The Situationist

Archive for December, 2008

The Situation of Giving

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 30, 2008

giftsDan Vergano of the Chicago Sun Times has an interesting piece on the psychology of giving.  We excerpt it below.

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During the holiday season, some might quibble with the notion that it’s better to give than receive. But what about taking?

“Nobody likes that,” says psychologist Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago.

In experiments described in the Psychological Science journal, Keysar and colleagues played a game with volunteers to see how they responded to being given cash or having it taken away.

Walkie-talkie-equipped study researchers approached 100 people on a Chicago beach and asked them to take part in an experiment.

In one group, each player was given an envelope with $10 and told that another unseen person was going to take some of that money. Ostensibly, the amount was determined by a random number drawn from a hat and conveyed by walkie-talkie. But, in reality, the amount taken was always $5.

In the other group, each player was told that another, unseen person had an envelope with $10 and was going to give some of that money to him or her. Again, the amount given was $5.

Then, the members of each group were told they were being given $10 but were asked to give some of that money to the unseen person.

People who had just been unexpectedly “given” cash typically decided to hand over $6 to the other person. But, even though they knew it was just a game, the people who had cash “taken” from them gave only about $4.50.

“People perceive an intention to harm them from the taking side, and they act on it to punish the other person,” says social psychologist David Schroeder of the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, who wasn’t part of the study.


To read the rest of the piece, click here.  To read the Keysar et al. study (titled “Give and Take”), click here.

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

Judicial Ideology – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 29, 2008

Judicial PoliticsBryan D. Lammon has posted his paper “What We Talk about When We Talk about Ideology: Judicial Politics Scholarship and Naive Legal Realism (forthcoming 83 St. John’s Law Review (2009)) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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A large and growing body of law and psychology scholarship has posed new challenges to traditional assumptions about the behavior of legal actors. While mainstream legal thought has often treated individuals as more or less rational, autonomous actors, scholars in a variety of fields are presenting a new, empirically based, and more formal challenge to the law’s traditional conceptions of human behavior. One area with especially great potential is the use of psychology to improve our understanding of one of the more persistent questions of legal theory: How do judges decide cases? While law and psychology scholars are changing the way we think about the behavior of legal actors, the psychology of judicial behavior has gone relatively unexplored.

However, another school of thought on judicial behavior has made recent inroads into legal scholarship. In a field commonly known as “judicial politics,” political scientists (and more recently, legal scholars) have endeavored to uncover the determinants of judicial behavior using the tools of statistical analysis. While a few legal scholars outside of judicial politics have suggested that it should inform legal theory judicial politics as a field of study has been embraced by a few, regarded as unremarkable or obvious by some, and rejected by others. I suspect that this mixed reception is due in part to much of the scholarship being somewhat unclear in what it exactly means. That is, much of political science scholarship quite clearly suggests that judging is ideological. What “ideological” means, however, is much less clear. A bit of reading between the lines reveals that much of judicial politics scholarship conceives of ideology predominantly as partisan politics. Along these lines, much of the scholarship presents an image of judges as consciously and actively promoting a political agenda.

This conception of ideology and ideological judicial decisionmaking, however, is quite unsatisfying. It conceives of ideology predominantly in political or partisan terms, and, bearing the influence of traditional notions of individual rationality and autonomy, it portrays judges as rational actors that can consciously impose their policy preferences through their decisions. This portrayal reflects the same conception of rational, wholly autonomous individual behavior that law and psychology is challenging. However, even if one rejects judicial politics’ conception of ideology and its influence, one still must contend with the reams of empirical research that judicial politics scholars have amassed.

This lack of clarity coupled with scores of empirical studies that one cannot easily dismiss creates a number of problems for legal scholars. First, judicial politics effectively characterizes judicial decisionmaking as party politics. In so doing, it misunderstands the human side of judging and perverts our understanding of judicial behavior. Second, as noted above, some legal scholars are calling for the incorporation of judicial politics scholarship into legal scholarship. Yet, before turning to the normative implications of judicial politics scholarship, it is important to clarify what exactly this scholarship means. Finally, the language and conclusions of judicial politics scholarship enflame the myth of judicial activism.

In this Article, I look to the social psychological theory of naive realism in order to understand the empirical findings of judicial politics scholarship. Naive realism begins with the social psychological truism that all perception is subjective. However, we often fail to recognize the subjectivity of our own perception, instead believing that we are privy to the objective realities of the outside world. The problem of this disparity between how we think we see the world (objectively) and how we really see the world (subjectively) is that we often fail to appreciate the subjectivity of both our own and others’ perception. An appreciation of the subjectivity of perception central to naive realism indicates that what might appear to be political or partisan or “ideological” decisionmaking is instead the result of the inevitable influence of human decisionmakers perceiving their world subjectively.

This Article, however, is not confined to an internal debate between two approaches to judicial behavior – one based in psychology and one based in political science. In this Article, I also hope to show how the study of judicial behavior can inform legal theory. Throughout this piece, I hope to show how modern psychology can inform wider perspectives on judicial decisionmaking and legal theory in general.

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

Third Annual Harvard Law and Mind Science Conference – Save Date!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 27, 2008

2009 Conference Invitation Prototype

The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School is hosting its third conference on March 7, 2009. The topic of this year’s conference will be “The Free Market Mindet: History, Psychology, and Consequences.”

To learn more about the conference or to register, go to the conference webpage (which is still in progress).

Posted in Events, Ideology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Disobedience at 150 volts

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 26, 2008

For our many readers interested in the Milgram obedience experiments, Dominic J. Packer published a valuable paper, “Identifying Systematic Disobedience in Milgram’s Obedience Experiments: A Meta-Analytic Review” (3 Perspectives on Psychol. Sci. 3-1 (2008)).  Here’s the abstract.

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A meta-analysis of data from eight of Milgram’s obedience experiments reveals previously undocumented systematicity in the behavior of disobedient participants. In all studies, disobedience was most likely at 150 v, the point at which the shocked “learner” first requested to be released. Further illustrating the importance of the 150-v point, obedience rates across studies covaried with rates of disobedience at 150 v, but not at any other point; as obedience decreased, disobedience at 150 v increased. In contrast, disobedience was not associated with the learner’s escalating expressions of pain. This analysis identifies a critical decision point in the obedience paradigm and suggests that disobedient participants perceived the learner’s right to terminate the experiment as overriding the experimenter’s orders, a finding with potential implications for the treatment of prisoners.

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To download a pdf draft version of the article, click here. For a collection of Situationist posts discussing Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, click here.

Posted in Classic Experiments, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Judges

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 23, 2008

Situationist contributor, Adam Benforado published another terrific op-ed last week, “Get the Best Legal Minds on Courts” (in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

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Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill wants you to know that fat cat federal judges are not going to ruin Christmas — not on her watch, anyway.

Last Thursday, she railed against a cost-of-living increase for the judiciary that was included in the auto bailout plan being debated on the Senate floor: “We have families all over this nation that are scared today, that aren’t buying Christmas presents. Federal judges get lifetime appointments and they never take a dime’s cut in pay.”

McCaskill’s attack won her praise from fiscal conservatives, but it represents the naïve thinking that puts our nation in peril.

The reason federal judges do not take pay cuts is because the Constitution explicitly provides that during their terms of service, judges’ salaries may not be reduced.

The Founders afforded strong job protection to members of the judiciary because they knew it was vitally important that a judge be able to reach the correct decision in a matter, even if it was unpopular. They foresaw that there would be cases like Brown v. Board of Education, ending segregation, where a minority’s rights might not be ensured if the majoritarian branches of government could punish judges. As Alexander Hamilton warned, “Power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.”

The current call for fairly remunerating judges is not about greed or selfishness; it is about getting the best legal minds — strong and unfettered — onto our courts.

Between 1969 and 2007, the wages of federal judges, adjusted for inflation, decreased approximately 25 percent, while the real pay of the average American worker increased approximately 19 percent. Although some individuals undoubtedly would seek membership in the judiciary no matter what the compensation, the raw data suggests that the salary discrepancies have had a real effect: In the past two decades, numerous Article III judges have left the bench for more profitable positions at firms, companies and law schools.

What do we risk by failing to increase judicial pay? In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts: “If judicial appointment ceases to be the capstone of a distinguished career and instead becomes a stepping stone to a lucrative position in private practice, the framers’ goal of a truly independent judiciary will be placed in serious jeopardy.”

Just as important, we risk having a less qualified and less diverse set of federal judges deciding the most important cases in our country, with potentially devastating effects.

Set a bad precedent and hundreds of dangerous criminals end up back on the streets. Fail to understand the nuances of a complex litigation matter and a multibillion-dollar company goes bankrupt. Err in interpreting a statute and thousands of children develop respiratory problems from air pollution.

McCaskill is right that the proposed increase would have a cost, but, in the end, it seems like a small one to pay.

Just how small? Even if we were to increase judicial salaries by 100 percent — dwarfing the 2.9 percent adjustment that McCaskill so vigorously assailed — the total bill would be one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget.

Nonetheless, with her misleading and divisive remarks, the senator from Missouri won the day. Members of the judiciary will be the only federal employees who will begin the new year without a cost-of-living adjustment.

Talk about injustice.

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Judicial Methods – Abstract,” The Political Situation of Judicial Activism,” “Ideology is Back!,” “The Situation of Judges,” “Blinking on the Bench,” “The Situation of Judging – Part I,” “The Situation of Judging – Part II,” and “Justice Thomas and the Conservative Hypocrisy.

Posted in Law | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

A Shocking Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 22, 2008

milgram-burger-shock-boxLisa M. Krieger recently published a nice summary of Jerry Burger’s replications of Milgram’s obedience experiment.  Her article in the San Jose Mercury News is titled “Shocking Revelation: Santa Clara University Professor Mirrors Famous Torture Studay.”  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

Replicating one of the most controversial behavioral experiments in history, a Santa Clara University psychologist has found that people will follow orders from an authority figure to administer what they believe are painful electric shocks.

More than two-thirds of volunteers in the research study had to be stopped from administering 150 volt shocks of electricity, despite hearing a person’s cries of pain, professor Jerry M. Burger concluded in a study published in the January issue of the journal American Psychologist.

“In a dramatic way, it illustrates that under certain circumstances people will act in very surprising and disturbing ways,” said Burger.

The study, using paid volunteers from the South Bay, is similar to the famous 1974 “obedience study” by the late Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. In the wake of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trial, Milgram was troubled by the willingness of people to obey authorities — even if it conflicted with their own conscience.

* * *

The subjects — recruited in ads in the Mercury News, Craigslist and fliers distributed in libraries and communities centers in Santa Clara, Cupertino and Sunnyvale — thought they were testing the effect of punishment on learning.”They were average citizens, a typical cross-section of people that you’d see around every day,” said Burger.

* * *

Burger found that 70 percent of the participants had to be stopped from escalating shocks over 150 volts, despite hearing cries of protest and pain. Decades earlier, Milgram found that 82.5 percent of participants continued administering shocks. Of those, 79 percent continued to the shock generator’s end, at 450 volts.

Burger’s experiment did not go that far.

“The conclusion is not: ‘Gosh isn’t this a horrible commentary on human nature,’ or ‘these people were so sadistic,” said Burger.

“It shows the opposite — that there are situational forces that have a much greater impact on our behavior than most people recognize,” he said.

The experiment shows that people are more likely to comply with instructions if the task starts small, then escalates, according to Burger.

“For instance, the suicides at Jonestown were just the last step of many,” he said. “Jim Jones started small, asking people to donate time and money, then looked for more and more commitment.”

Additionally, the volunteers confronted a novel situation — having never before been in such a setting, they had no idea of how they were supposed to act, he said.

Finally, they had been told that they should not feel responsible for inflicting pain; rather, the “instructor” was accountable. “Lack of feeling responsible can lead people to act in ways that they might otherwise not,” said Burger.

“When we see people acting out of character, the first thing we should ask is: ‘What’s going on in this situation?”’

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To read the entire article, click here.  To watch an ABC news video about Professor Burger’s research, click on the video below.

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To read a previos Situationist post about Professor Burger’s research, see “The Milgram Experiment Today?.”  For Situationist posts about the Jonestown massacre, see “Jonestown (The Situation of Evil) Revisited.”  For a collection of Situationist posts discussing Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, click here.

Posted in Classic Experiments, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

“Us” and “Them”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 21, 2008

Us versus them t-shirtSam Sommers wrote a terrific situationist post, titled “The Power of Us,” on the Psychology Today blog.  Here are some excerpts.

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Customers who insist on paying with a personal check at the grocery store. Waitresses who don’t write down your order. People who sit right in front of you at the movies when there are other free seats in their row. . . . Drivers who insist on backing into spaces in wide-open parking lots. Squirrels.

All of the above would make my list of Top 10 pet peeves. But at the top, without question, would have to be people who charge into elevators, head down, without waiting to see if anyone is getting off. Same with subway cars, for that matter. It’s just common courtesy, people. Which is what made the following interaction such a dissonance-inducing moment for me.

I was at the doctor’s office for a regular appointment and had to head up to the 7th floor. As the elevator doors opened and I began to exit, a middle-aged gentleman barreled in a clear hurry, like a Muscovite rushing into a bread store in the perestroika 1990s. I literally turned sideways to avoid a collision, feeling a bit like a torero sans cape. Clearly, this guy was worthy of Public Enemy #1 status.

But then a funny thing happened. He took a look at me, made a sudden U-turn, and followed me out of the elevator, all the while wheeling behind him his cart with several boxes on it. He pointed at my chest and asked, “did you go to school there?” Realizing that he was referring to the college name emblazoned on my t-shirt, I answered that, yes, indeed, this was my alma mater. “Me too,” he exclaimed. “What year did you graduate?”

And so began a 10-minute conversation that I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be having, what with my own dispositional aversion to small talk with strangers combined with the desire to check in on time for my appointment. But my fellow alum proved himself to be a pleasant enough fellow. And it’s always enjoyable to reminisce about familiar people and places from your past, especially when you went to a small school that doesn’t afford such opportunities that often. So we parted ways and I continued on to my doctor’s office in relatively good spirits.

And this is when it hit me–I had mentally pardoned my newfound friend from his otherwise capital offense. Now, I’m not saying I was wrong to do this. Why go around life bearing resentments and grudges against strangers for transgressions that are, objectively speaking, trivial? But were not for the common link established by my t-shirt, I never would have left this interaction in a positive mood, much less a somewhat favorable impression of this guy.

That’s the power of “us.” Sharing group membership with other people has dramatic effects on how we see and interact with them. Whether it’s a common alma mater or favorite sports team, whether it’s a more central aspect of identity such as race or religion, we’re more generous in our perceptions of fellow members of our own ingroups.

As written about by persuasively by social psychologist Marilynn Brewer, some of the disparities and prejudices that persist in our society likely have just as much to do with ingroup favoritism as they do outgroup derogation or dislike. Distinguishing between these different causes of intergroup disparity is clearly important, especially for efforts to remedy differential outcomes in any domain.

At the same time, from a practical perspective, differential outcomes are differential outcomes. It matters little to the job applicant who is passed over for a position whether the job went to someone else because of ingroup favoritism towards the competition or because of outgroup prejudice directed towards her. It is of little solace to the Black defendant hit with felony charges for a borderline offense that the relative leniency shown towards a comparable White defendant resulted from the desire to “give a good kid a second chance” as opposed to any type of disparity based on racial animus. In this sense, the power of us can be just as dangerous as the dislike of them. . . .

. . . .

I’d maintain that one of the unsung obstacles faced by many minority and female professionals is that they’re simply less likely to benefit from such “usness,” in terms of hiring as well as promotion decisions. The White male entering the workplace simply has a greater chance of effortless bonding with his White male colleagues and superiors, whether over past affiliations or shared cultural interests. It’s an often overlooked benefit of majority group membership that can be hard to quantify.

Because usness is powerful. It leads us to bond quickly with some people, but not others. It prompts us to be far less stingy with the benefit of the doubt for similar individuals. And it can even get you off the hook when you violate cardinal rules of elevator etiquette, and I must tell you, that’s no small feat.

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To read his entire post (with links and a postscript) including a section examining the low number of African American coaches in Division I football, click here.  For some related Situationist posts, see”March Madness,” Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” “The Origins of Sports Team Fandom,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” and “Situationist Theories of Hate – Part II.”

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet: “Guilty”

Posted by Philip Zimbardo on December 19, 2008

bush-tenetMore than 10,000 people cast their votes during the last year and a half in a virtual voting booth at Their judgments accord with the recent Senate Armed Services bipartisan report that blames Bush officials for detainee abuse. It also finds that the prison guards and interrogators were not the “true culprits.”

The vast majority of these voters found all four Bush officials guilty of having created the legal frameworks, laws, and motivational conditions that provided the foundation for the abuses and torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons. The guilty verdicts (for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George Tenet) were true regardless of political preference, across all age groups, and whether or not they had read The Lucifer Effect book before voting.

Democrats were more likely to vote guilty than were those identified as Republicans, but even so, the majority of Republicans found each of the four officials guilty:

  • Bush: 95 % (Democrat) to 57% (Republican);
  • Cheney: 88% to 72%;
  • Rumsfeld: 89% to 72%;
  • Tenet: 83% to 70 %.

Those identified as “Other” political preference overwhelmingly gave guilty verdicts to all four:

  • 93% Bush;
  • 96% Cheney;
  • 95 % Rumsfeld, and
  • 89 % Tenet.

The percentage of guilty votes increased systematically with age of voters for all four officials: 86% of those under age 21 found George W. Bush guilty, as did 89% of those 21-40, 93 % of those 41-60, and a high of 97% for voters over the age of 60.

For Dick Cheney, the guilt verdicts were even higher at each age level, from 88% under 21, to 93% 21-40, to 97% 41-60, and a maximum of 99% for senior voters. Similar patterns can be seen for former Sec. of Defense Rumsfeld and former head of the CIA, Tenet.

My involvement with trying to understand the causes of the abuses and torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib began when I agreed to be part of the defense team organized by Gary Myers, legal council for one of the Army Reserve Military Police, Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick. In that role, I read all of the many investigative reports by various generals and one headed by James Schlesinger, former Sec. of Defense. I also read all of the relevant Human Rights Watch reports, International Red Cross reports, and more. I spoke with interrogators, military criminal investigators, and senior military officers who were on that scene. After in-depth interviews with Chip Frederick and reviewing his psychological evaluation by a military specialist, and his prior service record, I felt competent in rendering the judgment that he was a “good apple.” And further, that the conditions he and the other MPs were forced to work in and live in constituted the “Bad Barrel” that corrupted him and the other prison guards on the Tier 1A night shift (where all the abuses occurred).

These findings were summarized in two chapters of a book I wrote subsequently, Chapters 14 and 15 of The Lucifer Effect (Random House, 2007). While military justice put Frederick and many of the other MPs on trial for the abuses they had perpetrated on individuals they were supposed to protect while in their custody, none of the officers who should have been in charge were ever tried. Those abuses took place over more than three months in the fall of 2003 before being exposed. Command complicity involves responsibility for illegal or immoral behavior of one’s subordinates that officers should have known about – had they cared enough to be watching the store or the torture dungeon.

My summation to the military prosecutor in Frederick’s trial (2004) stated that although the soldier on trial was guilty of the abuses for which he was charged (for which he got an 8 year prison sentence), it was the Situation and the System that were also responsible. The Situation is the complex set of environmental circumstances in operation on the night shift in the interrogation center of Tier 1A—that created horrendous conditions for our soldiers as well as the detainees. The System includes those in charge of creating and maintaining those situations by means of resource allocation, legal rules, and top-down pressures for “actionable intelligence” by all means necessary.

I ended my conceptual analysis with a call for readers of my Lucifer Effect book to play the role of jurors in deciding on the guilt and accountability of some of the military command in charge at Abu Ghraib, along with Bush officials who were the ultimate Systems Managers. However, the World-Wide Web allows us to go beyond a rhetorical message of how one might vote in this case to creating a virtual voting booth where many people could openly register their vote on the guilt of the civilian officials whom they considered to be responsible for some of these abuses and tortures.

The summary of these votes by more than 10,000 people attest to the widespread public understanding that the abuses of human rights and integrity that have been perpetrated under the banner of protecting Homeland Security are traceable up to the highest levels of our government, and not just down to the foot soldiers doing their dirty work in the trenches of war. It is encouraging that the Senate Armed Services Committee also supports this viewpoint in blaming our leaders and not just the followers.

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For related Situationist posts, see “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors,” “The Devil You Know . . . ,” “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “The Lucifer Effect Lecture at Harvard Law School,” “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part I,” “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part II,” and “Jonestown (The Situation of Evil) Revisited.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

A Situationist Considers the Implications of Simpson Sentencing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 18, 2008

O.J. SimpsonSam Sommers continues to write super situationist posts over on the Psychology Today blog.  Here are excerpts from his recent post, titled “Whither O.J.?,” offering his reflections on reactions to the O.J. Simpson trials.

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Today’s the day that O.J. Simpson finds out his prison sentence for his recent convictions for kidnapping, armed robbery, and assault. In many respects, it will be the final chapter in a sociolegal drama that has been going on for close to 15 years now, dating back to his criminal trial for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.

There is many a question this saga might inspire in the curious behavioral scientist: How much of a role did Simpson’s past play in his current treatment by a Nevada jury and sentencing judge? How are those Americans who celebrated Simpson’s acquittal in 1995 reacting to his recent legal problems? . . . And so on.

To me, though, the issue that has always intrigued me the most about the Simpson matter is this: there is no easier way to stir up agitation among White people than to simply utter his name.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to get riled up about when it comes to O.J. I was privy to different and additional information than were the jurors in his trial, but there is little doubt in my mind that he committed the homicides in question. And it’s easy to see how much of the general public would look scornfully upon a man whom they believed to have been the perpetrator of such crimes. Even more so given that he escaped prison time for their commission.

For that matter, even were you to be one who reserves judgment on Simpson’s culpability for the murders (or think that he was flat-out innocent), there’s still ample reason to find him reprehensible. There’s no doubt that he was a perpetrator of domestic assault, and that’s surely sufficient grounds for harboring antipathy towards him.

That said, I’d still argue that the response of much of White America to Simpson has been, and continues to be disproportionate. Yes, I, too, believe that he is a murderer who ultimately got away with his crime. But where’s the comparable outrage at the acquittal of Robert Blake? Or the jury that failed to convict Phil Spector in his first trial?

OK, so the circumstances aren’t identical in any of these cases–they never are when such comparisons are needed (which is why studying issues like legal decision-making using experimental methodology can be so important, but that’s a topic for another entry). But in each case, we’re talking about past-their-prime B-list celebrities who owe a great deal of their continued freedom to the money that allowed them to hire in-their-prime A-list attorneys.

The difference is that Simpson has come to stand for something more. For much of White America, Simpson’s acquittal at the hands of a predominantly-Black jury has come to stand as the prototypical example of “reverse racism” in the modern era. The images of African-Americans celebrating his acquittal serve to epitomize for many Whites all that they believe has gone awry with race relations in this country.

Perceptions of the O.J. trial–or, perhaps more accurately, perceptions of how Black America perceived the trial–even bubbled to the surface as a litmus test for some White voters during the Democratic primaries in Iowa. Just a few months later, Barack Obama went out of his way to assert his own belief in Simpson’s guilt, and his own displeasure with how many Blacks reacted to the acquittal.

The rest of Obama’s discussion of this matter is similarly revealing. He puts forth a hypothesis that I’ve often offered myself in many a conversation–of varieties both watercooler and academic–concerning the trial: many who celebrated Simpson’s acquittal didn’t necessarily believe that he was innocent. Much of their celebration came from the realization that for many years only rich, White guys were able to climb off the hook for crimes they had committed. Now a rich, Black guy was able to do the same.

Because when you think about it, if you put the media circus aside, Simpson’s acquittal owed far more to his wealth than his race. . . .

Yet there he remains, Public Enemy #1, O. J. Simpson. Worthy of our denunciation? Sure. Perpetrator of acts that merit contempt? Absolutely. But how did he ascend so quickly to the top of this mountain of notoriety, climbing over so many miscreants and barbarians to get there? Because he became the symbol of racial discontent for much of White America; he grew to represent something far bigger than the sum of his personality or the specifics of his actions. Ask yourself where the comparable outrage is for the others who have gotten away with murder over the years. Ask yourself why there’s no easier way to get White people seeing red than simply mentioning his name.

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To read his entire post (with links), click here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “The Racial Situation of Criminal Juries and the Consequences,” “The Legal Situation of Race Equality – Abstract,” and “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas.”

Posted in Law, Life | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

The Situation of Faith in God or Science

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2008

God versus ScienceFrom Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor for University of Illinois News Bureau:

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A person’s unconscious attitudes toward science and God may be fundamentally opposed, researchers report, depending on how religion and science are used to answer “ultimate” questions such as how the universe began or the origin of life.

What’s more, those views can be manipulated, the researchers found. After using science or God to explain such important questions, most people display a preference for one and a neutral or even negative attitude toward the other. This effect appears to be independent of a person’s religious background or views, says University of Illinois psychology professor Jesse Preston, who led the research.

The study[, titled “Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations”] appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Preston and her colleague, Nicholas Epley, of the University of Chicago, wanted to explore how information about science influences a belief in God, and how religious teaching can also cause people to doubt certain scientific theories.

“As far as I know, no one has looked experimentally at an opposition between belief in science and religion,” Preston said.

“It seemed to me that both science and religion as systems were very good at explaining a lot, accounting for a lot of the information that we have in our environment,” she said. “But if they are both ultimate explanations, at some point they have to conflict with each another because they can’t possibly both explain everything.”

The researchers conducted two experiments designed to manipulate how well science or God can be used as explanations. In the first, 129 volunteers read short summaries of the Big Bang theory and the “Primordial Soup Hypothesis,” a scientific theory of the origin of life. Half then read a statement that said that the theories were strong and supported by the data. The other half read that the theories “raised more questions than they answered.”

In the second experiment, which involved 27 undergraduate students, half of the study subjects had to “list six things that you think God can explain.” The others were asked to “list six things that you think can explain or influence God.”

All the subjects were then required to quickly categorize various words as positive or negative on a computer.

“What they didn’t realize was that they were being subliminally primed immediately before each word,” Preston said. “So right before the word ‘awful’ came up on the screen, for example, there was a 15-millisecond flash of either ‘God’ or ‘science’ or a control word.”

A 15-millisecond visual cue is too brief to register in the conscious mind, but the brief word flash did have an effect. Those who had read statements emphasizing the explanatory power of science prior to the test were able to categorize positive words appearing just after the word, “science,” more quickly than those who had read statements critical of the scientific theories.

Those who were asked to use God as an ultimate explanation for various phenomena displayed a more positive association with God and a much more negative association with science than those directed to list other things that can explain God, the researchers found. Similarly, those who read the statement suggesting that the scientific theories were weak were extremely slow to identify negative words that appeared after they were primed with the word “God,” Preston said.

“It was like they didn’t want to say no to God,” she said.

“What is really intriguing is that the larger effect happens on the opposite belief,” she said. “When God isn’t being used to explain much, people have a positive attitude toward science. But when God is being used to account for many events – especially the things that they list, which are life, the universe, free will, these big questions – then somehow science loses its value.”

“On the other hand, people may have a generally positive view of science until it fails to explain the important questions. Then belief in God may be boosted to fill in the gap,” she said.

The most obvious implication of the research is that “to be compatible, science and religion need to stick to their own territories, their own explanatory space,” Preston said. “However, religion and science have never been able to do that, so to me this suggests that the debate is going to go on. It’s never going to be settled.”

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Market’s Personality: Dispositionalizing Situational Characters,” “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “The Situation of Magical Thinking,” “With God on Our Side . . .,” and “The Blame Frame – Abstract.”

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These helpful suggestions from a reader:  “Ms. Yates’ article would have been clearer if a) it had explicitly described the evaluation task as classifying a positive or negative word  as positive or negative, b) it had mentioned that those asked to “list six things that you think can explain or influence God” were a control group.  Without these clarifications, a layperson attempting to analyze the argument could quickly become confused, especially when trying to leap from the experiment as described to the quoted conclusions of Dr. Preston.”

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Life | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

The Situation of Food – Part VI

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2008

From Author Michael Ruhlman and Chef Dan Barber talk about modern industrial farming and agriculture in the United States as part of Chautauqua Institutions week long program called “What’s for Dinner: Food and Politics in the 21st Century.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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For related Situationist posts, go to “The Situation of our Food – Part I,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,”The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” and “The Situation of our Food – Part IV.”

Posted in Food and Drug Law, Life, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Introspection, Retrospection, & the 2008 Election – Part 4

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 16, 2008

We’re interested in how you’re feeling after the U.S. Presidential election.  Please answer the following poll questions.  (We will post summary results of this and the three previous polls in January.)

Posted in Politics, Poll, Positive Psychology | 1 Comment »

John Jost on Political Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 15, 2008

jostHere is an excellent interview of Situationist contributor John Jost by an intern from the Breakthrough Institute.

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Why is the study of political psychology important?

At its best, political psychology has the potential to improve, on the basis of reason and evidence, our political institutions and public policies so that they are more congruent with what we know about human behavior.  Social and political psychologists have, over the decades, offered sophisticated analyses and practical interventions with regard to stereotyping, prejudice, authoritarianism, sexism, aggression, nationalism, terrorism, war, and conflict resolution.  [See Political Psychology book here.]

You conclude that fear motivates conservatism, but does this mean progressives should avoid fear-based appeals entirely? What about when dealing with genuinely scary things like terrorism and global warming?

For decades social psychologists have known that fear-based appeals in and of themselves are unhelpful and counterproductive, because they lead people either to deny problems that are too painful to face or to simply feel helpless and incapacitated.  I think that we see both of these responses to the threat of global warming all the time.  So, if you use a fear-based appeal you must simultaneously provide people with a clear, constructive solution to the problem.

In general, conservatives are much better than progressives at doing that, maybe because progressives tend to get bogged down in a complex, overly nuanced analysis of the problem.  “We’ll kill all the terrorists,” may be an unrealistic goal (even setting aside the question of whether it’s a desirable goal), but it does assuage the fear, at least temporarily, in clear and unambiguous terms.  Even with regard to global warming, conservatives (when they admit the problem) state simply that, “The market will fix it.”  That’s simple and makes people feel better in the short run, even if it turns out to be false.  Progressives who use fear-based appeals need to get better at communicating a clear (and reassuring) solution whenever the threat is made salient.  Otherwise, I think that it will backfire.

What are some examples of the ways progressives have dealt with fear effectively?

I think that in the U.S. context, the best historical example is probably Franklin D. Roosevelt, who famously declared in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  This statement reframes the whole question of what the real threat is, highlighting the fact that fear can be a truly destructive political force, and that it can erode democratic systems from within, as Roosevelt was about to see with respect to Europe.

But Roosevelt did not stop at the level of rhetoric.  He proceeded to roll out dozens of specific social and economic programs that were clearly designed to address the economic fears of the citizenry.  For the most part he presented these solutions in clear, confident, certain terms.  The solutions he proposed were unabashedly liberal, and he explained why they were good solutions for the problems that faced the nation.  In other words, he promised to solve the problems and, in many ways, he did.

What kind of response does your work get from conservatives?

Conservatives are typically more bothered by oversimplified (mis)representations that sometimes spread through the media (especially the blogosphere), than by the actual details of our research.  Once they learn about it, conservatives are prone to concede that there are personality and/or cognitive style differences between liberals and conservatives.  There is obviously a difference between saying that conservatives score higher (on average) than liberals on personal needs for order or structure and saying that conservatives are stupid or crazy, but some people can’t (or, more likely, don’t want to) grasp the difference.

There are several ironies concerning the most hostile responses, though.  Some people send hate mail that tends to confirm the worst, most authoritarian picture one could have of extreme conservatives.  They are hardly helping their cause, it seems to me.  Other negative responses in the blogosphere run the gamut from “ho hum,” “this is obvious,” and “we already knew this” to “this is outrageous” and “what bullshit.”  Well, it can’t be both trivially true and spectacularly false.  We need to conduct research in psychology because everyone thinks they know what really drives their own behavior (and that of others) and also because nearly everything about psychology sounds obvious once you know it to be true.

One might conclude from your study that conservatism is almost an aberrant behavior — a coping mechanism of sorts. Was this your intention?

No, I think that comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of psychology as a discipline; people assume that if psychologists are studying it, then it must be pathological in some way.  In fact the opposite is probably closer to the truth in this case.  Conservatism is intuitive, ordinary, commonplace, and probably has natural psychological advantages over liberalism.  It makes a great deal of sense that when people feel threatened they would stick to what is familiar and known, that is, the status quo.  All of us, even progressives, want to feel good about most of the customs, traditions, and institutions that surround us, and it can be a painful, disillusioning process when we feel disappointed in our country, its leaders, and its institutions.

To use one of the terms that is central to our research program, I think that everyone is motivated—at least to some degree—to engage in “system justification.”  In this respect, I think that liberals and progressives are probably at a disadvantage.  The notion that we should tolerate and respect people who are different from us and that we should offer equal protection even to those who reject or flout traditional norms is somewhat counterintuitive, in a psychological sense.  In the context of human history as a whole, this liberal, tolerant, open-minded, egalitarian view is newer and far more of an “aberration.”  As a philosophical belief system or a cultural innovation, it could be considered an accomplishment of our species, insofar as it was unlikely to catch on given our evolutionary background.

You posit that “resistance to change” and “acceptance of inequality” are the core dimensions of conservative thought. What are the core dimensions of liberal and progressive thought?

Actually, what we say is that at the core of the left-right (or liberal-conservative) distinction there are two basic values or polar orientations: (1) advocating vs. resisting social change, and (2) rejecting vs. accepting social and economic inequality.  These two aspects tend to be correlated because traditional social arrangements were hierarchical and authority-based, and over the last several centuries most of the challenges to the status quo have been in the direction of increased rather than decreased egalitarianism.  Thus, as a general rule, leftists are more in favor of social change and egalitarianism (with respect to outcomes as well as opportunities), whereas rightists are more in favor of tradition and more supportive of hierarchical social systems.

9781841690704What do you think are the best practical applications of your research?

One of my former doctoral students, Hulda Thorisdottir, conducted what is probably the best applied test of our ideas in her dissertation work.  She conducted several experiments in which she demonstrated that threatening stimuli (such as frightening movie clips) elicit a temporary increase in closed-mindedness (measured with a subset of items from the “need for cognitive closure” scale) and that increased closed-mindedness was associated with an affinity for conservative policies and opinions.  She also showed that threat can increase approval of liberal policies, but only when those policies are communicated using certainty-oriented language.  That is, liberal opinions must be offered as confident, unambiguously good solutions that will definitely solve the basic problem.  Otherwise, they are dismissed under conditions of threat.

What do you think of the current economic panic in this country? Alan Greenspan recently observed that the current economic mess is “the most wrenching” since World War II; Fortune magazine’s Allan Sloan, who’s been covering the business of business for decades says, “I’m more nervous about the world financial system than I’ve ever been in 40 years.”

Yes, I do think that there are serious economic concerns looming, and the yawning gap between rich and poor has created an opportunity for the country to make an economic left turn.  The Democratic candidate for president should make a note to himself (or herself), just as Bill Clinton did in 1992, that says, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  But I do not think that panic helps progressives, as I said before, because fear inhibits the desire to experiment with bold, new initiatives, and that is the essence of progressive thinking.  Progressives in the 21st century need to be as bold and creative as their predecessors in the last century who made the U.S. a moral leader on the world stage and not just a military and industrial leader.  More than ever, progressives need to offer clear, courageous, and scientifically compelling solutions to the many problems that confront us.  The solutions they propose should be realistic and congruent with what we know about the causes of human behavior; that is, they should be informed by political psychology.

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For related Situationist posts, click here.

Posted in History, Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Unclean Hands

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 14, 2008

hands-washingThe Economist has an interesting story on how washing one’s hands makes a person more likely to tolerate unethical behavior.   We excerpt the story below.

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A study just published in Psychological Science by Simone Schnall of the University of Plymouth and her colleagues shows that washing with soap and water makes people view unethical activities as more acceptable and reasonable than they would if they had not washed themselves.

Dr Schnall’s study was inspired by some previous work of her own. She had found that when feelings of disgust are instilled in them beforehand, people make decisions which are more ethical than would otherwise be expected. She speculates that the reason for this is that feeling morally unclean (ie, disgusted) leads to feelings of moral wrongness and thus triggers increased ethical behaviour by instilling a desire to right the wrong. However, as the cleanliness and purification rituals found in many religions suggest, physical cleanliness, too, is linked to moral behaviour, so she decided to investigate this as well.

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For the rest of the story, click here.  To read the Schnall study, click here.

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

The Situation of Subprime Mortgage Contracts – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 13, 2008

Oren Bar-Gill recently published his interesting paper, “The Law, Economics and Psychology of Subprime Mortgage Contracts” (forthcoming Cornell Law Review, Vol. 94, 2009) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Over 4 million subprime loans were originated in 2006, bringing the total value of outstanding subprime loans over a trillion dollars. A few months later the subprime crisis began, with soaring foreclosure rates and hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, of dollars in losses to borrowers, lenders, neighborhoods and cities, not to mention broader effects on the US and world economy. In this Article, I focus on the subprime mortgage contract and its central design features. I argue that these contractual design features can be explained as a rational market response to the imperfect rationality of borrowers. Accordingly, for many subprime borrowers loan contracts were not welfare maximizing. And to the extent that the design of subprime mortgage contracts contributed to the subprime crisis, the welfare loss to borrowers, substantial in itself, is compounded by much broader social costs. Finally, I argue that a better understanding of the market failure that produced these inefficient contracts should inform the ongoing efforts to reform the regulations governing the subprime market.

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For some related Situationist posts, see “The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain,” “No Contract for Old Men,” and “Promoting Smoking through Situation.”   For a related law review article examining the general interactions of law, economics and psychology, see Jon Hanson & Douglas Kysar, Taking Behavioralism Seriously: The Problem of Market Manipulation (1999), which can be downloaded for free here.

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

Sad News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 11, 2008

Robert Zajonc - from Stanford Report

Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology, dies at 85

He witnessed and survived some of the worst of human behavior to become one of the world’s leading experts on how people behave.

And during the 85 years between his birth in Poland and death Dec. 3 in Palo Alto—a span that led him through Nazi bombings and prisons before winding toward a life in academia—Robert Zajonc laid the foundation for the field of social psychology by exploring the connections between how people feel and how they think.

As an emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford since 1994, Zajonc (his name rhymes with “science”), focused his research on genocide, racism and terrorism.

He had already made a name for himself while teaching at the University of Michigan, conducting groundbreaking experiments that attracted controversy and acclaim.

As the scientist who demonstrated and coined the “mere exposure effect,” Zajonc found that people have positive feelings about things they’re familiar with. In a series of studies in the 1960s, Zajonc flashed random images in front of his subjects—Chinese characters, faces and geometric figures. When asked which images they liked the most, the subjects picked the ones they saw the most.

Zajonc also made news a decade later when he found that larger families have lower overall IQ scores than smaller ones. His studies showed that IQs would decline among siblings from the oldest to the youngest. Part of the reason, he explained, was that older children had more time to receive the undivided attention of their parents.

He found that first-borns do better on college entrance exams, and older children who tutor their little brothers and sisters get the biggest benefit out of the arrangement.

“Explaining something to a younger sibling solidifies your knowledge and allows you to grow more extensively,” he told the New York Times last year. “The younger one is asking questions, and challenging meanings and explanations, and that will contribute to the intellectual maturity of the older one.”

These were the conclusions of an only child who triumphed over the most difficult situations, finally succumbing to the pancreatic cancer that he fought for the last few years.

Born in Lodz in 1923, Zajonc and his parents fled to Warsaw in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. They moved into a relative’s apartment, but the building was bombed two weeks after they arrived. Zajonc’s parents were killed, and his legs were broken.

After recuperating in a hospital for six months, the 16-year-old was arrested by Nazi soldiers for not having any identification papers and was sent to a German labor camp. Put to work on a farm, he managed to escape with two other prisoners in 1942. They walked more than 200 miles into France, but were recaptured by the Germans after crossing the border and sent to a French prison.

He again staged a breakout with another prisoner, and the two walked for about 550 miles, stealing food and clothes before finding a fisherman who brought them to Ireland. From there, Zajonc made his way to England, where he worked as a translator for the U.S. Army.

After World War II, he came to the United States and earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan. It was there that he established himself as a leading psychologist and met wife, Hazel Rose Markus, who is the Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.

Along with showing how family structure influences intellectual performance and proving that people prefer things they are familiar with, Zajonc’s work at Michigan also found that people who do something well do it even better with others watching. But they’re more likely to make mistakes doing a new task in front of others as opposed to working alone.

He also studied married couples and determined that, after years of unconsciously mimicking one another’s facial expressions, husbands and wives start looking alike.

Zajonc retired from Michigan in 1994 and became an emeritus professor at Stanford. He remained active, urging interdisciplinary research on massacres and analyzing responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In addition to Markus, Zajonc is survived by their daughter, Krysia Zajonc, of Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica; three sons from a previous marriage, Peter Zajonc of Nyack, N.Y., Michael Zajonc of Leuven, Belgium, and Joseph Zajonc of Seattle; and four grandchildren.

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To read an excellent New York Times piece about Robert Zajonc, click here.

Posted in Classic Experiments, Education, Emotions, Life | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Driving While Texting

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 11, 2008

Sarah Flagg of The Missourian examines the law and psychology of drivers who text message. According to the National Safety Counsel, “Distracted driving contributes to hundreds of thousands of injuries and deaths each year.”

Driving while texting is a particularly common phenomenon among younger persons, with one estimate indicating that “nearly half of ages 18 to 24 admitted texting while driving at least occasionally, as compared to less than five percent of those ages 45 and older.”

We excerpt Flagg’s piece below.

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Missouri Rep. Joe Smith, R.-St. Charles, pre-filed a bill earlier this month that would create the state’s first restrictions on cell phone use while driving, unless the phone is equipped with a hands-free device.

The bill would ban cell phone use in a motor vehicle on public property. It would apply to all publicly maintained roads, streets and highways.

The bill, which Smith said he has introduced the past three years in a row, includes a ban on text messaging behind the wheel. If passed, it would take effect in August.

According to research by a British transportation agency, texting is more dangerous than simply talking on the phone in a car. It is even more hazardous than drinking and driving.

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While restrictions on cell phone use in cars have been proposed or enacted in 40 states, many states are still deciding how to incorporate texting into pieces of legislation.

In May 2007, Washington became the first state to ban texting and driving, and six others have followed, including California, where a train engineer’s inattention to a signal while texting was cited in the crash of a commuter train that killed 25.

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Jamie Arndt, an MU social psychology professor, cites two reasons people engage in behavior they know is dangerous.

First, there’s the attitude of “it won’t happen to me,” he said. “They think the danger and accidents will happen, but they themselves are immune.”

Priorities also affect decision making, particularly when connecting with friends and family may be a top concern.

“Those are powerful things that take priority of assessing proper risk management,” he said.


For the rest of the story, click here.  For other Situationist posts on products, click here and, for previous Situationist posts about driving, see “The Situational Power of Anonymity,” “The Link Between Sideline Rage and Road Rage,” Alone Together – The Commuter’s Situation,” “Do Car Bumper Stickers Signal Driver Aggression?,” and “Car Bonding.”

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

Hillary Clinton, the Halo Effect, and Women’s Catch-22

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 10, 2008

Hillary Clinton DollMerritt Baer is a Harvard Law School student living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.   This semester, she wrote the following brief essay for a seminar on situationism.  We are delighted to publish it on The Situationist (the essay and some worthwhile comments  also can be found on GlobalComment).

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In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton dedicated her gratitude “to the moms and dads who came to our events, who lifted their little girls and little boys on their shoulders and whispered in their ears, ‘See, you can be anything you want to be.’”

Yet given the scrutiny dedicated to her pantsuits, Hillary’s vision of possibility seems limited. Indeed, a new study by researchers led by Northwestern University’s Joan Y. Chiao and just published on October 31 found that while men need only seem competent in order to be electable, women need both competence and attractiveness.

Palin was selected in the aftermath and with the awareness of how Hillary was characterized as not attractive or even female enough. In a sense this draws new justifiability for Sarah Palin’s reportedly lofty budget for aesthetics, from hair stylists to department store budgets. It seems that if she had not spent time and money on her appearance, she could have suffered yet more critique.

Even CNN’s Campbell Brown, who was far from a Palin supporter, said “There has been plenty of talk and plenty written Hilary the Nutcrackerabout Sarah Palin’s jackets, her hair, her looks . . . .When I wear a bad outfit, I get viewer email complaining about it. A lot of email. Seriously.” She continued dryly, “When Wolf Blitzer wears a not-so-great tie, how much email do you think he gets?” She makes a good point.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the pressure to look good, there is the catch-22 at work: Bill Maher calling Palin a stewardess, movies of her in a swimsuit for a beauty pageant becoming the hot new YouTube video to circulate, and widespread sexualization of Palin becoming a favorite American pastime.

It seems clear that attractiveness in general plays a part in the reception a politician gets. However, Barack Obama’s handsomeness contributed to his campaign strongly in positive ways – even becoming part of his branding, as his profile was featured on t-shirts and buttons. For Sarah Palin’s naughty librarian beauty, there is a cost to the attractiveness factor: Palin was not merely attractive, she was sexy.

And while Chiao’s study suggests that female politicians need to be perceived as both attractive and competent, a sexy woman just does not go with competence. (When does attractiveness intersect with or become sexiness? I am not entirely sure–perhaps it is merely being very attractive that veers into the category of sexy, although it seems also to encompass those who for some reason capture the public imagination, like Palin’s rough-and-tumble hobbies.)

On the contrary, female sexiness triggers that animalistic side of our brains that seems opposed to intelligent thought (while male sexiness seems often to derive from and contribute to their aura of powerfulness). Thus audiences were primed to find Palin incompetent, and eager to hear the latest evidence. Not knowing Africa was a continent was perfect news.

Yet of course Obama – and all of the other candidates – had his share of campaign gaffes. When Obama stated on camera that he had visited 57 states, no one rushed to the conclusion that he actually didn’t know the 50 states–instead, people looked for explanations: well, maybe he was including US territories. Never mind that the New York Times now reports that Palin’s Africa gaffe was leaked by a fake blogger under the auspices of a fake think tank – the story had already taken a life of its own. We looked for reinforcements of Palin’s incompetence, and we found them.

Sarah Palin VogueIn some ways, this catch-22 lends a new dimension to the “halo effect” – the idea that an attractive person is advantaged because of their attractiveness. The attractiveness halo effect was first documented by social psychologist Solomon Asch, but we may know it anecdotally to be true that attractive people tend to have more success both professionally and in the dating arena. It’s one of the reasons we have celebrity endorsements–attractiveness influences our overall perception of the person such that we assume their preferences for a product are as desirable as their looks.

Yet the disturbing implication is that while the halo effect works in purely positive ways for men, for women attractiveness is both even more necessary (see Chiao’s study) and often simultaneously crippling (see Palin’s representations).

After the final presidential debate between Obama and Mccain, newsanchor Katie Couric asked Hillary Clinton, “Why do you think Sarah Palin has an action figure and you have a nutcracker?” Clinton replied that she didn’t know. But Hillary Clinton knows better than anyone that capturing the American audience as a woman is a balancing act.

The constant criticism dedicated to Hillary’s pantsuits culminated in the marketing of a “Hillary Clinton nutcracker,” in which her thighs serve as the nutcrackers (perish the thought of imagining what a comparable doll would look like for Obama…?) Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, who took a cue and opted for the skirtsuit and heels, became the subject of sexualized mockery. Interesting too that often, the originators of derogatory material directed at both Clinton and Palin were from the ideological left, a position we associate with progressive and tolerant views,

Unfortunately, we may be bypassing qualified or even brilliant individuals because they do not navigate the femininity/competence minefield – and who can? Perhaps Clinton was wrong to urge children to believe that they can be anything they want to be. Beautiful or not, our daughters will encounter the attractiveness and competence quotients– asked to be both while the catch-22 prevents it. And the minute their delicate juggling act topples, we will be quick to caricature them as a nutcracker doll or an Africa joke.

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Color of Sex Appeal,” The Situation of Body Image,” “The Situation of Hair Color,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” Survival of the Cutest,” “Spas and Girls,” “Fitting in and Sizing Up,” and “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.”

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

The Situation of Conspiracy and President-Elect Obama’s Origin of Birth

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 9, 2008

obama-childhoodAlex Koppelman of Salon has an interesting piece on the quixotic–and today, courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court, rejected–claims that Barack Obama was not born a naturalized U.S. citizen, and thus should not be eligible to become President on January 20, 2009.  We excerpt the piece below.

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Barack Obama can’t be president: He wasn’t really born in Hawaii, and the certification of live birth his campaign released is a forgery. He was born in Kenya. Or maybe Indonesia. Or, wait, maybe he was born in Hawaii — but that doesn’t matter, since he was also a British citizen at birth because of his father, and you can’t be a “natural-born citizen” in that case. (But then, maybe his “father” wasn’t really his father; maybe his real dad was an obscure communist poet. Or Malcolm X.

You might think these rumors would have died off after Obama produced proof in June that he was, in fact, born in Hawaii to an American citizen, his mother, Ann, or after Hawaii state officials confirmed in October that he was born there. You might think the rumors would have died off after he was elected by a comfortable margin. Instead, they’ve intensified. There have been paid advertisements in the Chicago Tribune questioning the president-elect’s birth certificate and eligibility, and one group is raising money to run a similar ad on television. The right-wing Web site WorldNetDaily has been reporting on the issue almost nonstop. Numerous plaintiffs have filed lawsuits in various states. And Friday, the Supreme Court’s nine justices will decide whether they want to hear one of those suits, which also contends that John McCain, born in the former Panama Canal Zone, does not meet the Constitution’s requirements to hold the presidency.obama-bush

The people hoping this is a sign the court will agree with them and stop Obama from becoming president are almost certain to be let down. The fact that the case has gone to conference doesn’t mean anything about its merits — the court will also be deciding whether to take up a number of other cases, and the chances that the suit will actually be heard is exceedingly small. Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, has calculated that over the past eight years the court has considered in conference 842 cases that sought a stay. Only 60 of them were actually heard. Seven hundred and eighty-two were denied.

But that doesn’t matter. The faux controversy isn’t going to go away soon. Yes, Obama was born in Hawaii, and yes, he is eligible to be president. But according to several experts in conspiracy theories, and in the psychology of people who believe in conspiracy theories, there’s little chance those people who think Obama is barred from the presidency will ever be convinced otherwise. “There’s no amount of evidence or data that will change somebody’s mind,” says Michael Shermer, who is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American, and who holds an undergraduate and a master’s degree in psychology. “The more data you present a person, the more they doubt it … Once you’re committed, especially behaviorally committed or financially committed, the more impossible it becomes to change your mind.”

Any inconvenient facts are irrelevant. People who believe in a conspiracy theory “develop a selective perception, their mind refuses to accept contrary evidence,” Chip Berlet, a senior analyst with Political Research Associates who studies such theories, says. “As soon as you criticize a conspiracy theory, you become part of the conspiracy.”

Evan Harrington, a social psychologist who is an associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, agrees. “One of the tendencies of the conspiracy notion, the whole appeal, is that a lot of the information the believer has is secret or special,” Harrington says. “The real evidence is out there, [and] you can give them all this evidence, but they’ll have convenient ways to discredit [it].”

Whatever can’t be ignored can be twisted to fit into the narrative; every new disclosure of something that should, by rights, end the controversy only opens up new questions, identifies new plotters. Perhaps the most common argument of those questioning Obama’s eligibility is that he should just release his full, original birth certificate, rather than the shorter certification, which is a copy. His failure to do so only proves there is reason to be suspicious, they say, and if the document was released, the issue would go away. But that’s unlikely. It was, after all, the Obama campaign’s release of the certification this summer that stoked the fever of conspiracy mongers.

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For the rest of the piece, click here.  For other posts on the various conspiracies about Barack Obama, including the belief that he is un-American or, worse, the Anti-Christ, click here.

Posted in Life, Politics | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Emotional Content of True and False Memories – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 8, 2008

Cara Laney and Elizabeth Loftus recently published their interesting article, Emotional Content of True and False Memories (16  Psychol. Press 500-516 (2008) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Many people believe that emotional memories (including those that arise in therapy) are particularly likely to represent true events because of their emotional content. But is emotional content a reliable indicator of memory accuracy? The current research assessed the emotional content of participants’ pre-existing (true) and manipulated (false) memories for childhood events. False memories for one of three emotional childhood events were planted using a suggestive manipulation and then compared, a long several subjective dimensions, with other participants’ true memories. On most emotional dimensions (e.g., how emotional was this event for you?), true and false memories were indistinguishable. On a few measures (e.g., intensity of feelings at the time of the event), true memories were more emotional than false memories in the aggregate, yet true and false memories were equally likely to be rated as uniformly emotional. These results suggest that even substantial emotional content may not reliably indicate memory accuracy.

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Memory,”  “TAL Animation on the Situation of Memory, ” “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “Emotions, Values, and Information: The Future of Nanotechnology,” and “Situating Emotion.”

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

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