The Situationist

Archive for July, 2008

Animated Gender Stereotypes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 31, 2008

[via Sociological Images]

Posted in Blogroll, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Perceptions of Racial Divide

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 30, 2008

Sam Sommers has another terrific post (this one titled “Obama and the Racial Divide”) on the Psychology Today blog. Here are some excerpts.

* * *

[T]he Times poll indicates that a majority of White and Black Americans think progress towards racial equality is being made, but only Whites seem to be getting more optimistic over time regarding the general state of race relations. Why is this? Well, in large part it seems to be the case that Whites and Blacks use different reference points in answering these questions.

In a series of research studies, Yale social psychologist Richard Eibach has observed the comparable result that White Americans typically perceive more progress towards racial equality than do Blacks. One reason for this racial gulf is that Whites typically answer the type of question found in the Times poll by comparing the present to the past, whereas Blacks tend to answer it by comparing the present to the racial ideals they envision for the future.

In other words, when you ask White Americans about race relations in this country, on average they tend to respond by thinking, well, things are certainly better now than they used to be, so I’ll say we’re doing OK. Blacks, on the other hand, are more likely to think about their personal experiences with prejudice or current racial disparities in important outcomes like health, income, or employment. Accordingly, Blacks more typically think, things still aren’t as good as they could or should be, so we’re not doing so great.

* * *

So some of this racial disparity reflects different reference points used by Whites and Blacks in answering these questions. Anytime you ask someone for a global assessment of anything—whether marital happiness, job satisfaction, or the state of the economy—the reference point they choose to use is hugely important in determining the answer they give. . . .

But there also remains a more pessimistic interpretation of this racial divergence in opinions. Some of it clearly has to do with self-interest. In another set of studies, Eibach concludes that many White Americans view gains in racial equality as personal losses, whereas Black Americans see them as personal gains. Of course, it’s hard to get people to support movements that they see as working against their self-interests, suggesting that this gulf between Whites and Blacks can’t be bridged completely by getting everyone to focus on the same point of reference.

* * *

To read the entire piece, click here.

For a sample of previous posts examining situational elements of voting or, specifically, the 2008 presidential election, see ” On Being a Mindful Voter,” 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 Blogroll, Politics, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation for Law-Firm Summer Associates

Posted by Will Li on July 29, 2008

It will soon be that time of year again: Time for job fairs; time for campus interviews; time for some serious introspection. For most second-year law students, law firms and the life of summer associates at firms is a topic that, by October feels paradoxically repeated and rehashed ad nauseum by one’s peers and advisers; and yet, law-firm life remains a complete mystery. A summer associateship might seem the perfect antidote.

But as a recent article written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen for The National Law Journal (and highlighted in the Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog) points out, maybe summer associates are subject to situational pressures that make their experience more an illusion than an realistic sample of life at a law firm. Both the article and the blog post echo concepts that regular readers of this blog may recognize. Here are some excerpts.

* * *

“The firms create an experience that is beyond the norm,” one student said. “Everything is free. The atmosphere is higher class than anything we are used to, and the pressure to attend every event, including the after-parties, is significant.” Another described similar frustrations with his summer at a premier firm: “The competition among practice groups to sponsor the best event was intense — fancy dinners, days at the beach, country clubs — all followed by late-night partying where the summers and associates drink freely.”

The rules are never explained, but known to all: The more summers attending the post-event gathering, the easier it is to justify presenting the high bar tab to the firm for reimbursement. The next day, the summers and other associates swap stories that demonstrate their drinking prowess. But it is not only the drinking that is troubling. Summer associates report an atmosphere that seems to condone inappropriate comments and sexual overtures. Consider, for example, the married partner with children who was overheard at one event asking a young woman what her dating age range was.

Law firms further contribute to the problem by sending inconsistent messages. The orientation program generally includes an admonishment against dating lawyers at the firm. But when summer associates attempt to thwart unwanted advances by noting the policy, their protestations are rebuffed with an offhand “Don’t worry about it. The firm doesn’t really care if it happens.”

It is difficult for law students to do anything but endure these awkward and difficult moments. Often deeply in debt, they know that a $160,000 offer lingers at the end of a successful summer experience. Moreover, law firms and law schools are complicit in a quiet bargain whereby summer associates who meet minimal performance standards will be offered an associate position, leading the way for firms to be welcomed back to the law school for the next recruitment season.

Even if a summer associate wanted to report a concern, the size of the summer classes generally hinders the ability to identify a supportive lawyer with whom to discuss an uncomfortable experience. The media, too, are complicit in the way they write about these programs, focusing more on size than substance. Recent articles have focused on the thinner class sizes, compared with the record-breaking year of 2007. Even with this year’s slightly lower numbers, however, most major firms hired classes larger than the size of most top firms just a decade ago. This size means more vigilance is required to monitor all aspects of the summer experience.

* * *

While directly analogizing law firms to Guantanamo Bay or prison wouldn’t be fair (and also would likely ruin the chances of this 2L landing any job, let alone a firm job), it might still be instructive to compare the situational pressures and power dynamics faced by individuals in these settings. What structures, including and beyond what the article suggests, can firms put in place in order to fix what many consider a broken culture? For a related Situationist post (which included link to still others), see Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors.”

The law-firm recruitment and the job search was examined last year in a three-part post titled “Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt” (Part I, Part II, Part III).

Posted in Law, Life, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Bar Exam Situation

Posted by Pam Mueller on July 28, 2008

The month or so before the bar exam makes the power of the situation crystal clear. The process of studying for the bar takes thousands of intelligent and accomplished law students and transforms them into anxious, self-doubting creatures whose exam-induced neuroses often extend beyond the confines of the test, poisoning their interactions throughout the summer.

How does this stressful situation impact the lives of these formerly confident and capable law students? How can these students get past the power of the situation to let their proven capabilities carry them through the bar exam, as they have carried them through other difficult situations? Does empirical research shed any light on the subject?

Empirical research on the bar exam spans a broad range of topics, albeit unsystematically. It often produces interesting, counterintuitive, and useful findings, which suggests more research would be welcome.

To start, one study that should increase the confidence of students who, while in school, focused on areas of law not tested on the bar (e.g. intellectual property, international law, the law of underwater basket weaving) was performed by Douglas Rush and Hisako Matsuo at Saint Louis University. (An abstract can be found here.) Rush and Matsuo tracked 5 years of Saint Louis University Law School graduates who sat for the Missouri Bar. They found that law school curriculum, in this case measured by the number of upper-division bar courses (i.e. wills and trusts, corporations) taken by a student, generally had no effect on whether the student passed or failed the bar.

The courses taken by a student had no effect on their outcome if they were in the top half of their class. The courses taken also had no effect on students if they were in the bottom quartile of the class, though these are the students who are most often recommended to take such courses, purportedly to increase their bar passage chances. There was a small effect on passage rate for students in the third quartile, but there was less than a one-course difference between the group that passed and the group that failed. It is difficult to say that taking one more course was the cause of this difference.

* * *

But law school’s over. Other studies speak more to what bar takers are feeling right now. (Bolger et al. (200 0) collected data using couples in which one partner was studying for the New York bar. His central study found that while reported provision of emotional support by the non-bar-taking partner was related to decreased depression and anxiety in the examinee, reported receipt of emotional support was actually correlated with increased depression and anxiety in the bar examinee. This effect was increased in the final week of bar study – so beware! Thus, invisible support – deliberate support, but without the examinee perceiving it – was the key to helping the examinee control his/her negative emotions, as that type of support did not impose the added cost of feeling that one needs support.

Other studies involving the same data set have provided more challenges (a partner’s physical support, i.e. cooking meals, helping with errands, is not successful in reducing anxiety or depression, but does have some effect on fatigue: Shrout, et al. (2006)) as well as some hope (the partners’ support became increasingly effective in preventing a rise in examinee distress as the examination approached: Thompson and Bolger (1999)).

* * *

The high levels of anxiety endemic to bar examinees have a detrimental effect on performance on cognitive tasks. Relatedly, discouragement considerably impairs both perception and learning. Confidence, on the other hand, has a positive effect on performance, accounting in one study for more than 58% of the variance between innate ability and actual performance on an examination. Bar examinees are subject to near-constant anxiety and discouragement throughout the summer. BarBri seems to use failing scores on practice essays as a scare tactic to encourage more studying. Exam confidence, and even global self-confidence, is generally low, and this subjective confidence will only decrease further as the test approaches (see Sanna (1999)).

These factors, if not recognized and kept in check, will likely hinder exam performance, especially with the added pressure of the test days themselves. In fact, the added pressure of test day may lower examinees’ performance in yet another way. Most individuals who successfully complete law school likely are at the high end of the spectrum for working memory capacity, as high working memory capacity is correlated to high reading comprehension and problem-solving capability. According to Beilock and DeCaro, however, individuals higher in working memory are more likely to “choke under pressure,” as the stress consumes the working memory resources needed for peak performance. Individuals who have lower working memory capacity suffer no decrease in performance in high-pressure situations.

* * *

Since keeping stress and anxiety lower is so critical, how can bar examinees decrease their anxiety and increase their confidence, thereby increasing the likelihood of performing well on the exam? Empirical research would say not via positive imagery or muscle relaxation. A dissertation by Elizabeth A. Moseley (1989) suggests that muscle relaxation and imagery training did not decrease scores on a test measuring the debilitating effects anxiety as much as the placebos (no intervention and music) did. Additionally, these interventions actually increased scores on a general test-anxiety measure.

* * *

So is there any good news? I wouldn’t have written this entry if there weren’t. Amie S. Green, in her dissertation at NYU (2006), investigated the efficacy of coping strategies on anxiety in individuals studying for the bar across the country. The study looked at active coping, planning, practical support seeking, emotional support seeking, positive reinterpretation, acceptance, religion, venting, mental disengagement, and alcohol/drug disengagement as potential strategies.

The three best strategies were 1) active coping, 2) positive reinterpretation, and 3) acceptance. Active coping (doing something to deal with the problem and persevering) was strongly associated with decreased anxiety the day after using the coping strategy. Positive reinterpretation of the problem and acceptance were also associated with decreased anxiety on the following day. However, while cause and effect is unclear, individuals who used acceptance more often as a strategy tended to have higher anxiety on average.

The three worst strategies were 1) using religion, 2) venting, and 3) mental disengagement. These three were all strongly associated with increased anxiety the following day. Practical support seeking also tended to increase anxiety the following day, but this result was not significant.

While these are the trends, individuals did differ. Some individuals found disengagement and practical support seeking to be adaptive. However, the other strategies mentioned above were generally universally adaptive or maladaptive.

In the final week (where we are now), there are a few things of which to take note: acceptance is no longer an adaptive strategy to reduce stress, and alcohol and drug disengagement is now a maladaptive strategy, rather than neutral (I hope you knew that already!).

And now it’s time to go actively cope with some Commercial Paper.

N.B. This advice, while based on empirical data, does not guarantee peak performance on the bar. If it did, I would stop studying now!

* * *

For a related Situationist post, see “Situation of Lawyers and Practicing Law.”

Posted in Education, Law, Life | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Interior Situation of Suicide

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 27, 2008

The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine included an article by Peter Bebergal, titled “On the Edge.” (The teaser reads as follows: “Can a test reveal if a person has a subconscious desire to kill himself? Peter Bebergal, who lost a brother to suicide, goes inside Mass. General, where Harvard researchers are trying to find out.”) Here are a few excerpts.

* * *

Four years after my brother’s death, Harvard researchers at MGH are experimenting with a test they think could help clinicians determine just that. It focuses on a patient’s subconscious thoughts, and if it can be perfected, these researchers say it could give hospitals more of a legal basis for admitting suicidal patients.

* * *

This missing piece in the suicidal puzzle is what prompted the innovative research study now in its final phase at MGH. The study, led by Dr. Matthew Nock, an associate professor in the psychology department at Harvard University, is called the Suicide Implicit Association Test. It’s a variation of the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, which was invented by Anthony Greenwald at the University of Washington and “co-developed” by [Situationist Contributor] Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, now a psychology professor at Harvard who works a few floors above Nock on campus. The premise is that test takers, by associating positive and negative words with certain images (or words) – for example, connecting the word “wonderful” with a grouping that contains the word “good” and a picture of a EuropeanAmerican – reveal their unconscious, or implicit, thoughts. The critical factor in the test is not the associations themselves, but the relative speed at which those connections are made. (If you’re curious, take a sample IAT test online at

The IAT itself is not new – it was created in 1998 – and has been used to evaluate unconscious bias against African-Americans, Arabs, fat people, and Judaism. But critics question whether the test is actually practical, and up until now no one has tried to apply it to suicide prevention. As part of his training, Nock worked extensively with adolescent self-injurers – self-injury, such as cutting and burning, is an important coping method for those who engage in it, though they are often unlikely to acknowledge it. Nock thought that the IAT could serve as a behavioral measure of who is a self-injurer and whether such a person was in danger of continuing the behavior, even after treatment. In their first major study, Nock and Banaji asserted that the IAT could be adapted to show who was inclined to be self-injurious and who was not. And more important, they said, the test could reveal who was in danger of future self-injury.

The next step, Nock realized, was to use the test to determine, from a person’s implicit thoughts, whether someone who had prior suicidal behavior was likely to continue to be suicidal. It would give doctors a third component, along with self-reporting and clinician reporting, and result in a more complete picture of a patient. Nock doesn’t assume that a test like the IAT would be 100 percent accurate, but he believes it would have predictive ability. “It is not a lie detector,” he says. “But in an ideal situation, a clinician who is struggling with a decision to admit a potentially suicidal patient to the hospital, or with an equally difficult decision to discharge a patient from the hospital following a potentially lethal suicide attempt, the IAT could provide additional information about whether the clinician should admit or keep that patient in the hospital.”

Over two years, researchers at MGH asked patients who had attempted suicide if they would be willing to participate in the test. About two-thirds of them agreed (some 200 patients) – even though some had tried killing themselves just hours before – and after answering a battery of questions about their thoughts, sat with a laptop and took the IAT.

During one test, a person was shown two sets of words on a screen, one in the upper left corner, one in the upper right. A single word then appeared in the center, and the test taker was asked to indicate with a keystroke the corner containing the word that connected to the center word. The corner sets were drawn from two groups of words (one group was “escape” and “stay,” and another was “me” and “not me”). In one version, the sets were “escape/not me” and “stay/me,” and the series of words that appeared in the center included, among others, “quit,” “persist,” “myself,” and “them.” The correct answers called for “quit” to be associated with the side that had “escape,” for “myself” to be matched with the side that had “me,” and so forth. In theory, a delay in answering on “quit,” even if the person got it right, could reveal that he was associating the idea of “quit” with the idea of himself. The word sets varied depending on the test, and bias could emerge in a positive or negative way. For example, if the sets were “escape/me” and “stay/not me” and a person hesitated in correctly matching “myself” to the side with “me,” it could reveal that he was associating himself with the idea of “stay.”

For about the next five months, Nock and his research team at Harvard will analyze all the data collected from MGH. If they think their findings show promise, they will follow up and run their experiment again to see if it yields similar results. If it does, they may seek to implement the test at an area hospital. For now, following up with patients will be pivotal in assessing the test’s effectiveness. Tragically, though, the only way researchers will know for sure whether the test can predict behavior is if a key number of patients attempt suicide again.

* * *

Nock says it’s still too early to tell how well the test will predict someone’s likelihood of engaging in suicidal behavior. But he says the hope is that the IAT will be able to record subtle distinctions between those who are at risk and those who aren’t by measuring how “positively or negatively people value the option of suicide as a potential response to their intolerable distress.

* * *

We recommend the entire article, which you can link to here. For a collection of Situationist posts about implicit associations, click here.

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

Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on July 25, 2008

The Yankees’ Joba Chamberlain and the Red Sox’s Kevin Youkilis are at it again. Joba, who showed no sign of control problems, nonetheless launched a pitch at Kevin’s head in tonight’s pitchers’ dual. The big question, of course, is whether Joba’s head-ward pitch was intentional or inadvertent. With that question in mind, we thought this an opportune moment to reprise a post we initially published in September.

Sox Yankees Brawl

Whenever we witness something harmful or unexpected, we humans look to make attributions of causation, responsibility, and blame. Social psychologists have been studying the way we make those attributions for the last half century. Part of that research, known as attribution theory, focuses on how we draw inferences about how much control people exert over their behavior: the more control they appear to exert, the more we hold them responsible or blameworthy for the consequences of their actions. To assess control, we draw inferences about, among other things, whether the person acted volitionally or intentionally and about the person’s motivation. When we think an injurer acted intentionally and maliciously we attribute blame — which is accompanied by a desire to punish the injurer and to compensate the victim.

This naive psychology of blame attributions is fairly automatic and depends on more or less instantaneous impressions. And although our attributions result from inferences of, among other things, intent and motive, we are hampered by the fact that we cannot directly access someone else’s motives or intentions (in fact, we’re not very good at ascertaining our own). And, often, the individuals who we are judging have an interest in presenting themselves as innocent — regardless of the truth of the matter. In making attributions about another person’s harm-causing actions, therefore, we are often forced to rely on imperfect external cues. Conflict between individuals and groups often emerges precisely because attributional ambiguity leads to divergent interpretations and reactions. What a victim might perceive as outrageous, an injurer might construe as merely unfortunate or even richly deserved. The legal system is caught up in these attributional contests every day. For instance, most of tort law — in doctrine and in practice — is devoted to the question of resolving competing attributional accounts for the same personal injury.

One important cue regarding someone’s intentions and motives is the number of times that they engaged in the sort of behavior that caused the harm. If a person engages in harm-causing conduct one time, we may, absent other indicia of intent, call that “an accident.” The harm elicits some emotion, but it is rarely one of intense anger toward the injurer or sympathy for the victim. If that person engages in the very same conduct a second time — particularly if the acts are temporally proximate — then automatically and instantaneously, our attributions and emotions change. In an instant, in response to behavior that is otherwise identical, we can go from relatively indifferent to indignant.

This week’s final inning in the three-game rivalry-hyped series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. View the (five-minute) video below to see what we mean.

Two identical pitches. Two very different reactions on the part of the umpire, the batter, the fans, and some of the players. One fastball thrown at the batter’s head may have been an accident. But two, one after the other, seems pretty clearly intentional and maliciously motivated. Sports writer Ian O’Connor summarized his reaction as follows:

Joba Chamberlain did it on purpose. Two nuclear-powered fastballs, back-to-back, raging over the head belonging to Kevin Youkilis were indeed thrown with vile intentions. The first one, clocked at 98 mph, sounded like this: See you at Fenway in two weeks. The second one, clocked at 99 mph, sounded like this: See you in the ALCS after that.

Though never explicit in his wording, Youkilis made similar attributions after the game:

Two balls go at your head and the guy has a zero ERA and he’s around the strike zone pretty good, any man is going to go out there and think that the balls were intended to hit him in the head. I didn’t see any other pitches going that far out of the strike zone.

Of course, we can’t be completely sure if the pitcher, Joba Chamberlain, was truly head hunting. If one accident is possible, then so is two; plus we really don’t know what was happening inside Chamberlain’s head. So we look at the circumstances: “could he have been exacting revenge for something earlier in the game? What other motives did he have one way or the other?” And, in the hope of gleaning more about the interior of the black box of his mind, reporters ask the obvious questions: “did you do that on purpose?,” “what were you thinking?” and so on. To view Chamberlain’s responses to those sorts of questions watch the three-minute video below.

Did you find him convincing? Major League Baseball didn’t, at least not completely. They concluded Chamberlain was sufficiently culpable to warrant an official penalty. Much like our legal system might, the League punished Chamberlain, suspending him two games and fining him $1,000 for “inappropriate actions.” Of course, had Chamberlain menacingly pointed at his temple between the two pitches, the League would have seen more unambiguously into the black box regarding his actual intent and would therefore have imposed a much harsher punishment.

The League’s response may do little to influence the likely payback that is to follow when the Red Sox host the Yankees later this month. Throwing fastballs at the head is a serious attack, one that Red Sox pitchers will want to avenge. Still, the League has intervened in part to prevent the sort of escalating conflicts that, history proves, often occur when attributions of blame between teams or other groups fester. The fact that two sides of a conflict make their attributions in group-affirming ways is a major source of the escalation. Both sides tend to agree on one thing: “They are to blame; we are not.”

Common-law historians tell us that a primary reason for the creation and success of the common law, particularly criminal and tort law, was to serve as a substitute for the “self-help” option when one person’s acts harmed another, and divergent attributions led to escalations of violence between individuals and groups. The common law provided a relatively neutral third party — be it a judge or jury of one’s peers — who could hear the conflicting accounts and reach a fair apportionment of damages or penalty based on perceived culpability. Assuming the institution remained credible, parties tended to live with those decisions and to be less eager to resort to self-help.

The same sorts of automatic attributional tendencies and dynamics that influence how we feel about a particular player on a particular team, or even how we decide to punish tort or criminal defendants can be found in all of our interactions — small and big. They even lie at the heart of many international and global conflicts.

Indeed, the attributional inferences drawn in responses to Chamberlain’s two head-oriented pitches were surprisingly similar to the attributional inferences drawn by most Americans in response to the World Trade Center Bombings on 9/11.

When the first plane hit the first tower, there was a strong sense of sadness for the victims, but the incident was automatically presumed by most to have been an unfortunate accident. It was developing into a tragic story, but not different in kind from other large accidents. The second plane crashing into the second tower completely changed all that in an unthinking instant. An accident, over which a pilot exercised little control, turned into an intentional, deliberate, purposeful, hateful attack by terrorists on “us.” To see what we mean, view the (nine- minute) video below of news coverage of the event as it unfolded.

Two identical explosions. Two very different reactions.

It was the power of the second set of reactions that fueled, not only the national urge to rescue and assist victims, but also the widespread craving to punish the evildoers. Consider the varying reactions of President Bush to the first and second crash, as later told to Dan Balz and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post:

Bush remembers senior adviser Karl Rove bringing him the news, saying it appeared to be an accident involving a small, twin-engine plane. In fact it was American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 out of Boston’s Logan International Airport. Based on what he was told, Bush assumed it was an accident. “This is pilot error,” the president recalled saying. “It’s unbelievable that somebody would do this.” Conferring with Andrew H. Card Jr., his White House chief of staff, Bush said, “The guy must have had a heart attack.”

. . . At 9:05 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing 767, smashed into the South Tower of the trade center. Bush was seated on a stool in the classroom when Card whispered the news: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” Bush remembers exactly what he thought: “They had declared war on us, and I made up my mind at that moment that we were going to war.”

No doubt, our assessments of the intentions and motives of the evildoers were correct: TheColin Powell UN bombings were intentional and maliciously motivated. Still, there may be lessons to be learned from the Major League or from our domestic legal system. When America insisted on going to war with Iraq without meaningfully engaging the world community or taking seriously the concerns of even its allies, it was short-circuiting its best hope for avoiding regret. Maybe our leaders should be obligated to seek and defer to the judgment of relatively neutral third parties, precisely because history shows that the self-help option is as attractive as it is counterproductive. Sometimes we wisely build institutions to limit our options precisely because we know that our desire to take certain options in the future will lead to tragedy. Sometimes we wisely alter our situation because we cannot trust our disposition.

* * *

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.

To review a larger sample of posts on the causes and consequences of human conflict, click here. For a list of posts discussing how people attribute causation, responsibility, and blame, click here.

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Moral Hypocrisy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 25, 2008

Law professor and commentator Rosa Brooks has a provocative and situationist op-ed, titled “Radovan Karadzic: Just a moral hypocrite,” in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. Here is a brief excerpt.

* * *

All the evidence we have suggests that human beings are adept at self-deceit. Alone among animals, humans are tellers of stories — and we tell stories to ourselves as well as to others. We trick ourselves constantly, in countless tiny ways, into believing that the bad deeds of others are very bad indeed, while our own are necessary, minor, forgivable — or maybe not even bad at all.

In one recent study, for instance, Northeastern University psychologists Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno found that when subjects were asked to assign tasks to themselves and to strangers, nearly all gave themselves easy tasks while assigning unpleasant tasks to people they didn’t know. When asked if their actions were fair, subjects were quick to find appealing rationales to justify saddling strangers with all the lousy jobs. But these same subjects were quick to condemn the same selfish behavior when they saw others engage in it.

At least on a microscopic level, then, most of us aren’t all that different from Karadzic or any of the other killers who cloaked their atrocities in the soothing rhetoric of healing. We’re all moral hypocrites, willing to believe our own justifications for the rotten things we want to do.

There’s a depressing lesson here. Uplifting rhetoric — even the language of healing, generosity and compassion — can genuinely mask the true nature of bad deeds (even from those who carry them out). As a nation at war, it’s a lesson we should remember.

* * *

To read the entire editorial, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Motivated Situation of Morality” and “A Convenient Fiction.”

Posted in Conflict, History, Morality | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Situationist Torts Earns Additional Top 10 SSRN Rankings

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 25, 2008

Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and Michael McCann recently posted on SSRN a draft of their forthcoming law review article, Situationist Torts, 41 Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review _ (forthcoming, 2008). Earlier this month, SSRN announced its Law & Psychology Top Ten and Legal Education Top Ten lists and Situationist Torts placed in the top 10 on both lists (#1 and #3, respectively) for the last 60 days. More recently, SSRN announced that Situationist Torts has earned a spot on the top 10 lists of Legal History (#9) and Public Law and Legal Theory (#10).

To download Situationist Torts for free click here. That link will direct you to the abstract and various download options.

Posted in Education, History, Law, Legal Theory, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 24, 2008

The cognitive revolution of psychology in the 1970s began to give way to the early findings of automaticity in the 1980s, which were spearheaded by Situationist contributor John Bargh, whose dissertation on automatic social perception won the Dissertation Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology in 1982. Since that time, the field of automaticity has grown from a few studies on social perception and judgment to encompass research across the social psychology spectrum, including research on emotions, attitudes, goal pursuit, relationships, and evaluations.

In Bargh’s latest book, Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes, he collects chapters from researchers working on automaticity within these varied contexts. Bargh makes clear in his introduction that the original assumption of a dichotomy between automatic and controlled mental processes is overly simple and reductive, and many of the essays deal with the interaction of these processes.

The first chapter gives an excellent introduction to the field of automaticity, covering many of the leading theories and models of automaticity, and setting up the interplay between automaticity and control that is woven throughout the book. Other chapters focus on the state of the art of automaticity in each of the subfields of social psychology in which the authors research.

Since each chapter focuses on a different subfield, the book is most valuable as a resource in its gestalt. However, for researchers interested in psychology and law, a few points stand out. First, the chapter assessing the current status and validity of the IAT will be useful, especially given the criticism it has received in the legal literature. Second, the chapter on automaticity of emotion sheds some light on crimes of passion. Finally, the last chapter, which focuses on Process Dissociation Procedure, uses the Amadou Diallo case as a jumping-off point for research on reactions to ambiguous objects (is it a gun or a tool?) in the presence of black faces and white faces. The article explains the theory’s attempts to separate intentional and unintentional contributions to the same behavior.

David Hamilton, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at University of California, Santa Barbara says, and we at The Situationist agree, that this “highly readable . . . book will be invaluable for researchers, teachers, and scholars throughout social psychology.”

* * *

For a sample of previous, related Situationist posts, see “Unconscious Situation of Choice,” “The Situation of Hair Color,” The Situation of Reason,” “The Situation of “Winners” and “Losers,” and Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV of “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness.

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Public Policy, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Psychology of The Dark Knight

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 23, 2008

The Dark Knight, which in generating $158 million in gate receipts last weekend set the all-time record for most receipts in an opening weekend, has clearly entered the American consciousness. The film has attracted very favorable reviews by critics and even more favorable by movie-goers, many of whom have been struck by the amazing, chilling, and believable performance of the late Heath Ledger as The Joker.

The Dark Knight has also attracted the notice of academics and those with expertise in the social sciences. Clinical psychologist Robin S. Rosenberg of Psychablog, for example, offers an interesting entry titled “Dark Knight: A Psychologist’s View.” We excerpt it below.

* * *

This film is really about the Joker. We’re lured in to his world, where we learn what he’s capable of and what he cares about—what motivates him. Learning more about him is like watching a car accident unfold, but worse and more frightening, because it feels like you might be hit next. Nolan’s incarnation of the Joker, and Batman’s reactions to him, seem so real that The Dark Knight doesn’t feel like a superhero movie, but like a documentary on the emergence of a terrorist-cum-serial killer.

* * *

This Joker is neither impulsive nor capricious, although he may appear that way at first blush. Just as with Batman, the Joker’s actions are designed to create a particular impression, an impression that puts his adversaries at a disadvantage: that he’s weird and unpredictable. That you never know how far he’ll push something, so take him seriously. This, too, is part of the impression that Batman tries to create. But the Joker’s got Batman’s number because he knows that Batman isn’t entirely unpredictable—Batman lives within certain self-imposed and societally imposed rules. Because of those rules, Batman becomes predictable . . . at least to the Joker. Two men with similar talents, but in the Joker’s case, his talents are used to create anarchy for his own amusement. Is he a psychopath? Let’s investigate.

* * *

For the rest of the piece, click here. To watch an interview of Rosenberg on The History Channel, see this YouTube link.

Posted in Entertainment, Life | Tagged: , , , | 10 Comments »

Some Reflections on Reflections

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 22, 2008

Natalie Angier has a terrific piece in today’s New York Times titled “Mirrors Don’t Lie. Mislead? Oh, Yes.” The article is worth reading in its entirety. Here is a taste of what you’ll find.

* * *

[R]esearchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. Reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V. Bodenhausen and Alan B. Milne found that people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion.

“When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,” Dr. Bodenhausen said. “A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.” Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you know yourself.

* * *

In a report titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,” which appears online in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier, homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.

How can we be so self-delusional when the truth stares back at us? “Although we do indeed see ourselves in the mirror every day, we don’t look exactly the same every time,” explained Dr. Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. There is the scruffy-morning you, the assembled-for-work you, the dressed-for-an-elegant-dinner you. “Which image is you?” he said. “Our research shows that people, on average, resolve that ambiguity in their favor, forming a representation of their image that is more attractive than they actually are.”

* * *

To link to the entire article, click here. For a related Situationist post, see “New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy” and “Self-Serving Biases.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Illusions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Kevin Jon Heller on The Cognitive Psychology of Mens Rea

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 22, 2008

Kevin Jon Heller, a law professor at the University of Auckland and contributor to the Opinio Juris blog, has recently posted on SSRN his essay “The Cognitive Psychology Mens Rea.” Below is an abstract of the essay, which can be downloaded for free at this link.

* * *

Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea – the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty. Few today would disagree with the maxim; the criminal law has long since rejected the idea that causing harm should be criminal regardless of the defendant’s subjective culpability. Still, the maxim begs a critical question: can jurors accurately determine whether the defendant acted with the requisite guilty mind?

Given the centrality of mens rea to criminal responsibility, we would expect legal scholars to have provided a persuasive answer to this question. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Most scholars simply presume that jurors can mindread accurately. And those scholars that take mindreading seriously have uniformly adopted common sense functionalism, a theory of mental-state attribution that is inconsistent with a vast amount of research into the cognitive psychology of mindreading. Common-sense functionalism assumes that a juror can accurately determine a defendant’s mental state by applying commonsense generalizations about how external circumstances, mental states, and physical behavior are causally related. Research indicates, however, that mindreading is actually a simulation-based, not theory-based, process. When a juror perceives the defendant to be similar to himself, he will mindread through projection, attributing to the defendant the mental state that he would have had in the defendant’s situation. And when the juror perceives the defendant to be dissimilar to himself, he will mindread through prototyping, inferring the defendant’s mental state from the degree of correspondence between the defendant’s act and his pre-existing conception of what the typical crime or defense of that type looks like.

This goal of this essay is to provide a comprehensive – though admittedly speculative – explanation of how jurors use projection and prototyping to make mental-state attributions in criminal cases. The first two sections explain why jurors are unlikely to use a functionalist method in a case that focuses on the defendant’s mens rea. The next three sections introduce projection and prototyping, describe the evidence that jurors actually use them to make mental-state determinations, and discuss the cognitive mechanism – perceived similarity between juror and defendant – that determines which one a juror will use in a particular case. The final two sections explain why projection and prototyping are likely to result in inaccurate mental-state determinations and discuss debiasing techniques that may make them more accurate.

* * *

For more on the subject of mens rea, check out John Darley and Pam Mueller’s Situationist post from January titled “Why We Punish.”

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

Can Sports Save the World? (& what must be done beforehand) – Part I

Posted by Jason Chung on July 21, 2008

Author’s note: This post is the first of a multi-part series examining the relationship between politics and sport and what political prerequisites must exist before sport can have a deeper reconciliatory effect among peoples within states and between states. These works are part of the author’s Masters thesis.

With the 2008 Beijing Olympic Summer Games fast approaching, there has been much speculation as to how the Olympics will impact China’s socio-political development. On one hand, Western international news organizations such as CNN and the BBC predict the Olympics could become highly politicized with human rights protests. The Chinese news agency Xinhua, however, espouses the Chinese state’s upbeat view that these Olympics will help “integrate itself into the world.” Interestingly, a core assumption regarding sport may be driving this debate: sports play a crucial role in defining how a state’s populace views itself and how it interacts with other states.

Indeed, the perception that sport has a role to play in the social, ethnic, and political relations which define dynamics within and between states has spread to various world elites and social actors. Thus far, most of the attention that sport has received has been positive. World opinion leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, note that

[s]port has the power to unite people in a way little else can. Sport can create hope where there was once only despair. It breaks down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand.

At a cursory glance, the links between sport and inter-state reconciliation seem abundant. Some pundits credit Ping-Pong Diplomacy with facilitating the subsequent thaw of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. Others point to Table Tennis Diplomacy and the attempted Olympic Diplomacy as effective difference-bridges between the two Koreas in the latter decades of the 20th century. More generally, there has been a widely held sense that sports, in Jeremy Goldberg‘s words, serve as “a ‘safe’ way to ease a country out of isolation, acting as a first step of engagement, if not the first step.”

This transformation of conflict-laden bonds is not limited to inter-state rivalries. In 2007, following the apparent success of the Côte d’Ivoire’s national men’s football team in rallying the country and ending a five-year long civil war between Northern rebels and the government-controlled South, a spokesman for the Minister for Sport in Côte d’Ivoire, Geoffrey Baillet, had this to say:

We, the politicians, we went to the best universities; we’re the intellectuals, the supposed leaders of the country. But when it came to making peace, we failed. It’s a group of soccer players that brought us together. [Ivorian football star] Didier Drogba came from nothing. Now he’s a worldwide star and a hero for us. He’s done a great thing for his country.

Hence, sport appears to possess a quality which promotes not only inter-state reconciliation but also intra-state reconciliation. Judging from both the aforementioned Ivorian example and the images of a celebrating multi-ethnic Iraq following that country’s victory in the Asian Football Confederation Championship, it would seem that sport has at least a temporary ability to create intra-state linkages between conflicting factions.

National-level sporting events are therefore perceived to offer reconciliatory powers and diplomatic significance by members of society and powerful elites. In both countries experiencing either “cold” (potential) or “hot” (open and violent) inter-state and intra-state conflicts, there have been concrete examples in which at least a segment of those involved point to sport as a significant factor in obtaining reconciliation. For one reason or another, sport seems to have a unique ability to transcend common social cleavages such as class, nationality, and race and create bonds between sides in conflict.

It remains to be seen, however, how much of this sentiment can be attributed to mere platitudes versus how much influence sport has as a tool of political and social reconciliation between and within states.

* * *

In the coming months on The Situationist, I will draw from various theoretical backgrounds – including social psychology and political science – to explore the relationship between sport and politics. I will conclude this series by advancing a general framework for gauging the effectiveness of sport in resolving long-standing social and political issues.

Comments and observations are most welcome and may very well be incorporated within future posts. If you currently hold an academic or professional affiliation, and consent to being quoted by the author, please sign your posts with your title and institutional affiliation. I look forward to a candid discussion regarding sport and politics!

Posted in Conflict, History, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Will Wilkinson Interviews Jonathan Haidt

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 20, 2008

Below is a ten-minute BloggingHeads clip from a one-hour interview of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

To watch the entire video, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Motivated Situation of Morality,” Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” and “Moral Psychology Primer.”

Posted in Ideology, Morality, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Ask and Ye Are More Likely To Receive than You Expect

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 18, 2008

From Business Wire and Knowledgebase (the free monthly information source for thoughts, ideas and research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business):

For many of us, the thought of asking someone for help or a favor–be it a colleague, friend, or stranger–is fraught with discomfort. We figure we’re imposing or tend to assume the person will say no, which could leave us embarrassed or humiliated.

But as reported in this month’s Stanford Knowledgebase, new research from Stanford Graduate School of Business verifies the old adage, “Ask and you shall receive.” A series of studies reveals that people tend to grossly underestimate how likely others are to agree to requests for assistance.

“Our research should encourage people to ask for help and not assume that others are disinclined to comply,” says Frank Flynn, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “People are more willing to help than you think, and that can be important to know when you’re trying to get the resources you need to get a job done, when you’re trying to solicit funds, or what have you.”

In fact, Flynn and Vanessa Lake, a Columbia University psychology doctoral student, have already had feedback to that effect on their paper, published in the July 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “A colleague had just finished reading a draft and was running late to a dinner appointment,” says Flynn. “He was in the subway and realized he should call ahead but didn’t have a cell phone. He told us that our paper gave him courage to ask a stranger to borrow his–and that he was delighted when the person quickly obliged!”

In the first two studies, participants were instructed to ask favors of people in campus settings after estimating how many people they thought would comply with their requests. Participants asked to borrow strangers’ cell phones in order to make calls back to the experimenter, solicited individuals to fill out questionnaires, and asked students to help them find the campus gym–a favor that required obliging students to walk with a participant for at least two blocks in the direction of the gym.

The researchers found that participants consistently overestimated by 50 percent the number of people they’d have to ask to get a certain number to agree with each request. “Participants were initially horrified at the prospect of going out and asking people for such things,” says Lake. “But they’d bound back in to the lab afterward with big smiles, saying, ‘I can’t believe how nice people were!'”

The results were replicated even more dramatically in a real-world scenario involving volunteers for Team in Training, a division of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. These volunteers, who receive training for endurance sports events in exchange for fundraising for the society, were asked to estimate the number of people they thought they would have to solicit to reach their fundraising goal, as well as the average donation they expected.

Once again, volunteers predicted they would have to approach 50 percent more people than were actually needed. Moreover, they underestimated the average donation they’d receive by $17. “People seem to miscalculate how willing others are to say yes to direct requests, even in a conservative case like this where they’re open to soliciting others and the request is significant–anywhere from $30 to more than $1,000,” observes Flynn.

Why do people consistently make such underestimations? The researchers found it’s because they fail to get inside the head of the potential helper. The critical factor, say Flynn and Lake, is that those who are approached for a favor are under social pressure to be benevolent. Just saying no can make them look very bad–to themselves or others.

Two further studies demonstrated this dynamic. When given various scenarios, participants responded differently depending on whether they were in the role of a potential helper or the one who needed the help. Those asking for help thought they were more likely to be turned down than those offering aid. Even more importantly, askers said they thought it would be much easier for others to refuse their request than did potential helpers.

“That’s really the mechanism explaining the effect,” says Flynn. “People’s underestimation of others’ willingness to comply is driven by their failure to diagnose these feelings of social obligation on the part of others.”

One study found that those asking for help incorrectly believed it was more likely they would receive help if they were indirect about it–communicating their request with a look, rather than a direct question. In contrast, people in the position of offering assistance said they were much more likely to help if asked point blank. “That really puts the obligation on them, and makes it very awkward for them to refuse,” says Lake.

Similarly, in a final study, participants incorrectly calculated that they would get more people to answer a questionnaire if they simply handed them a flyer with the request, instead of asking them outright. This was the case whether they were asking people to fill out short, one-page questionnaires, or more burdensome, 10-page questionnaires. “The lesson is that you should pay more attention to how your request is being made than to the size of your request,” says Flynn.

“Other studies we’ve conducted indicate that people overestimate how likely it is that others will come to them for help,” Flynn continues. “This means not only are people not asking for help when in fact they could get it, but they’re not encouraging others to come to them for help when in fact they’re willing to offer it. That tells us that the ‘open-door’ policy is basically ineffective unless people are actively encouraged to use it.”

* * *

For a related Situationist post, see “The Situation of Helping.”

Posted in Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Preoperative Care

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 17, 2008

Sam Sommers, a social psychologist at Tufts University, has a nice post over on Psych Today on the elusive power of daily situations (and we appreciate his nice words!). His post delves into his situation while he was in pre-op. Here are some excerpts.

* * *

I have to admit, by this point I am getting a bit nervous. Mind you, everyone’s just doing their jobs, and doing so in a courteous manner at that. The nurse was friendly and reassuring; the anaesthesia folks spoke in terms that were clear and accessible to a layperson. But various aspects of this situation now have me feeling pretty uncomfortable and even a bit spooked. I’m in an unfamiliar place, I’m making decisions about medical issues about which I know very little in consultation with people I’ve never met before, and did I mention that I’m still naked under an uncomfortable gown whose status remains anything but secure?

My guess is these are aspects of this situation that the physicians and nurses with whom I was interacting paid no attention. But to me, the room, my dress, the sudden appearance of an anesthesiologist who wants to discuss the small risk of permanent nerve damage three seconds after introducing himself and shaking my splint… this is what transformed my disposition from blasé to anxious.

A few days after the procedure, I recounted my experience to my father-in-law, a neurologist who practices in Boston and teaches at Harvard. He told me that whenever he’s asked to give a talk to graduating medical students or new residents, he always tells them that one of the best things that can happen to them professionally is to get sick. Not a serious illness, of course, but enough to get them struggling to book a timely appointment, wrestling with the insurance company, sitting too long in waiting rooms, and just generally getting a refresher on what being a patient is all about.

I think it’s great advice, and certainly not just for health care professionals. It’s useful for those of us who work as professors to once again experience what it’s like to be a student in a lecture course. For psychologists to experience an hour as a patient. For the customer service representative to spend 30 minutes on hold. Without such experiences, or at the very least imagining such experiences, it’s far too easy to lose sight of the situational factors that influence the people with whom we interact during the course of doing our jobs.

As we know from decades of research in social psychology, many of us are far too inattentive to the power of the situation in our daily interactions. (For a great blog that explores the scope and implications of this tendency as it applies to varied domains such as law, politics, business, and more, check out The Situationist.) And it seems as if this tendency is only magnified when we operate within the comfortable confines of our own professional worlds.

* * *

For the rest of the post, click here. For some related Situationist posts, see “The Racial Situation of Pain Relief,” “Unlevel Playing Fields: From Baseball Diamonds to Emergency Rooms,” and “Infant Death Rates in Mississippi.”

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

Learning to Influence Our Interior Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 16, 2008

From TED: Neuroscientist and inventor Christopher deCharms demonstrates a new way to use fMRI to show brain activity — thoughts, emotions, pain — while it is happening. In other words, you can actually see how you feel.

* * *

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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

The Motivated Situation of Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 15, 2008

A recent story on MSNBC summarizes research indicating “why we’re all moral hypocrites.” Here are a few excerpts.

* * *

Most of us, whether we admit it or not, are moral hypocrites. We judge others more severely than we judge ourselves.

Mounting evidence suggests moral decisions result from the jousting between our knee-jerk responses . . . and our slower, but more collected evaluations. Which is more responsible for our self-leniency?

To find out, a recent study presented people with two tasks. One was described as tedious and time-consuming; the other, easy and brief. The subjects were asked to assign each task to either themselves or the next participant. They could do this independently or defer to a computer, which would assign the tasks randomly.

Eighty-five percent of 42 subjects passed up the computer’s objectivity and assigned themselves the short task – leaving the laborious one to someone else. Furthermore, they thought their decision was fair. However, when 43 other subjects watched strangers make the same decision, they thought it unjust.

* * *

The researchers then “constrained cognition” by asking subjects to memorize long strings of numbers. In this greatly distracted state, subjects became impartial. They thought their own transgressions were just as terrible as those of others.

This suggests that we are intuitively moral beings, but “when we are given time to think about it, we construct arguments about why what we did wasn’t that bad,” said lead researcher Piercarlo Valdesolo, who conducted this study at Northeastern University and is now a professor at Amherst College.

* * *

The researchers speculate that instinctive morality results from evolutionary selection for team players. Being fair, they point out, strengthens mutually beneficial relationships and improves our chances for survival.

So why do we choose to judge ourselves so leniently?

* * *

To read teh entire article, including the answer to that last question, click here.

For related Situationists posts, see “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” “Moral Psychology Primer,” “Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” “Our Brain and Morality,” The Situation of Reason,” “I’m Objective, You’re Biased,” “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me),” and “Why We Punish.”

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Experimental Philosophy, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

New Yorker Cover of the Obamas and Source Amnesia

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 14, 2008

We recently posted on an interesting op-ed in the New York Times, titled “Your Brain Lies to You” by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt. Their op-ed discussed “source amnesia,” which refers to our brains’ tendency to remember information but not its source. Put another way, we are surprisingly prone to remembering that which we initially perceive as incredible, including satire and lies, as true.

Wang and Aamodt discussed source amnesia in the context of lies about Senator Barack Obama that a surprising number of Americans believes, such as the lie that he is Muslim when in fact he is Christian.

Given source amnesia, we can understand the Obama camp’s stern rebuke of the upcoming cover of the New Yorker.

What do you think about the cover?

Posted in Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

It’s All In Your (Theory of the) Mind

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 13, 2008

Story by Anne-Marie Tobin, from Canadian Press.

* * *

Can robots and computers take the place of a human being? Two new studies involving research on brain activity in humans provide some food for thought in the evolving debate about interactions between man and machine – and in both cases, people seem to prefer people.

German scientists used an MRI scanner to see how the brain reacted when subjects thought they were playing a game against four different opponents – a laptop computer, a functional robot with no human shape except for artificial hands, a robot with a humanlike shape and another person.

The 20 participants were also asked about their enjoyment levels after playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game, which is similar to the Rock Paper Scissors game.

“We were interested in what’s going on in the brain when you play an interaction game when you need to think what your opponent is thinking,” said Soren Krach, a psychologist in the department of psychiatry at RWTH Aachen University.

In social cognitive neuroscience, the ability to attribute intentions and desires to others is referred to as having a Theory of Mind, according to the study.

“We found out that the activity in the cortical network related to Theory of Mind … was increasingly engaged the more the opponents exhibited humanlike features,” Krach explained.

Before going into the MRI scanner, the subjects played against the laptop, the two robots and the human. Once inside the scanner, they played again, using special video glasses, and they were told which opponent they were playing against at any given time.

Later, they were asked about the interaction.

“They indicated that the more humanlike the opponent was, the more they had perceived fun during the game and they more attributed intelligence to their opponent,” Krach said.

The behaviour of the four opponents was randomized.

The study was published Tuesday in the online open-access journal PLoS ONE, along with another study in which neuroscientists looked at the brain’s response to piano sonatas played either by a computer or musician.

* * *

To read the rest of the article and about that second experiment, click here.

The article, from which the image above is taken, is: Krach S, Hegel F, Wrede B, Sagerer G, Binkofski F, et al. (2008) Can Machines Think? Interaction and Perspective Taking with Robots Investigated via fMRI. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2597. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002597

Posted in Neuroscience, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

%d bloggers like this: