The Situationist

Archive for November, 2008

The Maverickiness Paradox

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 7, 2008

istock_000000316199xsmallLaura Rico wrote a nice piece, “‘Mavericks’ Win on Character, Not Policy, Study Shows,” summarizing Situationist contributor Peter Ditto’s latest research on the public’s complicated view of politicians who cross party lines.

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Republican Sen. John McCain has staked his bid for the U.S. presidency on his reputation as a “political maverick,” a politician who is unafraid to cross party lines to “vote his conscience” on important policy issues. By doing so, he places the electorate in a complicated emotional tug-of-war, according to a new study by UC Irvine psychology professor Peter Ditto and graduate student Andrew Mastronarde.

Political mavericks inspire conflicting feelings among voters, a finding Ditto said could change the way politicians conduct campaigns and cultivate public images. The study appears online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“People have been hard-wired through evolution to care about trustworthiness,” Ditto said. “We are social animals who have always had to rely on cooperation with others to survive. When a person acts contrary to his own self-interest, such as challenging his own group when towing the party line would be to his advantage, it is a powerful signal of trustworthiness. We respond viscerally to that person as someone who has integrity and is honorable – traits we find very attractive in political leaders.”

At the same time, people also are hard-wired to like others who agree with them, and the defining feature of maverick politicians is the tendency to disagree with their own group on important issues. Thus, while maverick politicians often gain respect from those who hold opposing views, they can expect to experience significant backlash from members of their own political party.

“Basically, when people evaluate a maverick politician they are stuck in a kind of “affective cross fire” Ditto said. “This is particularly true when mavericks are members of our own political party. We like them because they show a key sign of trustworthiness but we dislike them because they disagree with us.”

The study showed that candidates could best use their maverick reputation as a political asset by shifting public focus away from specific policy issues to general issues of character.

“When people focus on issues of character, they like mavericks. But when they are focused more on issues, the influence is negative,” Ditto said. He cited the case of McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, who recently stated that the 2008 presidential election was “not about issues” but “about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”

From the other perspective, the campaign of Democratic contender Barack Obama should be trying to focus on issues as a way of neutralizing McCain’s maverick appeal – a strategy they have been sticking to rigidly with apparent success, Ditto says.

The research is a composite of three separate studies conducted by Ditto and [graduate student Andrew] Mastronarde to gauge public attitudes about political mavericks. In the first study, participants expressed more positive views of political mavericks described generally than when prompted to consider a maverick from their own political party. The second study found that political mavericks described in character terms were evaluated more favorably than party-line politicians, even when the maverick was of the participant’s own party. The final study found that when participants were provided with specific policy stances, opposing party mavericks were evaluated more positively and same party mavericks were evaluated more negatively, than were their party-line counterparts.

The studies examined a wide range of individuals including undergraduates from UCI, shoppers at a local outdoor mall, and several thousand adult U.S. citizens who visited the Web site to complete various questionnaires concerning political decisions and attitudes.

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To access the Ditto and Mastronarde article, “The Paradox of the Political Maverick,” click here. For other Situationist posts on the 2008 Presidential Election, click here.


Posted in Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Decision Making

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 6, 2008

Jonah Lehrer had a nice article, “The Next Decider,” in the Boston Globe in early October.  Here are some excerpts.

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For the last eight years, America has had a president with an audacious approach to making decisions. “I’m a gut player. I rely on my instincts,” President Bush has said repeatedly. It doesn’t matter if he’s making a decision about invading Iraq, the intentions of a foreign leader, or pushing ahead with Social Security reform: Bush believes in the power of his intuition.

Critics have lampooned this aspect of the Bush presidency. Comedian Stephen Colbert regularly mocks the approach with his invocations of “truthiness,” or facts that are only true according to the gut instinct of the president; Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward writes in his most recent book that “Bush’s instincts are almost his second religion.” While Bush’s supporters see him as unwavering and resolute, these critics describe a president who is reckless and impulsive, willing to ignore any information that contradicts what he’s feeling.

The irony is that the eight years of the Bush administration have coincided with a growing body of scientific research demonstrating the power of human instincts, at least in certain circumstances. In fact, some studies suggest that when confronted with a complex decision – and the decisions of the president are as complex as it gets – people often do best when they rely on their gut feelings, just as Bush does.

However, it has also become clear that listening to your instincts is just a part of making good decisions. The crucial skill, scientists are now saying, is the ability to think about your own thinking, or metacognition, as it is known. Unless people vigilantly reflect on how they are making an important decision, they won’t be able to properly use their instincts, or know when their gut should be ignored. Indeed, according to this emerging new vision of decision-making, the best predictor of good judgment isn’t intuition or experience or intelligence. Rather, it’s the willingness to engage in introspection, to cultivate what Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, calls “the art of self-overhearing.”

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The emerging consensus among scientists, however, is that both approaches [going with the gut and the more cerebral style] are inherently flawed. While our instincts and emotions can be astonishingly prescient, they can also lead us to disaster. And a more deliberative style brings its own set of problems, such as losing sight of the most relevant information and even a debilitating indecisiveness.

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One of the first insights into the importance of gut instinct in decision-making came from Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California. In the early 1990s, Damasio began publishing a series of landmark papers describing the symptoms of patients who, after a brain injury, were unable to perceive or experience emotion. At the time, most scientists assumed that such a deficit would lead to more rational decisions, since the patients were free of their irrational instincts.

Damasio found the opposite: these dispassionate patients made consistently bad decisions. Some made terrible investments and ended up bankrupt; others started drinking heavily and getting into fights; most just spent hours deliberating over irrelevant details, such as where to eat lunch. According to Damasio, when people are cut off from their emotions even the most banal decisions become all but impossible.

Subsequent research, much of it taking place in the last few years, has helped explain why emotions are such an essential part of the decision-making process. Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, has demonstrated that when people are given choices with many variables – he often makes people choose between different cars and apartments – they tend to make the best decision when relying on their unconscious, which generates our inarticulate instincts. In contrast, people who consciously deliberate over which car to buy tend to fixate on extraneous facts, leading them to bad choices.

According to Dijksterhuis, the moral of this research is that people making complex decisions should analyze their options, but then stop: “go on holiday while your unconscious digests the problem,” he writes. “Whatever your intuition then tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice.”

While this research has led to a new appreciation for the powers of the unconscious – it’s no longer seen as a fraught, Freudian underworld – this brain system isn’t perfect. . . .

Scientists are only beginning to figure out the kind of situations that are best suited for each mode of decision-making. There’s some preliminary evidence, however, that simple problems – those involving a limited number of variables – are best suited for deliberate thought, so that people don’t make any obvious mistakes. In contrast, complex problems seem to benefit from the processing powers of the unconscious, as long as people first take the time to carefully, deliberately assimilate all the relevant facts.

Given the distinct talents of these different types of thought – the brain is like a Swiss army knife, stuffed full of tools – scientists argue that it’s imperative for powerful decision-makers to constantly reflect on their own thought process. The best decisions occur when people take the time to study their decision-making process, and not just the decision itself. In other words, don’t simply focus on the alternatives – reflect on how those alternatives are being considered. The end result is decisions that are more likely to be made in the right frame of mind.

One of the best ways for a president to maintain control of the decision-making process is to surround himself with advisers willing to criticize his decisions. “Psychologists spend a lot of time focusing on individual abilities,” says Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia. “But what’s even more important is the type of environment that’s set up around a president. A leader who encourages a diversity of viewpoints” – and Haidt argues that presidents should fill the cabinet with advisers from both parties – “is going to make much more effective decisions.”

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To read the entire article, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Life, Politics | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

Introspection, Retrospection, & the 2008 Election – Part 2

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 5, 2008

We’re interested in how you’re feeling after the U.S. Presidential election.  Please answer the following poll questions.


Posted in Emotions, Politics, Poll, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Moral Grammar and Intuitive Jurisprudence – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 5, 2008

brain-cog-imageJohn Mikhail’s recently posted his forthcoming chapter, “Moral Grammar and Intuitive Jurisprudence: A Formal Model of Unconscious Moral and Legal Knowledge” (forthcoming in The Psychology of Learning and Motiation: Moral Cognition and Decision Making (D. Medin, L. Skitka, C. W. Bauman, D. Bartels, eds., 2009) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Could a computer be programmed to make moral judgments about cases of intentional harm and unreasonable risk that match those judgments people already make intuitively? If the human moral sense is an unconscious computational mechanism of some sort, as many cognitive scientists have suggested, then the answer should be yes. So too if the search for reflective equilibrium is a sound enterprise, since achieving this state of affairs requires demarcating a set of considered judgments, stating them as explanandum sentences, and formulating a set of algorithms from which they can be derived. The same is true for theories that emphasize the role of emotions or heuristics in moral cognition, since they ultimately depend on intuitive appraisals of the stimulus that accomplish essentially the same tasks. Drawing on deontic logic, action theory, moral philosophy, and the common law of crime and tort, particularly Terry’s five-variable calculus of risk, I outline a formal model of moral grammar and intuitive jurisprudence along the foregoing lines, which defines the abstract properties of the relevant mapping and demonstrates their descriptive adequacy with respect to a range of common moral intuitions, which experimental studies have suggested may be universal or nearly so. Framing effects, protected values, and implications for the neuroscience of moral intuition are also discussed.

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For related Situationist posts, see “Moral Cognitions – Abstract” and “Moral Psychology Primer.”

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

The Changing Situation of the NBA’s Age Limit

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 4, 2008

Situationist contributor Michael McCann was interviewed for a story in Sunday’s New York Times on high school basketball phenom Renardo Sidney and how the NBA’s age limit–which requires that a player be at least 19-years-old and at least one-year removed from high school before he can play in the NBA–affects his life and those around him.  The story, titled “The Next Big Thing” and authored by Tommy Craggs, also examines the relationship between the NBA and the NCAA, as well as developing opportunities for players shut out by the NBA’s age limit to instead go to Europe for a year and earn a six-or-seven figure salary.

Here is an excerpt:

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That this comes from the same groups that in 2005 cheered the adoption of the N.B.A.’s minimum-age rule, effectively forcing high-school stars to spend one year playing college basketball pro bono rather than leap directly to the N.B.A., is more than a little rich. The partnership was announced at the Final Four this year, and it was noted in passing that both Brand and the N.B.A.’s commissioner, David Stern, would prefer that the age rule be raised from 19 to 20, meaning most players would have to remain in college for two years. Colleges benefit tremendously from keeping the best players in apprenticeship for two years; the N.B.A., in turn, gets marketable commodities who’ve spent more time in the college star-making machinery, as well as proven players who aren’t being drafted purely on their potential.

The traditional justification is that colleges produce better, more well-rounded citizens, though in fact one study has suggested that the opposite may be true. In 2005, Michael McCann, then a professor at Mississippi College School of Law [and now a visiting professor at Boston College Law School], looked at 84 recent N.B.A. player arrests. He found that 57 percent of the players arrested spent four years in college; only 4.8 percent had never gone to college, significantly less than the league-wide share of prep-to-pro players (8.3 percent). In fact, one might infer from the study that the less time a player spent in college, the less likely he was to get arrested.

“The N.B.A. and the N.C.A.A. are entertainment vehicles. One pays you, one doesn’t,” says John (Sonny) Vaccaro, the 69-year-old godfather of summer basketball and the man who, in the employ of first Nike, then Adidas, then Reebok, rained shoe money on the basketball world and in so doing acquired so much clout that he is set to be portrayed by James Gandolfini — the guy who played Tony Soprano — in an HBO movie. Vaccaro walked away from Reebok in 2007 with two years left on his contract and now wanders the country as basketball’s angry prophet, barnstorming noisily against the N.C.A.A.’s tax-exempt status and the N.B.A.’s age rule. “One thing is constant,” he says. “One thing. The performers. The players. Without the players, neither of these entities can be multibillion-dollar businesses.”

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This summer, Vaccaro was instrumental in the decision by the prized point-guard recruit Brandon Jennings to spurn Arizona — he had not yet qualified academically — and instead play professionally overseas, sidestepping the N.B.A. entirely and making Jennings a wealthy man. (He was reportedly inspired after he and his mother heard Vaccaro on the radio discussing Europe as a viable option for newly minted high-school grads.) Playing in Italy for Lottomatica Virtus Roma, Jennings will earn $1.2 million this season in salary and endorsements. If all goes well, he will be a top-10 pick in next year’s N.B.A. draft.

To see Jennings draw a paycheck in euros at an age when he’d normally be running suicides for [University of Arizona men’s basketball coach] Lute Olson, is to see the players gaining the leverage that probably should have been theirs in the first place.

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For the rest of the story, click here.  To read McCann’s study mentioned in the story, check outNBA Players That Get in Trouble with the Law: Do Age and Education Level Matter?”  For a related law review article, check out “Illegal Defense: The Irrational Economics of Banning High School Players from the NBA Draft.”

Posted in Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Introspection, Retrospection, & the 2008 Election

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 3, 2008

Situationist contributor Tim Wilson and Situationist friend Dan Gilbert have shown that, although we expect the outcomes of presidential elections to significantly influence how happy we feel, the evidence indicates otherwise.  As with most things, our affective forecasting is not to be trusted.  Gilbert summarizes one study this way:

Democrats predicted they’d be devastated if Bush won the last presidential election, they were not nearly as devastated as they predicted . . . , and yet several months later they remembered being just as devastated as they had expected to be. It turns out that this is a very common pattern of memory errors.

Our miswanting and misremembering reinforce our continued inability to forecast our own happiness.

But what do you think?  Is this election different?  Will your happiness level be seriously influenced by the outcome of this election?  Answer the questions below.


If you think that this election will significantly influence your happiness level, please feel free to leave a comment explaining why.

Posted in Emotions, Illusions, Politics, Poll, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Celluloid Closet on LGBT Stereotypes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 2, 2008

The Celluloid Closet [from Wikipedia] is a 1995 documentary film directed and written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. The film is based on the 1981 (revised 1987) book of the same name written by Vito Russo.  Russo researched the history of how motion pictures, especially Hollywood films, had portrayed gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters.

The documentary interviews various men and women connected to the Hollywood industry to comment on various film clips and their own personal experiences with the treatment of LGBT characters in film. From the sissy characters, to the censorship of the Hollywood Production Code, the coded gay characters and cruel stereotypes to the progress made in the early 1990s.

Here is the movie from DailyMotion in 5 parts.

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Posted in Entertainment, Life | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Methodology of the Behavioral Analysis of Law – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 1, 2008

Avishalom Tor has written an article, “The Methodology of the Behavioral Analysis of Law” (forthcoming  4 Haifa Law Review 237 (2008)) that will be of particular value for our readers interested in economic behavioralism. You can download the paper for free on  SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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This article examines the behavioral analysis of law, meaning the application of empirical behavioral evidence to legal analysis, which has become increasingly popular in legal scholarship in recent years. Following the introduction in Part I, this Article highlights four central propositions on the subject. The first, developed in Part II, asserts that the efficacy of the law often depends on its accounting for relevant patterns of human behavior, most notably those studied by behavioral decision scientists. This Part therefore reviews important behavioral findings, illustrating their application and relevance to a broad range of legal questions. Part III then argues that the behavioral approach is empirically driven, engaging in both the theoretical application of extant empirical findings to the law and the generation of new, legally relevant, experimental and observational evidence. As this Part shows, moreover, each of these behavioral genres possesses different methodological strengths and weaknesses, and they therefore both substitute for and complement one another, in different respects. Part IV explains that the behavioral approach encounters a series of “gaps” between the type of empirical evidence provided by behavioral decision researchers and the data required to resolve legal questions. Legal scholars should therefore be aware of these gaps, which may limit the usefulness of extant behavioral evidence for legal analysis. This Part also addresses what legal scholars may do to overcome these gaps and distinguish real gaps from imaginary ones. Part V completes the body of the Article, arguing that the behavioral analysis of law is simultaneously normatively neutral and normatively relevant. It is normatively neutral because the behavioral analysis of law is not committed to any specific legal goal or value system. This fundamental neutrality, in turn, makes the behavioral approach a versatile instrument, which can help generate important normative conclusions in the service of scholars evaluating the law based on any normative criteria – from justice to welfare and more. Part VI concludes.

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