The Situationist

Archive for September, 2009

The Situation of Metaphors

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 30, 2009

Hot TeaDrake Bennett had a superb article, “The surprising ways that metaphors shape your world,” in Sunday’s Boston Globe. Here are some excerpts.

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[W]hether they’re being deployed by poets, politicians, football coaches, or realtors, metaphors are primarily thought of as tools for talking and writing–out of inspiration or out of laziness, we distill emotions and thoughts into the language of the tangible world. We use metaphors to make sense to one another.

Now, however, a new group of people has started to take an intense interest in metaphors: psychologists. Drawing on philosophy and linguistics, cognitive scientists have begun to see the basic metaphors that we use all the time not just as turns of phrase, but as keys to the structure of thought. By taking these everyday metaphors as literally as possible, psychologists are upending traditional ideas of how we learn, reason, and make sense of the world around us. The result has been a torrent of research testing the links between metaphors and their physical roots . . . . Researchers have sought to determine whether the temperature of an object in someone’s hands determines how ”warm” or ”cold” he considers a person he meets, whether the heft of a held object affects how ”weighty” people consider topics they are presented with, or whether people think of the powerful as physically more elevated than the less powerful.

What they have found is that, in fact, we do. Metaphors aren’t just how we talk and write, they’re how we think. At some level, we actually do seem to understand temperament as a form of temperature, and we expect people’s personalities to behave accordingly. What’s more, without our body’s instinctive sense for temperature–or position, texture, size, shape, or weight–abstract concepts like kindness and power, difficulty and purpose, and intimacy and importance would simply not make any sense to us. . . .

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”The abstract way we think is really grounded in the concrete, bodily world much more than we thought,” says [Situationist Contributor] John Bargh, a psychology professor at Yale and leading researcher in this realm.

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George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and Mark Johnson, a philosophy professor at the University of Oregon, see human thought as metaphor-driven. But, in the two greatly influential books they have co-written on the topic, ”Metaphors We Live By” in 1980 and ”Philosophy in the Flesh” in 1999, Lakoff and Johnson focus on the deadest of dead metaphors, the ones that don’t even rise to the level of cliche. They call them ”primary metaphors,” and they group them into categories like ”affection is warmth,” ”important is big,” ”difficulties are burdens,” ”similarity is closeness,” ”purposes are destinations,” and even ”categories are containers.”

Rather than so much clutter standing in the way of true understanding, to Lakoff and Johnson these metaphors are markers of the roots of thought itself. Lakoff and Johnson’s larger argument is that abstract thought would be meaningless without bodily experience. And primary metaphors, in their ubiquity (in English and other languages) and their physicality, are some of their most powerful evidence for this.

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Inspired by this argument, psychologists have begun to make their way, experiment by experiment, through the catalog of primary metaphors, altering one side of the metaphorical equation to see how it changes the other.

Bargh at Yale, along with Lawrence Williams, now at the University of Colorado, did studies in which subjects were casually asked to hold a cup of either iced or hot coffee, not knowing it was part of the study, then a few minutes later asked to rate the personality of a person who was described to them. The hot coffee group, it turned out, consistently described a warmer person–rating them as happier, more generous, more sociable, good-natured, and more caring–than the iced coffee group. The effect seems to run the other way, too: In a paper published last year, Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey J. Leonardelli of the University of Toronto found that people asked to recall a time when they were ostracized gave lower estimates of room temperature than those who recalled a social inclusion experience.  [See video below, summarizing warm/cold study.]

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Similar results have proliferated in recent years. . . . Thomas Schubert, has also done work suggesting that the fact that we associate power and elevation (”your highness,” ”friends in high places”) means we actually unconsciously look upward when we think about power. Bargh and Josh Ackerman at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, in work that has yet to be published, have done studies in which subjects, after handling sandpaper-covered puzzle pieces, were less likely to describe a social situation as having gone smoothly. Casasanto has done work in which people who were told to move marbles from a lower tray up to a higher one while recounting a story told happier stories than people moving them down.

Several studies have explored the metaphorical connection between cleanliness and moral purity. . . .

To the extent that metaphors reveal how we think, they also suggest ways that physical manipulation might be used to shape our thought. In essence, that is what much metaphor research entails. And while psychologists have thus far been primarily interested in using such manipulations simply to tease out an observable effect, there’s no reason that they couldn’t be put to other uses as well, by marketers, architects, teachers, parents, and litigators, among others.

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We recommend reading Drake’s entire piece, here.   To read a sample of related Situationist posts, seeBargh and Baumeister and the Free Will DebatePart I & Part II” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Unclean Hands,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?,” “The Situation of Snacking,” “The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” and The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Implicit Associations, Marketing, Situationist Contributors | 2 Comments »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – August 2009, Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 29, 2009

blogosphere image

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

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From Neuronarrative: “Dishonesty and Emotion have a Stronger Link than We Think”

“We normally associate acting dishonestly with causing harm to others, but it’s also quite possible that a dishonest act can help someone, […].  Under what conditions we’re prone to act dishonestly to hurt or help another is what a new study in the journal Psychological Science investigated.” Read more . . .

From Orgtheory: “Framing Health Care Reform”

“The big problem with health care reform, as Surowiecki sees it, is that its proponents framed the reform as an attempt to cut costs. This framing automatically invoked the loss aversion biases of the general public. It didn’t help that reform opponents latched on to the bias and have milked it for all its worth.” Read more . . .

From Overcoming Bias: “Moral Rules Are To Check Power”

“Three recent papers from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology combine to tell an interesting tale:  We fundamentally care about outcomes, but have rule morality to keep powerful folks from doing bad things to the rest of us.  This is of course not a new idea, but new data offers new support.” Read more . . .

From PsyBlog: “Why Groups Fail to Share Information Effectively”

“In 1985 Stasser and Titus published the best sort of psychology study. Not only does it shine a new light on how groups communicate and make decisions, it also surprises, confuses and intrigues. Oddly, the results first look as if they can’t be right, then later it seems obvious they are right, then attention turns to what can be done about it.” Read more . . .


For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Credit Card Regulation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 28, 2009

Credit Card in IceSituationist Contributor Adam Benforado recently published the following op-ed, titled “Time to Rein in Tricks of the Financial Trade,” in Cap Times.

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I have a confession: I teach contract law, and I do not understand everything in my credit card agreement.

If business law professors are getting lost in the fine print of consumer financial products, we have a fundamental problem.

Back in the early 1980s, the average credit card contract filled up a single page. Today, a similar agreement runs to more than 30. These contracts are designed to maximize company profits by hiding costly traps for consumers in a dense forest of confusing provisions and mysterious words like “LIBOR” and “Cash Equivalent Transactions.”

It is no wonder that a 2006 study by the Government Accountability Office found that “the disclosures in the customer solicitation materials and card member agreements provided by four of the largest credit card issuers were too complicated” and that “many (credit card holders) failed to understand key aspects of their cards, including when they would be charged for late payments or what actions could cause issuers to raise rates.”

Credit card companies defend themselves by explaining that they fully disclose the terms and risks associated with their products, but it is not disclosure if you know that the other party is incapable of understanding the information you are conveying – and particularly if your profitability model is based on that person not understanding.

The situation is really no different than if credit card companies decided to print all of their U.S. contracts in Arabic instead of English. Yes, consumers would technically be given all of the relevant particulars about rates, balance calculations, and payment periods. However, just as here, companies would know that most consumers would not grasp the fundamental provisions of the agreements and that, as a result, the companies could get away with hiding plenty of underhanded – but highly profitable – tricks in the details.

The consumer financial products industry loves to talk about how it works tirelessly to cater to consumer choice, but these incomprehensible documents are a testament to the lack of choice under the current system. Dozens of critical decisions are dictated by the company with no input at all by consumers. Indeed, these contracts – whether credit card agreements, car loans, or mortgage papers – are filled with provisions that few if any rational consumers would choose if they had the option.

What customer would select a universal default provision, permitting a bank to increase interest rates even when that customer is meeting all of the terms of her credit contract? Who, in their right mind, would choose to have double-cycle billing, allowing companies to charge interest on money that a customer has already repaid? Who would elect to give the opposing party in an agreement the right to change the terms of the contract at any time, for any reason, while binding himself to follow every little detail?

The current system is not about maximizing customer choice; it is about maximizing profit while constraining choice. By strapping customers into contractual straightjackets, credit card companies can reach their hands into Americans’ back pockets without much effort at all. And that they do: for billions of dollars a year in ill-gotten interest payments, fees, and other credit charges.

So what is to be done?

We need a regulatory agency to protect our freedom of choice and to force companies to provide real disclosures – ones that everyone understands. Though it has not gotten much attention in the press, President Obama recently proposed just such an entity: a Consumer Financial Protection Agency charged with ensuring financial product safety.

Unifying and mending what is now a patchwork quilt of ineffectual, complicated, and contradictory regulations, the CFPA would have the power to set guidelines and monitor mortgages, car and payday loans, and credit card contracts. The agency would work to promote clear explanations of the real risks and costs of financial products in contracts that could be read in three or four minutes without the assistance of a lawyer or an MBA. With this newfound clarity, consumers could knowledgeably compare products and exercise real choice, allowing market competition to work effectively and allowing those honest and fair companies that currently don’t stand a chance to rise to the top.

Just as they have deceived consumers with legalese and fine print, industry representatives are now trying to muddy the waters for policymakers with convoluted arguments, faulty logic, and fear mongering. We must not lose sight of the truth: The CFPA is needed to protect the freedom and economic stability of hard-working American families.

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Financial Squeeze: Bad Choices or Bad Situations?” “The Situation of the American Middle Class,” “Are Debtors Rational Actors or Situational Characters?,” and “The Situation of College Debt” – Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Law, Marketing, Public Policy | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Change Blindness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 27, 2009

From Wikipedia:

In visual perception, change blindness is the phenomenon that occurs when a person viewing a visual scene apparently fails to detect large changes in the scene. For change blindness to occur, the change in the scene typically has to coincide with some visual disruption such as a saccade (eye movement) or a brief obscuration of the observed scene or image. When looking at still images, a viewer can experience change blindness if part of the image changes.

For an intriguing example of change blindness, check out the video below depicting an experiment by Daniel J. Simons and Chris Chabris.

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For a sample of  related Situationist posts see “‘The Grand Illusion’ — Believing We See the Situation,”Neuroscience and Illusion,” “Brain Magic,” Magic is in the Mind,”The Situation of IllusionThe Heat is On,” and The Situation of Climate Change,” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

Posted in Illusions, Video | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Social Neuroscience and the Study of Racial Biases

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 26, 2009

Social Neuroscience

From Eureka Alert:

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Overt expressions of bigotry are relatively infrequent, but current psychological research finds that racial biases often lurk in the unconscious mind, influencing behavior in subtle ways without one’s intent. Under a five-year, $834,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award, New York University Psychology Assistant Professor David Amodio is examining the dynamics of such unconscious, or “implicit,” racial associations, through research that aims to advance our basic understanding of how neural mechanisms of learning and memory function in social behavior. The award is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Amodio and his colleagues are conducting research that links emotional and conceptual (i.e., stereotyping) forms of implicit racial bias to different systems of learning and memory in the brain. By linking implicit bias to neural processes, he can apply knowledge from existing scholarship on how these systems learn and unlearn, and how they interact with mechanisms for cognition, emotion, and behavior, to obtain a novel perspective on the dynamics of racial prejudice.

Amodio’s research simultaneously addresses two critical sets of questions in cognitive neuroscience and social psychology: One, how are implicit associations in memory represented in the brain and expressed in social behavior?; and, two, how do non-conscious forms of prejudice and stereotyping operate in the mind and behavior, and how can their effects in society be reduced? The integration of ideas and methods from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience, exemplified in Amodio’s project, characterizes the emerging field of social neuroscience.

In conjunction with his research on the neural mechanisms of intergroup bias, Amodio’s award will support the development of a new program for training and research in social neuroscience at NYU, which will build on the university’s existing strengths in social psychology and neuroscience. As a young, but fast-growing field, this program will be among the first of its kind.

As part of the broader educational activities associated with the project, Amodio and his team will engage students and young researchers from underrepresented groups in science and discovery through school visits and opportunities for students to become involved in aspects of the research. The proposed work will capitalize on the vast diversity of New York City, which affords the unique opportunity to reach out to K-12 schools, colleges, and community groups in disadvantaged areas. As a whole, this integrated research and educational plan is designed to promote science and education while redressing racial discrimination.

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To visit the Social Neurosciene Lab webiste, click here.  To review other Situationist posts about neuroscience, click here, for those about implicit associations, click here.

Posted in Education, Emotions, Implicit Associations, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Posner on Keynes and the Economic Depression

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 25, 2009

John Maynard Keynes Time CoverJudge Richard Posner just published an essay, “How I Became a Keynesian” in the New Republic.  In it he describes how the economic depression led him to go back to read Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money and his new-found appreciation for Keynes and elements of Keynesianism.  Here are some excerpts.

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I knew that John Maynard Keynes was widely considered the greatest economist of the twentieth century, and I knew of his book’s extraordinary reputation. But it was a work of macroeconomics–the study of economy-wide phenomena such as inflation, the business cycle, and economic growth. Law, and hence the economics of law–my academic field–did not figure largely in the regulation of those phenomena. And I had heard that it was a very difficult book, which I assumed meant it was heavily mathematical; and that Keynes was an old-fashioned liberal, who believed in controlling business ups and downs through heavy-handed fiscal policy (taxing, borrowing, spending); and that the book had been refuted by Milton Friedman, though he admired Keynes’s earlier work on monetarism. I would not have been surprised by, or inclined to challenge, the claim made in 1992 by Gregory Mankiw, a prominent macroeconomist at Harvard, that “after fifty years of additional progress in economic science, The General Theory is an outdated book. . . . We are in a much better position than Keynes was to figure out how the economy works.”

We have learned since September that the present generation of economists has not figured out how the economy works. The vast majority of them were blindsided by the housing bubble and the ensuing banking crisis; and misjudged the gravity of the economic downturn that resulted; and were perplexed by the inability of orthodox monetary policy administered by the Federal Reserve to prevent such a steep downturn; and could not agree on what, if anything, the government should do to halt it and put the economy on the road to recovery. By now a majority of economists are in general agreement with the Obama administration’s exceedingly Keynesian strategy for digging the economy out of its deep hole. Some say the government is not doing enough and is too cozy with the bankers, and others say that it is doing too much, heedless of long-term consequences. There is no professional consensus on the details of what should be done to arrest the downturn, speed recovery, and prevent (so far as possible) a recurrence. Not having believed that what has happened could happen, the profession had not thought carefully about what should be done if it did happen.

Baffled by the profession’s disarray, I decided I had better read The General Theory. Having done so, I have concluded that, despite its antiquity, it is the best guide we have to the crisis.

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[The General Theory] is an especially difficult read for present-day academic economists, because it is based on a conception of economics remote from theirs. This is what made the book seem “outdated” to Mankiw–and has made it, indeed, a largely unread classic. (Another very distinguished macroeconomist, Robert Lucas, writing a few years after Mankiw, dismissed The General Theory as “an ideological event.”) The dominant conception of economics today, and one that has guided my own academic work in the economics of law, is that economics is the study of rational choice. People are assumed to make rational decisions across the entire range of human choice, including but not limited to market transactions, by employing a form (usually truncated and informal) of cost-benefit analysis. The older view was that economics is the study of the economy, employing whatever assumptions seem realistic and whatever analytical methods come to hand. Keynes wanted to be realistic about decision-making rather than explore how far an economist could get by assuming that people really do base decisions on some approximation to cost-benefit analysis.

The General Theory is full of interesting psychological observations–the word “psychological” is ubiquitous–as when Keynes notes that “during a boom the popular estimation of [risk] is apt to become unusually and imprudently low,” while during a bust the “animal spirits” of entrepreneurs droop. He uses such insights without trying to fit them into a model of rational decision-making.

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Posner’s essay is reviews many of Keynes’s arguments and insights and then concludes as follows.

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Although there are other heresies in The General Theory, along with puzzles, opacities, loose ends, confusions, errors, exaggerations, and anachronisms galore, they do not detract from the book’s relevance to our present troubles. Economists may have forgotten The General Theory and moved on, but economics has not outgrown it, or the informal mode of argument that it exemplifies, which can illuminate nooks and crannies that are closed to mathematics. Keynes’s masterpiece is many things, but “outdated” it is not. So I will let a contrite Gregory Mankiw, writing in November 2008 in The New York Times, amid a collapsing economy, have the last word: “If you were going to turn to only one economist to understand the problems facing the economy, there is little doubt that the economist would be John Maynard Keynes. Although Keynes died more than a half-century ago, his diagnosis of recessions and depressions remains the foundation of modern macroeconomics. His insights go a long way toward explaining the challenges we now confront. . . . Keynes wrote, ‘Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slave of some defunct economist.’ In 2008, no defunct economist is more prominent than Keynes himself.”

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In March of 2009, Judge Posner spoke at the Third Annual Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference, titled “The Free Market Mindset.”  In his talk, “A Failure of Capitalism,” Posner discussed his own explanation for the economic depression, informed by his then-recent reading of The General Theory.  You can watch a video of his talk here.  (Thanks to Goutam Jois for sending the link to Posner’s essay.)

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Situational Consequences of Uncertainty

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 24, 2009

FearThis spring, Situationist friend, Dan Gilbert published another illuminating and entertaining op-ed, titled What We Don’t Know Makes Us Nervous,” (New York Times, May 21, 2009).  Here’s an excerpt.

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Seventy-six years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took to the inaugural dais and reminded a nation that its recent troubles “concern, thank God, only material things.” In the midst of the Depression, he urged Americans to remember that “happiness lies not in the mere possession of money” and to recognize “the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success.”

“The only thing we have to fear,” he claimed, “is fear itself.”

As it turned out, Americans had a great deal more to fear than that, and their innocent belief that money buys happiness was entirely correct. Psychologists and economists now know that although the very rich are no happier than the merely rich, for the other 99 percent of us, happiness is greatly enhanced by a few quaint assets, like shelter, sustenance and security. Those who think the material is immaterial have probably never stood in a breadline.

Money matters and today most of us have less of it, so no one will be surprised by new survey results from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showing that Americans are smiling less and worrying more than they were a year ago, that happiness is down and sadness is up, that we are getting less sleep and smoking more cigarettes, that depression is on the rise.

But light wallets are not the cause of our heavy hearts. After all, most of us still have more inflation-adjusted dollars than our grandparents had, and they didn’t live in an unremitting funk. Middle-class Americans still enjoy more luxury than upper-class Americans enjoyed a century earlier, and the fin de siècle was not an especially gloomy time. Clearly, people can be perfectly happy with less than we had last year and less than we have now.

So if a dearth of dollars isn’t making us miserable, then what is? No one knows. I don’t mean that no one knows the answer to this question. I mean that the answer to this question is that no one knows — and not knowing is making us sick.

Consider an experiment by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who gave subjects a series of 20 electric shocks. Some subjects knew they would receive an intense shock on every trial. Others knew they would receive 17 mild shocks and 3 intense shocks, but they didn’t know on which of the 20 trials the intense shocks would come. The results showed that subjects who thought there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock were more afraid — they sweated more profusely, their hearts beat faster — than subjects who knew for sure that they’d receive an intense shock.

That’s because people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur. Most of us aren’t losing sleep and sucking down Marlboros because the Dow is going to fall another thousand points, but because we don’t know whether it will fall or not — and human beings find uncertainty more painful than the things they’re uncertain about.

But why?

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To find out, click here to read the entire op-ed.

Dan Gilbert will be speaking at Harvard Law School on Monday, October 19.  Stay tuned to the Situationist for further details.

For a sample of previous Situationist posts by or about Dan Gilbert and his work, see “Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Psychology,” “Something to Smile About,” “The Situation of Climate Change,” The Heat is On,” “Don’t Worry, But Don’t Be Happy, Either?,” “The Situation of Happiness,” “The Unlucky Irish: Celtics Fans and Affective Forecasting,” and “Conversation with Dan Gilbert.”

To review a collection of Situationist posts about the psychology of happiness, click here.

Posted in Distribution, Emotions, Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 23, 2009

Bomb ItAaron C. Kay, Danielle Gaucher, Jennifer M. Peach, Kristin Laurin, Justin Friesen, Mark P. Zanna, and Steven J. Spencer have recently published their article, “Inequality, Discrimination, and the Power of the Status Quo: Direct Evidence for a Motivation to See the Way Things Are as the Way They Should Be” (97 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 421– 434 (2009).  Here’s the abstract.

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How powerful is the status quo in determining people’s social ideals? The authors propose (a) that people engage in injunctification, that is, a motivated tendency to construe the current status quo as the most desirable and reasonable state of affairs (i.e., as the most representative of how things should be); (b) that this tendency is driven, at least in part, by people’s desire to justify their sociopolitical systems; and (c) that injunctification has profound implications for the maintenance of inequality and societal change. Four studies, across a variety of domains, provided supportive evidence. When the motivation to justify the sociopolitical system was experimentally heightened, participants injunctified extant (a) political power (Study 1), (b) public funding policies (Study 2), and (c) unequal gender demographics in the political and business spheres (Studies 3 and 4, respectively). It was also demonstrated that this motivated phenomenon increased derogation of those who act counter to the status quo (Study 4). Theoretical implications for system justification theory, stereotype formation, affirmative action, and the maintenance of inequality are discussed.

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In 2008, Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay presented some of research underlying that article at the Second Annual Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference at Harvard Law School.  Below you can watch videos of his presentation in three parts.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts see “Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?,” “Cheering for the Underdog,”The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III.”  To review all of the Situationist posts that discuss system justification motive, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – August 2009 Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 22, 2009

blogosphere image

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

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From Frontal Cortex: “Health Insurance”

“Why do people buy insurance? On the one hand, the act of purchasing insurance is an utterly rational act, dependent on the uniquely human ability to ponder counterfactuals in the distant future. What if my a fire destroyed my house? What if my new car got totaled? What if I get cancer and require expensive medical treatments? We take this cognitive skill for granted, but it’s actually profoundly rare.” Read more . . .

From Garden of Forking Paths: “Consciousness, control and responsibility”

“I thought Gardeners might have fun grappling with a recent paper by Christopher Suhler and Patricia Churchland, […]. They argue against what they call the “Frail Control” hypothesis advanced by philosophers such as John Doris, which has it that people are far less in control than they suppose, given the influence of unconscious situational factors (lots of experimental data on this). Instead, Suhler and Churchland say that we should expand our notion of responsibility-conferring control to include unconscious and automatic processes, which they point out are robust, ubiquitous, “smart,” and essential for effective behavior.” Read more . . .

From Mind Hacks: “Placebo has strength in numbers”

“The term ‘placebo effect’ is used to refer to two things in the medical literature. The first is a statistical concept and it refers to the improvement in patients given an inactive treatment in a drug trial in comparison to those given the actual drug. The second is a psychological concept and it refers to improvement due to expectancy and belief. If you’re not sure how these are different, you may be surprised to learn that you don’t need a mind to demonstrate the placebo effect – in fact, even rocks can show it.” Read more . . .

From Neuronarrative: “I Must Be Guilty – the Video Says So”

“A minor landslide of research from the past few years points to a dismaying fact about memory — it can be manipulated, far more often and extensively than previously thought. One implication of this realization is that eyewitness testimony, a stanchion of our criminal justice system, is no longer beyond reproach. Another is that in a world dominated by endlessly plyable electronic media, you can never be 100% sure that what you’re seeing is what really happened.” Read more . . .

From Neuronarrative: “Judgments Get Heavy When Weight is on Your Mind”

“Over the course of multiple experiments, researchers investigated whether judgments of importance are tied to an experience of weight.” Read more . . .


For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click here.

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

Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!

Posted by J on September 21, 2009

[This post was first published in October of 2007.]

Several weeks ago, as part of its much lauded “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty,” Unilever released “Onslaught,” a video (above) examining disturbing images of women in beauty-industry advertising. The video ends with this admonition to parents: “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.”

Dove Self-Esteem Page ImageIt’s a powerful video with a disturbing collection of images. The situation of our daughters — and, by the way, our sons — seems both overwhelming and diabolical. Read the comments about the film on the Dove website discussion board, and you can feel the love and gratitude that viewers, particularly mothers, feel toward Dove for this film.

Skimming the first ten comments, one finds these reviews and remarks:

“This is a POWERFUL little film for sure”; ” I love the message behind the Dove movies/ads”; “I applaud Dove once again”; ” I think this film is wonderful!”; “I applaud Dove for launching their campaign of what beauty really is”; “Kudos to DOVE for taking a stand”; “My reaction to ‘Onslaught’ is that I want to cry”; and “Thank you for launching this campaign as it is way overdue.”

There’s a problem that is easily lost when one contemplates the impressive production that “Onslaught” represents and the possibility that at least some corporations just may be our friends — the kind of friend who cares about our kids and who we can trust to help teach our children the valuable messages about what “real beauty” is and about the traps and dangers of our shared environment.

No, there are actually several problems.

Onslaught ImageTo begin with, although Dove claims to “provide[] a refreshingly real alternative for women who recognise that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes,” even the Dove models seem to fit quite comfortably within a slightly expanded perimeter of conventional conceptions of beauty. The young girls, for instance, who represent “our children” in the film “Onslaught” are exceptionally attractive children even by commercially influenced cultural standards.

The same is true for the models in the Real Beauty campaign — yes, there is variety, but the variety is measured in small deviations around an average that is itself only a tiny enlargement of the single standard of beauty given to us by those other beauty products. In other words, Dove’s claim that beauty comes in “all shapes and sizes” seems to mean that beauty comes in “a few more shapes and sizes — particularly if the women are laughing and playing together in their underwear.”

Dove Models Real Beauty Campaign

What is the implicit message to those girls and women who don’t measure up to even the “lowered” Dove standard? And what is the message of these particular images — where groups of young women reveal their “inner beauty” by standing in their underwear touching, rubbing, and giggling?

There may be another even more troubling feature of these ads. Telling parents to “talk to [their] daughters before the beauty industry does,” is equivalent to telling parents to teach their children how to float in thin air before gravity gets to them. The beauty industry “talks” to our children either directly or indirectly at virtually every waking moment, and, I suspect, during many of our children’s dreams. If you don’t agree, just watch “Onslaught” again. Those images set the beauty standard not simply for the young girls who strive to slim down and measure up, but also of their friends and families and society at large. Those cultural expectations and pressures enmesh our children even when the ads and posters are briefly out of sight.

Parents fortunate enough to have the time, energy, and resources to “talk to their children” meaningfully and consistently about “real beauty” might be able to hold their children up against the force of gravity for a brief spell. Eventually, though, the “onslaught” of commercial images and messages will take its toll. After all, the barrage is incessant, multidirectional, and credible. Existing beauty standards matter in the lives of those who do, and those who do not, meet them. A parent’s words are among the least frequent, least credible, and least relevant words that their adolescent children will hear, particularly when it comes to questions of beauty and social acceptance among their peers. In fact, by even focusing on the problematic standards of beauty that their children face, parents risk underscoring and strengthening the power of that standard.

Ideas for Moms and Mentors Websiste ImageThe “Onslaught” video may itself have that effect by bringing into relief the current unforgiving and unrealizable standard of beauty that now dominates our culture. Thus, while the “Onslaught” video urges parents to “talk to your daughters,” it probably should add “but don’t show them this video” which all-too-clearly highlights the undernourished and oversexualized prototypes of “beauty.”

A parent’s task is made that much more difficult by the fact that commercial marketing is not simply teaching our children about the importance and meaning of “beauty,” it is also pitting parents and kids against one another — from encouraging children to “nag” for more stuff to undermining the credibility and authority of parental limits or advice. (For fascinating and detailed accounts of the consumerist kidnapping, you can read Susan Linn’s Consuming Kids or Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy — if time permits, both are worth reading. For an excellent website covering these topics, visit the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.)

Do not misunderstand: I accept that some parents may be able to make some difference — or, as a parent of three, I hope that is true. My point is that parents are competing against a force that is far larger than any one of us, a force not of our choosing.

As Cornel West and Sylvia Ann Hewlett have written:

[S]imply heaping blame on overburdened moms and dads will not solve our problems. Modern-day mothers and fathers, like those before them, struggle to put children at the center of their lives. But major impediments and obstacles stand in their way, undermining their most valiant efforts. From early in the morning till late at night, America’s parents are battered by all kinds of pressures, most of which are not of their making.

It seems peculiar, therefore, that Dove would offer a film demonstrating the ubiquitous attack of the beauty industry that ends with the suggestion to parents that they are the ones to make a difference by simply talking to their kids. If the industry is the problem, it strikes me as odd that the parents are supposed to be the solution.

“Peculiar?” “Odd?” Maybe the word “suspicious” is a better fit. Telling parents to talk to their children is not unusual as a public relationsPhilip Morris Talk to your Kids; They’ll Listen strategy. For instance, Philip Morris, among other companies, has long been pushing that message in its “public service” ads, particularly since the industry began to face a real threat of tort liability in the 1990s. The message seems public-spirited, but most industry analysts believe that Philip Morris is delivering, not a public-service message to parents, but a responsibility-shifting message to the public: kids smoke because of uninvolved or irresponsible parents, not because of anything that Philip Morris has done. (For a discussion of how the fast food industry has engaged in similar attribution-shifting tactics, you can link to an article by Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, David Yosifon, and me by clicking here.)

To add to my suspicions, many of the comments on the Dove website indicate that those who watch the video are concluding that the problem created by the beauty industry should be solved by parents — as if the industry conduct is immutable and the key variable to protecting our children is the presence or absence of good parenting.

Here is a sample of comments — again, from the first ten on the Dove website discussion page:

“I do NOT condone the way a lot of families allow their children to become obese”; “[S]hame on their parents for letting this affect their child”; “The media is not totally to blame”; “I do believe that it is the job of the parent to their daughters. I have read articles describing girls at 16 and younger getting plastic surgery and breast augmentation. What’s wrong with those parents??”; “it all starts in the home and with the kind of role model a mother is to her daughter”; and “I do agree that it is up to parents to educate children about what is right and what is wrong.”

If Dove were attempting to shift responsibility to parents for the “beauty” preoccupation of adolescent girls, it seems to be working. But, still, why would Dove do that?

One plausible answer is that they wouldn’t. Dove is selling soap, not tobacco. Any suspicions that one might have about the Philip Morris campaign do not translate easily to the message of the “Onslaught” video. To be sure, Dove may be criticizing the rest of the beauty industry and its standards to maximize its own profits; expressing concern (genuine or not) about our children might be a saavy route to getting our dollars. Selling “real beauty” instead of “commercialized beauty” seems a brilliant strategy for distinguishing Dove products form those of its competitors and for attracting that group of consumers who fancy themselves beautiful, but who want to reject the standards of “unreal beauty” set by those other beauty product ads. The returns indicate that this plus-sized marketing strategy has been immensely profitable. But that sort of profit-seeking does not seem particularly nefarious. As one commenter on the Dove website puts it:dove-model.jpg

“Good for Dove to tackle the ‘real beauty’ of women. As a former, public relations professional it’s hard for me not to be cynical of the company’s dollar-driven agenda, but I’m moved by the campaign and hopeful that others will follow suit in responsible social marketing.”

If it’s profitable for Dove to push meekly against the tide of commercial messages, more power to them, right? Philip Morris, in contrast, is attempting to shift blame that otherwise would be placed on them through law suits, legislation, and regulation or through reduced consumption by an angry public. Dove does not face those potential costs or public relations problems, so why would they want to shift responsibility from the beauty industry toward parents?

The second plausible answer is more troubling.

Dove is not, as most people seem to imagine, a company devoted to helping parents and their children in their battles against the polluting and quasi-pornographic images and messages of commercialized beauty products. Dove is not a person, and Dove is not a friend.

vaseline-ad.jpgDove is a brand — one member of a “family” of brands owned by the company Unilever. If Dove were a person, then, Unilever would be its parent. And, in light of that relationship, the question is, not whether Dove would have an incentive to shift responsibility to parents for the practices of the beauty industry, but whether Unilever would. Is Unilever acting responsibly by doing its part to stem the “onslaught”? If not, is it possible that that is because Unilever has the same sort of incentive that Big Tobacco has for shifting responsibility to others for the consequence of their own culpable conduct?

When one gives some thought to that question, the “real beauty” campaign begins to look a little ugly.

Unilever, as a company, seems uninterested in expanding our conceptions of beauty, much less in helping parents confront the problem of beauty-industry marketing. Unilever is not part of the solution; in fact, Unilever — one of the largest manufacturers of cosmetics, skin lighteners, diet products, and the like — may be one of the worst offenders.

A previous Situationist post has already detailed some of the ways that Unilever helps to set and reinforce harmful beauty standards with its products and marketing. (See “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.”) But there is more to say . . . or show.

In fact, the cascade of objectifying images in the “Onslaught” video seem surprisingly tame when compared to some of the actual ads for other Uniliver products. Consider, for example the following two ads for Lynx body spray, a male deodorant that seems to promise more than just deodorizing (indeed, the product slogan is “Spray More. Get More”):

According to the Dove website, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is a global effort that is intended to serve as a starting point for societal change and act as a catalyst for widening the definition and discussion of beauty.” Apparently Unilever has a different global vision. To learn more about the global “Lynx Effect,” check out this ad:

Unilever’s other body spray, Axe, is no better, as the following videos illustrate:

What are those ads if not an onslaught? The Dove website explains that “the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve.” Elsewhere, the website describes the pressure on young women this way:

“The comparisons are non-stop, especially among girls who see rich, beautiful young women in the media and want to be just like them. Dissatisfaction with body image increases as girls move into adolescence, according to a 2000 study by the Girl Scout Research Institute. Although 75 percent of 8- and 9-year-old girls in the study said they like their looks, only 56 percent of those ages 12 and 13 did. And of the 33 percent of girls ages 14-17 who said they’re too fat, two-thirds were dieting. Ninety percent of eating disorders are diagnosed in girls.”

Ummm. Good point.

But if the problem is sexualized stereotypes and unhealthy body types, then why is Dove telling parents to “talk to their kids before the beauty industry does”? Shouldn’t Dove be talking to its parent about not talking to our kids? Why would we applaud the arsonist when he passes out pamphlets on how to fight fires? Why buy mousetraps from the same person who dumped rodents into our basement? Should we not judge Dr. Jekyll in part by the sins Mr. Hyde?

If Dove cares about “real beauty,” it should start at home. If Unilever doesn’t care about “real beauty” it should stop getting rich off the illusion that it does. And if the beauty industry is the source of the onslaught, then Unilever, through Dove advertising, should not be permitted to blame the victims for its own contribution to that attack.

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Situationist friend and legal scholar Tamara R. Piety has recently written an outstanding law review article that, among other things, discusses and further develops some of the themes highlighted in this post.  Her article , titled “Onslaught: Commercial Speech and Gender Inequality,” is forthcoming in Case Western Law Review (2009).  The abstract is as follows.

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Utilizing Dove’s infamous “Onslaught” viral ad, this Article explores the ways in which commercial speech constructs images of and attitudes toward women that interfere with full equality for women. Advertising and marketing contribute to creating a social reality in which it is taken for granted that women must spend a great deal of time on appearance and that appearance is of critical importance to life success. As is typical for much advertising, it does this by stimulating anxiety. Such anxiety contributes to low self- esteem, lowered ambitions and stereotype threat reactions, as well as to biased reactions on the part of others. Harms such as these are often justified on the basis of the right of the speaker to participate in public debate or in the public’s right to receive advertising “information.” The Dove ad itself, however, illustrates the problem in locating a “speaker” for commercial speech and raises questions about the nature of the “information” provided by advertising. Because commercial speech lacks an author with moral interests and because it only has informational value when it is true, this Article presents an argument that women’s interest in equality and freedom from harm should outweigh the commercial interests of the speakers, at least to the extent that commercial speech be denied any First Amendment protection beyond that already extended to truthful speech.

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To download Piety’s article for free, click here.

For a previous Situationist post highlighting some of the uglier beauty messages of Unilever, see “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.” For a post discussing the situational causes and consequences of beauty, see “Survival of the Cutest.” For a sample of other related Situationist posts, check out “The Marketing Situation of Children,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” “Prejudice Against the Obese and Some of its Situational Sources,” “Spas and Girls,” and “Fitting in and Sizing up.”

To read a New York Times article discussing the seeming contradiction in Unilever’s marketing strategies, click here. To read a Los Angeles Times article on the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s criticism of the Unilever contradiction, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Life, Marketing, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Fiery Cushman at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 20, 2009

SALMS Logo Small 2 for WebsiteTomorrow (Monday, September 21), the Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) at Harvard Law School is hosting a talk, titled “Outcome vs. Intent: Which Do We Punish and Why?,” by Professor Fiery Cushman. The abstract for the talk is as follows:

Sometimes people cause harm accidentally; other times they attempt to cause harm, but fail. How do ordinary people treat cases where intentions and outcomes are mismatched? Dr. Cushman will present a series of studies suggesting that while people’s judgments of moral wrongness depend overwhelmingly on an assessment of intent, their judgments of deserved punishment exhibit substantial reliance on accidental outcomes as well. This pattern of behavior is present at an early age and consistent across both survey-based and behavioral economic paradigms. These findings raise a question about the function of our moral psychology: why do we judge moral wrongness and deserved punishment by different standards? Dr. Cushman will present evidence that punishment is sensitive to accidental outcomes in part because it is designed to teach social partners not to engage in harmful behaviors and because teaching on the basis of outcomes is more effective than teaching on the basis of intentions.

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The event will take place in Hauser 104 at Harvard Law School, from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.  For more information, e-mail

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “John Darley on ‘Justice as Intuitions’ – Video,” “The Situation of Punishment in Schools,” Why We Punish,” “Kevin Jon Heller on The Cognitive Psychology of Mens Rea,” Mark Lanier visits Professor Jon Hanson’s Tort Class (web cast),” and “Situationist Torts – Abstract.”

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

The Legal Situation of the Underclass

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 19, 2009

A StoryDavid Ray Papke, has posted his recent paper, “Law, Legal Institutions, and the Criminalization of the Underclass” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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The contemporary underclass is defined not by race but rather by its weak or nonexistent ties to the labor market. Members of the underclass are more likely to be labeled as criminals than are any other members of society. The process is not a tightly coordinated conspiracy, but in various ways police, prosecutors, and jailers routinely deem members of the underclass to be nefarious lawbreakers. While in many cases underclass men and women have committed acts that justify this perception, the criminal justice system as a whole is too eager and too hasty to attach the criminal label to members of the underclass. What’s more, law and legal institutions contribute to an even broader process of criminalization, one which assumes the entire underclass is criminal. This criminalization of the underclass dooms members of the underclass to be outsiders in American life and becomes a central and powerful premise in the general framework of sociopolitical thought.

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To download the paper for free, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “A Situationist View of Criminal Prosecutors,” “Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,”The Situation of Criminality – Abstract,” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “The Racial Situation of Criminal Juries and the Consequences,” “The Situation of “Justice” in Tulia Texas,” Jena 6 – Part I,” and “Jena 6 – Part II.”

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

Placebo and the Situation of Healing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 18, 2009

placeboFrom Youtube:

Featuring members of the the Harvard Placebo Study Group, “Placebo: Cracking the Code” examines the power of belief in alleviating pain, curing disease, and the healing of injuries.

The placebo effect is a pervasive, albeit misunderstood, phenomenon in medicine. In the UK, over 60% of doctors surveyed said they had prescribed placebos in regular clinical practice. In a recent Time Magazine article, 96% of US physicians surveyed stated that they believe that placebo treatments have real therapeutic effects.

Work on the placebo effect received an intellectual boost when the Harvard Placebo Study Group was founded at the beginning of 2001. This group is part of the Mind-Brain-Behavior Initiative at Harvard University, and its main characteristic is the interdisciplinary approach to the placebo phenomenon. The group is made up of 8 members: Anne Harrington (Historian of Science at Harvard), Howard Fields (Neuroscientist at Univ. of California in San Francisco), Dan Moerman (Anthropologist at Univ. of Michigan), Nick Humphrey (Evolutionary Psychologist at London School of Economics), Dan Wegner (Psychologist at Harvard), Jamie Pennebaker (Psychologist at Univ. of Texas in Austin), Ginger Hoffman (Behavioral Geneticist at Harvard) and Fabrizio Benedetti (Neuroscientist at Univ. of Turin). The main objective of the group is two-fold: to devise new experiments that may shed light on the placebo phenomenon and to write papers in which the placebo effect is approached from different perspectives.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Dan Ariely on the Situation of Expectation,”The Situation of Perceptions,” “January Fools’ Day,” “Brainicize: The Situational Malleability of our Brains,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” and “Brainicize: The Situational Malleability of our Brains.”

Posted in Food and Drug Law, Illusions, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Situationism and Other Interdisciplinary Approaches

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 17, 2009

Barbed Wire BoundaryInterdisciplinary research is on the rise and is itself increasingly a topic of discussion and study.  At this year’s Association for Psychological Science (APS) annual conference, for instance, Situationist Contributors Geoff Cohen and Jon Hanson participated in a symposium titled “Psychology as a Hub Science II: Navigating Early Career Interdisciplinary Collaboration.”

In the last issue of APS’s Observer, Eric Jaffe has a terrific article, titled “Crossing Boundaries: The Growing Enterprise of Interdisciplinary Research.” Here’s the introduction.

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Anyone who followed this past election season — and, considering the voter turnout records, that’s pretty much everyone — no doubt grew familiar with, and likely a bit tired of, each candidate’s avowed mission of “reaching across the aisle.” Almost immediately upon winning the presidency, Barack Obama set out to do just that, inviting a handful of Republicans to a Super Bowl party. Still he was able to rally only meager cross-party support for his historic stimulus bill, failing, in some eyes, to validate his call for a bipartisan era — which in turn prompted The New Yorker to point out that eight days in office was, after all, “a tight schedule for era-delivering.”

In the sciences, the era of interdisciplinary study has been delivering for some time. The past 50 years have seen researchers engaged in their own version of aisle reaching, extending a hand or a methodology or a graduate student across campus and, in some cases, across the globe, to advance some form of basic understanding. A recent National Academy of Sciences committee, charged with summarizing the state of scientific study across disciplines, reeled off an impressive list of achievements, from genome sequencing to neuroimaging to the Manhattan Project.

Psychologists have not been strangers to this trend. Rather, they have been in the vanguard, according to a paper published in Science (Wuchty, 2007). In the second half of the 20th century, the average size of a psychology research team increased 75 percent — the top rate of increase among social sciences.

As research teams have expanded, their composition has diversified. Economists and political scientists, in particular, have teamed with psychologists at a progressive rate, the Science authors found. More importantly, the citation impact of these larger teams seems to have increased with their added size and breadth. This heightened influence holds true even when adjusting for the increase in self-citation that comes with a greater number of researchers per study.

New fields have already begun to emerge from these meetings of minds—neuroscience, political psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology, to name a handful. Such instances distinguish true interdisciplinary work from multi-disciplinary efforts, which, as APS Past President John Cacioppo pointed out in a previous Observer column, require “only that one share an established procedure with an investigator in another field.” Ideally, interdisciplinary collaborations lead to more than a parlor game of pass the procedure. They don’t just shift eyes onto the question at hand; they ask completely new questions. The goal here, it would seem, is not to reach across the aisle, but rather to eliminate it.

Still, despite their head start over the Aisle Reacher-in-Chief, collaborative scientists also face many challenges when it comes to working outside their comfort zone. An additional workload, communication breakdowns, and tenure-track requirements are some the interdisciplinary scientist’s heaviest burdens. But most consider the evolution of psychology well worth the growing pains. “When psychology departments were forming, it was experimental, social, clinical, developmental — as if any one of these things can be studied independent of the other,” says APS Fellow and Past Board Member Elizabeth Phelps, who is part of the interdisciplinary Center for Neuroeconomics at New York University, of the way psychology operated up through the first half of the 20th century. “I think we had divided up how we understand human behavior. “I see a lot of those barriers starting to be broken.”

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Jaffe’s fascinating article is just getting warmed up.  To read it in its entirety and learn more about some of the triumphs and pitfalls of interdisciplinary research, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Quick Introduction to Experimental (Situationist?) Philosophy” and “Behavioral Economics and Policy.”

Posted in Education, Legal Theory, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Solomon Asch’s Famous Compliance Experiment

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 16, 2009

Solomon AschFrom Wikipedia:

Solomon Asch . . . . became famous in the 1950s, following experiments which showed that social pressure can make a person say something that is obviously incorrect.

This experiment was conducted using 123 male participants. Each participant was put into a group with 5 to 7 “confederates” (People who knew the true aims of the experiment, but were introduced as participants to the naive “real” participant). The participants were shown a card with a line on it, followed by another card with 3 lines on it labeled a, b, and c. The participants were then asked to say which line matched the line on the first card in length. Each line question was called a “trial”. The “real” participant answered last or penultimately. For the first two trials, the subject would feel at ease in the experiment, as he and the other “participants” gave the obvious, correct answer. On the third trial, the confederates would start all giving the same wrong answer. There were 18 trials in total and the confederates answered incorrectly for 12 of them, these 12 were known as the “critical trials”. The aim was to see whether the real participant would change his answer and respond in the same way as the confederates, despite it being the wrong answer.

Solomon Asch thought that the majority of people would not conform to something obviously wrong, but the results showed that participants conformed to the majority on 37% of the critical trials. However, 25% of the participants did not conform on any trial. 75% conformed at least once, and 5% conformed every time.

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To read a sample of  related Situationist posts Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment . . . Today,” “Gender Conformity,” “The Situational Effect of Groups.”

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

Situationism in the Blogosphere – August 2009

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 15, 2009

blogosphere image

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

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From BPS Research Digest: “Talking about art can alter our appreciation of it”

“Representational paintings are realistic, with content that can be easily talked about. Abstract art, by contrast, is less grounded in reality and more tricky to talk about. The results showed that verbalising their responses to the paintings appeared to distort the participants’ subsequent preferences.” Read more . . .

From BPS Research Digest: “How to turn a liberal into a conservative”

“For people who feel psychologically all at sea, the conservative values of authority, order and tradition provide a comforting anchor. That’s according to psychologists who further argue that a psychological threat, for example in the form of injustice or reminders of mortality, can even turn a liberal-minded person temporarily into a conservative – a response they call “defensive conservatism” Read more . . .

From BPS Research Digest: “Intervention helps reduce homophobia”

“A problem with interventions that use role-playing to beat prejudice is that bigots usually aren’t motivated to take the perspective of the groups that they discriminate against. In a new study, Gordon Hodson and colleagues have tested the effectiveness of an unusual alien-themed intervention for reducing homophobia that involves participants taking the perspective of a homosexual person, without really realising that that is what they’re doing.” Read more . . .

From Everyday Sociology: “The Social Construction of Sex: Intersex as Evidence”

“In our society we take for granted that sex has only two categories: male and female. We learn in school that sex is caused or created by chromosomes, XX for females and XY for males. We assume that the typical path is that those sex categories create bodies with male or female characteristics. We teach in sociology classes that we then socially construct or build gender on top of the sex assignment based on those body characteristics. All of this is founded upon the premise that sex has just those two categories. We tend to ignore the facts about sex that suggest that sex itself is also a socially constructed category.” Read more . . .

From Experimental Philosophy: “Blame, Praise and the Structure of Legal Rules”

“For now, I would like to post a draft of my contribution to the conference.  Its argument is that the asymmetry between the attribution of intent for positive and negative side effects is the result of different baseline assumptions that we have for the states of mind that accompany good and bad outcomes.” Read more . . .


For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Interior Situation of Trial Judges – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 14, 2009

blind-justiceJeffrey Rachlinski , Sheri Lynn Johnson, Andrew Wistrich, and Chris Guthrie, recently posted their fascinating article, “Does Unconscious Racial Bias Affect Trial Judges?” (84 Notre Dame Law Review (2009)) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Race matters in the criminal justice system. Black defendants appear to fare worse than similarly situated white defendants. Why? Implicit bias is one possibility. Researchers, using a well-known measure called the implicit association test, have found that most white Americans harbor implicit bias toward Black Americans. Do judges, who are professionally committed to egalitarian norms, hold these same implicit biases? And if so, do these biases account for racially disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system? We explored these two research questions in a multi-part study involving a large sample of trial judges drawn from around the country. Our results – which are both discouraging and encouraging – raise profound issues for courts and society. We find that judges harbor the same kinds of implicit biases as others; that these biases can influence their judgment; but that given sufficient motivation, judges can compensate for the influence of these biases.

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To download the article for free, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “What Are the Legal Implications of Implicit Biases?,” “Brooks on the Situation of Judging,” and “The Situation of Judicial Activism.”  For a list of Situationist posts discussing the research on implicit bias and the IAT, click here.

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

The Situation of “Being Forced”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 13, 2009

From Youtube: Experimental philosophers take on one of philosophy’s most revered figures, Aristotle, by seeing if ordinary people agree with Aristotle’s conclusions about when one is forced to do something and when one does it freely.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Video Introduction to Experimental Philosophy” and “Quick Introduction to Experimental (Situationist?) Philosophy.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Experimental Philosophy, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

How Ted Kennedy’s Passing Influences ‘Obamacare’

Posted by Jason Chung on September 12, 2009

Ted KennedyCan Ted Kennedy’s death help shape future health care negotiations and pass a compromise bill?  Yes – but not for the reasons you think.

On August 24, 2009, President Barack Obama’s ambitious health care agenda looked to be at serious risk.  Numerous sources such as MSNBC, CBS News, and even the blogosphere were noting that Obama’s key initiative was losing traction among an American electorate that was alternately confused on the details of an amorphous plan, concerned about taking on additional costs during a nearly unprecedented recession, or ideologically opposed to a supposedly ‘inferior’ “Canadian-style health care”  A Republican Party which had appeared confused and unfocused in response to Obama’s popularity suddenly had an issue around which could re-energize their base.

But on August 25, something seemingly important happened –Ted Kennedy passed away.  Instantly, a Democratic Party which had been previously charitably described as ‘torn’ on the issue of a national health care plan sprung into action.  Hours after Kennedy’s passing, Nancy Pelosi attempted to rally her party around an issue which Kennedy had described as his life’s unfinished work.  ‘Win one for Teddy’ was the message and the rally around the flag effect came into play to varying degrees of receptivity. Kennedy supporters, such as his former press secretary Bob Shrum, were hopeful that his “long shadow” could spur renewed commitment for a deal.  Those sceptical of the need to reform health care in the United States, such as John McCain, were quick to dispute the notion that Kennedy’s passing would help the pro-reform crowd due to the loss of the senior senator from Massachusetts’ strong bipartisan deal-making ability and passionate advocacy for his ‘pet project’.

Ultimately only time will tell what, if any, long-term effect Kennedy’s death will have among centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans (the key demographics necessary to pass health care reform).  However, a week following the events of Kennedy’s death the centrist reconciliatory approach hoped for by Shrum already appears to have been a pipe dream as Kennedy’s passing seems to have a had a marginal impact on the terms of debate.  On a recent head-to-head debate spot on CNN on September 7, 2009, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) repeated almost verbatim the general entrenched arguments of both sides.  Hatch argued that adding a layer of complexity to the current U.S. health care system by putting it in the hands of the ‘bureaucrats’ (a favourite target of the Republicans since the Reagan days) while Sanders questioned how adding a public option and introducing competition to the private sector would negatively impact the business models of HMOs (overlooking the fact that a public option would have access to vast amounts of capital and visibility that some HMOs would be unable to compete with).

President Obama’s major address to Congress on health care on September 9th did little to heal these ingrained divisions.  While the speech was well received by many centrist critics, the reaction among both the left and the right was largely humdrum.  As noted by many observers from a wide spectrum of sources, Obama’s rhetoric and appeals to bipartisanship may have appealed to moderate Americans but did little to move legislators and, most likely, their core constituents.

Obama Health Care Speech

The seeming inablity of both sides to parrot anything other than their entrenched arguments got me thinking about modern conceptions of the ‘art’ of negotiation and how it pertains to hot-button national political issues.  Specifically, current political debates serve to underscore how undervalued situation has been as a consideration by scholars when studying political negotiations.

A favourite case study used by negotiation theorists to illustrate the power of political negotiators in bargaining situations is the Malta-U.K. negotiation for British leasing rights of a Maltese naval base in 1971.  William Howard Wriggins advances the notion in his case study that Malta managed to maximize the value of their lease agreement with the U.K. by shopping their outdated and relatively unimportant military outpost to NATO enemies such as the Soviet Union, Libya and other Arab states.  Malta’s leader leveraged the situation at the height of the Cold War to their advantage by making the alternatives to the U.K. and its NATO allies (that of having a rival’s outpost right in the middle of the Mediterranean) exceedingly unattractive.  The contention of negotiation scholars is that Malta’s leadership managed to reframe the terms of the negotiation from a straight-up lease renewal of an unimportant outpost into a broader issue regarding NATO defence strategies.

While Wriggins’ example is an entertaining example of how political negotiators can use situation in order to reframe the terms of debate, state-to-state negotiations rarely share characteristics with intra-state political negotiations.  To exemplify this point, take the Malta-U.K. example.  What must be kept in mind in that case is the fact that the Maltese prime minister was wildly popular for taking on ‘outsiders’ (the U.K.).  His aggressive and sometimes belligerent negotiation tactics helped foster an ‘us-against-them’ mentality among his constituents and consequently helped unite them in a (mostly) singular cause – making the British pay.  Even though the costs to the Maltese would be great in financial terms were negotiations unsuccessful, their shared goal made the issue a collective struggle.  However, in cases of internal political divisions such as the debate over health care, this ‘us-against-them’ phenomenon is more destructive.  Because the foe in this case is not an ‘outsider’ and the issue an ideologically salient one regarding the future direction of the country, any attempts to incite such bravado inflame existing tensions making a peaceable resolution less likely.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your political viewpoint), the debate surrounding health care has already reached ‘us-against-them’ proportions as the debate between Senators Sanders and Hatch would attest.

The differences between the forums in which these negotiations take place are also exceedingly important.  State-to-state negotiations usually take place at a high-level and behind closed doors where the public only knows the final outcome.  Because the number of participants in these negotiations is so limited, it makes the tactics used by skilled negotiators more valuable.  This is because the participants and negotiators in these sessions are freer to discuss options (framing various options in their favour being what skilled negotiators do best) without public scrutiny and gives ‘low-skill agents’ less opportunity to distort situations.  Internal political negotiations, on the other hand, necessarily take place in the public sphere.  Due to the fact that issues such as health care affect all Americans, possibly for generations, there is little tolerance for elite-driven closed-door bargaining – the public wishes to be engaged.  Hence, even if closed-door negotiations did put an end to the health-care debate among legislators (which is unlikely), there would be little public acceptance of such a deal due to the fact that it would fail ‘second-table’ negotiation – that is negotiation with constituents.

But what about if you abandon strategic bargaining and try ‘principled negotiation in order to ‘expand the pie’?  This ‘principled’ conception of negotiation was introduced by Roger Fisher and William Ury at the Harvard Project on Negotiation.  Fisher and Ury’s assumption was that negotiators and stakeholders have the power and ability to reframe the terms of the negotiation and introduce new `win-win’ scenarios as possible outcomes.  In essence, the theory posited by Fisher and Ury advances the notion how you negotiate (Fisher and Ury, Getting to Yes Second Edition, p. 177) makes an enormous difference because skilled negotiators can come up with creative options by which to ‘expand the pie’ and can overcome vast differences in power between the negotiation parties.  While Fisher and Ury’s points are well made and are essential practical skills for negotiators, their points are less adept at explaining the dynamics driving intra-state political negotiations, such as that over health care.

As we have seen above, the ‘us-against-them’ mentality has already taken root which makes principled negotiation difficult.  As I noted in a previous piece, UVA Social Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt argues that when the public is faced with a difficult political question (of which health care would certainly qualify), most people “generally lean one way or the other right away, and then put a call in to reasoning to see whether support for that position is forthcoming.”  Most tellingly, Haidt notes that “Most people gave no real evidence for their positions, and most made no effort to look for evidence opposing their initial positions.”  Hence, while the negotiators behind the health care debate (in this case, legislators) may know the intricacies underpinning their respective arguments, convincing their constituents at second-table negotiations will be difficult.  Indeed, even Senators with impeccable conservative credentials such as Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are getting hammered by his core constituents who are concerned he may “bend too much on the way to compromise”.

In addition, while some legislators such as Max Baucus’ bipartisan “Gang of Six” have been working toward a health care compromise bill for months, most of the debate has been waged in full view of the American public.  While this makes sense given the nature of the issue and the unlikelihood of success of second-table negotiations if negotiations were held behind closed doors (as noted above), this has also served to make fringe media characters on both sides more powerful.  While these fringe agents aren’t ‘low-skill agents’ per say given that they aren’t actual negotiators or ‘agents’ they can be described as tools used by low-skill agents in gaining traction or core support for their more aggressive demands.  Therefore, such talking heads as Keith Olbermann and Ann Coulter add a degree of obfuscation and surreality to the health care debate.  Fringe media used by low-skills agents often impede the process of negotiations due to the fact that they are more interested in increasing their profile rather than wishing for any reasoned compromise.  As noted by Michael Caine (Alfred) in the Dark Knight “Some men can’t be … reasoned with.  Some men want to watch the world burn”.

Knowing all this, then, the question remains –Will Ted Kennedy’s passing influence the passage of ‘Obamacare’ and is there any hope for a compromise?  The answer to both is yes though for reasons some may find counterintuitive.

Kennedy’s passing surely has an impact on the health care debate in America.  While the central disagreements may have stayed the same, the loss of Kennedy is surely a blow to civilized discourse regarding health care reform.  As noted by both Republicans and Democrats in the wake of Kennedy’s death, he was a respected legislator who was “willing to work with others to get things done, for the greater good.”  His passing, then, means that there is one less communicator to sell health care and one less contemporary off of which Republicans can bounce their objections and ideas.  Sadly, Shrum’s vision of a bipartisan Congress working toward a peaceable compromise on health care is growing more unlikely.  As noted by Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pennsylvania), “We shall pause for our fallen comrade, but nothing seems to have any effect on the partisanship.”  Instead, Kennedy’s legacy is more likely to be used to Democrats to rally their troops as Obama did September 9th.  Kennedy’s legacy regarding the passage of reformed health care, then, may not be as a segueway to grand compromise but as a tool for greater Democratic engagement.

But is there still any hope for compromise bill?  And can political negotiations regarding sensitive national issues still attain success?  There is, and it can.  However, building in order to reach this compromise we must build upon the lessons of Fisher and Ury.  In negotiations such as this how you negotiate strikes me as less important than with whom you negotiate.  In order to reach a negotiated settlement to the health care debate, politicians must turn the page and realize that their audience for negotiations rests ultimately not with their political peers but with their constituents.  The negotiation is therefore not with each other but with voters.

With mid-term elections coming up, political leadership on both sides must realize that the fringes of their support have little place to go – those Republicans opposing all forms of government intervention aren’t going to vote Democrat or vice versa.  Even those disaffected by any compromise aren’t likely to stay home given the pervasiveness of the issue and its potential effects.  Therefore, the leaders on both sides must moderate their tone and aim for the squarely for the soft centre, where there is more leeway and additional votes to be had for or against health care reform.  Only in this way will either side get (or, in the case of the Democrats, hang on to) the seats necessary to control the framework of negotiations for health care reform.  President Obama has seemingly realized this appetite for compromise among the centre given his speech on health care.  The question is, are legislators listening?

Posted in Politics, Public Policy, Video | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

The Situation of Burritos

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 11, 2009

BurritosMajorie Florestal recently posted her intriguing article, “Is a Burrito a Sandwich? Exploring Race, Class and Culture in Contracts” (14 Michigan Journal of Race and Law (2008)) on SSRN.

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A superior court in Worcester, Massachusetts, recently determined that a burrito is not a sandwich. Surprisingly, the decision sparked a firestorm of media attention. Worcester, Massachusetts, is hardly the pinnacle of the culinary arts – so why all the interest in the musings of one lone judge on the nature of burritos and sandwiches? Closer inspection revealed the allure of this otherwise peculiar case: Potentially thousands of dollars turned on the interpretation of a single word in a single clause of a commercial contract. Judge Locke based his decision on ‘common sense’ and a single definition of sandwich – ‘two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a thin layer (as of meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them.’ The only barrier to the burrito’s entry into the sacred realm of sandwiches is an additional piece of bread? What about the one-slice, open-face sandwich? Or the club sandwich, typically served as a double-decker with three pieces of bread? What about wraps? The court’s definition lacked subtlety, complexity or nuance; it was rigid, not allowing for the possibility of change and evolution. It was a decision couched in the ‘primitive formalism’ Judge Cardozo derided nearly ninety years ago when he said ‘[t]he law has outgrown its primitive stage of formalism when the precise word was a sovereign talisman, and every slip was fatal. It takes a broader view today.’ Does it? Despite the title of this piece, my goal is not to determine with any legal, scientific or culinary specificity whether a burrito is a sandwich. Rather, I explore what lies beneath the ‘primitive formalism’ or somewhat smug determination of the court that common sense answers the question for us. I suggest Judge Locke’s gut-level understanding that burritos are not sandwiches actually masks an unconscious bias. I explore this bias by examining the determination of this case and the impact of race, class and culture on contract principles.

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To download the article for free, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Alcohol, Hotdogs, Sexism, and Racism,” “Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” and The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions.”

Posted in Abstracts, Cultural Cognition, Implicit Associations, Law | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

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