors are followed by their successors, who do not disclose what they know. Nondisclosure, on the part of those successors, may be a product of either informational or reputational cascades. (3) As a result of group polarization, groups often end up in a more extreme position in line with their predeliberation tendencies. Sometimes group polarization leads in desirable directions, but there is no assurance to this effect. (4) In deliberating groups, shared information often dominates or crowds out unshared information, ensuring that groups do not learn what their members know. All four errors can be explained by reference to informational signals, reputational pressure, or both. A disturbing result is that many deliberating groups do not improve on, and sometimes do worse than, the predeliberation judgments of their average or median member.

Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment . . . Today

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 11, 2008

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The Situation of the American Middle Class

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 11, 2008

Last month, NPR’s On Point (with host Tom Ashbrook) had a one-hour show titled “Falling Behind Our Parents.” Here’s the show’s description.

* * *

Nan Mooney is thirtysomething, well-educated, the child of baby boomers who herself grew up with all the accoutrements of what was very recently thought to be a regular middle-class American life. Nothing fancy, but the full basics: a nice little home with steady income, housing, health insurance, and a summer vacation somewhere.

Now, Nan Mooney and millions of others of her generation have none of those.

And she’s not sure she ever will.

Her new book is “(Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents.” And she’s mad.

This hour, On Point:

  • Nan Mooney, and a generation, not keeping up.
  • Peter Gosselin, national economics correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and author of the forthcoming book “High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families”

* * *

You can listen to the story on Real Player here or on Windows Media Player here.

For a worthwhile interview transcript from Salon, click here. Below we’ve pasted an excerpt from Nan Mooney’s book.

* * *

Since the 1950s, what we’ve considered the American experience — be it sock-hopping, suburban living, or SUV buying — has been largely dictated by the professional middle class. In her 1989 social critique, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, Barbara Ehrenreich defined this mainstream population in terms of education, occupation, lifestyle and tastes, but also in terms of income. “Middle class couples,” she wrote, “earn enough for home ownership in a neighborhood inhabited by other members of their class; college educations for the children; and such enriching experiences as vacation trips, psychotherapy, fitness training, summer camp and the consumption of ‘culture’ in various forms.”

This thriving middle class didn’t develop by accident. It emerged with the introduction of government and social policies designed to lift the country out of the Great Depression and sustain economic health in the postwar era. By the 1950s, a combination of social programs including Social Security, unemployment insurance, the GI Bill, and federal housing loans helped middle class salaries stretch. Employers supplied health insurance and pensions. A surge in suburban building made housing widely accessible. You no longer had to be a doctor or a businessman to afford a two-story Colonial with a dishwasher and a color TV. For a white male supporting a family — the typical middle class profile at the time — it was possible to work in an array of professions whereby you didn’t necessarily get rich, but you could count on being fairly comfortable. A house, a job, a car or two in the garage, a fun summer vacation, these were absolute indicators of middle class success.

by Daniel Y. GoEconomic realities have undergone seismic shifts since our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Education and housing cost more. Incomes have leveled off for all but a small minority. Employers and the government supply few social safety nets, cutting health insurance and pensions and replacing them with new “benefits” like 401(k)s and health savings plans that benefit only those with income to set aside. But many of those middle class expectations set in place back in the ’50s still hold.

Alongside our schooling in philosophy and economics, today’s college-educated professionals have been conditioned to see ourselves as among the financially stable, mainstream haves. Many of us attended what are considered strong academic institutions. Others come from families with comfortable financial backgrounds. Our childhood friends, our college roommates, the couple we met at that holiday party are those same lawyers and financiers who’ve hit the financial jackpot, driving multiple Mercedeses and buying $2 million starter homes. We know we aren’t like them. We’ve aspired to different career and financial goals, those more rooted in education, the arts or public service. But, given our often-similar backgrounds and educations, it’s clear we aren’t entirely unlike them either. This rising and dramatic economic inequality among college-educated professionals, leaving so many of us to struggle while a select few enter the strata of the “super rich,” was not supposed to be part of the package.

When we read about the middle class squeeze, we tend to think blue collar — the machinist who used to make $25 an hour now making $15, the vocationally trained worker whose job just got cut. But what about the social worker who makes $30,000 a year, the environmental scientist who makes $40,000, the college professor who makes $50,000? The rules of the game have changed. The educated professional middle class experience no longer guarantees two cars in every driveway, or even the driveway itself. Instead we face relatively low-paying jobs in fields requiring a high-cost education, increasing mortgages, student-loan and credit card debt, less employer or government help with health care, retirement, education and child care, and an overall higher cost of living. As the gap between the rich and the middle class widens, a huge segment of that once-comfortable center section is finding that reality means plummeting financial and emotional security and lack of control over our lives.

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For related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of the Mortgage Crisis,” The Financial Squeeze: Bad Choices or Bad Situations?,” “The Situation of College Debt” – Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Choice Myth, Education, Life, Podcasts | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Al Seckel’s Happy Illusions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 10, 2008

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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The Psychological Toll of Automobile Traffic

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 10, 2008

Situationist readers who live or work in cities like Los Angeles, New York, London, or Boston can certainly relate to stress caused by being stuck in traffic. To be sure, traffic causes more than mere anxiety — it has been connected to obesity, lost economic opportunities, and environmental waste, among other socially undesirable consequences. According to research by UC Irvine psychologists Raymond Novaco and Daniel Stokols, commuter stress can prove highly damaging to those who experience it. Below we excerpt an article by the Los Angeles Times‘ Christopher Goffard that examines their research and its implications.

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As society hurtles forward in an age of instant messaging and one-click shopping, motorists paradoxically find themselves moored between bumpers for hours a day, with a psychic toll that experts are still trying to tally.

Dr. Laura Pinegar, a Long Beach psychologist who treats depression and panic disorders, hears a growing number of complaints about traffic anxiety in her practice.

“If you’re stuck in traffic, there’s a feeling of being out of control,” she said. “You can be at a dead standstill on the freeway, but amped up from the day, thinking, ‘I gotta get home. I gotta get the kids. What if I don’t get to day care before it closes?’ “

In several studies on commuter stress, UC Irvine psychologists Raymond Novaco and Daniel Stokols made a surprising finding. Though they hypothesized that long commutes would be more stressful for hard-charging, Type A personalities than for mellow Type Bs, it turned out that the opposite was true. The reasons: The hard-chargers exercised more control over their lives. They had picked homes they liked and jobs that absorbed them. In traffic, they thought about work. The mellow drivers, on the other hand, thought about being trapped in traffic.

According to one study, women with long-distance commutes who drive alone are in the demographic group that suffers the greatest commuting stress. Pinegar said she has had some success in encouraging drivers to think of their commute as a buffer zone between work and home. “Especially mothers with large families,” she said. “They think, ‘This is my time to mellow out, maybe listen to the radio, get books on tape.’ ”

How gridlock makes us feel depends on what we tell ourselves about the experience, says Ronald Nathan, a psychologist in Albany, N.Y., who has treated both perpetrators and victims of road rage.

“Some people say, ‘Great, I can kick back and listen to some music,’ ” Nathan said, but others feel like life is passing them by. “We can start to over-generalize by saying, ‘My life is worthless. All I am is somebody who gets into a piece of metal and goes from one place to another.’ ”

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For the rest of the article, click here. For a related Situationist post, see “Car Bonding.”

Posted in Emotions, Life | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Law and Situation of Military Propaganda

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 9, 2008

The War in Iraq has received much criticism, including for the manner in which the Defense Department and the White House misled the public on now dubious policy arguments. Two arguments routinely employed by War advocates were the alleged national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the supposed linkage between Hussein and Al-Qaeda. Like so many other rationales offered for the War, those two have not withstood the test of time and appear to have been borne more for persuasion than illumination.

Anne Flaherty of the Associated Press has an interesting piece on recent legislative efforts by Congress to prevent the current White House and future ones from engaging in the same styles of deception.

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Congressional Democrats want to ban Pentagon propaganda on the Iraq war, but they are likely to find that enforcement is easier said than done.

An existing legal prohibition, for example, didn’t deter a Pentagon program aimed at influencing retired military officers frequently interviewed in the media. It also didn’t prevent a culture within the Bush administration that former White House spokesman Scott McClellan claims favored propaganda over honesty in selling the war to the public.

And what is propaganda anyway? Nearly every press briefing involves a military or civilian official trying to influence the interpretation of events.

“At the end of the day, a lot of what the Defense Department is doing is trying to raise support for the military,” said Ken Bacon, chief Pentagon spokesman during the Clinton administration.

Last month, the House passed legislation to prohibit the military from engaging in “any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes or behavior of the people of the United States in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.”

The bill reinforces a propaganda restriction already on the books, included in the Pentagon’s more than half-trillion-dollar annual budget bill and long embraced as Pentagon policy. The law exempts any program specifically authorized by Congress, such as military recruiting, but is supposed to shut the door on spin.

“I think it would be difficult to implement,” said Anthony Pratkanis, co-author of the book “Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion,” of any law attempting to prohibit the military from promoting itself. Interpretations of what constitutes propaganda can vary, and U.S. efforts to influence a foreign enemy — which is allowed under the law — often seep into American airwaves anyway, he said.

“What we really need is a norm that respects the role of the military” as independent from the executive branch, said Pratkanis, a social psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “It’s more the responsibility of a president to sell his policies and not hide behind the military.”

On April 20, The New York Times uncovered a six-year Pentagon program that cultivated several dozen military analysts to generate favorable news coverage on the war. These retired military generals were fed talking points, taken on trips to Guantanamo Bay prison and Iraq, given access to classified intelligence and briefed personally by senior defense officials, including then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, according to e-mails, transcripts and other records provided to the Times and eventually released by the Defense Department.

That the officers maintained extensive ties to the Pentagon after retirement wasn’t surprising, as is custom among military’s senior ranks. But the program seemed to unfairly reward these new media personalities and the defense companies that employed them as lobbyists with plum access to the department so long as the retired officers spoke in favor of the war.

Also alarming was that the Pentagon may have given the retirees false or overly optimistic information about progress in Iraq, even as violence was increasing. The program was particularly noteworthy because it relied heavily on active-duty military officials to provide the positive information.

In most cases, the retired officer-analysts were more than eager to hear good news on the war. In one April 2006 conference call, as sectarian violence was on an uptick, an unidentified military analyst asked then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace what the officers could say on television that would convince Americans that the war wasn’t going that badly.

“What can we say to the American public to say … there are some things you can see that will make you feel better about what our military is doing and any progress we have made?” the analyst asked.

The Defense Department has shut down the program pending an internal review. Both the Defense Department inspector general’s office and the Government Accountability Office are investigating whether the effort violated any rules, including if it gave some contractors a competitive advantage by employing the retired officers as lobbyists.

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For the rest of the article, click here. For other Situationist articles on the War in Iraq, click here; for one on on how ideology may influence vulnerability to propaganda, click here.

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The Situation of Sight

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 8, 2008

by Sha Sha Chu

Simon Crompton had a splendid article, titled “Don’t Believe Your Eyes,” in The Times Online last month. The article summarizes the recent research on illusions, with particular focus on the remarkable work of Dr. Beau Lotto. We excerpt portions of Crompton’s article below.

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Optical illusions are like magic, thrilling us because of their capacity to reveal the fallibility of our senses. But there’s more to them than that, according to Dr Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist who is wowing the scientific world with work that crosses the boundaries of art, neurology, natural history and philosophy. What they reveal, he says, is that the whole world is the creation of our brain. What we see, what we hear, feel and what we think we know is not a photographic reflection of the world, but an instantaneous unthinking calculation as to what is the most useful way of seeing the world. It’s a best guess based on the past experience of the individual, a long evolutionary past that has shaped the structure of our brains. The world is literally shaped by our pasts.

Dr Lotto, 40, an American who is a reader in neuroscience at University College London, has set out to prove it in stunning visual illusions, sculptures and installations . . . .

He explains his complex ideas from the starting point of visual illusions, which far from revealing how fragile our senses are show how remarkably robust they are at providinga picture of the world that serves a purpose to us. For centuries, artists and scientists have noted that a grey dot looks lighter against a dark background than the same grey dot against a light background. In the same way, colours appear different according to what colour they are next to. Why? The conventional belief was that it was because of some way the brain and eye is intrinsically wired. But Dr Lotto believes this is wrong.

He says it’s a learnt response; in other words, we see the world not as it is but as it is useful to us. His optical illusions seek to demonstrate this by proving that there are all sorts of ways you can make same-coloured areas look different, not just what colour they’re against. You can produce similar effects with the way we perceive shade and form too.

His illusions throw in a whole range of visual clues that prompt the brain to draw conclusions about the objects we encounter on the basis of past experience. . . .

What is happening is that our brain is taking into account all the visual clues it has learned over a lifetime. . . .

“Context is everything, because our brains have evolved to constantly re-define normality,” says Dr Lotto. “What we see is defined by our own experiences of the past, but also by what the human race has experienced through its history. The structure of the brain is a reflection of that history.”

What Lotto means by this is illustrated by the fact that different cultures and communities have different viewpoints of the world, conditioned over generations, an area that neuroscientists are just beginning to unpick. For example, Japanese people have a famous inability to distinguish between the “R” and the “L” sound. This arises because in Japanese the sounds are totally interchangeable.

“Differentiating between them has never been useful, so the brain has never learnt to do it. It’s not just that Japanese people find it hard to tell the difference. They literally cannot hear the difference.”

Dr Lotto is convinced that his experiments are grounding more and more hypotheses in hard science. “Yes, my work is idea-driven,” he says. “But lots of research, such as MRI brain scanning, is technique-driven. I don’t believe you can understand the brain by taking it out of its natural environment and looking at it in a laboratory. You have to look at what it evolved to do, and look at it in relationship to its ecology.”

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To read the entire article, click here. Visit for amazing illusions from Beau Lotto. For more Situationist posts on illusions, click here.

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The Situationist Named a Top Blog

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 7, 2008

The Criminal Justice Degrees Guide named The Situationist one of the 100 top Criminal Justice Blogs. It described our blog this way: “This smart social psychology blog uncovers research projects and findings, group behavior, child psychology, law and more.”

For those interested in criminal justice, the list of top blogs is very much worth perusing.

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Why Torts Die – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 7, 2008

image by zachstern - FLICKRKyle Graham recently posted his article, “Why Torts Die” (forthcoming 35 Florida State U. L. Rev. (2008)) on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

* * *

Alienation of affections. Claims for insult. Maintenance and champerty. Suits against saloonkeepers for spousal alcoholism. These are just a handful of the many torts that have disappeared, or are presently passing into history. Why Torts Die examines why these and other torts have vanished or are in danger of extinction. The central thesis of Why Torts Die is that the collapse of a tort typically owes to a confluence of compromising conditions or events. Changes in the ambient cultural atmosphere may threaten a tort theory, but the effects of these changes will be magnified or mitigated by several other factors: the nature, quality, and volume of critiques directed against the tort; the interests and limitations of the audiences that decide whether to retain or reject the cause of action; the relative power and influence of the tort’s opponents and supporters; the availability and desirability of alternatives to the tort; and the intrinsic qualities of the threatened claim itself. To flesh out the hypothesis that most defunct torts haven’t simply fallen victim to sudden cultural downdrafts, Why Torts Die offers three case studies, each detailing how a gravely endangered tort or torts came to find itself in that condition. This review of the diminutions of the tort of insult, of obesity lawsuits, and of the heartbalm torts (alienation of affections, breach of promise to marry, criminal conversation, and seduction) suggests that the disappearance of a tort is typically a complicated affair, implicating several of the factors discussed above.

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The Situation of A Manned Mission to Mars

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 5, 2008

With the Phoenix Lander roaming around Mars for the last two weeks, some have wondered about the prospects of a manned mission to the Red Planet. Although such a mission probably won’t happen for a long time — last September, NASA administrator Michael Griffin predicted that a manned mission to Mars won’t occur until at least 2037 — the subject of extended space travel of humans is one poised to become more realistic in the decades and centuries ahead.

Below we excerpt a story from Lara Farrar on that considers the intense psychological stress, loneliness, and humbleness likely to be experienced by astronauts who make such journeys.

* * *

If Dr. Robert Zubrin could take a trip to Mars, he would be sure to pack a bread maker in his suitcase. Not just because bread is a pretty reliable expeditionary food, but because the act of cooking, according to Zubrin, seems to help people get along with each other, especially when they are in slightly dire, less than luxurious and more than stressful circumstances.

And Zubrin would know, too. He has, after all, led almost a half-dozen mock Mars missions on barren Arctic ice fields and scorching Utah deserts with volunteer teams made up of students, scientists, journalists and anyone else willing to wear fake spacesuits and live in tiny tin-can-like habitation modules for days on end.

The simulated expeditions were made, in part, to research ways to live and work on the Red Planet. But they also revealed something else: what personality types might best be suited to make the 35 million-mile journey and who would be better off watching from Mission Control.

“Some of these crews have worked out very well,” said Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, a 7,000-member multinational group determined to reach what it calls the New World. “Others were at each other’s throats.”

* * *

While it will probably take at least another 20 years before Zubrin — or anyone else for that matter — makes it to the Martian surface, NASA and other space agencies are already drawing up plans for a voyage that will present astronauts not only with physical but also psychological challenges never faced by humans before.

“When you go to Mars, all bets are off,” said Dr. Nick Kanas, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied astronaut psychology. “We don’t know what is going to happen.”

One particularly important task, Kanas explained, will be picking a team of astronauts who can both work and get along with each other on a trip lasting at least two years, spent mostly within the confines of a not-so-big spacecraft sailing through the dark. The European Space Agency and the Russian Institute of Biomedial Problems are scheduled to run a joint 520-day mock Mars expedition this year aimed to study the effects of extreme isolation and confinement on 12 volunteers.

The numbers of men and women, their ages and even cultural upbringings must be carefully calculated to try to prevent what could be potentially devastating cosmic quarrels. “You can’t just take a walk and get away from somebody,” Kanas said.

* * *

[T]hey will not be able to receive surprise presents, like special cookies or favorite movies, which are often brought to the space station on supply shuttles when someone starts feeling homesick or maybe a little blue. Thus, decking out the Martian-bound craft with family photographs, special trinkets, books and even plants will be crucial for a mostly monotonous extraterrestrial road trip that will bring a whole new meaning to the “are we there yet?” question.

If someone becomes sick — either physically or mentally — the crew has to be ready to cope with that, too.

“If someone gets suicidal, you have to take care of it on board,” Kanas said. Mission Control might also have to make some tough calls, like whether to tell an astronaut about a death in his or her family or other tragedies back home.

Yet the big unknown, according to Kanas, does not involve who astronauts will not be able to talk to or what gifts they will not be able to get, but instead what they will not be able to clearly see: planet Earth.

Kanas has even coined a term for the situation: the “Earth out of view” phenomenon.

“Nobody in the history of mankind has ever experienced the Earth as a pale, insignificant blue dot in the sky,” he said. “What that might do to a crew member, nobody knows.”

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For the rest of the story, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Life, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Situational Demographics of Deadly Force – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 4, 2008

Crime Scene Police Officers - from Flickr James P. McElvain and Augustine J. Kposowa have an interesting new article, “Police Officer Characteristics and the Likelihood of Using Deadly Force,” in 35 Criminal Justice and Behavior, 505-521 (2008). Here’s the abstract.

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Past research on police shootings, when examining officer characteristics, has focused on the officer’s race, particularly when it is not the same as the race of the person shot. Data from 186 officer-involved shootings were used to examine whether race effects existed and, if so, would be eliminated or attenuated by controlling for officer gender, education, age, and history of shooting. Male officers were more likely to shoot than female officers, and college-educated officers were less likely to be involved in shootings than officers with no college education. Risk of officer-involved shooting was reduced as the officer aged. White, non-Hispanic officers were more likely to shoot than Hispanic officers; however, there was no significant difference between Hispanic and Black officers. Officers with a previous history of shooting were more than 51% as likely to shoot during the follow-up period as officers without a history of shootings.

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

On Being a Mindful Voter

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 3, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Team-Interested Decision Making

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 1, 2008

Taking one for the team - by FarlaneFrom Science Daily, here’s a brief research summary regarding how, even in individualistic cultures, team goals often trump individual goals.

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People act in their own best interests, according to traditional views of how and why we make the decisions that we do. However, psychologists at the Universities of Leicester and Exeter have recently found evidence that this assumption is not necessarily true. In fact the research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, shows that most of us will act in the best interest of our team — often at our own expense.

Psychologists carried out the first systematic tests of team reasoning theories by assessing two well known views of how people behave. Orthodox or classical game predicts that people will act for selfish reasons. Team reasoning theory suggests individual self-interest is not always foremost in the way people act as they will act in the best interest of their “team.”

Lead researcher Professor Andrew Colman, of the University of Leicester School of Psychology, said: “We have shown that, in some circumstances, decision makers cooperate in their collective interests rather than following the purely selfish predictions of orthodox game theory.

“We carried out two experiments designed to test classical game theory against theories of team reasoning developed in the 1990s by British game theorists. According to classical game theory, decision makers invariably act in their individual self-interest . . . .

“Theories of team reasoning were developed to explain why, in some circumstances, people seem to act not in their individual self-interest but in the interest of their families, companies, departments, or the religious, ethnic, or national groups with which they identify themselves.”

Professor Colman is delighted with the results. He said: “Team reasoning is a familiar process, but it is inexplicable within the framework of orthodox game theory. Our findings show for the first time that it predicts decision making more powerfully than orthodox game theory in some games.”

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The results will be published within the next few months in the journal Acta Psychologica . . . .

Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Ideology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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