The Situationist

Archive for September, 2008

The Situation of Innate Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 30, 2008

Harvard College Professor Marc D. Hauser, Ph.D. wrote a fascinating article, “Is Morality Natural?” for Newsweek, in which he discusses morality and the fact that the moral decisions we make might be the same for people across cultures. We excerpt the article below.

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Science is tracing the biological roots of our intuitive sense of what is right and what is wrong.

On Jan. 2, 2007, a large woman entered the Cango caves of South Africa and wedged herself into the only exit, trapping 22 tourists behind her. Digging her out appeared not to be an option, which left a terrible moral dilemma: take the woman’s life to free the 22, or leave her to die along with her fellow tourists? It is a dilemma because it pushes us to decide between saving many and using someone else’s life as a means to this end.

A new science of morality is beginning to uncover how people in different cultures judge such dilemmas, identifying the factors that influence judgment and the actions that follow. These studies suggest that nature provides a universal moral grammar, designed to generate fast, intuitive and universally held judgments of right and wrong.

Consider yourself a subject in an experiment on the Moral Sense Test, a site presenting dilemmas such as these: Would you drive your boat faster to save the lives of five drowning people knowing that a person in your boat will fall off and drown? Would you fail to give a drug to a terminally ill patient knowing that he will die without it but his organs could be used to save three other patients? Would you suffocate your screaming baby if it would prevent enemy soldiers from finding and killing you both, along with the eight others hiding out with you?

These are moral dilemmas because there are no clear-cut answers that obligate duty to one party over the other. What is remarkable is that people with different backgrounds, including atheists and those of faith, respond in the same way. Moreover, when asked why they make their decisions, most people are clueless, but confident in their choices. In these cases, most people say that it is acceptable to speed up the boat, but iffy to omit care to the patient. Although many people initially respond that it is unthinkable to suffocate the baby, they later often say that it is permissible in that situation.

* * *

Surprisingly, our emotions do not appear to have much effect on our judgments about right and wrong in these moral dilemmas. A study of individuals with damage to an area of the brain that links decision-making and emotion found that when faced with a series of moral dilemmas, these patients generally made the same moral judgments as most people. This suggests that emotions are not necessary for such judgments.

* * *

Another example of the role that emotions have on our actions comes from recent studies of psychopaths. … New, preliminary studies suggest that clinically diagnosed psychopaths do recognize right from wrong, as evidenced by their responses to moral dilemmas. What is different is their behavior. While all of us can become angry and have violent thoughts, our emotions typically restrain our violent tendencies. In contrast, psychopaths are free of such emotional restraints. They act violently even though they know it is wrong because they are without remorse, guilt or shame.

These studies suggest that nature handed us a moral grammar that fuels our intuitive judgments of right and wrong. Emotions play their strongest role in influencing our actions—reinforcing acts of virtue and punishing acts of vice. We generally do not commit wrong acts because we recognize that they are wrong and because we do not want to pay the emotional price of doing something we perceive as wrong.

So, would you have killed the large woman stuck in the cave or allowed her to die with the others? If you are like other subjects taking the moral sense test, you would say that it is permissible to take her life because you don’t make her worse off. But could you really do it?

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Marc Hauser is a professor of psychology and human evolutionary biology at Harvard, and author of “Moral Minds.” From the magazine issue dated Sep 22, 2008.

For some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Innate Morality,” “Moral Psychology Primer,” “Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” and “The Science of Morality.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Take the Policy IAT

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 29, 2008

Social science has documented that unconscious factors play a far more significant role in our ideological beliefs than we realize.

Now you can take the “Policy IAT 1.0” – a test designed to examine whether and to what extent people have implicit preferences for certain types of policy options and how those preferences may or may not correspond with explicit attitudes and vary across the ideological spectrum.

To take the Policy IAT (a roughly 15-minute task), click here.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Bracelet-Based Policy Making

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 29, 2008

Ever wonder why so much time is spent comparing jewelry and telling personal anecdotes in presidential debates (see short video above), even as many of the larger policy questions remain largely unexplored?  There are, of course, many reasons (some of which have been noted in previous Situationist posts), but Friday’s wrist-off reminded us of one key contributor: “the identifiable victim effect” —  greater sympathy is felt for identifiable victims than for statistical victims.

George Loewenstein, Deborah Small, and Jeff Strnad have an excellent 2005 paper, “Statistical, Identifiable and Iconic Victims and Perpetrators” (available for free downloading on SSRN), discussing that effect and its role in policymaking. Their introduction includes this paragraph.

In this paper we focus on yet another reason for why taxation and government spending can go awry: human psychology, and specifically the lack of proportionality between human sympathy and the wants and needs of those toward whom the sympathy, or lack thereof, is directed. As Adam Smith observed in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, we often feel little sympathy toward people who are highly deserving of it. He illustrates the point vividly with the hypothetical case of a European man who gets more upset over losing his little finger than over a calamity that wipes out the entire population of China. However, the disproportionality can also go in the opposite direction. As Smith also points out, “we sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself seems to be altogether incapable,” as illustrated by the dismay of the mother of a sick child which, as he puts it, “feels only the uneasiness of the present instant, which can never be great” . . . . Smith adds dryly that “we sympathize even with the dead, who themselves experience nothing”. . . . Our main focus is on one specific source of arbitrariness in human sympathy: the disproportionate sympathy and attention to identifiable as compared with statistical victims.

Here is the abstract.

We first review research showing (1) that people respond more strongly to identifiable than statistical victims even when identification provides absolutely no information about the victims, (2) that the identifiable victim effect is a special case of a more general tendency to react more strongly to identifiable others whether they evoke sympathy or other emotions, and (3) that identifiability influences behavior via the emotional reactions it evokes. Next, we discuss the normative status of the effect, noting that, contrary to the usual assumption that people overreact to identifiable victims, identifiability can shift people’s responses in a normatively desirable direction if people are otherwise insufficiently sympathetic toward statistical victims. Finally, we examine implications of the identifiable victim effect for public finance. We show that the identifiable victim effect can influence the popularity of different policies, for example, naturally favoring hidden taxes over those whose incidence is more easily assessed, since a hidden tax has no identifiable victims. Identifiable other effects also influence public discourse, with much of the debate about government spending and taxation being driven by vivid exemplars – iconic victims and perpetrators – rather than any rational calculation of costs and benefits.

To read previous Situationist posts discussing some of the problems posed by the way we do or do not emotionally connect with victims, see “An Apathy Epidemic” and “Too Many To Care.”

Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, Education, Morality, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Paul Newman – a Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 28, 2008

In a CNN interview of the legendary Paul Newman (1925 – 2008) by Heather McCartney, Newman answers a question about which of his many movies represents his best performance.  Newman deflects the question and stresses the role of situation — the question that is “never asked.”

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And if you — if you look at any given role and say, “What kind of help did you get? What was the script like? Who were your acting partners? How much did — did you have to expend? What did you have to investigate? How much did you have to expose?” All of those factors are different in every case.

And it also varies for the other people that you’re supposedly competing with. What help did they get? How good was the script? Who did they have to help them in the cast?

So you try to make, and to be considered one of the group is quite an honor. But then to pick out one and say that that was your best performance, I think you also ought to ask why. And that, of course, is the question that is never asked.

* * *

When asked why he is a philanthropist, Newman again acknowledged situation — his own and others.

Well, I think above all things I acknowledge luck. And I mean, if you think of that torrent of sperm out there…

And — and ours was lucky to fall where it did. That’s for starters. You can’t pick your own parents, but you may be lucky enough to have parents that give you the gift of induction and deduction and certain intelligence, certain way you look. I mean, it’s all — So I — I’ve been very lucky. And I — I try to acknowledge that by giving back something to those to whom luck has been brutal.

* * *

We’ll miss Paul Newman.

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

Retroactive Liability for our Financial Woes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 27, 2008

In the following editorial, “Take the Banker’s Porsche” (published in The Seattle Post Inquirer), Situationist contributor Adam Benforado makes an interesting case for a tort-like response to our financial situation.

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With our eyes focused on the staggering price tag of the impending bailout, it is easy to overlook the fact that a significant number of people profited handsomely as they took actions that led to the latest global financial crisis. Over the past five years, much more than $100 billion of bonuses were paid out to the Wall Street elite (including $39 billion just last year). Multimillion-dollar homes in East Hampton were bought; Bentleys were purchased; Gucci handbags were scooped up by the handful; Warhols were hung.

Most of those luxury items will be kept. And, over the next decades you — the medical resident in Philadelphia, waitress in Reno and musician in Nashville — will be receiving the bill.

The story of the mortgage debacle is a complex and meandering tale, but the endgame math is just that simple. The harm has happened, someone has to pay and, because of our discomfort with retroactive statutes and regulations, the burden is going to land on taxpayers in general.

It does not have to be that way and it ought not to be that way. Those who were directly involved in the decision-making and profited from the deals that ultimately resulted in the economic collapse have been unjustly enriched. To satisfy the $700 billion hole the government will soon find itself in after buying up the private sector’s bad debt, we should first look to the tainted assets of those whose hearty bellows stoked the fire.

Perhaps the most famous piece of retroactive legislation, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (popularly known as Superfund), reflects exactly this sense of fairness: Although dumping hazardous waste may not have been illegal at the time it occurred, those who created the waste — and profited from it — ought to be liable for the consequences of their actions.

Under the act, the government — and, thus, the people at large — is to pay response expenses only “where a liable party does not clean up, cannot be found or cannot pay the costs of cleanup.”

Those who reaped great benefits from the subprime mortgage market have left us with a toxic mess and it is upon their shoulders that the responsibility for market decontamination should fall first.

There are at least three reasons why retroactive liability is particularly justified in this context.

First, one of the main grounds for reluctance as to retroactivity is that new laws applied to old conduct tend to catch people unfairly by surprise. However, if we look at the situation here, a lot of the market players knew that what they were doing was risky: The writing had been on the wall for years that the housing and credit bubbles could not be sustained. Those involved were gambling that they could milk a little bit more from the system before things went sour. It was greed not naiveté that kept them at the teat.

Second, the “due notice” concern is only one type of relevant fairness consideration. A competing — and arguably more fundamental — concern is that those individuals who commit harms should have to pay to make things right and those that are comparatively innocent should not. In America, it’s “You break it; you bought it.”

Third, and most important, the complaint of unfair retroactivity is really a red herring because, in truth, the implicated bankers are in no different position than taxpayers as a whole in this regard. Actions were taken in the past that resulted in grave economic damage and now someone has to pay to repair the system. The choice is not between retroactivity and nonretroactivity; the choice is between potentially liable parties.

Are there significant legal, political and practical barriers to making financial insiders responsible for the mortgage crisis before taxpayers? Yes, but those challenges do not dilute the arguments made above.

The strength of this approach is not just that it would be fairer than the alternative, but also that it would act as a powerful deterrent to those who would be tempted to engage in similarly risky strategies in the future.

As any economist will tell you, a moral hazard problem exists when government bailouts occur: The key actors are not forced to internalize the costs of their harmful behavior. Putting investment bankers back where they started — and using their seized assets to treat the problem they engendered — would be a powerful warning to those looking to exploit financial markets in the future.

Posted in Law, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Genetic Situation of Ideology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 26, 2008

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Robert Lee Hotz summarizes some of the recent research showing how genes may shape people’s ideological and political attitudes: “The Biology of Ideology: Studies Suggest Many of Our Political Choices May Be Traced to Genetic Traits.”  Here are a few excerpts.

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In a wave of new research since the last presidential campaign, political scientists are using the tools of behavioral genetics to better understand how and why we vote. Certainly, no single gene can identify an entire electorate. But “in a broad sense, biology shapes all of human behavior,” says New York University social psychologist [and Situationist contributor] John Jost, “and that has to include political behavior.

By matching extensive electronic voter records to documented patterns of heredity among twins, researchers found tantalizing hints that up to half of the variation in our attitudes toward issues and our voting practices can be traced to a political psyche shaped by genetic traits.

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In a study published in May, political scientist James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed voter turnout among 396 identical and fraternal twins for eight elections in Los Angeles. Identical twins share their entire DNA genome, while fraternal twins don’t, so a comparison can offer a glimpse of hereditary influences. After controlling for a variety of environmental factors, he found the decision to cast a ballot may be partly genetic.

Then, he went beyond California voters to analyze political behavior among 1,082 identical and fraternal twins in a national database called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. “Whether you have run for office, donated to a candidate, attended a rally or joined a political organization, we found that those activities were heritable,” says Dr. Fowler. “The environment is incredibly influential, but without genetics you are missing half the story.”

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To read the entire article, click here.   You can download a free copy of Fowler’s papers here. To review other Situationist posts about ideology, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Ideology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Merchants of Discontent – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 25, 2008

Tamara Piety has posted her excellent article, “‘Merchants of Discontent’: An Exploration of the Psychology of Advertising, Addiction and the Implications for Commercial Speech” (25 Seattle University Law Review 377 (2001) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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The commercial speech doctrine allows the government to regulate commercial speech so as to prevent advertising that is false or deceptive while forbidding suppression of truthful commercial information that is based on nothing more than misplaced paternalism. However, this limitation is largely illusory in the realm of traditional advertising because the processes by which advertisers convey their messages employs means such as pictures, symbols, and music, making it virtually impossible to try to test such advertising for its truth. Objections to commercial advertising or calls for stricter regulation often invoke the response that there is no harm in advertising and any regulation of it would be an imposition of elitist sensibilities, or furthermore, a slippery slope to totalitarianism. But we should not treat commercial advertising as largely harmless, argues Prof. Piety. Commercial advertising is a pervasive force which blankets our society and plays a noticeable hand in promoting harmful behavior or attitudes. Given its pervasiveness in the culture it is disturbing to note many parallels between the psychology of commercial appeals and that of addiction. Both appear to involve retreat to fantasy, escapism, a quick fix to problems, a numbing down or increased tolerance from overexposure, and the institution of a vicious cycle wherein consumption fails to really satisfy but sets up a dynamic into which satisfaction rests just out of reach with the next fix or the next purchase. Prof. Piety examines three areas in particular where values of equality or definitions of autonomy clash with First Amendment protection for advertising such as this: the advertising of addictive substances, advertising directed at children, and advertising that undermines goals respecting equality for women and suggest that the doctrine may need to be revisited in light of these issues.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Illusions, Law, Marketing | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Financial Risk-Taking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 24, 2008

Liar’s Poker[This post was first published in February of 2008.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Neuroeconomics, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Overlooked Normalcy of Only Children

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 23, 2008

Last year, we blogged on the situation of only children.  Below we excerpt a piece by Heidi Stevens of the Chicago Tribune on how stereotypes of only children being not as well adjusted as kids with siblings appears to be untrue.

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But for all their strength in numbers, only children (and their parents) still shoulder a hefty load of stigmas — many dating back to 1896, when psychologist G. Stanley Hall said “being an only child is a disease in itself.” Only 3 percent of Americans think a single-child family is the ideal family size, according to a 2004 Gallup poll.

“The stereotypes are still there,” says Carolyn White, editor of Only Child magazine. “That they’re unable to socialize well or have close friendships or be in relationships that are secure and bonded. That they don’t think of others as well as themselves.”

Never mind that 30 years of research, conducted mostly by social psychologist Toni Falbo, proves the opposite is true.

“In many respects, only children tend to be more well-adjusted,” says White. “They learn to socialize very well because they know that if they don’t, they’re not going to have any pals. They really have to get out there.”

Onlies are usually resourceful, independent, gregarious and extremely driven, White says, and they tend to outperform their peers with siblings on academic achievement tests.

“That extra attention from parents can have a very positive effect,” she says.

* * *

To read the rest of the story, click here.

This post is one in a series tracing the influence of situational influences on the development of children from youth into adolescence. To read other posts on this topic, go to “Role-Playing Helps Adolescent Emotional Learning,” “Jock or Nerd?: Where Do You Sit at the Dinner Table?,” “Biology and Environment Affect Childhood Behavioral Development,” or “Growing up in a Sexualizing Situation.”

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

Policy IAT Launched

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 22, 2008

The Project on Law and Mind Science recently launched a policy-oriented implicit association test (IAT).

The IAT is an experimental method designed to measure associative information that people are either unwilling or unable to report. The test was first published by Greenwald and colleagues in 1998. The IAT builds on the implicit-explicit distinction in memory. It reflects the observation that because much social cognition occur in an implicit mode, measuring unconscious cognition likely provides the “missing ingredient” necessary to support efficient testing and development of psychoanalytic, behaviorist, and cognitive theories.

Development & Status of the Implicit Association Test


In the early 1990s, Greenwald and Situationist contributor Mahzarin Banaji, in collaboration with others, co-authored a number of papers that explored the unconscious operation of stereotyped beliefs, prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behavior in the context of social groups, personal judgment, and gender. The authors also investigated automatic stereotyping and implicit social cognition generally. Greenwald proposed in a 1990 article that robust attitude effects can be easily discovered when attitude is involved only indirectly. In 1993, Banaji and others refined Greenwald’s 1990 proposal, arguing that stereotype information is influential only when the social category of the target makes the information relevant to judgment. For example, whereas priming individuals with stereotypes of aggression influences judgments about men, it has little influence on judgment about women. Alternatively, judgments about women are influenced when individuals are primed with stereotypes for dependence. In that 1993 article, Banaji and her co-authors also argued that an individual’s social category influences use of primed stereotype information.


Greenwald, McGhee, and Schwarz first published the IAT in 1988. Since then, “the IAT has been used repeatedly to measure implicit attitudes and other automatic associations.” IAT subjects sort stimuli representing four categories using two responses: usually keys on a computer keyboard. Each response is assigned to two of the four categories. The test rests on the assumption that participants will sort stimuli faster where they experience paired categories as more closely associated.

In their 1998 paper, Greenwald and colleagues presented three experiments that showed that when highly associative categories (e.g. flower + pleasant) share a response key, performance on the test is faster than when less highly associated categories share the same key. In the first experiment, subjects were asked to sort stimuli for flowers, musical instruments, insects, and weapons. This experiment tested the hypothesis that associations can be revealed by mapping two discrimination tasks alternately onto a single pair of responses. The results confirmed this assumption– superior performance was observed when associatively compatible categories were mapped onto the same response. The second experiment extended the test to a domain more typically attitudinal than the first experiment: using the test to discriminate differences between Japanese Americans and Korean Americans in their evaluative associations toward Japanese and Korean ethnic groups. The researchers hypothesized that ethnically Korean subjects would find it more difficult to perform the Japanese + pleasant than the Korean + pleasant combination and vice versa. This hypothesis was based on the history of Japanese-Korean antagonism. The results of the IAT confirmed the expected pattern. The third experiment combined the tasks of classifying Black and White names and discriminating pleasant versus unpleasant word. Twenty-six White American students participated in this test. At the end of the test, each subject responded to questionnaire measures for race-related attitudes and beliefs. The results of the third experiment “clearly revealed patterns consistent with the expectation that White subjects would display an implicit attitude difference between the Black and White racial categories. More specifically, the data indicated an implicit attitudinal preference for White over Black, manifest as faster responses for the White + pleasant combination than for the Black + pleasant combination.”

Since its initial publication in 1988, the IAT has been applied in a diverse array of disciplines including social and cognitive psychology, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, neuroscience, market research, health policy, business and consumer research, and law.

Policy Application for the Implicit Association Test

Although since its initial publication in 1988, the IAT has been applied in a diverse array of disciplines, application to the legal and policy arenas has been minimal. This is the case even though the dominant schemas that shape law and policy are not unlike attitudes, stereotypes and other forms of implicit cognition that IAT is so often harnessed to measure. In a series of articles, Situationist contributor Jon Hanson and his collaborators have endeavored to identify the dominant knowledge structures, schemas, and categories that shape law and policy. Based on their research, the most influential policy scripts boil down to a very simple two-part proposition:  “markets are good, regulation is bad.”  It seems likely that the IAT can shed light on this dominant policy script.

Hanson and Situationist fellow Mark Yeboah have developed an IAT-based study to investigate the the presence and strength of policy scripts across the ideological spectrum. The experiment hopes to shed light on a number of questions, including the extent to which implicit associations correspond with explicit attitudes about markets and regulation and how those associations might vary across various ideological and political dimensions.

* * *

To participate in the Policy IAT, click here.

To read a fascinating interview of professors Banaji and Greenwald about the history and significance of the IAT, go to the five-part series: Part I is here; Part II is here; Part III is here; Part IV is here; and Part V is here.

To review all of the 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.

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

Jeff Sachs Speaks for the Voiceless at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 21, 2008

From Sam Flaks’s article in the Harvard Law Record.

* * *

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs spoke to a packed hall in an address entitled “Representing the Voiceless: The Poor, The Excluded, and the Future,” on the morning of Thursday, September 11, 2008. The passionate but precise economist called for the recognition of the intermeshed dilemmas posed by an overcrowded planet and an increasingly interconnected globe. Sachs’ appearance was organized by Professor Jon Hanson, Carol Igoe, Jon Taylor ’10, and an inter-year committee of students from Section VI.

Sachs, who is one of the leading international economists of his generation, is Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and President and Co-Founder of Millennium Promise Alliance, a non-profit organization attempting to end global poverty. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, ”The End of Poverty” and ”Common Wealth”. Given that ”Time” listed Sachs as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2004 and 2005, it was unsurprising that a standing-room only crowd packed Austin North to hear him at 8:15 A.M.

In his address, Sachs emphasized that the world faces many grave problems. He bewailed that the general public, politicians, and the media are ignorant of the desperate straits of marginalized communities living in the world’s poorest places. Sachs confessed that he himself would have never understood the straits of deathly parched countries like Somalia without seeing them with his own eyes. The direct connection between the hurricanes and tsunamis that have killed hundred of thousands in recent years and the economic and environmental policies of Western democracies is being generally ignored. However, Sachs has made it his mission to educate others about these connections and to fight for change.

Sachs call for engagement was also starkly political. Though he criticized both John McCain and Barack Obama for not engaging the long-term geopolitical problems facing America, Sachs reserved his harshest criticism for the Republican. Sachs predicted that if McCain is elected, the probability of global crisis will rise a few percentage points. He described McCain’s worldview as epitomizing the mindset that defines America and Islam in self-fulfilling and self-defeating “us and them” terms. In response to a question from the audience, Sachs observed that extremely impoverished places can not be politically stable. America would be safer if it devoted more resources to providing renewable energy rather than military spending, he said.

Sachs urged his audience of law students to use the technical skills that they were gaining in the service of ethical goals and to combat environmental and economic disparities that are spurring ethnic conflict across the globe. Specifically, he called for lawyers to support the legal foundations of international treaties that will be necessary to deal with worldwide environmental problems. More broadly, Sachs shared his belief that that the world’s social problems could only be solved if people become more scientifically literate. He pointed out that many crucial threats facing the planet are recognized by the scientific community many years before the general public. Sachs recommended that everyone read Science to keep abreast with new developments that may have important bearing on social problems.

Student reaction to Sachs’s address was generally positive, though many students left with heavy hearts. One student confessed that the Sachs had made him feel bad about his incipient career as a corporate lawyer. Indeed, another student who had come to Harvard to with the intention of helping solve international poverty admitted to this reporter that he avoided the speech because he was too guilt stricken to attend. Nonetheless, the electric humming at the close of the event indicated that many students had been inspired by Sachs’ words and example.

* * *

In the upcoming weeks, The Situationist will post rough transcripts of portions of Sachs’s remarkable talk.

To watch the 90-minute video, click here.

Posted in Conflict, Education, Events, Geography, History, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Politics, Public Policy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Body Temperature

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 20, 2008

Benedict Carey has an interesting story in the Herald Tribune, “A Cold Stare Can Make You Crave Some Heat.”  Here’s a sample.

* * *

For every congenial character who can warm a room, there’s another who can bring a draft from the north, a whiff of dead winter. And even if the thermometer doesn’t register the difference, people do: social iciness feels so cold to those on the receiving end that they will crave a hot drink, a new study has found.

The paper, appearing in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science, is the latest finding from the field of embodied cognition, in which researchers have shown that the language of metaphor can activate physical sensations, and vice versa.

Just as spreading a bad rumor can make people feel literally dirty, so did research subjects who felt socially excluded perceive a significantly lower room temperature than those who felt included.

“We know that being excluded is psychologically painful,” said the lead author, Chen-Bo Zhong, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, “and here we found that it feels just like it’s described in metaphors,” like icy stare and frosty reception.

[Situationist contributor] John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale who was not involved in the research, said the finding made “perfect sense.” In an e-mail message, he noted that a brain region called the insula tracks both body temperature and general psychological states, and it may be here where social perceptions and sensations of warmth or coldness are fused.

In the new paper, Dr. Zhong and Geoffrey J. Leonardelli, also a psychologist at Toronto, describe two experiments.

In one, they split 65 students into two groups, instructing those in one to recall a time when they felt socially rejected, and those in the other to summon a memory of social acceptance.

Many of the students were recent immigrants and had fresh memories of being isolated in the dorms, left behind while roommates went out, Dr. Zhong said.

The researchers then had each of the participants estimate the temperature in the lab room. The students who had recalled being excluded estimated the temperature to be, on average, 5 degrees Fahrenheit lower than the others.

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To read the rest of the article, including a description of their fascinating second experiment, click here. To read a few related Situationist posts, see “Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III,” and”The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV.”

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

Happiness and Punishment – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 19, 2008

John Bronsteen, Christopher Buccafusco, and Jonathan Masur, have recently posted their interesting new paper, “Happiness and Punishment” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

This article continues our project to apply groundbreaking new literature on the behavioral psychology of human happiness to some of the most deeply analyzed questions in law. Here we explain that the new psychological understandings of happiness interact in startling ways with the leading theories of criminal punishment. Punishment theorists, both retributivist and utilitarian, have failed to account for human beings’ ability to adapt to changed circumstances, including fines and (surprisingly) imprisonment. At the same time, these theorists have largely ignored the severe hedonic losses brought about by the post-prison social and economic deprivations (unemployment, divorce, and disease) caused by even short periods of incarceration. These twin phenomena significantly disrupt efforts to attain proportionality between crime and punishment and to achieve effective marginal deterrence. Hedonic psychology thus threatens to upend conventional conceptions of punishment and requires retributivists and utilitarians to find novel methods of calibrating traditional punitive sanctions if they are to maintain the foundations upon which punishment theory rests.

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For some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Civil Settlements – Abstract,” “The Situation of Punishment,” and Why We Punish.”

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Law, Legal Theory, Positive Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Schema Theory and Lesbian and Gay Identity – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 18, 2008

Todd Brower posted his paper, “Social Cognition ‘At Work:’ Schema Theory and Lesbian and Gay Identity in Title VII” on SSRN, where you can download it for free.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

Lesbians and gay men are frequent subjects for modern news, politics, and court opinions. From marriage for same-sex couples to Congressional hearings on the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” regulation, decision-makers are setting policy based on their ideas about how gay people are and how they fit into society. But what are those perceptions and how do they interact with law? We ordinarily think of lesbians and gay men as predominantly childless, urban residents of cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles or as inhabitants of the Northeastern or Pacific Coast states. However, data from the 2000 census demonstrate that same-sex couples are located in virtually every county in each of the 50 states. Moreover, many of the states with the highest proportion of same-sex couples raising children are not those with the highest concentrations of lesbian or gay couples; rather they tend to be states in which all couples tend to have children. If these data are unexpected, our surprise is attributable to the dissonance between what we think we know about lesbians and gay men and accurate data.

This phenomenon is less puzzling than it first appears. Psychologists have demonstrated that our perceptions of the world are shaped by schemas, a set of beliefs about people, events or situations that we use as guides in our interaction with these things. Thus, we are able to treat that person or object in what we perceive to be an appropriate manner, that is, consistent with our schema.

We quickly develop models which ascribe a range of characteristics to others corresponding to their skin color, sex, other physical attributes as well as sexual orientation. We can quickly identify some major characteristics of the popular schema about gay people: (1) That lesbians and gay men exhibit “cross-gender” or gender atypical behavior, behavior traditionally associated with the opposite sex. (2) That gay identity is solely about sexual behavior and that lesbians and gay men experience sexuality and sexual activity different from heterosexuals.

This is the crux of schema theory to this article. The schema of lesbians and gay men used by some judges has prevented them from appropriately interpreting legal doctrine and precedent, and has led to anomalous results. Moreover, the relatively non-rigorous nature of schema-matching, which is a feature of both legal and non-legal reasoning, has exacerbated this tendency for inaccuracy and distorted legal doctrine where lesbians and gay men are involved.

Some of the most glaring examples have occurred under the sex discrimination prohibitions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically those cases involving same-sex sexual harassment. While significant commentary exists on same-sex sexual harassment, this article differs from that commentary because it does not seek to explain or revise that doctrine through theoretical or jurisprudential constructs. Rather it uses same-sex sexual harassment as one example of how law can employ the insights of social science, particularly cognitive schema models. The article explores how social cognition theories inform and misinform judicial decisions and those of the participants in the cases.

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

The Market’s Personality: Dispositionalizing Situational Characters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 17, 2008

Joel Garreau and Shankar Vedantam have a nice article, “Dealing with Scary Mr. Market,” in Tuesday’s Washington Post about the human tendency to see human tendencies in non-humans.  The inclination to anthropomorphize is, in our view, better understood as another example of the inclination to dispositionalize — a misleading bias even when directed at the human animal.

Here are some excerpts from the article.

* * *

A rough beast prowled yesterday. If you read the business press, the market woke up with “jitters” after playing “a game of chicken.” It wound up suffering from “dizziness,” recoiling from a “campfire” possibly turning into a “forest fire,” or a destructive “tsunami.”


The market has a personality? Intentionality? A psychology? It can save us with transcendent behavior or ruin us like a demon?

What’s up with the way we anthropomorphize markets — the way we tell stories about them as if they are creatures with minds of their own?

“We do it for everything. We see clouds in skies and we can’t help but see patterns,” says Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke and the author of “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.”

“We did a study in which we had random shapes on a computer screen bouncing around. Within two minutes, people had stories. The circle was evil and was chasing the little triangle, eating him up. Some other shape was protecting him. It’s incredibly natural for us to do it,” Ariely says. “We want to see causality. We want to understand the world. We want to see order. If things are just random, it’s not comfortable. We find patterns when there are no patterns. We’re really, really good at this. It’s important to our psychological well-being. If we thought we had no control and no understanding of what’s happening, it would be very tough.”

Making amorphous forces into characters we can grapple with has a long history. The Greeks made the idea of wisdom into the goddess Athena. To this day, we name our storms: Hanna, Ike.

Our markets, in turn, have invisible hands, bulls and bears, even “animal spirits,” as John Maynard Keynes in 1936 called the optimism or pessimism that can drive economics.

* * *

The greater the unpredictability of a system, the more likely people are to ascribe volitional qualities to it, says Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago.

Rocks or billiard balls don’t move unpredictably. But if a billiard ball were suddenly to move on its own, we no longer would have an explanation for what we are seeing and would ascribe intentionality to the ball.

Epley has also found that people are more likely to anthropomorphize when they are feeling lonely. It is as though seeing humanlike qualities in inanimate objects and systems can give us a sense of social connection.

* * *

“In the same way being deprived of food makes you hungry, and eating makes you feel better, so, too, when you are deprived of predictability and social connection, anthropomorphism can be satisfying,” Epley says.

“The most impressive aspects of the human brain involve making sense of our social environment,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon. “It’s natural when we confront the inherently incomprehensible. We often talk about countries as if they are individuals.

* * *

In an unusual set of experiments published earlier this year in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Columbia University business school professor Michael Morris showed that up markets are more likely to be given human characteristics than crashes.

We have the Dow “fall like a brick” but “climb to a new high.” You see the financial markets “drop off a cliff” — an inanimate object moving as a result of gravity — but “recovering lost ground.”

“There is a lot of evidence that our brains categorize something as animate or alive to the extent it moves in ways that a physical object can’t,” Morris says. “One cue that something is alive is if it moves uphill. Rocks never roll uphill. If you see something rolling uphill, you make an ontological judgment that the thing is alive.”

Morris found that anthropomorphizing markets has serious risks. Volunteers who heard market movements described in human terms were more likely than those given inanimate descriptions to believe that market trends were likely to continue.

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To read the entire article, click here.  For a related Situationist post, see “Seeing Faces.”  Situationist contributors, Jon Hanson and Michael McCann argue in their forthcoming article “Situationist Torts” (downloadable here) that the tendency to dispositionalize situational characters distorts our understandings of everything from people to law and from legal theory to legal pedagogy.

Posted in Choice Myth, Illusions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 16, 2008

Michael Craig Miller, M.D. has a helpful article, “Sad Brain, Happy Brain,” in this week’s Newsweek.  Here are some excerpts.

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The brain is the mind is the brain. One hundred billion nerve cells, give or take, none of which individually has the capacity to feel or to reason, yet together generating consciousness. For about 400 years, following the ideas of French philosopher René Descartes, those who thought about its nature considered the mind related to the body, but separate from it. In this model—often called “dualism” or the mind-body problem—the mind was “immaterial,” not anchored in anything physical. Today neuroscientists are finding abundant evidence . . . that separating mind from brain makes no sense. Nobel Prize-winning psychiatrist-neuroscientist Eric Kandel stated it directly in a watershed paper published in 1998: “All mental processes, even the most complex psychological processes, derive from operations of the brain.”

Neuroscientists consider it settled that the mind arises from the cooperation of billions of interconnected cells that, individually, are no smarter than amoebae. But it’s a shocking idea to some that the human mind could arise out of such an array of mindlessness. Many express amazement that emotions, pain, sexual feelings or religious belief could be a product of brain function. They are put off by the notion that such rich experiences could be reduced to mechanical or chemical bits. Or they worry that scientific explanations may seduce people into a kind of moral laziness that provides a ready excuse for any human failing: “My brain made me do it.” Our brains indeed do make us do it, but that is nonetheless consistent with meaningful lives and moral choices. Writing for the President’s Council on Bioethics earlier this year, philosopher Daniel Dennett made the point that building knowledge about the biology of mental life may improve our decision making, even our moral decision making. And it could enhance our chances of survival as a species, too.

. . . . The brain is responsible for most of what you care about—language, creativity, imagination, empathy and morality. And it is the repository of all that you feel. The endeavor to discovery the biological basis for these complex human experiences has given rise to a relatively new discipline: cognitive neuroscience. . . .

. . . .Neuroscientists . . . have a rapidly growing appreciation of the emotional brain and are beginning to look closely at these subjective states, which were formerly the province of philosophers and poets. It is complex science that holds great promise for improving the quality of life. Fortunately, understanding basic principles does not require an advanced degree.

* * *

Fear is a good place to start, because it is one of the emotions that cognitive neuroscientists understand well. It is an unpleasant feeling, but necessary to our survival; humans would not have lasted very long in the wilderness without it. Two deep brain structures called the amygdalae manage the important task of learning and remembering what you should be afraid of.

Each amygdala, a cluster of nerve cells named after its almond shape (from the Greek amugdale), sits under its corresponding temporal lobe on either side of the brain. Like a network hub, it coordinates information from several sources. It collects input from the environment, registers emotional significance and—when necessary—mobilizes a proper response. It gets information about the body’s response to the environment (for example, heart rate and blood pressure) from the hypothalamus. It communicates with the reasoning areas in the front of the brain. And it connects with the hippocampus, an important memory center.

The fear system is extraordinarily efficient. It is so efficient that you don’t need to consciously register what is happening for the brain to kick off a response. If a car swerves into your lane of traffic, you will feel the fear before you understand it. Signals travel between the amygdala and your crisis system before the visual part of your brain has a chance to “see.” Organisms with slower responses probably did not get the opportunity to pass their genetic material along.

Fear is contagious because the amygdala helps people not only recognize fear in the faces of others, but also to automatically scan for it. People or animals with damage to the amygdala lose these skills. Not only is the world more dangerous for them, the texture of life is ironed out; the world seems less compelling to them because their “excitement” anatomy is impaired.

* * *

[We’ve excluded, here, interesting overviews of how the brain experiences with anger, happiness, sadness, and empathy.]

* * *

But empathy depends on more than an ability to mirror actions or sensations. It also requires what some cognitive neuroscientists call mentalizing, or a “theory of mind.” Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading researcher in the study of autism, has identified the inability to generate a theory of mind as a central deficit in that illness. He has coined the term “mindblindness” to designate that problem. The corollary, “mindsightedness,” requires healthy function in several areas of the brain. The processing and remembering of subtle language cues take place toward the ends of the temporal lobes. At the junction of the temporal and parietal lobes, the brain handles memory for events, moral judgment and biological motion (what we might call body language). And the prefrontal cortex handles many complex reasoning functions involved in feelings of empathy.

Not surprisingly, love also engages a whole lot of brain. Areas that are deeply involved include the insula, anterior cingulate, hippocampus and nucleus accumbens—in other words, parts of the brain that involve body and emotional perception, memory and reward. There is also an increase in neurotransmitter activity along circuits governing attachment and bonding, as well as reward (there’s that word again). And there’s scientific evidence that love really is blind; romantic love turns down or shuts off activity in the reasoning part of the brain and the amygdala. In the context of passion, the brain’s judgment and fear centers are on leave. Love also shuts down the centers necessary to mentalize or sustain a theory of mind. Lovers stop differentiating you from me.

Faith is also being studied. Earlier this year the Annals of Neurology published an article by Sam Harris and colleagues exploring what happens in the brain when people are in the act of either believing or disbelieving. In an accompanying editorial, Oliver Sachs and Joy Hirsch underscored the significance of what the researchers found. Belief and disbelief activated different regions of the brain. But in the brain, all belief reactions looked the same, whether the stimulus was relatively neutral: an equation like (2+6)+8=16, or emotionally charged: “A Personal God exists, just as the Bible describes.”

By putting a big religious idea next to a small math equation, some readers might think the researchers intend to glibly dismiss it. But a discovery about brain function does not imply a value judgment. And understanding the reality of the natural world—how the brain works—shouldn’t muddle the big questions about human experience. It should help us answer them.

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To read the entire article, click here.  For a collection of related Situationist posts, click here.

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

The Situationist Overwhelmed with Visitors, Return Later if Necessary

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 15, 2008

Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin, and Robert B. Cialdini have a new book, titled “Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.”  As you might have guessed, it makes a compelling case for itself.  Here’s an excerpt.

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How can inconveniencing your audience increase your persuasiveness?

Colleen Szot is one of the most successful writers in the paid programming industry. And for good reason: In addition to penning several well-known “infomercials” for the famed and fast-selling NordicTrac exercise machine, she recently authored a program that shattered a nearly twenty-year sales record for a home-shopping channel. Although her programs retain many of the elements common to most infomercials, including flashy catchphrases, an unrealistically enthusiastic audience, and celebrity endorsements, Szot changed three words to a standard infomercial line that caused a huge increase in the number of people who purchased her product. Even more remarkable, these three words made it clear to potential customers that the process of ordering the product might well prove somewhat of a hassle. What were those three words, and how did they cause sales to skyrocket?

Szot changed the all-too-familiar call-to-action line, “Operators are waiting, please call now,” to, “If operators are busy, please call again.” On the face of it, the change appears foolhardy. After all, the message seems to convey that potential customers might have to waste their time dialing and redialing the toll-free number until they finally reach a sales representative. Yet, that surface view underestimates the power of the principle of social proof: When people are uncertain about a course of action, they tend to look outside themselves and to other people around them to guide their decisions and actions. In the Colleen Szot example, consider the kind of mental image likely to be generated when you hear “operators are waiting”: scores of bored phone representatives filing their nails, clipping their coupons, or twiddling their thumbs while they wait by their silent telephones — an image indicative of low demand and poor sales.

Now consider how your perception of the popularity of the product would change when you heard the phrase “if operators are busy, please call again.” Instead of those bored, inactive representatives, you’re probably imagining operators going from phone call to phone call without a break. In the case of the modified “if operators are busy, please call again” line, home viewers followed their perceptions of others’ actions, even though those others were completely anonymous. After all, “if the phone lines are busy, then other people like me who are also watching this infomercial are calling, too.”

Many classical findings in social psychology demonstrate the power of social proof to influence other people’s actions. To take just one, in an experiment conducted by scientist Stanley Milgram and colleagues, an assistant of the researchers stopped on a busy New York City sidewalk and gazed skyward for sixty seconds. Most passersby simply walked around the man without even glancing to see what he was looking at. However, when the researchers added four other men to that group of sky gazers, the number of passersby who joined them more than quadrupled.

Although there’s little doubt that other people’s behavior is a powerful source of social influence, when we ask people in our own studies whether other people’s behavior influences their own, they are absolutely insistent that it does not. But social psychologists know better. We know that people’s ability to understand the factors that affect their behavior is surprisingly poor. Perhaps this is one reason that the people in the business of creating those little cards encouraging hotel guests to reuse their towels didn’t think to use the principle of social proof to their advantage. In asking themselves, “What would motivate me?” they might well have discounted the very real influence that others would have on their behavior. As a result, they focused all their attention on how the towel reuse program would be relevant to saving the environment, a motivator that seemed, at least on the surface of it, to be most relevant to the desired behavior.

In our hotel experiment, we considered the finding that the majority of hotel guests who encounter the towel reuse signs do actually recycle their towels at least some time during their stay. What if we simply informed guests of this fact? Would it have any influence on their participation in the conservation program relative to the participation rates that a basic environmental appeal yields? With the cooperation of a hotel manager, two of us and another colleague created two signs and placed them in hotel rooms. One was designed to reflect the type of basic environmental-protection message adopted throughout much of the hotel industry. It asked the guests to help save the environment and to show their respect for nature by participating in the program. A second sign used the social proof information by informing guests that the majority of guests at the hotel recycled their towels at least once during the course of their stay. These signs were randomly assigned to the rooms in the hotel.

Now, typically, experimental social psychologists are fortunate enough to have a team of eager undergraduate research assistants to help collect the data. But, as you might imagine, neither our research assistants nor the guests would have been very pleased with the research assistants’ sneaking into hotel bathrooms to collect our data, nor would our university’s ethics board (nor our mothers, for that matter). Fortunately, the hotel’s room attendants were kind enough to volunteer to collect the data for us. On the first day on which a particular guest’s room was serviced, they simply recorded whether the guest chose to reuse at least one towel.

Guests who learned that the majority of other guests had reused their towels (the social proof appeal), which was a message that we’ve never seen employed by even a single hotel, were 26 percent more likely than those who saw the basic environmental protection message to recycle their towels. That’s a 26 percent increase in participation relative to the industry standard, which we achieved simply by changing a few words on the sign to convey what others were doing. Not a bad improvement for a factor that people say has no influence on them at all.

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To join thousands of others in listening to a 22-minute interview of Robert Cialdini, click here.   For some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Interrogation and Marketing,” Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation,” “Promoting Smoking through Situation,” and “Journalists as Social Psychologists & Social Psychologists as Entertainers.”  To review archived posts on marketing, click here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book, Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Marketing, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Virtual Bias

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 14, 2008

From Science Daily:

* * *

Americans are spending increasing amounts of time hanging around virtual worlds in the forms of cartoon-like avatars that change appearances according to users’ wills, fly through floating cities in the clouds and teleport instantly to glowing crystal canyons and starlit desert landscapes.

Simply fun and games divorced from reality, right?

Not necessarily so, say two social psychologists from Northwestern University who conducted the first experimental field studies in the virtual world.

They found that avatars in these elaborate fantasylands responded to social cues to help one another — and revealed racial biases – in the same ways that people do in the real world.

The study’s co-investigators are Northwestern’s Paul W. Eastwick, a doctoral student in psychology, and Wendi L. Gardner, associate professor of psychology and member of Northwestern’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior.

In both of the classic social psychology experiments used for the study, one avatar tried to influence another to fulfill a request.

The way the door-in-the-face (DITF) experiment works: the experimenter (in this case an avatar) first makes an unreasonably large request to which the responder is expected to say no, followed by a more moderate request.

As expected, the avatars — similar to people who participated in the same experiment in the real world — were more likely to comply with the moderate request when it was preceded by the large request than when the moderate request was presented alone. They exhibited a psychological tendency to reciprocate the requester’s “concession”: the change from a relatively unreasonable request to a more moderate request.

The experiment’s moderate request: “Would you teleport to Duda Beach with me and let me take a screenshot of you?” In the DITF condition, that request was preceded by a request of the avatar to have screenshots taken in 50 different locations — requiring about two hours of teleporting and traveling.

In one of the most striking findings, the effect of the DITF technique was significantly reduced when the requesting avatar was dark-toned. The white avatars in the DITF experiment received about a 20 percent increase in compliance with the moderate request; the increase for the dark-toned avatars was 8 percent.

“For decades, research has shown that the outcome of that reciprocity-inducing technique is affected by how the requester is perceived, whether a person — or in this case an avatar — is deemed worthy of impressing,” said Gardner.

The finding is consistent with studies in the real world as well as the few in the virtual world that clearly demonstrate that physical characteristics, such as race, gender and physical attractiveness, affect judgment of others.

The study was conducted in, a relatively unstructured online virtual world that brands itself as an online getaway where users can hang out with friends and explore an immense and unusual landscape.

Even in the surreal environment, users, who were unaware that they were part of a psychological study, succumbed to very down-to-earth effects of social influence.

“You would think when you’re wandering around this fantasyland, operating outside of the normal laws of time, space and gravity and meeting all types of strange characters, that you might behave differently,” Eastwick said. “But people exhibited the same type of behavior — and the same type of racial bias — that they show in the real world all the time.”

Numerous studies done in the real world show that people are more uncomfortable with minorities and are less likely to help them.

The study also employed a foot-in-the-door (FITD) technique to boost compliance to the moderate request to be teleported to Duda Beach to participate in a screenshot. Opposite of the door-in-the-face technique, an avatar was first asked to comply with a small request (Can I take a screenshot of you?) followed by the moderate request. The psychology behind this technique is that a person who does a small favor for a stranger is likely to see himself or herself as being helpful and be more likely to fulfill the following larger request. In this case, the skin tone of the requesting avatar didn’t matter, because the elicited psychological effect is related to how a person views herself, and not others.

In at least one sense, worries may be inflated about virtual world users spending too many hours alone at their computers, cut off from reality.

“This study suggests that interactions among strangers within the virtual world are very similar to interactions between strangers in the real world,” Eastwick said.

The study suggests that users in online virtual environments routinely extend their social selves to inhabit their online avatars.

“People are increasing the amount of social interaction that takes place online, whether through participation in virtual worlds or other online communities or even just social networks like Facebook or Twitter,” Gardner said. “And all these environments present potentially fertile testing grounds for new psychological theories.”

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For a sample of some related Situationist posts, see “Judging One by the Actions of Another,” “Virtual Infection, Disease Dynamics, and Human Behavior,” and “The Situation of First-Person Shooters.”  To review a collection of Situationist posts on racial bias, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Implicit Associations, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Law, Psychology & Morality – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 13, 2008

Kenworthey Bilz and Janice Nadler have posted their manuscript “Law, Psychology & Morality.” (forthcoming in Moral Cognition and Decision Making (D. Medin, L. Skitka, C. W. Bauman, & D. Bartels, eds., Academic Press, 2009)) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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In a democratic society, law is an important means to express, manipulate, and enforce moral codes. Demonstrating empirically that law can achieve moral goals is difficult. Nevertheless, public interest groups spend considerable energy and resources to change the law with the goal of changing not only morally-laden behaviors, but also morally-laden cognitions and emotions. Additionally, even when there is little reason to believe that a change in law will lead to changes in behavior or attitudes, groups see the law as a form of moral capital that they wish to own, to make a statement about society. Examples include gay sodomy laws, abortion laws, and Prohibition. In this Chapter, we explore the possible mechanisms by which law can influence attitudes and behavior. To this end, we consider informational and group influence of law on attitudes, as well as the effects of salience, coordination, and social meaning on behavior, and the behavioral backlash that can result from a mismatch between law and community attitudes. Finally, we describe two lines of psychological research – symbolic politics and group identity – that can help explain how people use the law, or the legal system, to effect expressive goals.

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

Sexism: The Worst Part Is Not Knowing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 12, 2008

From New Scientist (“Chauvinists Less Unnerving than Ambiguous Men“).

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Chavinistic men can be petty and infuriating, but that might be as far as it goes. Women are more unnerved by not knowing a man’s views than by overt sexism – so much so that they perform worse in exams.

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton at the University of California, Berkeley, asked 170 female undergraduates to take a written test. Before the test they were randomly assigned to one of three empty offices, which they were told belonged to their male examiner. The fictional offices were furnished in one of three ways to allow the students to infer the examiner’s view of women. They either had “progressive” decor such as a breast-cancer awareness banner, overtly sexist posters of women, or neutral objects such as a stack of papers.

Students who were sensitive to sexism, as measured by a separate questionnaire, scored worse if they had been in the supposedly neutral office. They were not fazed, though, by the chauvinist office, scoring better than less-sensitive peers (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology).

“Ironically, if you ‘know thy enemy’, you’ve got a better chance of dealing with it than if you are constantly wondering if you will be judged unfairly,” says Mendoza-Denton.

Indeed, previous studies suggest that black people prefer dealing with overtly racist whites than with those who behave ambiguously. Because overt racism and sexism has become socially unacceptable, prejudice has become more subtle, he concedes.

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To review some related Situationist posts, see “Stereotype Threat and Performance,” The Gendered Situation of Science and Math,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

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

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