The Situationist

Archive for September, 2009

Replicating Milgram’s Obedience Experiment – Yet Again

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 10, 2009

Milgram’s experiment was again repeated — this time as part of the BBC documentary “How violent are you?” first shown in May 2009.  It’s another remarkable rendition.  Of the 12 participants, only 3 refused to continue to the end of the experiment.   The relevant portions of that documentary are below.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Milgram Remake,” The Milgram Experiment Today?.” Gender Conformity,”The Case for Obedience,” A Shocking Situation,” “Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience – Part I,”  “The Case for Obedience,” Virtual Worlds, Learning, and Virtual Milgram,” Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment . . . Today,” and “Solomon Asch’s Classic Group-Influence Experiment.”

For a list of previous Situationist posts discussing Milgram’s research click here.

Posted in Classic Experiments, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 9, 2009

Free Will Debate Image

We recently posted the fascinating video debate between Situationist Contributor John Bargh and Roy Baumeister regarding the study, meaning, and implications of free will.  That debate (which took place at the at the annual convention of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology last February in Tampa) has led to an illuminating exchange between Bargh and Baumeister that we’ll post in  parts on The Situationist.  Below you will find the first two pieces of that post-convention exchange (the first by Baumeister and the second by Bargh).

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Roy Baumeister & Kathleen Vohs, “Determinism Is Not Just Causality” (from Cultural Animal):

The recent debate on free will at SPSP led to the realization that some of the ostensible disagreement, and perhaps most of the surplus emotion swept along with it, stemmed from misunderstandings. Many psychologists say it is important to uphold determinism – yet they do not really know what determinism is.

Determinism is more than belief in causality. The defining feature of determinism is a belief in the inevitability of causality. The essence of determinism is that everything that happens is the only thing that could possibly happen (given the past) under those circumstances. The category of the possible and the category of the actual are exactly the same. If you knew everything about the world today and knew all the causal principles, you could calculate everything in the future and the past with 100% accuracy. To a determinist, the universe is just grinding along as a giant machine with no uncertainty whatsoever. The future and the past are both set in stone, so to speak. Check any textbook or handbook of philosophy.

Many psychologists defend determinism thinking that they are defending the notion of causality itself. They think, science studies causes, and if we abandon causation, we cannot do science. But these fears are irrelevant. Everyone believes in causes. The important difference is between probabilistic causation and deterministic causation.

Determinism might or might not be correct. Determinism is impossible to prove or disprove. It directly contradicts the everyday experience of making choices and having multiple options, but everyday experience could be mistaken. In a similar vein, belief in divine or supernatural forces is possibly true, despite inconsistency with daily experience.

We wish, however, to point out some of the mental gymnastics one must go through in order to practice psychological science while maintaining faith in determinism. Let us return for a moment to choice, which has been an important topic of study in social psychology for decades. To a determinist, there is no such thing as actual choice, in the sense of having more than one possible option and making a selection that makes one option come true and makes the others cease to be possible. To a determinist, choice (in this sense) is an illusion, because only one outcome is possible all along. You subjectively believe you might choose A or B or C, but this belief stems from your ignorance. Causal processes are in motion outside of your awareness that will lead inevitably to make you choose B. There was never a chance that you would actually choose A or C. Your belief that A, B, and C are all possible is a mistake; only B is actually possible.

Statistical probability presents a difficult challenge to determinists. The notion of probability entails that different outcomes are possible, which violates the central point of determinism. To a determinist, there are no probabilities in reality. Again, the determinist must say that the seeming indeterminacy simply reflects our ignorance. For example, suppose that when you flip a coin, the outcome is 100% inevitable once the coin is spinning through the air, given the physics of angular momentum, distance to the ground, and so forth. You simply do not know whether it will be heads or tails, so it seems indeterminate to you. The uncertainty is only in your mind.

Notice, however, that this is not how we talk about statistics in our textbooks, courses, and journal articles. We discuss the probability of an event occurring (e.g., by chance), not the gaps in our knowledge. In determinism there is no such thing as chance. To be true to faith in determinism, it would be necessary to alter the way we think about and discuss probabilities and perhaps even to alter the way we use them. (We apologize to determinists for using the word “perhaps,” which is itself incompatible with determinism.)

Counterfactual thinking is also incompatible with determinism. It is silly to think “If I had not said those things, we could have avoided the argument” if everything that happened was inevitable. To a determinist, people may think such things, indeed cannot avoid thinking them. Technically, such thoughts might be regarded as sound arguments from false premises. What the person said caused the argument, and so if the person had said something different, the argument might not have happened – but the person could not possibly have said something different, so the entire counterfactual thought process is an idle exercise in futility.

Laypersons often confuse determinism with fatalism, but this is a mistake. Fatalism means that the outcome would have been the same regardless of what you did. To a determinist, the outcome stemmed from what you did, and if you had acted differently, the outcome would have been different. (But, again, you could not possibly have acted differently.)

Some researchers say psychologists should believe in determinism in order to be like so-called real scientists. We believe this is also mistaken. Many natural scientists see the physical world as probabilistic, not deterministic. Quantum indeterminacy would entail that determinism is wrong, by definition. Indeed, as far as we know, there is no proof that there is any deterministic causation anywhere, in the sense that any event is 100% inevitable. Obviously, some causal events have extremely high probabilities, having been demonstrated over and over. But there is no way of knowing whether it is merely well above 99% or it is actually 100%.

The so-called “hidden variables” argument may paradoxically allow determinism to survive in psychology even if it becomes untenable in physics. Here is the issue. If we know everything (mass, velocity, etc.) about a tiny particle, we can predict with certainty where it will go. Every so often, empirical observation shows that it fails to go there. Is this because nature is indeterminate? Or is it because there are hidden variables affecting it, other than the variables we know?

In psychology it is easy to always assume hidden variables when a person’s behavior does not conform to predictions, because there are endless additional things that possibly could be known about someone. But with a tiny subatomic particle, there is not much else that could be known, and indeed the set of variables known to physics does not have any room for mysterious other variables.

In conclusion, we think it is possible to maintain a belief in determinism, but it should not be obligatory for psychologists. In fact, psychologists who retain a faith in determinism must keep this an abstract belief and violate it in practice: They must act as if people really make choices, as if multiple possibilities exist for future life, and as if statistical probabilities refer to different possible events. Determinism is not viable in practice but is an elegant theory that people may find appealing as an abstract article of faith. The main alternative to it is a probabilistic universe, in which multiple futures are really possible and causes operate by changing the odds that something will happen rather than guaranteeing it.

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DeterminismJohn Bargh & Brian Earp, “The Will is Caused, not ‘Free’” (from The Natural Unconscious):

We welcome the opportunity to summarize our main points from the SPSP debate; first though we will respond to the additional arguments by Baumeister and Vohs in this issue concerning determinism and causality. We see no problem with the assertions that psychologists need not be strict determinists to practice their science, and that determinism and causality are not the same thing. However, neither of these points is relevant to the basic question of free will. The ‘free’ in free will means freedom from causation, either by external forces (in the political sense of the term) or internal ones (in the psychological sense); and in our view it is just as problematic to claim that the will is uncaused as it is to argue it is not determined.

Free will may be defined as an agent’s ability to act on the world by its own volition, independently of purely physical (as opposed to metaphysical) causes and prior states of the world. The folk notion of free will is laden with the concept of a soul, a non-physical, unfettered, internal source of choice-making-in other words, an uncaused causer. “The soul” may have gone out of fashion, and “the mind” taken over many of its functions and connotations, but the intuitive notion of free will has stayed much the same: there is something inside each of us that allows us to make “real” choices–choices that even an omnipotent being, one who knew every environmental influence, and every physical fact leading up to the choice-making event, could not foretell with perfect confidence and accuracy. Determinism, if it were true, would indeed rule out this sort of free will, or shunt it into the realm of total redundancy. But indeterminism (of whatever flavor) isn’t any kinder to the notion. Just because some event is not strictly determined by prior physical data doesn’t mean it is caused by a free will. It may be simply indeterminately, probabilistically, or (to whatever degree) “randomly” caused by prior physical data. (If one wishes nonetheless to use the existence of error variance as evidence for the existence of free will, we can only point out that our business as scientists is to strive to reduce this unexplained variance by replacing it with explanation. Calling it ‘free will’ and walking away satisfied rather misses the point.)

But let us assume that there is a free, internal source of control that guides our behavior and is ultimately responsible for ‘real’ choices. To attribute human behavior to this mystical source is to place one’s bets on an increasingly shrinking sphere. The project of social psychology, after all, has been to identify (a) external-to-the-individual causes of judgment, motivation, and behavior, such as situational influences, and (b) internal-to-the-individual causes, which research has shown increasingly to operate outside of awareness and conscious intention-not “freely chosen” in any sense of the term. Are there some human behaviors that are possible only if free will exists and is a true causal source of action? There may be. But let’s not give up on the search for non-mystical causes just yet.

This brings us to an area of agreement revealed in the debate: that a belief in free will is important for human strivings. People cherish their sense of control over the world and their own behavior. In the debate, we noted recent empirical articles by Vohs and by Baumeister showing negative consequences (cheating, aggression) of informing participants that free will does not exist. Our response to these ‘new’ articles is that our field revealed the existence of such positive illusions decades ago, and we already know how essential they are to normal functioning. Clearly it is motivating for each of us to believe we are better than average, that bad things happen to other people, not ourselves, and that we have free-agentic control over our own judgments and behavior — just as it is comforting to believe in a benevolent God and justice for all in an afterlife. But the benefits of believing in free will are irrelevant to the actual existence of free will. A positive illusion, no matter how functional and comforting, is still an illusion.

And we must caution against drawing conclusions from such research findings (implicitly or explicitly) that we should either (a) not make findings against the existence of free will known to the public or (b) stop doing such research altogether. The belief in personal free will is a deeply rooted aspect of human phenomenal experience, and is so powerful that even those who do not subscribe to it intellectually still feel it in their personal lives as much as everyone else. It is not uncommon for one’s first-person experience to be at odds with physical reality: 500 years after Copernicus we still see a morning sunrise, not the earth (and ourselves) tilting towards the sun, even though we know better scientifically. As Dan Wegner, Paul Bloom, Dan Dennett, and others have argued, there are strong natural supports for the belief in supernatural entities, just as there are for free will — and sunrises too, for that matter. And if, as countless recent surveys show, the prodigious evidence in favor of evolutionary theory accumulated over the past 150 years has done little to erode the popular belief in a creator-god, then we can rest assured that the relatively nascent research on unconscious causes of motivation, judgment, and behavior will not result in anarchy or the collapse of social norms and moral behavior.

We should also not forget past social psychological research demonstrating that the belief in personal free will is selective: people routinely make self-serving attributions about the causes of their behavior. We take credit for the positive things we do (free will), but not for our misdeeds and failures ( “I had no choice”, “I was abused as a child”, “I was angry”). This suggests to us that much of the emotion surrounding the issue of free will is not about freedom per se but about self-esteem maintenance. We take personal pride in our ancestors, our blue eyes or rich brown skin, our height or birthday or name (as in the name-letter effect)-none of which we chose or had any control over. Accordingly, we analyzed hundreds of individuals’ spontaneous self-descriptions, and indeed 34% of their first-to-mind completions to the stem “I am _____” were such non-chosen aspects of self. It seems that people do not possess a consistent belief in free will so much as they strongly wish to take credit for the good things they are and do (regardless of whether they caused them), and to distance themselves from the bad things (even if they caused them). Evidently, the belief in free will is not principled, but socially strategic in nature.

So what, then, if one’s will is not ‘free’ of internal causation? It is still your will and my will and each is unique: a confluence of genetic heritage, early absorption of local cultural norms and values, and particular individual life experiences. After all, one can claim personal ownership of one’s will just as much as one claims ownership of one’s name, eye color, and birthday, and be as proud of one’s will and its products as one is proud of the exploits of great-great-Grandma the pioneer, even though one’s ‘free will’ played no role in any of these.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate,” “The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating,” Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”Interview of Eric Kandel,” and “Coalition of the Will-less.”

Posted in Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 9 Comments »

The Situation of Snacking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 8, 2009

Big Mac WhopperSituationist Contributor John Bargh, with his co-authors Jennifer Harris and Kelly Brownell, recently published an interesting article, “Priming Effects of Television Food Advertising on Eating Behavior” (28 Health Psychology 404 (2009)) on the subconscious behavioral consequences of food advertising.  Here’s the abstract.

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Objective: Health advocates have focused on the prevalence of advertising for calorie-dense low-nutrient foods as a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic. This research tests the hypothesis that exposure to food advertising during TV viewing may also contribute to obesity by triggering automatic snacking of available food. Design: In Experiments 1a and 1b, elementary-school-age children watched a cartoon that contained either food advertising or advertising for other products and received a snack while watching. In Experiment 2, adults watched a TV program that included food advertising that promoted snacking and/or fun product benefits, food advertising that promoted nutrition benefits, or no food advertising. The adults then tasted and evaluated a range of healthy to unhealthy snack foods in an apparently separate experiment. Main Outcome Measures: Amount of snack foods consumed during and after advertising exposure. Results: Children consumed 45% more when exposed to food advertising. Adults consumed more of both healthy and unhealthy snack foods following exposure to snack food advertising compared to the other conditions. In both experiments, food advertising increased consumption of products not in the presented advertisements, and these effects were not related to reported hunger or other conscious influences. Conclusion: These experiments demonstrate the power of food advertising to prime automatic eating behaviors and thus influence far more than brand preference alone.

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You can download a pdf of the article here.

For a collection of related Situationist posts, see “The Benefit of Knowing Your Eating Sins,” “The Situation of Body Image,” “Big Calories Come in Small Packages,”The Situation of Eating – Part II,” The Situation of Eating,” “The Situation of the Dreaded ‘Freshman 15′,” “Our Situation Is What We Eat,” “Social Networks,” Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” “The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice,” The Situation of our Food – Part I,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,”The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” and “The Situation of our Food – Part IV.”

The situation of obesity is explored at length by Situationist Contributors, Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon, who devoted a sizeable article to the mistaken but dominant dispositionist attributions made regarding obesity and the actual situational sources of the epidemic. To access their article, entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America,” click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Life, Marketing, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Dan Wegner Visits Harvard Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 7, 2009

SALMS Logo Small 2 for WebsiteOn Tuesday, September 8, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Professor Daniel Wegner on “Psychological Studies of the Guilty Mind.”  The event will take place in Pound 108 at Harvard Law School, from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. (and lunch will be served – first come, first served).

SALMS is a student organization working in conjunction with the Project on Law and Mind Sciences to bring to legal academia (in this case, specifically, the Harvard Law School community) the ground-breaking mind sciences research that has profound implications for law and legal theory.  SALMS has a very exciting schedule of events planned for the fall semester.  Additional upcoming speakers include Fiery Cushman, Andrew Papachristos, Goutam Jois, Mahzarin Banaji, and Stephen Pinker.

To learn more, click here.

Posted in Events, Law, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Zimbardo Interview at The Believer

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on September 6, 2009

Zimbardo montagePhilosopher Tamler Sommers was kind enough to post a link over at the Garden of Forking Paths to an interview he did with Situationist contributor Philip Zimbardo that appears in the latest edition of The Believer.  Here is the first question and answer from the interview:


THE BELIEVER: I take it that one of the goals of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to build on Milgram’s results that demonstrated the power of situational elements. Is that right?

PHILIP ZIMBARDO: It was really to broaden his message and put it to a higher-level test. In Milgram’s study, we don’t know about those thousand people who answered the ad. His subjects were not Yale students, although he did it at Yale. They were a thousand ordinary citizens from New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut, ages twenty to fifty, and in his advertisement in the newspaper he said: college students and high-school students cannot be used. It could have been a selection of people who were more psychopathic. For our study, we picked only two dozen of seventy-five who applied, who on seven different personality tests were normal or average. So we knew there were no psychopaths, no deviants. Nobody had been in therapy, and even though it was a drug era, nobody (at least in the reports) had taken anything more than marijuana, and they were physically healthy at the time. So the question was: Suppose you had only kids who were normally healthy, psychologically and physically, and they knew they would be going into a prison-like environment and that some of their civil rights would be sacrificed. Would those good people, put in that bad, evil place—would their goodness triumph?


That sitautionist snippet should convince you to check out the rest of the interview!  Also, it is worth pointing out the Sommers has a forthcoming collection entitled A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, which includes past interviews with philosophers and psychologists such as Galen Strawson, Michael Ruse, Jon Haidt, Frans de Waal, Steve Stich, Josh Greene, Liane Young, Joe Henrich, William Ian Miller, and Zimbardo.  So, make sure to check it out as well once it comes out.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see, “Milgram Remake,” “Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience Part I,” “Zimbardo on Migram and Obedience Part II,” and “Zimbardo Lecture on How Good People Turn Evil.”

Posted in Classic Experiments, Philosophy, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Litigators

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 5, 2009

LitigatorSituationist Contributor Jerry Kang, Nilanjana Dasgupta, Kumar Yogeeswaran, and Gary Blasi, recently posted their terrific new paper “Are Ideal Litigators White? Measuring the Myth of Colorblindness” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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This study examined whether explicit and implicit biases in favor of Whites and against Asian Americans would alter mock jurors’ evaluation of a litigator’s deposition. We found evidence of both explicit bias as measured by self-reports, and implicit bias as measured by two Implicit Association Tests. In particular, explicit stereotypes that the ideal litigator was White predicted worse evaluation of the Asian American litigator (outgroup derogation); by contrast, implicit stereotypes predicted preferential evaluation of the White litigator (ingroup favoritism). In sum, participants were not colorblind, at least implicitly, towards even a “model minority,” and these biases produced racial discrimination. This study provides further evidence of the predictive and ecological validity of the Implicit Association Test.

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To download the paper for free, click here. To review all of the previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin, or, for a list of such posts, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Implicit Associations, Law, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Take the Policy IAT

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 4, 2009

If you haven’t already (or even if you have), we invite you to take, the “Policy IAT.”  We urge  individuals of all political and ideological orientations to participate in the on-line test designed to examine whether and to what extent people have implicit preferences for certain types of policy options.  Please encourage your friends (and, to those of you who are bloggers, your readers) to participate as well.

To learn more or to take the Policy IAT (a roughly 15-minute task), click here.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Public Policy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Secret Politics of the Compatibilist Criminal Law

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on September 3, 2009

Expulsion from Eden

I recently stumbled upon a really provocative paper by Anders Kaye entitled, “The Secret Politics of the Compatibilist Criminal Law.” Given that one of the key issues addressed in  the paper is whether compatibilist theories of free will–which focus very heavily on dispositional traits and conscious mental states–can accommodate situational forces that are criminogenic (e.g., poverty and early childhood abuse).  According to Kaye, compatibilist theories of free will and responsibility have been used by contemporary legal retributivists such as Michael Moore and Stephen Morse to shield the criminal law from developments in behavioral science, criminology, etc. that might otherwise lead to a less punitive justice system as well as a more egalitarian society.  In short, Kaye suggests that compatibilism is not a “politically innocent” theory of free will.  Here is the abstract:


Many criminal theorists say that we have a ‘compatibilist’ criminal law, by which they mean that in our criminal law a person can deserve punishment for her acts even if she does not have ‘genuinely’ free will. This conception of the criminal law harbors and is driven by a secret politics, one that resists social change and idealizes the existing social order. In this Article, I map this secret politics. In so doing, I call into question the descriptive accuracy of the compatibilist account of the criminal law, and set the stage for a franker discussion of criminal punishment – one that recognizes that the perpetual struggle to say just who ‘deserves’ punishment is driven as much by brute politics and the competition to allocate power and resources in society as by any independent moral logic.


There is already a heated debate about Kaye’s novel line of reasoning over at The Garden of Forking Paths.  However, it would be nice to see an active comment thread here at The Situationist as well.  So, please take a look at the paper and then give us your thoughts!

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “A Situationist View of Criminal Prosecutors,” “The Legal Brain,” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Philosophy, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

The Surprising Situation of Video Game Players

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 2, 2009

Videogame PlayersTor Thorsen of GameSpot has an interesting piece on surprising new findings from the Centers for Disease Control on video game players, who tend to be older than you might expect, and also more depressed.  Below is an excerpt.

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Often, games are dismissed as a youthful pastime. However, a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the average US gamer doesn’t even fall into the 18-34-year-old demographic advertisers and MTV programmers so highly prize. According to the study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and provided to MSNBC, the average adult American gamer is 35, the age when the ostensibly retirement-age organization AARP starts sending out invitation letters.

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It gets worse. The study, which was conducted in conjunction with Emory University and Andrews University, also found the majority of adult gamers had “a greater number of poor mental health days” compared to non-gamers. They also were more often overweight and antisocial than teetotalers of computer entertainment, according to researchers.

“Video game players also reported lower extraversion, consistent with research on adolescents that linked video game playing to a sedentary lifestyle and overweight status, and to mental-health concerns,” the study authors wrote. Female gamers were particularly likely to be hit by depression and “lower health status.” It also found that women are more like to use games as a “digital self-medication.” Male players spent “more time using the Internet and rely more on Internet-community social support.”

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To read the rest, click here.  For related posts, see Are Video Games Addictive?, Resident Evil 5 and Racism in Video Games,” “Encourage Your Daughters To Play Violent Video Games?,” “The Situation of First-Person Shooters,” “Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson,” and Michael McCann’s “The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Video Games.”

Posted in Entertainment, Life | 2 Comments »


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