The Situationist

Archive for October, 2009

Situationism in the Blogosphere – September 2009, Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 31, 2009

blogosphere image

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

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From PsyBlog: “Group Polarization: The Trend to Extreme Decisions”

“[…]We tend to think that group decisions average out the preferences of participants so they would come up with something closer to the Ford Focus. But the psychological research doesn’t support this conclusion. In fact group discussions tend to polarize groups so that, rather than people’s views always being averaged, their initial preferences can become exaggerated and their final position is often more extreme than it was initially.” Read more . . .

From PsyBlog: “Essentials of Group Psycholog”

“When we’re in a group other people have an incredibly powerful effect on us. Groups can kill our creativity, inspire us to work harder, allow us to slack off, skew our decision-making and make us clam up. […] This post provides an overview and you can follow the links to explore the experiments that reveal the power groups hold over us.You shouldn’t believe everything you read, yet according to a classic psychology study at first we can’t help it.” Read more . . .

From We’re Only Human: “Cold Shoulder, Warm Heart”

“[…] Volunteers who had just arrived in the lab were asked to hold the experimenter’s beverage for a few minutes, ostensibly so he could do something that required two hands. Some were handed a cold beverage, and others a warm one. Then they were asked to rate both themselves and an acquaintance on a well-known scale that measures social proximity; the more they overlapped with the other, the higher their score on closeness; the less overlap, the more distant they were feeling. The results were also straightforward. Holding the warm beverage induced greater feelings of closeness than the cold beverage.” Read more . . .

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

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll | 1 Comment »

Bernard Harcourt on “Neoliberal Penality”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 30, 2009


Bernard Harcourt, the Julius Kreeger Professor of Law and professor of political science at the University of Chicago, presented his fascinating paper “Neoliberal Penality: The Birth of Natural Order, the Illusion of Free Markets” at the third annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, “The Free Market Mindset: History, Psychology, and Consequences,” which took place on March 7, 2009 at Harvard Law School.  The abstract for his talk is as follows:

In the Encyclopédie in 1758, under the entry “Grains,” Francois Quesnay declared that “It is quite sufficient that the government simply not interfere with industry, suppress the prohibitions and prejudicial constraints on internal commerce and reciprocal external trade, abolish or diminish tolls and transport charges, and extinguish the privileges levied on commerce by the provinces.” Quesnay’s vision of an economic system governed by natural order led to a political theory of “legal despotism” that would stand on its head an earlier understanding of a more seamless relationship between economy and society. By relegating the state to the margins of the market and giving it free rein there and there alone, the idea of natural order facilitated the unrestrained expansion of the penal sphere. It gave birth to our modern form of neoliberal penality.  In this presentation, I will trace a genealogy of neoliberal penality and explore the effects it has had in the field of crime and punishment specifically, and in the area of economy and society more generally.

To watch his fascinating talk (in three nine-minute sections) click on the videos below.

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For a sample or related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Racial Profiling,” “Conference on the Free Market Mindset,” and “The Categorical Situation of ‘Money’.”

Posted in Abstracts, History, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Fame

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 29, 2009

Hall of FameCNN‘s Elizabeth Landau has written an interesting article, title “How the ‘fame motive’ makes you want to be a star.”  Here are some excerpts.

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As a large silver balloon floated its way over Colorado, millions of Americans spent hours glued to their televisions wondering if 6-year-old Falcon Heene, assumed to be inside the contraption, was alive.

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In the era of reality TV, YouTube, and social media “friends” and “followers,” it seems that everyone wants to be a star. People will perform outrageous acts on camera and revel in the attention of strangers.

But what, then, is driving this need for attention from thousands — or even millions — of spectators?

The desire to be famous comes from a basic human need to be part of a group, said Orville Gilbert Brim, psychologist and author of the new book “Look at Me! The Fame Motive From Childhood to Death,” out this month from the University of Michigan Press.

“It’s a yearning to belong somewhere that causes us to seek the fulfillment of attention and approval of strangers,” he said.

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The desire for attention may date back to the days of early humans, who lived in small groups. Those who were not approved by a group that protected all of its members would genetically disappear and die off, he said.

“You’re left with the population in which almost everybody wants acceptance and approval,” he said.

Wanting to feel special and sensation-seeking are probably top motives for trying to become famous, said [Situationist Contributor] Susan Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Getting a lot of attention gives some people a rush of adrenaline, the “fight or flight” chemical, said James Bailey, psychologist and leadership professor at George Washington University’s School of Business. When people experience this “high,” they want to have it again and will engage in sometimes extreme or illegal behaviors to try to replicate the feeling.

This need for recognition isn’t necessarily negative, and studies have shown that everyone has it in varying degrees, although there is some cultural variation, Bailey said. It becomes problematic when the desire for fame becomes dysfunctional and all-encompassing, he said in an email.

The quest for fame may get out of hand when sudden fame — like a sudden chunk of money for lottery winners — has an “intoxicating effect,” and suddenly people can’t imagine life without fame, he said.

“It shifts one’s self-perception of who and what one is and what one deserves, and there’s little we humans won’t do to perpetuate our positive self-concepts,” he said.

Still, some surveys show that it’s a minority of the population that places fame ahead of all other priorities in life.

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A desire for fame may also come from being rejected early in life, perhaps by parents, Brim said. But the problem is that no matter what level of acceptance these people achieve, it’s never enough.

“That need remains unfulfilled and they can’t handle it, and so they turn to trying to become famous as a substitute for the satisfaction for this basic need,” he said.

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Many people whose primary motivation in life is fame are met with much disappointment because they always want more, and few can be recognized as widely as they want, he said.

“It ends up being kind of a damaged life if you seek to be famous because you can never get there, really, and you can never can get rid of it, and it spoils your days trying,” he said.

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To read the article in its entirety click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Jim Rice and the Situation of Baseball Hall of Fame Voting,” “The Situationist Overwhelmed with Visitors, Return Later if Necessary,” “Are Video Games Addictive?,” “The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice,”and “The Situation of Music.”

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 28, 2009


Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quote from some of the Situationist news over the last several weeks.

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From “She’s just not that into it”

“It goes without saying that men are aggressive. But that’s exactly the problem, according to psychologists. They asked men and women to imagine various conflict scenarios and found that men systematically overestimate the prevalence and social approval of aggression, even while having mixed feelings about it themselves.” Read more . . .

From Discovery Channel: “As Reactions to Threats Fade, Fear Does Too”

“Remember the global financial crisis? How about the H1N1 flu virus? Al-Qaida? Climate change? Each of these headline-grabbing issues poses a threat to our well-being, but the way we perceive these dangers might depend on how recently we read about them, a study from the University of Colorado suggests.” Read more . . .

From Live Science: “Conservatives Are More Easily Disgusted”

“People who squirm at the sight of bugs or are grossed out by blood and guts are more likely to be politically conservative, new studies find.  In particular, the squeamish are more apt to have conservative attitudes about gays and lesbians.  Lots of other research has tied politics to biology and behavior.” Read more . . .

From Yale Alumni Magazine: “Politics and maggots”

“Pus, maggots, vomit, feces, rotten food: in almost every human society, people share a knee-jerk revulsion for certain substances. Now, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom and his colleagues have found that the level of disgust a person feels can predict his or her political orientation. In a word: “We found that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals.” Read more . . .

Posted in Blogroll | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Painful Situation of Guilt

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 27, 2009

From Eureka Alert:Ice Cubes

The rationale behind torture is that pain will make the guilty confess, but a new study by researchers at Harvard University finds that the pain of torture can make even the innocent seem guilty.

Participants in the study met a woman suspected of cheating to win money. The woman was then “tortured” by having her hand immersed in ice water while study participants listened to the session over an intercom. She never confessed to anything, but the more she suffered during the torture, the guiltier she was perceived to be.

The research, published in the “Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,” was conducted by Kurt Gray, graduate student in psychology, and Daniel M. Wegner, professor of psychology, both in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“Our research suggests that torture may not uncover guilt so much as lead to its perception,” says Gray. “It is as though people who know of the victim’s pain must somehow convince themselves that it was a good idea—and so come to believe that the person who was tortured deserved it.”

Not all torture victims appear guilty, however. When participants in the study only listened to a recording of a previous torture session—rather than taking part as witnesses of ongoing torture—they saw the victim who expressed more pain as less guilty. Gray explains the different results as arising from different levels of complicity.

“Those who feel complicit with the torture have a need to justify the torture, and so link the victim’s pain to blame,” says Gray. “On the other hand, those distant from torture have no need to justify it and so can sympathize with the suffering of the victim, linking pain to innocence.”

The study included 78 participants: half met the woman who was apparently tortured (actually a confederate of the experimenters who was, of course, not harmed at all), and half did not. Participants were told that the study was about moral behavior, and that the woman may have cheated by taking more money than she deserved. The experimenter suggested that a stressful situation might make a guilty person confess, so participants listened for a confession over a hidden intercom as she was subjected to the sham “torture.”

The confederate did not admit to cheating but reacted to having her hand submerged in ice water with either indifference or with whimpering and pleading. Participants who had met her rated her as more guilty the more she suffered. Those who did not meet her rated her as more guilty when she felt less pain.

Gray suggests that these results offer an explanation for the debate swirling around torture.

“Seeing others in pain can perpetuate ideological differences about the justifiability of torture,” says Gray. “Those who initially advocate torture see those harmed as guilty, unlike those who initially reject torture and its methods.”

The findings also shed light on the Abu Ghraib scandal, where prison guards tortured Iraqi detainees. Prison guards, who are close to the suffering of detainees, see detainees as more guilty the more they suffer, unlike the more distant general public.

The case is still open on whether torture actually makes victims more likely to tell the truth. This research suggests instead that the mere fact that someone was tortured leads observers to think that the truth was found.

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You can download a copy of that paper here.  For related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Pain,” Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “Moral Psychology Primer,” “The Justice Department, Milgram, & Torture,” “Why Torture? Because It Feels Good (at least to “Us”),” “The Situation of Solitary Confinement,” The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “The Situation of Punishment,” “Why We Punish,” “The Situation of Death Row,” and “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors.”

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Cruelty of Children

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 26, 2009

Situationist PodcastThe always outstanding and very situationist This American Life, has a terrific episode on the “The Cruelty of Children” that relates closely to yesterday’s post and makes excellent weekend listening.  You can listen to the episode here and download the podcast here.  Here’s the program description.

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Stories about kids being mean to each other.

Prologue.Bully Book. A first-grader explains to host Ira Glass how bullies become bullies. His explanation: They read a book on how to be a bully. According to his reasoning, how else could you explain why kids are mean to each other? It couldn’t be that they’re just bad. (2 minutes)

Act One. I Like Guys.

David Sedaris reads one of his funniest and most affecting stories from his book Naked before a live audience. As an adolescent boy, David feared he might be a homosexual. He explains how his secret plan was to win the lottery and then hire doctors who would purge him of his homosexual impulses. Sometimes kids in his class at school would taunt the boys they thought were sissies, and when they did, he tried to be the loudest and meanest. He figured if he didn’t act that way, they’d all turn on him next. Then he goes away to summer camp and meets a boy named Pete, who seems like an outsider in the same way he is. At first they get close. Then Pete turns on him. (26 minutes)

Song: ” None of Your Business,” Salt ‘n Pepa

Act Two. The Man in the Well.

Original fiction by Ira Sher about a group of children who find a man trapped in a well but decide not to get him any help. First published in the Chicago Review. (17 minutes)

Act Three. Human Nature, The View from Kindergarten.

Author and kindergarten teacher (and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient) Vivian Paley tells the story of an experiment she conducted in her classroom to make children less cruel to each other. She instituted a rule: “You can’t say ‘You can’t play.'” In other words, if two children are playing, and a third child comes over and wants to join them, they can’t tell him or her to get lost. They can’t reject him or her. This is the cause of unending pain in most classrooms and playgrounds. The experiment was a remarkable and immediate success. (12 minutes)

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Jane Elliot’s Situationist Pedagogy,” “Examining the Bullying Situation,” The Situation of Bullying,” Dueling Stereotypes and the Law,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part III,” and “The Devil You Know . . . .”

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

Jane Elliot’s Situationist Pedagogy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 24, 2009

From Wikipedia:

“Steven Armstrong was the first child to arrive to Elliot’s classroom on that day, asking why “a King” (referring to Martin Luther King Jr.) was murdered the day before. After the rest of the class arrived, Elliot asked them what they knew about Negros. The children responded with various racial stereotypes such as Negros were dumb or could not hold jobs. She then asked these children if they would like to find out what it was like to be a Negro child and they agreed.”

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Leaving the Past,”Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” Black History is Now,”Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,” A Situationist Considers the Implications of Simpson Sentencing,” “What does an Obama victory mean?,” “The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV.”

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

Situationism in the Blogosphere – September 2009, Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 23, 2009

blogosphere image

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

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From Neurophilosoply: “If You Want to Catch a Liar, Make Him Draw”

“A man accused of a crime is brought into a police interrogation room and sits down at an empty table.  […] He sets them in front of the suspect, steps back, and calmly says, “draw.” That’s a greatly oversimplified description of what could happen in actual interrogation rooms if the results of a recent study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology are widely adopted. The study is the first to investigate whether drawing is an effective lie detection technique in comparison to verbal methods.” Read more . . .

From Neurophilosoply: “The Closer You Are, the More I Believe You”

“The answer may have much to do with a dynamic called the “vividness effect,” which suggests that vivid testimony—that which is perceived as emotionally interesting, concrete and proximate—will be paid more attention, perceived as more credible, and better remembered than “non-vivid” testimony.  By this argument, if you are listening to someone tell a compelling story of their innocence in person—the condition that offers the greatest proximity and opportunity for emotional engagement—you are more likely to find her credible than you would if watching her on a TV screen […].” Read more . . .

From Project Implicit: “The Surprisingly Limited Malleability of Implicit Racial Evaluations”

“When individuals are asked to report how much they prefer Black people to White people they might report egalitarian feelings, reporting no preference for either social group. However, psychological research has shown that sometimes individuals’ automatic evaluations do not reflect these explicit endorsements.” Read more . . .

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

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

Law Students Flock to Situationism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 22, 2009

SALMS Logo Small 2 for WebsiteHere is Anthony Kammer’s fine article, titled “Meeting of the Minds: Law Students Flock to Psychology Lectures,”  in the latest edition of The Harvard Law Record.

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In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks described psychology as a field that was taking off among young people, who were interested in probing for more accurate answers to the mysteries of human behavior. That might help explain why audiences packed the lectures of two Harvard psychologists who presented their research at the law school this September. Both talks, sponsored by the Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS), raised intriguing questions about the way our psychological intuitions are formalized in the law.

On September 8th, Daniel Wegner,  author of The Illusion of Conscious Will, presented several recent studies that examine the mechanism by which individuals come to identify their own and others’ behavior as intentional during his talk “Psychological Studies of the Guilty Mind.”

Wegner’s experiments suggest that people involved in a common activity, such as using an ouija-board, are often unable to discern which actions they produced themselves and which were caused by someone else. He described several other studies in which people misidentify behaviors as their own.  It has been shown in cases of facilitated communication, for example, in which a therapist helps an autistic patient type out answers to a question, that the messages communicated actually originate from the therapist and not the autistic patient, although the therapist reports no awareness that he or she actually produced the responses. This work suggests that while people feel as if they are the authors of their choices, this process is an evolved sensation and not the most descriptively accurate account for our behaviors.

On September 21st, Fiery Cushman, a newly-minted PhD recipient and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative, presented some of his recent research at an event titled “Outcome vs. Intent: Which Do We Punish, and Why?” Cushman’s work suggests that at a gut-level, people assess whether a behavior was morally right or wrong by looking at the actor’s intentions, but when assigning punishment, people are overwhelmingly interested in outcomes, even if an outcome was accidental.

Cushman described several experiments where he was able to look at a participant’s intentions in isolation from the actual outcome of the participant’s actions. In one case, participants were given the choice of dice that would later be rolled to assign rewards to a second, receiving party. When given the opportunity, the recipient would consistently punish more often when the dice produced less favorable rewards, even if the initial participant intended to provide rewards generously. This work has interesting implications for tort law, explaining in part why findings of negligence lead to large compensatory rewards even in the absence of any intentional action.

As this article went to press, SALMS was planning further events, including an October 22nd, discussion by [Situationist Fellow] Goutam Jois ’07 entitled “Stare Decisis is Cognitive Error”.

Founded in the late spring of 2009, The Student Association for Law & Mind Sciences (SALMS) is the outgrowth of Professor [& Situationist Contributor] Jon Hanson’s Ideology, Psychology and Law seminar course as well as his Project on Law and Mind Sciences.  SALMS is the first student group at any law school merging law and mind and sciences and is already working with students at other law schools to create similar organizations around the country. Its speaker  series is intended to both introduce the legal community to relevant work in psychology and the related mind-sciences and to encourage mind scientists to explore the implications of their work for law and policy-making.

In recent years, the number of law review articles citing to prominent mind sciences research has skyrocketed, and  most top-tier law schools now  offer courses emphasizing relevant insights from social psychology and related fields.  In fact, the course descriptions of nine courses in the 2009-2010 HLS course catalog explicitly mention psychology. And in the wake of the recent financial crisis, economists and lawyers have turned increasingly to behavioral economics and social psychology to understand the underlying cognitive mechanisms that shape and influence our institutions. Psychology and neuroscience are increasingly informing and challenging some of the assumptions of the criminal justice system, and the mind science promise to help sharpen and clarify legal concepts.

In addition to co-sponsoring events with other HLS student groups, SALMS has already begun to forge close relationships with organizations across the University, including graduate and undergraduate students affiliated with the Harvard Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative.

The group is hoping to start a journal next fall to explore further interdisciplinary work in law and the mind sciences.  It would be the first academic journal of its kind in the world.

Posted in Education, Events, Law, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Goutam Jois at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 21, 2009

SALMS Logo Small 2 for WebsiteOn Thursday, October 22, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) and the HLS American Constitution Society (ACS) are hosting a talk by Situationist Fellow Goutam Jois entitled “Stare Decisis is Cognitive Error”:

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For hundreds of years, the practice of stare decisis — a court’s adherence to prior decisions in similar cases — has guided the common law. However, recent behavioral evidence suggests that stare decisis, far from enacting society’s “true preferences” with regard to law and policy, may reflect — and exacerbate — our cognitive biases.

The data show that humans are subconsciously primed (among other things) to prefer the status quo, to overvalue existing defaults, to follow others’ decisions, and to stick to the well-worn path. We have strong motives to justify existing legal, political, and social systems; to come up with simple explanations for observed phenomena; and to construct coherent narratives for the world around us. Taken together, these and other characteristics suggest that we value precedent not because it is desirable but merely because it exists. Three case studies — analyzing federal district court cases, U.S. Supreme Court cases, and development of American policy on torture — suggest that the theory of stare decisis as a heuristic has substantial explanatory power. In its strongest form, this hypothesis challenges the foundation of common law systems.

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The event will take place in Pound 108 at Harvard Law School, from 4:00 – 5:00 p.m.

For more information, e-mail To download the paper click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, History, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Our Metaphorical Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 20, 2009

cold personWe recently published a post based on Drake Bennett’s terrific overview of the burgeoning research on the embodied cognition.  Here’s a quick excerpt from that post.

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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.

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We just encountered an interesting public radio interview, which we thought was worth sharing, of social psychologist Joshua Ackerman on related topics.  You can listen to the interview by clicking here.

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, seeThe Situation of Metaphors,” “Bargh 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, Implicit Associations, Life | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Our Decisions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 19, 2009

Situationist friend Dan Gilbert, who will be speaking today at Harvard Law School (details here), recently completed another fascinating TedTalk. Here is their summary:   “Dan Gilbert presents research and data from his exploration of happiness — sharing some surprising tests and experiments that you can also try on yourself. Watch through to the end for a sparkling Q&A with some familiar TED faces.”  Here’s the video.

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For a sample of previous Situationist posts by or about Dan Gilbert and his work, see “The Situational Consequences of Uncertainty,” “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 Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, Conflict, Cultural Cognition, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Dan Gilbert To Speak at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 18, 2009

Gilbert Poster

For more details, click here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Events, Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 17, 2009


Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quote from some of the Situationist news over the last several weeks.

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From Reuters India: “Brain science starting to impact varied fields”

“[…] More and more, though, images showing neurons firing in different areas of the brain are gaining attention from experts in fields as varied as law, marketing, education, criminology, philosophy and ethics.  They want to know how teachers can teach better, business sell more products or prisons boost their success rates in rehabilitating criminals.  And they think that the patterns and links which cognitive neuroscience is finding can help them.” Read more . . .

From Seed Magazine: “Optical illusions may seem to deceive, but they actually reveal truths about how our brains construct reality”

“Are you sitting in a swivel office chair as you read this article? Would you like to see a remarkable visual illusion? Just push yourself back from your desk and spin around four or five times from right to left with your eyes open. Then look back at this screen. You’ll probably notice that now the onscreen text appears to be moving from left to right.” Read more . . .

From The New York Time: “The Young and the Neuro”

“When you go to an academic conference you expect to see some geeks, gravitas and graying professors giving lectures.  But the people who showed up at the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society’s conference in Lower Manhattan last weekend were so damned young, hip and attractive.  The leading figures at this conference were in their 30s, and most of the work was done by people in their 20s.  When you spoke with them, you felt yourself near the beginning of something long and important.” Read more . . .

Posted in Abstracts, Illusions, Neuroscience | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Social Status Situation of Online Networks

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 16, 2009

Facebook ImageBreeanna Hare of has an interesting piece on how membership in online networks may signal social status.  We excerpt the piece below.

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Is there a class divide online? Research suggests yes. A recent study by market research firm Nielsen Claritas found that people in more affluent demographics are 25 percent more likely to be found friending on Facebook, while the less affluent are 37 percent more likely to connect on MySpace.

More specifically, almost 23 percent of Facebook users earn more than $100,000 a year, compared to slightly more than 16 percent of MySpace users. On the other end of the spectrum, 37 percent of MySpace members earn less than $50,000 annually, compared with about 28 percent of Facebook users.

MySpace users tend to be “in middle-class, blue-collar neighborhoods,” said Mike Mancini, vice president of data product management for Nielsen, which used an online panel of more than 200,000 social media users in the United States in August. “They’re on their way up, or perhaps not college educated.”

By contrast, Mancini said, “Facebook [use] goes off the charts in the upscale suburbs,” driven by a demographic that for Nielsen is represented by white or Asian married couples between the ages of 45-64 with kids and high levels of education.

Even more affluent are users of Twitter, the microblogging site, and LinkedIn, a networking site geared to white-collar professionals. Almost 38 percent of LinkedIn users earn more than $100,000 a year.

Nielsen also found a strong overlap between those who use Facebook and those who use LinkedIn, Mancini said.

Nielsen isn’t the first to find this trend. Ethnographer danah boyd, who does not capitalize her name, said she watched the class divide emerge while conducting research of American teens’ use of social networks in 2006.

When she began, she noticed the high school students all used MySpace, but by the end of the school year, they were switching to Facebook.

When boyd asked why, the students replied with reasons similar to Owens: “the features were better; MySpace is dangerous and Facebook is safe; my friends are here,” boyd recalled.

And then, boyd said, “a young woman, living in a small historical town in Massachussetts said to me, ‘I don’t mean to be a racist or anything, but MySpace is like, ghetto.'” For boyd, that’s when it clicked.

“It’s not a matter of choice between Facebook and MySpace, it was a movement to Facebook from MySpace,” she said, a movement that largely included the educated and the upper-class.

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To read the rest click, here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Situation of Facebook Jealousy, The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing, Virtual Bias, and Internet Disinhibition.

Posted in Choice Myth, Entertainment | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The Categorical Situation of “Money”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 15, 2009


At the Third Annual Law and Mind Sciences Conference at Harvard Law School, titled “The Free Market Mindset: History, Psychology, and Consequences,” (March 7, 2009) Christine Desan‘s presentation was titled “Legal Categories of Thought.”  Desan is a  Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where she has taught since 1992. Her areas of interest include American constitutional history, legal and political thought, civil procedure, and statutory interpretation.

In her presentation, Professor Desan describess the rich variety of ways that the law categorizes different kinds of liquidity — including coin, banknotes, bonds, dollars, and securities, and explores some of the ways that legal doctrine has disciplined our thought, including our assumptions about money and the way it is made, about public and private, and about free choice in the marketplace.  Below you can watch her talk in three videos (roughly 9 minutes each).

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To watch similar videos, visit the video libraries on The Project on Law and Mind Sciences Website (here) or visit PLMSTube.

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Deep Capture, Distribution, History, Ideology, Law, Video | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Barbara Ehrenreich – a Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 14, 2009

Desert DaisyBarbara Ehrenreich’s terrific, highly situationist, new book is now on the shelves, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.

From a related Time Magazine article here’s a brief sample of her writing on the topic of optimism.

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If you’re craving a quick hit of optimism, reading a news magazine is probably not the best way to go about finding it. As the life coaches and motivational speakers have been trying to tell us for more than a decade now, a healthy, positive mental outlook requires strict abstinence from current events in all forms. Instead, you should patronize sites like, where the top international stories of the week include “Jobless Man Finds Buried Treasure” and “Adorable ‘Teacup Pigs’ Are Latest Hit with Brits.”

Or of course you can train yourself to be optimistic through sheer mental discipline. Ever since psychologist Martin Seligman crafted the phrase “learned optimism” in 1991 and started offering optimism training, there’s been a thriving industry in the kind of thought reform that supposedly overcomes negative thinking. You can buy any number of books and DVDs with titles like Little Gold Book of YES! Attitude, in which you will learn mental exercises to reprogram your outlook from gray to the rosiest pink: “affirmations,” for example, in which you repeat upbeat predictions over and over to yourself; “visualizations” in which you post on your bathroom mirror pictures of that car or boat you want; “disputations” to refute any stray negative thoughts that may come along. If money is no object, you can undergo a three-month “happiness makeover” from a life coach or invest $3,575 for three days of “optimism training” on a Good Mood Safari on the coast of New South Wales. . . .

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Americans have long prided themselves on being “positive” and optimistic — traits that reached a manic zenith in the early years of this millennium. Iraq would be a cakewalk! The Dow would reach 36,000! Housing prices could never decline! Optimism was not only patriotic, it was a Christian virtue, or so we learned from the proliferating preachers of the “prosperity gospel,” whose God wants to “prosper” you. In 2006, the runaway bestseller The Secret promised that you could have anything you wanted, anything at all, simply by using your mental powers to “attract” it. The poor listened to upbeat preachers like Joel Osteen and took out subprime mortgages. The rich paid for seminars led by motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and repackaged those mortgages into securities sold around the world. . . .

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Below are some excerpts from the introduction of her new book explaining that, optimism notwithstanding, Americans are not necessarily better off.

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Surprisingly, when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third, surpassed by the Dutch, the Danes, the Malaysians, the Bahamians, the Austrians, and even the supposedly dour Finns. In another potential sign of relative distress, Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. To my knowledge, no one knows how antidepressant use affects people’s responses to happiness surveys: do respondents report being happy because the drugs make them feel happy or do they report being unhappy because they know they are dependent on drugs to make them feel better? Without our heavy use of antidepressants, Americans would likely rank far lower in the happiness rankings than we currently do.

When economists attempt to rank nations more objectively in terms of “well-being,” taking into account such factors as health, environmental sustainability, and the possibility of upward mobility, the United States does even more poorly than it does when only the subjective state of “happiness” is measured. The Happy Planet Index, to give just one example, locates us at 150th among the world’s nations.

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Bright-Sided CoverBut of course it takes the effort of positive thinking to imagine that America is the “best” or the “greatest.” Militarily, yes, we are the mightiest nation on earth. But on many other fronts, the American score is dismal, and was dismal even before the economic downturn that began in 2007. Our children routinely turn out to be more ignorant of basic subjects like math and geography than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. They are also more likely to die in infancy or grow up in poverty. Almost everyone acknowledges that our health care system is “broken” and our physical infrastructure crumbling. We have lost so much of our edge in science and technology that American companies have even begun to outsource their research and development efforts. Worse, some of the measures by which we do lead the world should inspire embarrassment rather than pride: We have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated, and the greatest level of inequality in wealth and income. We are plagued by gun violence and racked by personal debt.

While positive thinking has reinforced and found reinforcement in American national pride, it has also entered into a kind of symbiotic relationship with American capitalism. There is no natural, innate affinity between capitalism and positive thinking. In fact, one of the classics of sociology, Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, makes a still impressive case for capitalism’s roots in the grim and punitive outlook of Calvinist Protestantism, which required people to defer gratification and resist all pleasurable temptations in favor of hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

But if early capitalism was inhospitable to positive thinking, “late” capitalism, or consumer capitalism, is far more congenial, depending as it does on the individual’s hunger for more and the firm’s imperative of growth. The consumer culture encourages individuals to want more — cars, larger homes, television sets, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds — and positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it. Meanwhile, in a competitive business world, the companies that manufacture these goods and provide the paychecks that purchase them have no alternative but to grow. If you don’t steadily increase market share and profits, you risk being driven out of business or swallowed by a larger enterprise. Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.

In addition, positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a “victim” and a “whiner.”

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You can read more about the book and purchase it here.   You can listen to an excellent, half-hour Talk of the Nation interview of Barbara Ehrenreich about the book here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Self-Serving Biases,” “The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?,” “Cheering for the Underdog,” “Ayn Rand’s Dispositionism: The Situation of Ideas,” Deep Capture – Part X,” “Promoting Dispositionism through Entertainment – Part I, Part II, & Part III,” “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III.”

Posted in Book, Cultural Cognition, Deep Capture, Emotions, Ideology, Life, Positive Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

The Situation of Racial Profiling

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 13, 2009

Police OfficerBernard E. Harcourt recently posted his intriguing paper, titled “Henry Louis Gates and Racial Profiling: What’s the Problem?” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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A string of recent studies has documented significant racial disparities in police stops, searches, and arrests across the country. The issue of racial profiling, however, did not receive national attention until the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., at his home in Cambridge. This raises three questions: First, did Sergeant Crowley engage in racial profiling when he arrested Professor Gates? Second, why does it take the wrongful arrest of a respected member of an elite community to focus the attention of the country? Third, why is racial profiling so pervasive in American policing?

The answers to these questions are interconnected: they turn on the fact that racial profiling is just another form of statistical discrimination and that, today, we all embrace statistical discrimination as efficient and justified whenever there are group-based differences in behavior or fact disparities. We have all become, today, statistical discriminators.

This answer, though, points to a solution in the racial profiling quandary, because statistical discrimination is misguided in dynamic situations where there are feedback effects. In policing, it is counter-productive to the law enforcement objective of reducing crime. Like Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres’s metaphor of the miner’s canary, the racial dimension of racial profiling is what troubles us in the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. But, just like the canary whose distress is a warning that the air in the mine is poisoned, the troubling aspect of race in the debate over racial profiling points to the larger problems of statistical discrimination writ large.

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To download Harcourt’s paper for free, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “He’s a Banana-Eating Monkey, but I’m Not a Racist,” “The Legal Situation of the Underclass,” Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” and “The Situational Demographics of Deadly Force – Abstract.”

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

Situationism in the Blogosphere – September 2009, Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 12, 2009

blogosphere image

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

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From Brain Blogger: “Religion – A “Natural” Phenomenon?”

“All human societies have some phenomenon that can be described as religion. It is difficult to understand why religion is so pervasive in human culture. Some theories suggest that religion is a byproduct of evolution. However, no other animal group has anything that even remotely resembles the concept that has been labeled as religion in anthropology.” Read more . . .

From BPS Research Digest: “Political activism is good for you”

“Aristotle argued that we’re political animals at heart and that active involvement in society fulfils a basic human need. It’s an idea that’s been rediscovered recently by psychologists interested in well-being and human flourishing. Now the positive psychologists Malte Klar and Tim Kasser have provided some tentative evidence that activists are happier than non-activists.” Read more . . .

From BPS Research Digest: “Physiognomy redux? Link found between facial appearance and aggression”

“Physiognomy – inferring personality traits from facial features – was outlawed by King George II in 1743, and has for many years been dismissed as a pseudoscience. However, modern research is showing not only that observers readily make inferences about other people’s traits based on their facial appearance, but that these inferences are often highly accurate.” Read more . . .

From Cognitive Daily: “We’re more likely to behave ethically when we see”

“[…] So it appears that all three of our initial questions about why we cheat play into real-world cheating. We’re influenced by our chances of getting caught, by how much attention we’re paying to the ethical issues involved, and whether or not people like us are doing it. And we reserve special disdain for our rivals, taking care not to behave in the unethical ways they do. Perhaps if the University of Chicago wants to cut down on theft in their cafeteria, what they really need to do is point out how often those unethical Northwestern students steal silverware.” Read more . . .

From Cognitive Daily: “Does rewarding altruism squelch it?”

“Imagine your neighbor has a dog that regularly escapes her yard. One day you see the dog escape and return it to her. She thanks you by giving you a piece of delicious home-made apple pie. This happens several days in a row. Then one day when you return the dog, there’s no pie, no thanks, and no explanation. Would you return the dog the next time it escapes?” Read more . . .


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

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

john powell on the Racial Situation of Opportunity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 10, 2009

From ForaTV:  The head of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity maps out opportunity to affirm what many people–particularly people of color–already know.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Legal Situation of the Underclass” and “Infant Death Rates in Mississippi.”

Posted in Education, Law, Life, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

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