The Situationist

Archive for April, 2009

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 8, 2009


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

* * *

From Wired Science: “Religion: Biological Accident, Adaptation – or Both

Whether or not God exists, thinking about Him or Her doesn’t require divinely dedicated neurological wiring. Instead, religious thoughts run on brain systems used to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. The findings, based on brain scans of people contemplating God, don’t explain whether a propensity for religion is a neurobiological accident. But at least they give researchers a solid framework for exploring the question.” Read more . . .

From Guardian: “This column will change your life”

“You’re a reasonable, warm-spirited person. You sometimes get irritable, after a stressful day, when it’s raining and you forgot your umbrella, but who wouldn’t? That doesn’t make you an unpleasant person. It’s others who are irredeemably, intrinsically awful. (See also Sartre’s famous remark that “hell is other people, especially the ones who linger pointlessly at the cash machine for 45 seconds after withdrawing their money.”)  We think this way because we’re hypocrites, certainly – but also thanks to one of the most important phenomena in social psychology, the fundamental attribution error (FAE). In accounting for others’ behaviour, we chronically overvalue personality-based explanations, while undervaluing situational ones. “When we see someone else kick a vending machine for no visible reason, we assume they are ‘an angry person’,” writes Eliezer Yudkowsky at  “But when you kick the machine, it’s because the bus was late, your report is overdue, and now the damned machine has eaten your lunch money.” Read more . . .

From Huffington Post: “To Forgive, Correct the Fundamental Attribution Error”

“Willingness to forgive is dependent on our explanatory or attributional style, on why we think people do what they do. People are scientists by nature: when we observe an event, we attempt to make sense of it. Making sense of the world is adaptive, necessary for survival. The more we understand about the world, the safer we feel. Say we just had a meeting with a co-worker, and after the meeting is over, we observe the co-worker forcefully shut the door as she enters her office. Without a moment’s delay, almost automatically, we search for an explanation. And in doing so, we are limited to essentially two types of explanations for things that happen: we can either attribute the event to a force within the person (personal attribution), or to a force outside of the person (contextual attribution). ” Read more . . .


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Is The Fear of Being Afraid Leading to Violation of Federal Banking Law?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 7, 2009

obama-bush1In his first inaugural address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  The comment was made in the context of the worst economic crisis of the 20th Century, and perhaps of all time in the United States: the Great Depression, where unemployment rose to 25% and where, until the New Deal, there were minimal safety nets for those impacted by the crisis.

According to William Black, a law professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City, a former bank regulator, and author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, President Bush and now President Obama, along with their respective Treasury secretaries, Henry Paulson and Tim Geithner, have embraced that sentiment to justify the lending of tax dollars to distressed banks.  The gist of their concern, according to Black, is that persons with bank deposits will remove their money from banks if they fear the banks no longer have their deposits — a phenomenon that led to the Panic of 1907 and that FDIC insurance (which guarantees bank accounts up to $100,000) is supposed to prevent.

In an interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose, Black contends that the Bush/Obama lending violates federal banking law, specifically the Prompt Corrective Action Law, and that the federal government has worked with banks on trying to prevent the public from realizing that.  Here is a transcript of the interview, as excerpted on Daily Kos:

* * *

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, certainly in the financial sphere, I am. I think, first, the policies are substantively bad. Second, I think they completely lack integrity. Third, they violate the rule of law. This is being done just like Secretary Paulson did it. In violation of the law. We adopted a law after the Savings and Loan crisis, called the Prompt Corrective Action Law. And it requires them to close these institutions. And they’re refusing to obey the law.

BILL MOYERS: In other words, they could have closed these banks without nationalizing them?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, you do a receivership. No one — Ronald Reagan did receiverships. Nobody called it nationalization.

BILL MOYERS: And that’s a law?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: That’s the law.

BILL MOYERS: So, Paulson could have done this? Geithner could do this?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Not could. Was mandated—

BILL MOYERS: By the law.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: By the law.


WILLIAM K. BLACK: In the Savings and Loan debacle, we developed excellent ways for dealing with the frauds, and for dealing with the failed institutions. And for 15 years after the Savings and Loan crisis, didn’t matter which party was in power, the U.S. Treasury Secretary would fly over to Tokyo and tell the Japanese, “You ought to do things the way we did in the Savings and Loan crisis, because it worked really well. Instead you’re covering up the bank losses, because you know, you say you need confidence. And so, we have to lie to the people to create confidence. And it doesn’t work. You will cause your recession to continue and continue.” And the Japanese call it the lost decade. That was the result. So, now we get in trouble, and what do we do? We adopt the Japanese approach of lying about the assets. And you know what? It’s working just as well as it did in Japan.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Are you saying that Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury, and others in the administration, with the banks, are engaged in a cover up to keep us from knowing what went wrong?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Absolutely.


WILLIAM K. BLACK: Absolutely, because they are scared to death. All right? They’re scared to death of a collapse. They’re afraid that if they admit the truth, that many of the large banks are insolvent. They think Americans are a bunch of cowards, and that we’ll run screaming to the exits. And we won’t rely on deposit insurance. And, by the way, you can rely on deposit insurance. And it’s foolishness. All right? Now, it may be worse than that. You can impute more cynical motives. But I think they are sincerely just panicked about, “We just can’t let the big banks fail.” That’s wrong.


For additional analysis, click here.  For critical analysis of Black’s arguments, click here.  See also The 2009 PLMS Conference: The Free Market Mindset.

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

The Situation of Solitary Confinement

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 6, 2009

solitary-confinement-alcatrazAtul Gawande has a remarkable and important article, titled “Hellhole” in the most recent issue of The New Yorker.  In it, he examines some of the consequences of U.S. policy to hold “tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement” and it’s relationship with torture.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.

Children provide the clearest demonstration of this fact . . . .

* * *

. . . . [P]sychologists produced evidence of . . . deep and sustained damage in neglected and orphaned children. Hospitals were made to open up their nurseries to parents. And it became widely accepted that children require nurturing human beings not just for food and protection but also for the normal functioning of their brains.

We have been hesitant to apply these lessons to adults. Adults, after all, are fully formed, independent beings, with internal strengths and knowledge to draw upon. We wouldn’t have anything like a child’s dependence on other people, right? Yet it seems that we do. . . . [M]ankind has produced tens of thousands of human . . . [experiments], including in our prison system. And the picture that has emerged is profoundly unsettling.

Among our most benign experiments are those with people who voluntarily isolate themselves for extended periods. Long-distance solo sailors, for instance, commit themselves to months at sea. They face all manner of physical terrors: thrashing storms, fifty-foot waves, leaks, illness. Yet, for many, the single most overwhelming difficulty they report is the “soul-destroying loneliness,” as one sailor called it. . . .

The problem of isolation goes beyond ordinary loneliness, however. Consider what we’ve learned from hostages who have been held in solitary confinement—from the journalist Terry Anderson, for example, whose extraordinary memoir, “Den of Lions,” recounts his seven years as a hostage of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Anderson was the chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press when, on March 16, 1985, three bearded men forced him from his car in Beirut at gunpoint. . . . His captors drove him to a garage, pulled him out of the car, put a hood over his head, and bound his wrists and ankles with tape. For half an hour, they grilled him for the names of other Americans in Beirut, but he gave no names and they did not beat him or press him further. They threw him in the trunk of the car, drove him to another building, and put him in what would be the first of a succession of cells across Lebanon. He was soon placed in what seemed to be a dusty closet, large enough for only a mattress. Blindfolded, he could make out the distant sounds of other hostages. (One was William Buckley, the C.I.A. station chief who was kidnapped and tortured repeatedly until he weakened and died.) Peering around his blindfold, Anderson could see a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling. He received three unpalatable meals a day—usually a sandwich of bread and cheese, or cold rice with canned vegetables, or soup. He had a bottle to urinate in and was allotted one five- to ten-minute trip each day to a rotting bathroom to empty his bowels and wash with water at a dirty sink. Otherwise, the only reprieve from isolation came when the guards made short visits to bark at him for breaking a rule or to threaten him, sometimes with a gun at his temple.

He missed people terribly, especially his fiancée and his family. He was despondent and depressed. Then, with time, he began to feel something more. He felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, “The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There’s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.”

He was stiff from lying in bed day and night, yet tired all the time. He dozed off and on constantly, sleeping twelve hours a day. He craved activity of almost any kind. He would watch the daylight wax and wane on the ceiling, or roaches creep slowly up the wall. He had a Bible and tried to read, but he often found that he lacked the concentration to do so. He observed himself becoming neurotically possessive about his little space, at times putting his life in jeopardy by flying into a rage if a guard happened to step on his bed. He brooded incessantly, thinking back on all the mistakes he’d made in life, his regrets, his offenses against God and family.

His captors moved him every few months. For unpredictable stretches of time, he was granted the salvation of a companion—sometimes he shared a cell with as many as four other hostages—and he noticed that his thinking recovered rapidly when this occurred. He could read and concentrate longer, avoid hallucinations, and better control his emotions. “I would rather have had the worst companion than no companion at all,” he noted.

In September, 1986, after several months of sharing a cell with another hostage, Anderson was, for no apparent reason, returned to solitary confinement, this time in a six-by-six-foot cell, with no windows, and light from only a flickering fluorescent lamp in an outside corridor. The guards refused to say how long he would be there. After a few weeks, he felt his mind slipping away again.

“I find myself trembling sometimes for no reason,” he wrote. “I’m afraid I’m beginning to lose my mind, to lose control completely.”

One day, three years into his ordeal, he snapped. He walked over to a wall and began beating his forehead against it, dozens of times. His head was smashed and bleeding before the guards were able to stop him.

Some hostages fared worse. . . .

* * *

“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam—more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. . . .  A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.

And what happened to them was physical. EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.

* * *

. . . . This presents us with an awkward question: If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

* * *

The criteria for the isolation of prisoners vary by state but typically include not only violent infractions but also violation of prison rules or association with gang members. The imposition of long-term isolation—which can be for months or years—is ultimately at the discretion of prison administrators. One former prisoner I spoke to, for example, recalled being put in solitary confinement for petty annoyances like refusing to get out of the shower quickly enough. Bobby Dellelo was put there for escaping.

* * *
The prison administration gave Dellelo five years in the Departmental Disciplinary Unit of the Walpole prison, its hundred-and-twenty-four-cell super-maximum segregation unit.

Wearing ankle bracelets, handcuffs, and a belly chain, Dellelo was marched into a thirteen-by-eight-foot off-white cell. A four-inch-thick concrete bed slab jutted out from the wall opposite the door. A smaller slab protruding from a side wall provided a desk. A cylindrical concrete block in the floor served as a seat. On the remaining wall was a toilet and a metal sink. . . . A speaker with a microphone was mounted on the door. . . .

solitary-confinement2As in other supermaxes—facilities designed to isolate prisoners from social contact—Dellelo was confined to his cell for at least twenty-three hours a day and permitted out only for a shower or for recreation in an outdoor cage that he estimated to be fifty feet long and five feet wide, known as “the dog kennel.” . . .

* * *

“This is going to be a piece of cake,” Dellelo recalls thinking when the door closed behind him. Whereas many American supermax prisoners—and most P.O.W.s and hostages—have no idea when they might get out, he knew exactly how long he was going to be there. He drew a calendar on his pad of paper to start counting down the days. He would get a radio and a TV. He could read. No one was going to bother him. And, as his elaborate escape plan showed, he could be patient. “This is their sophisticated security?” he said to himself. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”

After a few months without regular social contact, however, his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. . . . After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again.

One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction. . . .

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.

Second, almost ninety per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,” compared with just three per cent of prisoners in the general population. Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with revenge fantasies.

* * *

. . . . Everyone’s identity is socially created: it’s through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.

. . . . As Haney observed in a review of research findings, prisoners in solitary confinement must be able to withstand the experience in order to be allowed to return to the highly social world of mainline prison or free society. Perversely, then, the prisoners who can’t handle profound isolation are the ones who are forced to remain in it. “And those who have adapted,” Haney writes, “are prime candidates for release to a social world to which they may be incapable of ever fully readjusting.”

* * *

[A]ll human beings experience isolation as torture.

* * *

Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.

* * *
Advocates of solitary confinement are left with a single argument for subjecting thousands of people to years of isolation: What else are we supposed to do? How else are we to deal with the violent, the disruptive, the prisoners who are just too dangerous to be housed with others?

* * *

I spoke to a state-prison commissioner who wished to remain unidentified. He was a veteran of the system, having been either a prison warden or a commissioner in several states across the country for more than twenty years. He has publicly defended the use of long-term isolation everywhere that he has worked. Nonetheless, he said, he would remove most prisoners from long-term isolation units if he could and provide programming for the mental illnesses that many of them have.

“Prolonged isolation is not going to serve anyone’s best interest,” he told me. He still thought that prisons needed the option of isolation. “A bad violation should, I think, land you there for about ninety days, but it should not go beyond that.”

He is apparently not alone among prison officials. Over the years, he has come to know commissioners in nearly every state in the country. “I believe that today you’ll probably find that two-thirds or three-fourths of the heads of correctional agencies will largely share the position that I articulated with you,” he said.

Commissioners are not powerless. They could eliminate prolonged isolation with the stroke of a pen. So, I asked, why haven’t they? He told me what happened when he tried to move just one prisoner out of isolation. Legislators called for him to be fired and threatened to withhold basic funding. Corrections officers called members of the crime victim’s family and told them that he’d gone soft on crime. Hostile stories appeared in the tabloids. It is pointless for commissioners to act unilaterally, he said, without a change in public opinion.

* * *

* * *

To read all of the compelling, chilling article, click here.  To listen to an excellent 5 minute NPR story and interview based on this story, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Why Torture? Because It Feels Good (at least to “Us”),” “The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “The Situation of Punishment,” “Why We Punish,” “The Situation of Death Row,” and “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors.”

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The Interior Situation of Intergenerational Poverty

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 5, 2009

Poverty Generations Stress - from Shavar's photostream, Flickr From The Economist, here are some excerpts of a summary of research exploring the interior situation of how poverty is passed from one generation to the next.

* * *

That the children of the poor underachieve in later life, and thus remain poor themselves, is one of the enduring problems of society. . . . But nobody has truly understood what causes it. Until, perhaps, now.

The crucial breakthrough was made three years ago, when Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania showed that the working memories of children who have been raised in poverty have smaller capacities than those of middle-class children. Working memory is the ability to hold bits of information in the brain for current use—the digits of a phone number, for example. It is crucial for comprehending languages, for reading and for solving problems. Entry into the working memory is also a prerequisite for something to be learnt permanently as part of declarative memory—the stuff a person knows explicitly, like the dates of famous battles, rather than what he knows implicitly, like how to ride a bicycle.

Since Dr Farah’s discovery, Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg of Cornell University have studied the phenomenon in more detail. As they report in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they have found that the reduced capacity of the memories of the poor is almost certainly the result of stress affecting the way that childish brains develop.

* * *

For all six [measures of stress], a higher value indicates a more stressful life; and for all six, the values were higher, on average, in poor children than in those who were middle class. Moreover, because Dr Evans’s wider study had followed the participants from birth, the two researchers were able to estimate what proportion of each child’s life had been spent in poverty. . . .

The capacity of a 17-year-old’s working memory was also correlated with [stress levels]. Those who had spent their whole lives in poverty could hold an average of 8.5 items in their memory at any time. Those brought up in a middle-class family could manage 9.4, and those whose economic and social experiences had been mixed were in the middle.

. . . Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg . . . were able [statistically] . . . to remove the effect of [stress levels] on the relationship between poverty and memory discovered originally by Dr Farah. When they did so, that relationship disappeared. In other words, the diminution of memory in the poorer members of their study was entirely explained by stress, rather than by any more general aspect of poverty.

* * *

That stress, and stress alone, is responsible for damaging the working memories of poor children thus looks like a strong hypothesis. It is also backed up by work done on both people and laboratory animals, which shows that stress changes the activity of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that carry signals from one nerve cell to another in the brain. . . .

Children with stressed lives, then, find it harder to learn. Put pejoratively, they are stupider. It is not surprising that they do less well at school, end up poor as adults and often visit the same circumstances on their own children.

. . . . The main reason poor people are stressed is that they are at the bottom of the social heap as well as the financial one.

Sir Michael Marmot, of University College London, and his intellectual successors have shown repeatedly that people at the bottom of social hierarchies experience much more stress in their daily lives than those at the top—and suffer the consequences in their health. Even quite young children are socially sensitive beings and aware of such things.

So, it may not be necessary to look any further than their place in the pecking order to explain what Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg have discovered in their research into the children of the poor. . . .

* * *

To read the entire article, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Rich Brains, Poor Brains?,” Jeffrey Sachs on the Situation of Global Poverty,” “The Situation of Financial Risk-Taking,” “The Situation of Standardized Test Scores,” and “Infant Death Rates in Mississippi.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Distribution, Education, Emotions, Life | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – February Part III

Posted by aferris on April 4, 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 Frontal Cortex: “The Color of Creativity

The brain is like a Swiss Army knife, stuffed full of different mental tools that are well suited to different situations. Sometimes, we want to flex the prefrontal cortex, and really exert our rational muscles. And then there are other situations (like picking a strawberry jam) where thinking too much can be a real problem, and we should rely instead of the subtle signals emanating from the emotional brain.” Read more . . .

From The Garden of Forking Paths: “Terminological Differences

Given the interest generated by Tamler’s recent post on free will skepticism, I thought I would try to keep the discussion going by posting something about a related issue that I have often found puzzling.  On the surface, it is obvious enough what distinguishes libertarians, on the one hand, from compatibilists, semi-compatibilists, and revisionists, on the other hand.  The later, unlike the former, believe that we could be free and/or morally responsible even if determinism were true.  Similarly, it is obvious enough what distinguishes libertarians from free will skeptics.  The former, unlike the later, believe that we are both free and desert-based responsible.Read more . . .

From Mind Hacks: “Hello, my name is Trouble

Time magazine has an interesting article on links between given names and behaviour, with a new study finding children with unpopular names are more likely to be get in trouble with the law. This doesn’t mean that being called an unusual name causes criminality – the article notes that boys with unpopular names are likelier to live in single-parent households and be poorer, which are also known to be linked to higher levels of offending.” Read more . . .

From Mind Hacks: “Reigning in the extended mind

Philosopher Jerry Fodor has written a sceptical and entertaining review of a new book on the extended mind hypothesis – the idea that that we use technology to offload our mental processes and that such tools can be thought of as extensions of the mind itself. The book in question is by fellow philosopher Andy Clark and is entitled Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension.”  Read more . . .

From We’re Only Human: “Try A Little Powerlessness

“Self-control is one of our most cherished values. We applaud those with the discipline to regulate their appetites and actions, and we try hard to instill this virtue in our children. Think of the slogans: Just say no. Just do it. We celebrate the power of the mind to make hard choices and keep us on course. But what if we can’t just do it? What if “it” is too difficult or our strategy for success is misguided? Is it possible that willpower might actually be an obstacle rather than a means to happiness and harmony? Can we have too much of a good thing?” Read more . . .

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

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The Bias of the Bar?

Posted by Adam Benforado on April 2, 2009

judicial-politicsIs the American Bar Association biased against conservatives?

In a March 30 article, the New York Times’ Adam Liptak (“Legal Group’s Neutrality Is Challenged,” March 30, 2009) provides evidence that the answer is “yes”:

[A] series of studies have found indications that liberal nominees do better in the [A.B.A. evaluation of judicial nominees] . . . than conservative ones.  The latest, to be presented next month at the Midwest Political Science Association, found evidence consistent with ideological bias.


“Holding all other factors constant,” the study found, “these nominations submitted by a Democratic president were significantly more likely to receive higher A.B.A. ratings than nominations submitted by a Republican president.”


* * *


The bar association says it does not consider ideology in its ratings, basing them only on professional competence, integrity and judicial temperament.  It is the third factor, one the association defines to include compassion, open-mindedness and commitment to equal justice under the law, that critics say leaves room for subjective judgments that may tend to favor liberals.

Given research on the powerful and unappreciated influence of ideology on human decision making, this critique seems quite plausible, but it is worth considering whether other mechanisms may also be at work.  It may not just be that measurements of “judicial temperament” “leave[] room for subjective judgments that may tend to favor liberals”; it may also be that the elements that define this factor—“compassion, open-mindedness and commitment to equal justice”—are ones that, objectively, liberals tend to score higher on than conservatives.

In their continuing work uncovering the cognitive and motivational differences between  conservatives and liberals, Situationist contributor John Jost and his colleagues have shown that conservatives tend to exhibit, among other things, greater discomfort with ambiguity, greater need for cognitive closure, and greater tolerance for inequality.

If “judicial temperament” were measured by “commitment to avoiding uncertainty; desire for closure, order, and structure; and commitment to affirming the status quo”—traits that we, as a society, might very well decide that we would like our members of the judiciary to exhibit—the research by Jost and his colleagues suggests that conservative nominees would receive considerably higher scores than liberals.

All of this implies that the reason that liberals are receiving higher ratings may have more to do with liberal and conservative proclivities and the choice of rating factors than with the biased application of neutral criteria.

Perhaps the discussion concerning A.B.A. ratings would be more productive if it shifted away from accusing the members of the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary of being “political” and, instead, focused on debating whether “compassion, open-mindedness and commitment to equal justice under the law” are the traits that we ought to seek in choosing our judges.

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Judicial Ideology – Abstract,””Naive Cynicism – Abstract,” The Situation of Judges,” 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.

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The Situation of April Fools’ Day

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 1, 2009

taco-bell-liberty-bellTaya Flores of the Journal and Courier has a timely piece on the pranking of others that so often take place each April 1st.   We excerpt her piece below.

* * *

April Fools’ Day is characterized by pulling pranks and playing jokes. While most experts and pranksters agree that it can be done in good fun, some say pranksters have to tread a fine line between pulling a comical prank that evokes laughter or committing a humiliating act that induces tears.

Jan Yager, friendship expert, speaker and author of “When Friendship Hurts…” and “Friendshift…” said pranks are not recommended.

She said people have to be careful today when it comes to pulling pranks — especially on electronic media. She advised against using April Fool’s Day as an opportunity to create fake electronic postings because a joke played in an electronic era might have dramatic and long-term consequences compared to the pre-electronic era.

“What one person might think of as a joke, the other might think is vicious or malicious,” she said.

  • * *

Steve Wilson, professor of communication at Purdue University, also said motivation needs to be taken into consideration when pranking someone.

“It could be beneficial to friendships if it’s to make someone laugh but to humiliate someone would probably have a negative impact,” he said.

He explained that in friendships people have expectations and some April Fools pranks can violate those expectancies.

Kip Williams, professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, said pranks can have positive effects on friendships.

He supported this argument by referring to a December 2008 New York Times article written by Dacher Keltner, a California psychology professor.

In the article, Keltner defended teasing as an essential mode of play where humans negotiate life’s ambiguities and conflicts.

“I think he had a good point,” Williams said.  Williams said good natured teasing has positive effects and is a way to bond with someone and shows one’s need for approval.  He said this idea can be easily applied to pranks or jokes, because they are a physical or visual version of teasing.

However, he said the line between beneficial pranks and harmful jokes is fuzzy and requires a mutual understanding of knowing where to stop before a prank becomes hurtful.

He added that another positive aspect to jokes is that they provide a sense of inclusion. He said if no one plays a joke on a person then that individual might feel left out.

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For the rest of the piece, click here.  For an amusing website on the Top 100 April Fool’s Day Hoaxes click here.  The photo above is from Taco Bell’s full-page ad appearing in the April 1, 1996 editions of several national dailies (e.g., New York Times, Washington Post).  The ad claimed that Taco Bell had purchased the Liberty Bell and planned to re-name it the Taco Liberty Bell.

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