The Situationist

Archive for February, 2009

The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on February 28, 2009

The death of free will, or its exposure as a convenient illusion, some worry, could wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility. According to those who believe that free will and determinism are incompatible…it would mean that people are no more responsible for their actions than asteroids or planets. Anything would go

–Dennis Overbye, The New York Times (2007)

During the past few years the popular press has become increasingly interested in free will, agency, and responsibility, with stories appearing in mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times, The Economist, Forbes Magazine, Wired, and FOX News. As psychologists continue to demystify the mind by uncovering the mechanisms that undergird human behavior, what was once an issue that fell mostly under the purview of philosophers and theologians has started to pique the curiosity of the public more generally. This interest is quite understandable. If free will caught-cheating-tests-01-af5provides the foundation for our traditional moral beliefs and practices, and its existence is incompatible with the gathering data from the so-called “sciences of the mind,” then free will isn’t just a topic fit for philosophers—it is a psychological, sociological, cultural, and policy issue as well. To the extent that scientific advancements undermine or threaten our traditional views about human agency, we ought to carefully consider what impact this might have on our moral and legal practices.

To get a sense for why some philosophers and psychologists are anxious when it comes to folk beliefs about free will and moral responsibility, consider the following extended quote from Francis Cricks’ The Amazing Hypothesis:

“You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.

Most religions hold that some kind of spirit exists that persists after one’s bodily death and, to some degree, embodies the essence of that human being. Religions may not have all the same beliefs, but they do have a broad agreement that people have souls.

Yet the common belief of today has a totally different view. It is inclined to believe that the idea of a soul, distinct from the body and not subject to our known scientific laws, is a myth. It is quite understandable how this myth arose without today’s scientific knowledge of nature of matter and radiation, and of biological evolution. Such myths, of having a soul, seem only too plausible. For example, four thousand years ago almost everyone believed the earth was flat. Only with modern science has it occurred to us that in fact the earth is round.

From modern science we now know that all living things, from bacteria to ourselves, are closely related at the biochemical level. We now know that many species of plants and animals have evolved over time. We can watch the basic processes of evolution happening today, both in the field and in our test tubes and therefore, there is no need for the religious concept of a soul to explain the behavior of humans and other animals. In addition to scientists, many educated people also share the belief that the soul is a metaphor and that there is no personal life either before conception or after death.

Most people take free will for granted, since they feel that usually they are free to act as they please. Three assumptions can be made about free will. The first assumption is that part of one’s brain is concerned with making plans for future actions, without necessarily carrying them out. The second assumption is that one is not conscious of the “computations” done by this part of the brain but only of the “decisions” it makes – that is, its plans, depending of course on its current inputs from other parts of the brain. The third assumption is that the decision to act on one’s plan or another is also subject to the same limitations in that one has immediate recall of what is decided, but not of the computations that went into the decision.

So, although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that. The actual cause of the decision may be clear cut or it may be determined by chaos, that is, a very small perturbation may make a big difference to the end result. This would give the appearance of the Will being “free” since it would make the outcome essentially unpredictable. Of course, conscious activities may also influence the decision mechanism.

One’s self can attempt to explain why it made a certain choice. Sometimes we may reach the correct conclusion. At other times, we will either not know or, more likely, will confabulate, because there is no conscious knowledge of the ‘reason’ for the choice. This implies that there must be a mechanism for confabulation, meaning that given a certain amount of evidence, which may or may not be misleading, part of the brain will jump to the simplest conclusion.

Having just read Crick’s deflationary remarks about free will, do you think you would be more likely to cheat if you were given the opportunity?  The obvious answer is “No, of course not”! However, the results from a series of recent studies by psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler suggest that things are less obvious than they seem.

For instance, in a recent paper entitled “The Value of Believing in Free Will,” Vohs and Schooler suggest that when people are induced to disbelieve in free will and believe in determinism—as the result of reading the aforementioned passage from Crick—they are more likely to cheat shortly thereafter. Here is the abstract:

Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.

In light of the results from these two studies, Vohs and Schooler conclude that ‘the fact that brief exposure to a message asserting that there is no such thing as free will can increase both passive and active cheating raises the concern that advocating a deterministic worldview could undermine moral behavior’ (Vohs & Schooler 2008: 53).

If we assume for the sake of argument that being induced to disbelieve in free will is what is really driving the results of their studies—and I am unconvinced that it is, but that is a story for another day—then we are faced with the interesting question of what philosophers and psychologists who work on free will ought to do in light of these findings. For free will skeptics, the stakes are particularly high. After all, ought one to be advocating for the so-called “death of free will” if doing so might make it more likely that people will cheat or steal?

Posted in Philosophy, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | 8 Comments »

The Situation of Hate Speech – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 27, 2009

Julie Seaman recently posted her terrific paper, entitled “Hate Speech and Identity Politics: A Situationalist Proposal,” (36 Florida S.U. L. Rev., Vol. 99 (2008)) on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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The scholarly debate over hate speech regulation has often been characterized as a clash of absolutes, an irreconcilable conflict between the values of free speech and equality. In this Essay, which focuses on the college and university context, I consider whether the findings of social and cognitive psychology research might have the potential to shift the hate speech debate such that some areas of common ground come into view. Relying on insights from the substantial body of research that demonstrates that individual behavior is strongly influenced (often unconsciously) by situational factors, this Essay proposes that universities can – and should – consider ways in which to structure their social and physical environments so as to minimize harmful, antisocial speech and maximize prosocial, productive speech. Such an approach would avoid the heavy-handed censorship most objectionable to strong free speech advocates, while at the same time recognizing the social constructionist insight that belief and behavior are profoundly influenced by cultural practices, language, and images.

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For another Situationist post on schools and hate speech, see “Dueling Stereotypes and the Law.”

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

Situationist Abstracts from the Globe

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 26, 2009


Kevin Lewis, at the Boston Globe, routinely assembles intriguing collections of abstracts for his outstanding “Uncommon Knowledge” series.  Here is a sample from recent installments.

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From January 11, 2009:

It’s true, your dog relaxes you

THE DOG MAY indeed be one of man’s best friends. New research suggests that people get the same hormonal reaction from bonding with their dogs as with humans. The hormone oxytocin, which is secreted during childbirth and breastfeeding, has been shown to facilitate human bonding. A study in Japan had dog owners sit in a chair and give commands to their dogs. Some owners could look at their dogs, while other owners couldn’t. The owners who could look at their dogs, especially owners who spent more time looking at their dogs and had a closer relationship with them, were found to have significant increases in oxytocin levels in their urine after interaction with their dogs.

Nagasawa, M. et al., “Dog’s Gaze at Its Owner Increases Owner’s Urinary Oxytocin During Social Interaction,” Hormones and Behavior (forthcoming).

Profiting from the honor system

DESPITE THE OLD saying that the customer is always right, businesses generally assume that they must dictate prices to customers. But a team of marketing researchers wanted to see if the opposite extreme – “pay what you want” – could also be profitable. They conducted experiments in Germany at a restaurant, a movie theater, and a delicatessen where customers could pay whatever they wanted for a buffet lunch, tickets, or hot drinks, respectively. Every customer paid something, and only a few customers paid very low prices. In fact, the average price paid for drinks at the delicatessen was slightly higher than normal. . . . The authors suggest that such a pricing strategy is most applicable to products with high fixed, but low variable, costs.

Kim, J. et al., “Pay What You Want: A New Participative Pricing Mechanism,” Journal of Marketing (January 2009).

Variety can change your mind

WE LIKE TO believe in personal responsibility and freedom, but, in reality, choices are often guided by subtle external forces. Marketing researchers have found that the sheer variety of options is one of those forces – in other words, variety itself can affect our decisions. Across several experiments, the researchers tested the hypothesis that people would choose a more justifiable, or virtuous, option when making a choice among many options rather than just a few options. The percentage of people choosing low-fat over regular ice cream almost doubled when they made that choice among five potential flavors rather than one. People who passed by a self-serve tray filled with fruit and desserts were more likely to choose the healthier fruit if there was a greater assortment of both items. Likewise, people chose a printer over a music player if there was a greater assortment of either one.

Sela, A. et al., “Variety, Vice, and Virtue: How Assortment Size Influences Option Choice,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

Aren’t we great (and wrong)!

ONE OF THE most famous phenomena in social psychology is groupthink, the tendency of a group to converge on a consensus without much critical evaluation, even if the consensus is wrong. Various remedies have been proposed over the years, but some management researchers are presenting an interesting new angle on it. They invited a couple hundred members of fraternities and sororities to participate in a problem-solving experiment. The students were given 20 minutes to read a murder mystery and deduce the most likely perpetrator out of three suspects. Individually, only 44 percent of the students got it right, which is slightly better than chance. The students were then sorted into groups of three, all from the same fraternity or sorority, and were given 20 minutes to come to agreement on the most likely suspect. After a few minutes, a fourth member was added to the group – sometimes from the same fraternity or sorority, sometimes from a different one. If the new member came from a different fraternity or sorority, the group performed objectively better then the totally homogeneous groups (75 percent vs. 54 percent correct), and members with incorrect guesses were much more likely to change their minds. Nevertheless, the homogeneous groups perceived themselves as having more confidence, consensus, and effective interaction.

Phillips, K. et al., “Is the Pain Worth the Gain? The Advantages and Liabilities of Agreeing With Socially Distinct Newcomers,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

From January 18, 2009:

The one-second racial gap

SOMETIMES, WHEN NEWS shows do live interviews from remote locations, there is a noticeable time delay in the conversation, which can be painful to watch. Researchers tested the same scenario – but in a laboratory where two strangers discussed politics over a one-second-delayed closed-circuit television link – and found a remarkable pattern. If one person was white and the other was nonwhite, there was more anxiety in the conversation with the one-second delay. This suggests that a brief hesitation in an introductory interracial conversation is over-perceived as a signal of anxiety in the other person. This could be of special concern, the authors note, because “police officers, judges, and prosecutors frequently use apparently apprehensive behavior as a marker of deceptiveness during interrogations.”

Pearson, A. et al., “The Fragility of Intergroup Relations: Divergent Effects of Delayed Audiovisual Feedback in Intergroup and Intragroup Interaction,” Psychological Science (December 2008).

When punishments don’t satisfy

IF SOMEONE WRONGED you, do you think you’d feel better after meting out justice? Most people would say yes, but this, at least according to a new study, turns out to be wrong. Psychologists asked people to play a computer game against other people for money (though, in reality, the computer was simulating the other players). During the game, one of the other “players” took advantage of the group, thereby earning more money. After the game, some participants were given the opportunity to impose a penalty (at a small cost) on the bad player, and some were allowed to see someone else impose a penalty. A control group wasn’t allowed to consider penalties at all. Although people expected to feel better after imposing the penalty, those who penalized the bad player themselves felt significantly worse afterward than the control group, because, it appears, they couldn’t stop thinking about the bad player. Seeing someone else impose the penalty was no worse, but no better, than being in the control group.

Carlsmith, K. et al., “The Paradoxical Consequences of Revenge,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (December 2008).

Malpractice reform is no cure

IN THE NEVER-ENDING public debate about healthcare reform, medical malpractice is one of the big issues at center stage. Some widely cited research has estimated that defensive medicine – extra care provided mainly out of fear of being sued – adds over 5 percent to the cost of medical care, without improving the quality of care. Researchers at Duke and UNC examined more recent and extensive data, and found that malpractice reforms (e.g., damage caps) had an insignificant effect on total cost, without any apparent effect on quality, suggesting that defensive medicine may not be as big an issue as feared.

Sloan, F. & Shadle, J., “Is There Empirical Evidence for ‘Defensive Medicine’? A Reassessment,” Journal of Health Economics (forthcoming).

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For a previous Situationist post including excerpts from “Uncommon Knowledge,” see “Situatiolympics – Abstracts.”

Posted in Abstracts | Leave a Comment »

Larry Lessig’s Situationism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 25, 2009

Samuel Jacobs, a senior at Harvard College and associate managing editor of The Harvard Crimson, recently interviewed Larry Lessig for the Ideas section of The Boston GlobeThe conversation illustrated Lessig’s situationist perspective of corruption.  Here are some excerpts.

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ROD BLAGOJEVICH ACCUSED of trying to sell a Senate seat. Dianne Wilkerson stuffing cash into her shirt. A Harvard doctor taking huge consulting fees from drug companies. This past year ended with a collection of new examples of a very old problem: corruption. Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford intellectual-property scholar recently hired away by Harvard Law School, believes he may have some solutions.

Lessig, who has built a reputation as a leading advocate for free culture and loosening copyright laws, surprised many two years ago by shifting his attention from cutting-edge Internet law to the broader problem of corruption. At Harvard, Lessig will head up the university’s Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, where he will begin a five-year effort to investigate corruption in government and academia.

He sees both fields as polluted by the emergence of a consulting culture in which professors and advocates, whose independence is crucial to society, regularly take payments from corporations and industry groups for their advice and services. As a result, people presume that money is behind every effort of public policy, and trust collapses.

Lessig, 47, hopes his project will help change how we think about corruption, moving the focus away from corrupt individuals and toward the bigger systemic question of how society supports and enables them.

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IDEAS: How depressing is corruption these days?

LESSIG: I think we’re getting to the maximum depression point. The reason is I think that institutions that before had a stronger ethic of independence have given that ethic up. I think that we are seeing an erosion of practices which produced institutions that we could trust.

IDEAS: How do we go about fixing these things?

LESSIG: There are some people who think about the word “corruption” and they are thinking about it as if it is speaking about something evil. . . . Evil brings to mind images like Hitler or Pol Pot. I’m very much of the view that that is not an interesting way to think about this problem. We have enough attention and understanding about why people like Hitler or Pol Pot or the bad guys in the financial crisis are bad guys. I don’t think we’re actually going to make much progress focusing more of our attention on those bad guys.

What we need to do is to recognize the bad guys in all of us. All of us who don’t take small steps that actually would have a significant chance to eliminate problems. In the academic context, when you don’t raise a question about colleagues who are accepting money to do policy research, making policy recommendations that are directly connected to the money that they are receiving, what you are doing is nothing evil in the Hitler sense. You are just being weak. You’re not asserting an ethical position that, if asserted, might actually help keep the integrity of the institution.

IDEAS: What has your own experience been with corruption?

LESSIG: I had this experience very viscerally when I was having a private debate with one of my colleagues, who it turned out had been giving public policy advice about some area that we were disagreeing on. I discovered that he was being paid by a party directly interested in the public policy advice he was giving. I said to him that your authority as a figure comes from the fact that people believe what you’re doing is saying what you think is true, not saying what you think pays the bills.

IDEAS: What about your interactions with government?

LESSIG: I tell this story in one of my talks about Senator Sununu sending me a nasty note, after I was down in D.C. talking about network neutrality, saying that I ought not to be shilling for these companies. It struck me that he couldn’t imagine that while I was down there doing public policy work, I might just be down there not because somebody was paying me to do it, but because I thought it was the right answer.

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IDEAS: What sorts of things might you do at Harvard?

LESSIG: We could pick the domains of public life where trust is a central part of the success of the mission of those domains: medical research or the legal profession or the media . . . or what Congress does. Trust is at the center of those institutions, in the sense that if you want people to listen to you when you tell them that they should vaccinate their children against malaria, people need to trust that when you say the vaccines are safe, they are safe.

If you don’t have that trust in society, what happens is that people don’t vaccinate their kids against malaria, and malaria starts to take off, and as it takes off there are devastating consequences for the population. Trust is at the center of that relationship. The question is how we build trust.

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To read the entire interview, click here.  To read some related Situationist posts, see “Al Gore – The Situationist,” “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism,”A Convenient Fiction,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” “The Situation of University Research,” “The company “had no control or influence over the research” . . . .,” ” Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Industry-Funded Research,” and “Industry-Funded Research – Part II.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Politics | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Terror Management Theory Goes Mainstream

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 22, 2009

In the Colorado Springs Gazette, Debbie Kelly has a nice article about the changing situation of Thomas Pyszczynski, a well known psychology professor at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (“UCCS”) who is one of several scholars behind terror management theory.

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Two decades ago, Thomas Pyszczynski’s ideas about how people use their cultural beliefs and values to shield themselves from anxiety about death — and how that plays out in international conflict — were viewed as kooky at worst, interesting at best.  9/11 changed all that.

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Pyszczynski, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, was catapulted to visionary status. Words like “provocative” and “persuasive” replaced the doubts about his research, which led to a hypothesis he developed with two colleagues called “terror management theory.”

“He’d been bouncing around as a visiting assistant professor at two or three schools, and no one would hire him on a tenure track because his theories were iffy. We did. We thought he was going to be a star because he had a vision of a new way that social psychology would evolve. It turns out, he was absolutely right,” said Bob Durham, who was chair of the university’s psychology department in 1986, when Pyszczynski was hired.

Pyszczynski’s expertise on the social psychology of terrorism recently earned him one of the University of Colorado system’s highest honors: the title of distinguished professor. The award recognizes outstanding contributions to an academic discipline. In the 43-year history of UCCS, only one other faculty member has been bestowed the title from the board of regents, the university’s governing body.

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Pyszczynski’s ideas give insight into the connections between self esteem and human behavior, including ethnic violence and war.
And in the face of attack, his research showed, people tend to coalesce against a common enemy.

“So many of the things we’d seen happen in laboratory experiments played out in reality after 9/11,” he said.

“When Americans were faced with a dramatic reminder of death and vulnerability at the hands of people challenging our culture and values, we tried to discredit those people and get rid of them, and we became more enthusiastic about our own beliefs. The majority of Americans became more patriotic and Bush’s approval ratings almost doubled in a week.”

His terror management theory, developed in the mid-1980s, has been the basis for more than 350 studies in 20 countries, examining aggression, stereotyping, the need for meaning and structure, phobias, political preferences, martyrdom, group identification and related topics.

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At a recent reception in honor of Pyszczynski’s award, UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak said she is appreciative of the previous administrators who took a chance on hiring him “when he was not particularly mainstream.”

Then, she asked Pyszczynski, “How does it feel to be mainstream?”

Pyszczynski’s reply: “A little scary.”

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To read the entire article, click here.  For a related Situationist post, see “The Situation of Ideology – Part II.”

For those unfamiliar with terror management theory, you may find the following three videos worthwhile (three parts of one interview of Jeff Greenberg by Steve Paikin, approximately 25 minutes total).

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Posted in Emotions, Ideology, Politics, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Conan & the White Stripes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 21, 2009

In tribute to Late Night with Conan O’Brien, here is a situationist music video with Conan and the  White Stripes to the sound of “The Denial Twist.”  Enjoy:

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Video | 1 Comment »

Unconsciously Regarded as Disabled – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 21, 2009

Dale Larson has posted his  comment, “Unconsciously Regarded as Disabled: Implicit Bias and the Regarded-As Prong of the Americans with Disabilities Act” (56 UCLA Law Review 451 (2008)) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Much scholarly work has been written detailing the shift away from the original congressional intent behind the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), starting with the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sutton v. United Air Lines. While the U.S. Congress intended the protections under the ADA to be broad, courts have interpreted the act very narrowly, denying protections for many whom Congress intended to protect.

Missing from this scholarship, however, is an examination of how the shift has been particularly harmful for potential plaintiffs in light of recent findings in behavioral science. More discrimination than once thought is the result not of explicit and conscious attitudes, but of unconscious implicit bias. The specific ways in which the Court narrowed the ADA resulted in a lack of protection for victims of implicit bias discrimination. Further, evidence shows that implicit bias against individuals with disabilities is particularly pronounced in American society. It is primarily this kind of discrimination that courts have been unable to protect against after Sutton. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 goes a long way towards reinstating protections for those whom are discriminated against as the result of implicit bias. This Comment cautiously endorses the Amendments and calls for increased research into how implicit bias affects individuals with disabilities. The fact that the Amendments are not a perfect solution to the prevalence of implicit bias discrimination may be a sign that this particular type of discrimination is not adequately well known and deserves further research and attention.

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For a related Situationist post, see ““Disabling Prejudice” – Abstract.”   To review other Situationisthere. posts discussing implicit associations, click

Posted in Abstracts, Implicit Associations, Law | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – February 2009

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 20, 2009

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of our favorite non-Situationist situationist blogging during February 2009. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

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From 3 Quarks Daily: “Amazonian Indigenous Culture Demonstrates a Universal Mapping of Numbers onto Space

“The ability to map numbers onto a line, a foundation of all mathematics, is universal, says a study published this week in the journal Science, but the form of this universal mapping is not linear but logarithmic. The findings illuminate both the nature and the limits of the human predisposition to measurement, a foundation for science, engineering, and much of our modern culture.” Read more . . .

From BPS Research Digest blog: Would you give way at the photocopier?

“Back in the 70’s, a classic study (PDF) showed that people using a photocopier were just as likely to give way to a line-pusher who gave the nonsense excuse “because I need to make copies”, as they were to one who gave the more sensible excuse “because I’m in a rush”. Ellen Langer and colleagues interpreted their finding as showing how mindless we often are. As soon as we hear the word “because”, we assume the excuse that follows is justified and respond accordingly. Now Scott Key and colleagues have replicated this classic study, with the further aim of finding out if some personality types are more likely than others to give way.” Read more . . .

From International Cognition and Culture Institute: “Are dogs (and chimps) really inequity-averse?

“It seems that the closer animals are to humans, the easier it will be to explain the human phenomenon.  But it may not help social and cognitive scientists to go too far too fast. Five years ago, Brosnan and de Waal did a similar experiment with capuchins and then chimps. They showed that capuchins and chimps refuse a reward if another individual gets more for the same task. However, this does not show that monkeys are averse to inequity, only that they reject a lesser reward when better rewards are available (see also here and here).”  Read more . . .

From Sam Sommers Psychology Today blog: “Purple Tunnel of Personality?

“. . . . An intriguing hypothesis, that the ocupation, and perhaps more importantly, the personal disposition of the individuals in this crowd explained their behavior that morning. It’s an intuitively appealing hypothesis as well: it seems logical that had the tunnel been filled with professional wrestlers, Baltimore Ravens defensemen, or gubernatorial candidates from Illinois, the outcome might not have been so peaceful.  Or does it? Four decades ago, in a study that has become one of the most famous in all of psychology, John Darley and Daniel Batson wanted to test this very question, to assess the relative importance of predisposition and social context in shaping pro-social behavior.” Read more . . .

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For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click on the “Blogroll” category in the right margin.

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll, Classic Experiments | Leave a Comment »

Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t

Posted by J on February 19, 2009

ap-nypost-cartoon-0218091The image to the left is a portion of a controversial cartoon that ran in yesterday’s New York Post. The cartoon (the entirety of which is here) includes this punchline: “Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.”

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A common assumption among most Americans is that race is not an issue these days; after all, most of us rarely if ever feel ourselves being “racist.” If we are not thinking about race when we go about our daily lives and if we are not harboring any racial animus when we interact or socialize inter-racially, then, we assume, race is not influencing us.  We may not be blind to color, but we might as well be.  Most Americans, I’m guessing, would therefore not have a problem with this cartoon.

Rev. Al Sharpton, on the other hand, does:

“The cartoon is troubling at best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys. One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual reference to this when in the cartoon they have police saying after shooting a chimpanzee that ‘Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.’

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“Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama (the first African American president) and has become synonymous with him it is not a reach to wonder are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?”

The New York Post’s editor-in-chief, Col Allan, dismissed Sharpton’s  remarks with this retort:  “The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy. . . .”

But why couldn’t Mr. Allan and Rev. Sharpton both be right?  Why, in other words, would Mr. Allan conclude that a parody of a violent chimpanzee cannot also reflect and encourage troubling racial associations?

Perhaps it is because neither he nor his cartoonist were consciously thinking about race when creating or publishing the cartoon.  If they did not think about race, then they know race didn’t influence them.  From that perspective, Sharpton’s suggestion that race may have played some role seems preposterous.

But that sort of reasoning is itself preposterous when one takes seriously what social psychology and related mind sciences have discovered about the role of unconscious or implicit associations.   Our brains, it seems, have a mind of their own, and that mind is often operating automatically and powerfully in ways that reflect common cultural stereotypes — including those that we might consciously reject.  What we think we know about what is moving us is only a tiny, and often a misleading, part of what is actually going on in those parts of our brains that elude introspection but that can nonetheless manifest in our perceptions, emotions, and actions.

If one examines the cartoon mindful of racial stereotypes, the image scores a hat-trick and then some.  The association of blacks to guns, to crime, violence, and to hostile interactions with law enforcement officers is so strong and should be so well understood that I won’t take time to review the evidence.

What some people may not be aware of is the disturbingly robust implicit associations of African Americans to monkeys, chimps, and apes.

As social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt recently observed, “one of the oldest race battles that blacks have fought in this country has been the battle to be recognized as fully human. To be regarded not in the in-between status somewhere between ape and human but to be fully human.”  And with a black American now the President of the United States, the tendency to link black Americans to apes might be dismissed as an irrelevant relic of the past.

But is it?  In the video excerpts below (from the Project on Law and Mind Sciences 2007 Conference), Jennifer Eberhardt’s describes some of her research examining whether such a de-humanizing association continues to operate beneath the radar of our consciousness (10 minutes total).

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While it is no doubt affirming to believe that we live in a post-racial society as revealed by Barack Obama’s election, it is probably more accurate to say that race is alive and well in the recesses of our brains and that the election of Barack Obama is — particularly when he is connected to policies we disfavor — likely to activate some of those unseen associations.

If  one didn’t think about race while imagining and sketching a cartoon, that doesn’t imply that race didn’t play a role in shaping those processes.  Nor does it justify indifference, much less indignance, toward those who urge us to consider whether race did somehow play a role.

Quite the contrary, given our history and the hierarchies and inequalities that continue to define our country, all of us should be especially attentive and sensitive to the possibilities that what we “know” to be true about what  is moving us is often mistaken and that those mistakes have consequences.

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For a sample of related Situationst posts, see “Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,” A Situationist Considers the Implications of Simpson Sentencing,” “What does an Obama victory mean?,” “The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV.” For other Situationist posts on President-Elect Obama, click here, and for posts discussing the Jennifer Eberhardt’s research, click here.

Posted in History, Implicit Associations, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Derren Brown’s Invisibility Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 18, 2009

Derren Brown uses his mind-tricks to make himself invisible to a film student.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Posted in Illusions, Video | Leave a Comment »

The Stereotype Tax

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 17, 2009

The last issue of The Economist includes an interesting article, titled “The Price of Prejudice,” summarizing IAT research and two other studies employing conjoint analysis to measure the difference between what we would do as compared to what we would say we would do.  Here’s an excerpt.

* * *

Nobody likes to admit an uncomfortable truth about himself, especially when charged issues such as race, sex, age and even supersized waistlines come into play. That makes the task of the behavioural scientist a difficult one. Not only may participants in a study be lying to those running a test, but they may also, fundamentally, be lying to themselves.

Prising the lid off human assumptions and hidden biases thus requires clever tools. One of the most widely deployed, known as the implicit-association test, measures how quickly people associate words describing facial characteristics with different types of faces that display those characteristics. When such characteristics are favourable—“laughter” or “joy”, for example—it often takes someone longer to match them with faces that they may, unconsciously, view unfavourably (old, if the participant is young, or non-white if he is white). This procedure thus picks up biases that the participants say they are not aware of having.

Whether these small differences in what are essentially artificial tasks really reflect day-to-day actions and choices was, until recently, untested. But that has changed. In a paper to be published next month in Social Cognition, a group of researchers led by Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago report their use of a technique called conjoint analysis, which they have adopted from the field of market research and adapted to study implicit biases in more realistic situations.

Conjoint analysis, they think, lets them quantify what has been dubbed the “stereotype tax”—the price that the person doing the stereotyping pays for his preconceived notions. In two studies, they turn their new tool loose on questions of the perception of weight and sex.

* * *

Conjoint analysis asks participants to evaluate a series of products that vary in several important attributes, such as televisions of various screen sizes, brands and prices. By varying these attributes in a systematic way market researchers can measure with reasonable precision how much each trait is worth. They can then calculate how big a premium people are willing to pay in one attribute (price) to get what they want in another (a larger screen).

In their first study, Dr Caruso and his team recruited 101 students and asked them to imagine they were taking part in a team trivia game with a cash prize. Each student was presented with profiles of potential team-mates and asked to rate them on their desirability.

The putative team-mates varied in several ways. Three of these were meant to correlate with success at trivia: educational level, IQ and previous experience with the game. In addition, each profile had a photo which showed whether the team-mate was slim or fat. After rating the profiles, the participants were asked to say how important they thought each attribute was in their decisions.

Not surprisingly, they reported that weight was the least important factor in their choice. However, their actual decisions revealed that no other attribute counted more heavily. In fact, they were willing to sacrifice quite a bit to have a thin team-mate. They would trade 11 IQ points—about 50% of the range of IQs available—for a colleague who was suitably slender.

In a second study the team asked another group, this time of students who were about to graduate, to consider hypothetical job opportunities at consulting firms. The positions varied in starting salary, location, holiday time and the sex of the potential boss.

When it came to salary, location and holiday, the students’ decisions matched their stated preferences. However, the boss’s sex turned out to be far more important than they said it was (this was true whether a student was male or female). In effect, they were willing to pay a 22% tax on their starting salary to have a male boss.

* * *

To read the entire article, including discussion of another fascinating experiment involving race, click here.

To read a related Situationist posts, see “Mispredicting Our Reactions to Racism,” “The Situation of Body Image,” Prejudice Against the Obese and Some of its Situational Sources,” Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!,” Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice,” Fitting in and Sizing up,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV.”

Posted in Food and Drug Law, Implicit Associations | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 16, 2009


Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of the Situationist news items of February 2009. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

* * *

From Boston Globe: “Aging has its benefits

“In the 1973 film “The Way We Were,” Barbra Streisand sings a haunting ballad about memories and aging. “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget,” the song goes.  Now, research suggests that the song was essentially right, and illustrates just how the brain manages to dismiss negative memories but retain the positive ones as we get older.” Read more . . .

From Calgary Herald: ‘Guilt by association’ unlikely: Study

“There’s good news for anyone still squirming over a friend’s bad dancing, excessive drinking or awkward conversation: There’s no egg on your face.  A new Canadian study that claims to be the first to examine “guilt by association” reveals that while people writhe with embarrassment when a friend commits a social faux-pas, onlookers don’t hold their associate’s behaviour against them.” Read more . . .

From CNN Health: Study: Experiences make us happier than possessions

“Even in tough economic times, you may find yourself with a bit of cash to spare. You’ve been working hard, and you want to treat yourself. Should you spend it on an experience, such as a baseball game or concert, or a material object?  Psychological research suggests that, in the long run, experiences make people happier than possessions.” Read more . . .

From Huffington Post: Obama and the Science of Altruism

“ Investigations in social psychology and neuroscience may support Obama’s ideas about people’s willingness to pitch in. By stirring the emotions of new voters while at the same time asking them for increased service to their country, he has tapped into a set of complementary ideas about human psychology: that empathy is a deeply ingrained human tendency, and that it leads naturally to a desire to help those we feel empathy for.” Read more . . .

From Live Science: “Study Reveals Why First Impressions Count

“Getting off on the wrong foot can doom a relationship before it begins, as we all know.  Now scientists have studied one reason why this is true. When a person makes a bad first impression, the negative feelings are harder to overcome than a betrayal that occurs after ties are established.” Read more . . .

From New York Times: “An Economist’s Mea Culpa

“How could the economics profession have slept so soundly right into the middle of the economic mayhem all around us? Robert J. Shiller of Yale University, one of the sage prophets, addressed that question in an earlier commentary in this paper. Professor Shiller finds an explanation in groupthink, a term popularized by the social psychologist Irving L. Janis. In his book “Groupthink” (1972), the latter had theorized that most people, even professionals whose careers ostensibly thrive on originality, hesitate to deviate too much from the conventional wisdom, lest they be marginalized or even ostracized..” Read more . . .

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll, Life, Positive Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Free Market Mindset – Conference

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 15, 2009


“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms. . . . I found a flaw . . . in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.”

~Alan Greenspan

* * *

The market collapse has brought not only financial crisis but a crisis of faith in what Ronald Reagan famously called “the magic of the market place.” If the current state of the U.S. economy makes clear that former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s faith in free markets was misplaced, the question remains: what was it about free markets that proved — and still continues to prove — so alluring to economists, scholars, and policy-makers alike?

THE FREE MARKET MINDSET: History, Psychology, and Consequences, the March 7 conference to take place at Harvard Law School, brings together leading scholars in law, economics, social psychology, and social cognition to present and discuss their research regarding the historical origins, psychological antecedents, and policy consequences of the free market mindset. Their work illustrates that the magic of the marketplace is partially an illusion based on faulty assumptions and outmoded approaches.

Confirmed participants include:

  • Anne Alstott (Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law  at Havard Law School),
  • James Cavallero (Executive Director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School),
  • Christine Desan (Professor of Law, Harvard Law School),
  • Jon Hanson (Alfred Smart Professor of Law, Harvard Law School),
  • Bernard E. Harcourt (Julius Kreeger Professor of Law and professor of political science, University of Chicago),
  • Sheena Iyengar (Professor, Management Division, Columbia Business School),
  • Douglas Kysar (Professor of Law, Yale University),
  • Gillian Lester is the Sidley Austin Professor of Law at Havard Law School
  • Stephen Marglin (Walter S. Barker Chair in the Department of Economics, Harvard University),
  • Jaime Napier (Ph.D student, Social Psychology, New York University),
  • Ben Sachs (Assistant Professor of Law, Harvard Law School),
  • Juliet Schor (Professor of Sociology, Boston College),
  • Barry Schwartz (Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action, Swarthmore College),

THE FREE MARKET MINDSET: History, Psychology, and Consequences promises to be an invigorating and illuminating discussion about the unexamined premises behind the policies that led to our current crises and about how we can avoid making the same kinds of mistakes in the future.

This event is free and open to the public.  To register or learn more details, go to the conference website, here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Events, History, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Public Policy, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Love

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 14, 2009

Time Magazine Cover - Science of RomanceThis post was first published on February 15, 2008 – here.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

* * *

As part of our our St. Valentine’s Day series, we offer some excerpts from an interesting article, titled “Why We Love,” by Jeffrey Kluger in a recent issue of Time Magazine. The article offers some possible situational explanations for love:
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The last time you had sex, there was arguably not a thought in your head. . . . [I]f it was that kind of sex that’s the whole reason you took up having sex in the first place–the out-of-breath, out-of-body, can- you-believe-this- is-actually-happening kind of sex–the rational you had probably taken a powder.Losing our faculties over a matter like sex ought not to make much sense for a species like ours that relies on its wits. A savanna full of predators, after all, was not a place to get distracted. But the lure of losing our faculties is one of the things that makes sex thrilling–and one of the very things that keeps the species going. As far as your genes are concerned, your principal job while you’re alive is to conceive offspring, bring them to adulthood and then obligingly die so you don’t consume resources better spent on the young. Anything that encourages you to breed now and breed plenty gets that job done.

But mating and the rituals surrounding it make us come unhinged in other ways too, ones that are harder to explain by the mere babymaking imperative. There’s the transcendent sense of tenderness you feel toward a person who sparks your interest. There’s the sublime feeling of relief and reward when that interest is returned. There are the flowers you buy and the poetry you write and the impulsive trip you make to the other side of the world just so you can spend 48 hours in the presence of a lover who’s far away. That’s an awful lot of busywork just to get a sperm to meet an egg–if merely getting a sperm to meet an egg is really all that it’s about.

Human beings make a terrible fuss about a lot of things but none more than romance. . . .

* * *

On its good days (and love has a lot of them), all this seems to make perfect sense. Nearly 30 years ago, psychologist Elaine Hatfield of the University of Hawaii and sociologist Susan Sprecher now of Illinois State University developed a 15-item questionnaire that ranks people along what the researchers call the passionate-love scale. Hatfield has administered the test in places as varied as the U.S., Pacific islands, Russia, Mexico, Pakistan and, most recently, India and has found that no matter where she looks, it’s impossible to squash love. “It seemed only people in the West were goofy enough to marry for passionate love,” she says. “But in all of the cultures I’ve studied, people love wildly.”

What scientists, not to mention the rest of us, want to know is, Why? What makes us go so loony over love? Why would we bother with this elaborate exercise in fan dances and flirtations, winking and signaling, joy and sorrow? “We have only a very limited understanding of what romance is in a scientific sense,” admits John Bancroft, emeritus director of the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Ind., a place where they know a thing or two about the way human beings pair up. But that limited understanding is expanding. The more scientists look, the more they’re able to tease romance apart into its individual strands–the visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, neurochemical processes that make it possible. None of those things may be necessary for simple procreation, but all of them appear essential for something larger. What that something is–and how we achieve it– is only now coming clear.

* * *

If human reproductive behavior is a complicated thing, part of the reason is that it’s designed to serve two clashing purposes. On the one hand, we’re driven to mate a lot. On the other hand, we want to mate well so that our offspring survive. If you’re a female, you get only a few rolls of the reproductive dice in a lifetime. If you’re a male, your freedom to conceive is limited only by the availability of willing partners, but the demands of providing for too big a brood are a powerful incentive to limit your pairings to the female who will give you just a few strong young. For that reason, no sooner do we reach sexual maturity than we learn to look for signals of good genes and reproductive fitness in potential partners and, importantly, to display them ourselves.

“Every living human is a descendant of a long line of successful maters,” says David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “We’ve adapted to pick certain types of mates and to fulfill the desires of the opposite sex.”

One of the most primal of those desires is that a possible partner smells right. Good smells and bad smells are fundamentally no different from each other; both are merely volatile molecules wafting off an object and providing some clue as to the thing that emitted them. Humans, like all animals, quickly learn to assign values to those scents, recognizing that, say, putrefying flesh can carry disease and thus recoiling from its smell and that warm cookies carry the promise of vanilla, sugar and butter and thus being drawn to them. Other humans carry telltale smells of their own, and those can affect us in equally powerful ways.

The best-known illustration of the invisible influence of scent is the way the menstrual cycles of women who live communally tend toNose Kiss synchronize. . . .

But how does one female signal the rest? The answer is almost certainly smell. Pheromones–or scent-signaling chemicals–are known to exist among animals, and while scientists have had a hard time unraveling the pheromonal system in humans, they have isolated a few of the compounds. One type, known as driver pheromones, appears to affect the endocrine systems of others. Since the endocrine system plays a critical role in the timing of menstruation, there is at least a strong circumstantial case that the two are linked. “It’s thought that there is a driver female who gives off something that changes the onset of menstruation in the other women,” says chemist Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

It’s not just women who respond to such olfactory cues. One surprising study published last October in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior showed that strippers who are ovulating average $70 in tips per hour; those who are menstruating make $35; those who are not ovulating or menstruating make $50. Other studies suggest that men can react in more romantic ways to olfactory signals. In work conducted by Martie Haselton, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA, women report that when they’re ovulating, their partners are more loving and attentive and, significantly, more jealous of other men. “The men are picking up on something in their partner’s behavior that tells them to do more mate-guarding,” Haselton says.

Scent not only tells males which females are primed to conceive, but it also lets both sexes narrow their choices of potential partners. Among the constellation of genes that control the immune system are those known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which influence tissue rejection. Conceive a child with a person whose MHC is too similar to your own, and the risk increases that the womb will expel the fetus. Find a partner with sufficiently different MHC, and you’re likelier to carry a baby to term.

Studies show that laboratory mice can smell too-similar MHC in the urine of other mice and will avoid mating with those individuals. In later work conducted at the University of Bern in Switzerland, human females were asked to smell T shirts worn by anonymous males and then pick which ones appealed to them. Time and again, they chose the ones worn by men with a safely different MHC. And if the smell of MHC isn’t a deal maker or breaker, the taste is. Saliva also contains the compound, a fact that Haselton believes may partly explain the custom of kissing, particularly those protracted sessions that stop short of intercourse. “Kissing,” she says simply, “might be a taste test.”

* * *

[We’ve omitted the articles summary of fascinating research on the way the birth-control pill can disable or distort some of those processes, the effect of how a potential partner looks and sounds, the possible interactions between those features, and the “trip-wire” effect of a kiss. We’ve also omitted the article’s summary of Helen Fisher’s research, which we’ve described in other posts.]

Love Gone Wrong

The problem with romance is that it doesn’t always deliver the goods. For all the joy it promises, it can also play us for fools, particularly when it convinces us that we’ve found the right person, only to upend our expectations later. Birth-control pills that mask a woman’s ability to detect her mate’s incompatible MHC are one way bad love can slip past our perimeters. Adrenaline is another. Any overwhelming emotional experience that ratchets up your sensory system can distort your perceptions, persuading you to take a chance on someone you should avoid.

Psychologist Arthur Aron of the State University of New York at Stony Brook says people who meet during a crisis–an emergency landing of their airplane, say–may be much more inclined to believe they’ve found the person meant for them. “It’s not that we fall in love with such people because they’re immensely attractive,” he says. “It’s that they seem immensely attractive because we’ve fallen in love with them.”

If that sounds a lot like what happens when people meet and date under the regular influence of drugs or alcohol, only to sober up later and wonder what in the world they were thinking, that’s because in both cases powerful chemistry is running the show. When hormones and natural opioids get activated, explains psychologist and sex researcher Jim Pfaus of Concordia University in Montreal, you start drawing connections to the person who was present when those good feelings were created. “You think someone made you feel good,” Pfaus says, “but really it’s your brain that made you feel good.”

Of course, even a love fever that’s healthily shared breaks eventually, if only because–like any fever–it’s unsustainable over time. Fisher sees the dangers of maladaptive love in fMRI studies she’s conducting of people who have been rejected by a lover and can’t shake the pain. In these subjects, as with all people in love, there is activity in the caudate nucleus, but it’s specifically in a part that’s adjacent to a brain region associated with addiction. If the two areas indeed overlap, as Fisher suspects, that helps explain why telling a jilted lover that it’s time to move on can be fruitless–as fruitless as admonishing a drunk to put a cork in the bottle.

Happily, romance needn’t come to ruin. Even irrational animals like ourselves would have quit trying if the bet didn’t pay off sometimes. middle-aged coupleThe eventual goal of any couple is to pass beyond serial dating–beyond even the thrill of early love–and into what’s known as companionate love. That’s the coffee-and-Sunday-paper phase, the board-games-when-it’s-raining phase, and the fact is, there’s not a lick of excitement about it. But that, for better or worse, is adaptive too. If partners are going to stay together for the years of care that children require, they need a love that bonds them to each other but without the passion that would be a distraction. As early humans relied more on their brainpower to survive–and the dependency period of babies lengthened to allow for the necessary learning–companionate bonding probably became more pronounced.

That’s not to say that people can’t stay in love or that those couples who say they still feel romantic after years of being together are imagining things. Aron has conducted fMRI studies of some of those stubbornly loving pairs, and initial results show that their brains indeed look very much like those of people newly in love, with all the right regions lighting up in all the right ways. “We wondered if they were really feeling these things,” Aron says. “But it looks like this is really happening.”

These people, however, are the exceptions, and nearly all relationships must settle and cool. That’s a hard truth, but it’s a comforting one too. Long for the heat of early love if you want, but you’d have to pay for it with the solidity you’ve built over the years. “You’ve got to make a transition to a stabler state,” says Barry McCarthy, a psychologist and sex therapist based in Washington. If love can be mundane, that’s because sometimes it’s meant to be.

Calling something like love mundane, of course, is true only as far as it goes. Survival of a species is a ruthless and reductionist matter, but if staying alive were truly all it was about, might we not have arrived at ways to do it without joy–as we could have developed language without literature, rhythm without song, movement without dance? Romance may be nothing more than reproductive filigree, a bit of decoration that makes us want to perpetuate the species and ensures that we do it right. But nothing could convince a person in love that there isn’t something more at work–and the fact is, none of us would want to be convinced. That’s a nut science may never fully crack.

* * *

To read the entire article, which we recommend, click here.

For related Situationist posts, go to “The Color of Sex Appeal,” “The Primitive Appeal of The Color Red,” The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “The Situation of Cupid’s Arrow,” “How System Threat Affects Cupid,” and “The Situation of Flirting.”

For a related recent USA Today article, see “Romantic sparks can take more than looks.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Life | Leave a Comment »

Resident Evil 5 and Racism in Video Games

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 13, 2009

resident-evil-5-imageHilary Goldstein of IGN has an interesting piece on possible evidence of racism in the upcoming video game Resident Evil 5, which will be sold for the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 and is expected to be one of the most popular games of the year.

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What’s drawing the ire of many outside the industry (and raising the eyebrows of some within it) is who you kill in Resident Evil 5 (“RE5”).

Set in Africa, your primary targets are native Africans. With the release of the first full RE5 trailer in 2007, numerous journalists and social commentators raised concern that RE5 depicted Africa as a nation of savages and that the game itself would reinforce unhealthy stereotypes. When Resident Evil 5 releases this March, those concerns won’t subside.

I’ve played the first half of RE5 and through those three chapters gamers spend a good majority of time shooting people with dark skin. There are moments that some will never connect with racism, but that others will see as clear use of racist iconography.

The game begins with Chris Redfield walking through an African village that appears uninfected. He sees some men kicking something in a sack. The implication is that even before the infection, these are bad people. If RE5 were set on another continent and these characters had white skin, no one would give it a second thought. Typical “village full of bad guys” gaming clich?. But these characters are black. And as such the imagery resident-evil-5can be perceived to have racist undertones. Later, there is a cutscene depicting a white woman being dragged into a house by an infected black man. In its recent hands-on, Eurogamer criticized this moment in particular for playing into traditional racist fear-mongering. To propagate fear of blacks from the time of slavery and through the Civil Rights movement in the United States, white society was warned that big black men are coming for your daughters.

Do these images and the fact that the core gameplay has you shooting black men and women make RE5 racist? The answer is going to vary greatly from one person to the next and, perhaps more significantly, from one region to the next. In Japan, for example, it’s unlikely that the events depicted in Resident Evil 5 will be viewed as racist in any way. Japan and other Asian nations never experienced centuries of racist oppression against blacks. In Europe and America, where racism continues to be an issue to this day, and where, less than two centuries ago, slavery was legal, the imagery will likely resonate more substantially.

* * *

The storyline, which has non-native white men experimenting on the African populace, is not much of a stretch. From 1932 to 1975, 400 African-Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama were unwillingly participants in a government study on the affects of syphilis. A 2005 Fortune Magazine article revealed that “Pfizer administered doses of its experimental drug Trovan to children [in Africa] without their parents’ consent.” There are numerous other documented incidents of pharmaceutical companies setting up shop in the poorest areas of Africa to conduct low-cost experiments. Is it racist for Resident Evil 5 to create a similar, fictionalized account?

* * *

For the rest of the article, click here.   For related Situationist posts, see “Encourage Your Daughters To Play Violent Video Games?,” “The Situation of First-Person Shooters,” “Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson,” and Michael McCann’s “The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Video Games.”

Posted in Entertainment, Implicit Associations, Life | 49 Comments »

The Primitive Appeal of The Color Red

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 12, 2009

redBelow we excerpt, in time for Valentine’s Day, a press release of an interesting new study linking red to sexual attraction.

* * *

A study by two University of Rochester psychologists published in Oct. by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology adds color — literally and figuratively — to the age-old question of what attracts men to women.

Through five psychological experiments, Andrew Elliot, professor of psychology, and Daniela Niesta, post-doctoral researcher, demonstrate that the color red makes men feel more amorous toward women. And men are unaware of the role the color plays in their attraction.

“It’s only recently that psychologists and researchers in other disciplines have been looking closely and systematically at the relationship between color and behavior. Much is known about color physics and color physiology, but very little about color psychology,” said Elliot. “It’s fascinating to find that something as ubiquitous as color can be having an effect on our behavior without our awareness.”

Although this aphrodisiacal effect of red may be a product of societal conditioning alone, the authors argue that men’s response to red more likely stems from deeper biological roots. Research has shown that nonhuman male primates are particularly attracted to females displaying red. Female baboons and chimpanzees, for example, redden conspicuously when nearing ovulation, sending a clear sexual signal designed to attract males.

“Our research demonstrates a parallel in the way that human and nonhuman male primates respond to red,” concluded the authors. “In doing so, our findings confirm what many women have long suspected and claimed — that men act like animals in the sexual realm. As much as men might like to think that they respond to women in a thoughtful, sophisticated manner, it appears that at least to some degree, their preferences and predilections are, in a word, primitive.”

* * *

The red effect extends only to males and only to perceptions of attractiveness. Red did not increase attractiveness ratings for females rating other females and red did not change how men rated the women in the photographs in terms of likability, intelligence or kindness.

* * *

For the rest of the press release, click here. For some related Situationist posts, see Coloring Situation,” The Color of Sex Appeal,” The Situation of Hair Color,” and “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.

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

A New Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 11, 2009

We are delighted to introduce a new Situationist Contributor: Professor Thomas Nadelhoffer.

Thomas Nadelhoffer was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He later earned degrees in philosophy from The University of Georgia (BA), Georgia State University (MA), and Florida State University (PhD). Since 2006, he has been an assistant professor of philosopy and a member of the law and policy faculty at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. During the upcoming year (2009-2010), he will be at the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind (U.C. Santa Barbara) as a MacArthur fellow in Law and Neuroscience.

Professor Nadelhoffer’s main areas of research include moral psychology, the philosophy of action, free will, punishment theory, and neurolaw. He is particularly interested in research at the cross roads of philosophy and the sciences of the mind. His articles have appeared in journals such as Analysis, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Mind & Language, Neuroethics, and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. He is also a contributing author to several other blogs such The Leiter Reports, The Garden of Forking Paths, and Experimental Philosophy. When not thinking about or teaching philosophy, he spend lots of time hanging out with his pack of dogs, climbing boulders and walls, and listening to indie rock.

Posted in Experimental Philosophy, Philosophy, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

The Situation of “Justice” in Tulia Texas

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 10, 2009

From PBS’s Independent Lens:

A lone undercover cop moves into a small farming town. By the end of the blazing summer of 1999, 46 people are arrested for selling cocaine—nearly all of them African American. It was heralded as one of the biggest drug busts in Texas history, until a team of lawyers set out to uncover the truth.

TULIA, TEXAS premieres Tuesday, February 10 on Independent Lens, a weekly series airing on PBS. Here’s the trailer.

Click here for more information about the documentary.

* * *

From “American Drug War – The Last White Hope,” a film by Kevin Booth – the John O’Neill Project Part 15:

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Jena 6 – Part I,” “Jena 6 – Part II,” “The Situational Demographics of Deadly Force – Abstract,” “The Situation of Capital Punishment – Abstract,” The Situation of Death Row,” “Why We Punish,” and “Black History is Now.”

Posted in Conflict, Law, Video | 2 Comments »

The Legal Brain

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 9, 2009

Brain CogsJohannes Haushofer and Ernst Fehr have a helpful review article, “The Legal Brain: How Does the Brain Make Judgments about Crimes?,” in Scientific American. Here’s an excerpt.

* * *

Imagine you are serving on a jury: the defendant is charged with murder, but he also suffers from a brain tumor that causes erratic behavior. Is he to be held responsible for the crime? Now imagine you are the judge: What should the defendant’s sentence be? Does the tumor count as a mitigating circumstance?

The assignment of responsibility and the choice of an appropriate punishment lie at the heart of our justice system. At the same time, these are cognitive processes like many others—reasoning, remembering, decision-making—and as such must originate in the brain. These two facts lead to the intriguing question: How does the brain enable judges, juries, and you and me to perform these tasks? What are the neural mechanisms that let you decide whether someone is guilty or innocent?

A recent study published in the December 2008 issue of the journal Neuron, by Joshua Buckholtz and his colleagues at Vanderbilt University tackles exactly this question. Until recently, such topics would have been out of the reach of cognitive neuroscience for lack of methods; today, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allows researchers to watch the brain “in action” as normal human participants make decisions about responsibility and punishment. In the new study, Buckholtz and colleagues asked participants to read vignettes describing hypothetical crimes that a fictitious agent, “John,” commits against another person. The stories were divided into three conditions: in the first, the “responsibility” (R) condition, the perpetrator was fully responsible for the negative consequences of his action against the victim; for instance, John might have intentionally pushed his fiancée’s lover off a cliff. In the “diminished responsibility” (DR) condition, mitigating circumstances were present that reduced John’s responsibility; imagine that John committed the same crime, but suffered from a brain tumor.

And finally, the “no crime” (NC) condition consisted of stories that did not describe crimes. The participants had to make judgments regarding the degree of punishment that John should receive, on a scale from one to nine.

The authors then analyzed the brain activation linked to these judgments. To identify neural correlates of responsibility, they contrasted activation in the R and DR conditions. Note that the stories in two conditions are identical, except for the degree to which John is responsible for his crime. This contrast thus aims to identify which regions of the brain are involved in assigning responsibility for a crime, holding constant the crime itself. Buckholtz and colleagues found a peak of activation in the right doroslateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC), a brain region on the top surface of the right frontal lobe that is known to be involved in high-level cognitive processes such as reasoning and decision-making. In addition, this same region was more active when subjects thought a diminished-responsibility crime deserved punishment compared with when it did not.

Thus, these findings suggest that rDLPFC might be involved in assigning responsibility for crimes, or making judgments about appropriate punishments. Based on this finding, one might have expected that activation in rDLPFC should be higher when participants decide that very severe punishments are appropriate. Buckholtz and colleagues found no correlation between neural activation and punishment magnitude in rDLPFC, however, suggesting that this brain region does not directly underlie the decision on the amount of punishment. In contrast, there was some evidence that activation in emotion-related areas, such as the amygdala, correlates with the degree of punishment subjects assign to John: higher punishment scores were associated with higher activation in these regions during the decision period.

Reconciling the Findings

Have we found, then, the brain center for jurisprudence? Probably not: the brain regions identified in this new study, in particular right DLPFC, have previously been highlighted in a number of other studies addressing related but slightly different questions. Unifying patterns do exist, however. We therefore first describe some related studies, and then outline a possible reconciliation between the different findings.

What does rDLPFC do when it isn’t busy assigning responsibility for crimes? One answer comes from a study by Alan Sanfey and colleagues in 2003: these authors found activation in rDLPFC when subjects decided whether to accept or reject a low offer in a two-person economic game called Ultimatum Game. In addition, Daria Knoch and her colleagues in 2006 found that when rDLPFC was deactivated with a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), participants became less able to reject low offers in this game, although they still judged these offers as very unfair. A different line of work by Joshua Greene and colleagues in 2004 suggests that rDLPFC may be involved in moral reasoning. They presented participants with moral dilemmas such as the decision whether or not to kill one’s own crying child to keep it raising the attention of enemy soldiers and thereby endangering the whole group. The rDLPFC region was activated when subjects acted in the interest of greater overall welfare, against their emotional impulses. Finally, rDLPFC was also highlighted by another study involving social decision-making by Manfred Spitzer and colleagues in 2007: these authors asked participants how much of their wealth they wanted to share with another player. This amount wasn’t very much, usually—unless participants were threatened with punishment. Under the punishment threat, participants transferred more money, and rDLPFC was more active. Moreover, the more subjects changed their behavior under the punishment threat relative to the situation without a threat, the more rDLPFC was activated, suggesting that rDLPFC played a key role in adapting behavior when facing the sanctioning threat.

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To read the rest of the article, including Haushofer and Fehr’s discussion of the “big picture,” click here.

For some related Situationist posts, see “Moral Psychology Primer,” The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “Smart People Thinking about People Thinking about People Thinking,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “Read My Brain – From Science Friday,” “Mapping the Social Brain,” and “The Science of Morality,”

Posted in Experimental Philosophy, Morality, Neuroscience | 2 Comments »

Coloring Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 8, 2009

In the International Herald Tribune, Pam Belluck has a nice summary of recent research indicating that colors matter in ways we probably don’t imagine.  Her article, titled “Accurate red, creative blue: Color counts, study says,” is excerpted below.

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Trying to improve your performance at work or kick-start that novel you want to write? Maybe it’s time to consider the color of your walls, or your screen saver.

If a new study is any guide, the color red can make people’s work more accurate, but blue can make them more creative.

In the study, published Thursday in the online edition of Science magazine, researchers at the University of British Columbia conducted tests with 600 participants to see how cognitive performance varies when people see red or blue. Participants performed tasks in which words or images were displayed against red, blue or neutral backgrounds on computer screens.

Red groups did better on tests of recall and attention to detail, like remembering words or checking spelling and punctuation. Blue groups did better on tests requiring invention and imagination: coming up with creative uses for a brick or creating toys from collections of shapes.

“If you’re talking about wanting enhanced memory for something like proofreading skills, then a red color should be used,” concluded Juliet Zhu, an assistant professor of marketing at the university’s business school, who conducted the studies with Ravi Mehta, a doctoral student. For “a brainstorming session for a new product or coming up with a new solution to fight child obesity or teenage smoking, then you should get people into a blue room.”

Whether color can color performance or emotions has long fascinated scientists – not to mention advertisers, sports teams and restaurateurs.

Consider the Olympic uniform study, in which anthropologists at Durham University in England found that athletes in the 2004 Olympics who wore red instead of blue in boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling won 60 percent of the time. The researchers suggested that red, for athletes, as for animals, subconsciously symbolizes dominance.

Perhaps a similarly primal effect was afoot in a 2008 study led by Andrew Elliot at the University of Rochester, in which men considered photographs of women on red backgrounds or wearing red shirts more attractive, although not necessarily more likeable or intelligent.

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In cognitive realms, experts say colors may affect performance because of the mood they transmit.

“When things go wrong or when you feel that the situation you are in is problematic, you are more likely to pay attention to detail, which helps you with processing tasks but interferes with creative types of things,” said Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. By contrast, “people in a happy mood are more creative and less analytic.”

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[I]n results that appear to align with the Science study’s theory that red makes people more cautious and detail-oriented, Elliot found that people shown red on a test cover before an IQ test did worse than those shown green or a neutral color, and also chose easier questions to answer. IQ tests require more problem-solving, similar to the creative questions that Zhu asked.

Zhu’s subjects, asked what red or blue made them think of, mostly said red represented caution, danger and mistakes, while blue symbolized peace and openness. Also, subjects unscrambled anagrams of “avoidance-related” words, like “danger,” faster with red backgrounds and unscrambled anagrams of positive “approach-related” words, like “adventure,” faster with blue backgrounds.

Besides testing cognitive performance, she also tested responses to advertising, finding that ads stressing “avoidance” qualities, like cavity prevention, or product details, appealed more on red backgrounds, while ads stressing optimistic qualities, like “tooth whitening,” or using creative designs, appealed more on blue.

Interestingly, when different participants were asked if they thought they would do better with red or blue, more people said blue for both detail-oriented and creative tasks. Maybe, Zhu said, that is because more people prefer blue to red.

The study, she cautioned, did not involve different cultures, like China, where red symbolize prosperity and luck. And it said nothing about mixing red and blue to make purple.

Also, Schwarz said, color effects can be outweighed by clear instructions – to be accurate or creative in a task – so color means more when a project can be approached either way.

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To read the entire article, click here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “The Color of Sex Appeal,” The Situation of Hair Color,” and “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Marketing | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

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