The Situationist

Archive for October, 2009

A Situationist View of Habeas Corpus

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 9, 2009

Habeas Corpus2Eve Brensike Primus posted her recent, interesting article, “A Structural Vision of Habeas Corpus” (98 California Law Review (2009-2010)) on SSRN.   Here’s the abstract.

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For decades, scholars and judges have assumed that federal habeas corpus review of state court criminal convictions should focus on the individual rights of habeas petitioners and that the federal courts should ask whether a state prisoner is being unlawfully detained because the state violated his individual federal rights. This individualized approach to federal habeas review is expensive, time-consuming, and woefully ineffective in stopping states from violating defendants’ federal rights. Indeed, many states systematically violate criminal defendants’ federal rights with impunity. This Article proposes a new conception of federal habeas review under which the federal courts focus on states, not on individual petitioners. Federal habeas relief should be available when, but only when, a state routinely violates its criminal defendants’ federal rights as part of a systemic practice. Reconfiguring federal habeas corpus review to focus on states and systemic practices would reduce redundancy, increase efficiency, and be more respectful of state institutions while, at the same time, recovering one of the original and now lost purposes of federal habeas corpus review.

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To download the paper for free, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Legal Situation of the Underclass,”The Situation of Criminality – Abstract,” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Why Criminals Obey the Law – Abstract,” and Tom Tyler on “Strategies of Social Control” – Video.”


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

The Situation of Becoming Happier

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 8, 2009

From BigThink: “For however elusive happiness is to define, there are very specific things people can do each day that are proven to increase happiness: Tal Ben Shahar has spent his career studying them. He gave Big Think several practical happiness tips, including changing your calendar, buying a notebook, and changing your approach to car parking.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Something to Smile About,” “Dan Kahneman on the Situation of Well-Being,” and “Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology.”

Posted in Life, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Rebecca Onie: Doing Something about the Situation of Medical Care

Posted by J on October 7, 2009

Project Health LogoRebecca Onie, a former student of mine, was recently named a MacArthur Fellow (“genius grant”)  for her amazing work as executive director of Project Health, a non-profit organization that she co-founded while a sophomore at Harvard College.  Project Health, dedicated to breaking the link between poverty and poor health, places undergraduate volunteers in medical clinics to help medical professionals connect patients and their families to local food and housing.

Here are some videos depicting the good work that Rebecca and Project Health do in attempting to assist families achieve a situation that will permit them to become healthy.

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Congratuations to Rebecca and the other remarkable people at Project Health.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Racial Health Disparities,” “The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers,” “The Racial Situation of Pain Relief,” “The Situation of Medical Research,” and “Infant Death Rates in Mississippi.”

Posted in Life, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Problem of Old Fears and New Dangers

Posted by Adam Benforado on October 6, 2009

Credit Card Lock1A few weeks ago, the grandfather of law and economics, Richard Posner, decided to weigh in on President Obama’s proposal for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA), which would regulate consumer financial products including mortgages and credit cards.  He bemoaned the idea of a new regulatory body—dismissing it as the misguided vision of a cadre of idealistic behavioral economists.

As he explained, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “Behavioral economists are right to point to the limitations of human cognition.  But if they have the same cognitive limitations as consumers, should they be designing systems of consumer protection?”

The enemy is a familiar one for Posner and any self-respecting classical liberal: paternalism.

Posner’s concern is that “the agency will steer consumers to those financial products that it thinks best for them, whatever they naïvely think.”

That statement is misleading and problematic for two reasons.

First, the aim of the CFPA is not to force consumers to agree to something they wouldn’t otherwise agree to; the point is to promote real disclosure so that consumers can make informed decisions.  Thus, the impetus behind the plan for pre-approved “plain vanilla” financial product forms, for example, is not a desire to constrain choice, but to ensure a format that customers can understand.  Without understanding there is no free choice.

Second, even if we accept Posner’s inaccurate and unfair characterization of the agency as paternalistic, that must certainly be better than the status quo that Posner tacitly supports in which companies steer consumers to those financial products they think best for the company, whatever consumers naïvely think.  For someone committed to preserving the autonomy of the individual to pursue his own conception of the good, the world Posner affirms is a coercive nightmare far worse than his caricature of America’s future under the CFPA Act: at least in the latter case, the implicated entity is attempting to pursue the best interests of the American public, not its own.

What is to explain Posner’s inability to see that under the current system individuals lack free choice?  After all he is a very smart guy and the evidence on how mortgage and credit card products are deliberately created and marketed to compel consumers to step into higher cost products is overwhelming.

Why is Posner so ready to see the government as the totalitarian bogeyman and so unwilling to see the consumer financial products industry in this role?

It is hard to say, but I expect part of it grows out of being stuck in a mid-20th-Century mindset.

Richard Posner, born in 1939, came of age during the Cold War.  (Interesting aside: a thirteen-year-old Posner agreed to give his electric train set to the Rosenberg children when they visited his house shortly after their parents were executed.)  During that time, the enemy was the totalitarian state—the overbearing government that thought it knew what was best for the people.  Corporations, by contrast, were the good guys.  They listened to our wants and responded to our desires.  They helped keep us free and happy.

Today, rather than looking objectively at what presents the greatest danger to liberty; he is stuck looking for the nefarious influence of big government.  And that’s where he has gone wrong.

The CFPA isn’t a big government command-and-control-style creation.  It is minimalist, reflecting the ideas of a younger generation of law professors and economists—including Posner’s colleagues, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler—dedicated, like Posner, to an environment of free choice, but aware that the government must sometimes act to ensure that such freedom exists.  It is hard to see how an agency that requires credit card companies to not print their U.S. contracts in Arabic or incomprehensible legalese is a real threat to liberty; it seems like a sensible way to make sure that consumers can accurately compare products and that markets work efficiently.

And it is not clear that the CFPA’s oversight would actually hurt the profitability of companies.  Sure, entities that have survived the last few years on trickery and outright deceit would struggle in the new climate of openness, clarity, and disclosure, but what about all of those honest consumer financial businesses that were kept out of the market because they were undercut by sharp practices?

Posner needs to get with the times or get out of the way.  His refrain, “too much, too soon, too costly,” is a tired old mantra that ignores the dangers, abuses, and costs hidden in the status quo.

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Some of the themes touched on in this post are developed in much greater detail in several  law review articles by Situationist Contributors, including the following two (which can be downloaded for free at the given links): “Naive Cynicism: Maintaining False Perceptions in Policy Debates,” “Legal Academic Backlash: The Response of Legal Theorists to Situationist Insights,”

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Credit Card Regulation,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” 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 Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, Marketing, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Social Psychologists Discuss Stereotype Threat

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 5, 2009

Classroom RedAmber Tunnell has an article in the Columbia Spectator describing a recent talk given by social psychologist (and Columbia Provost) Claude Steele about his pathbreaking work on stereotype threat.  Here are some excerpts.

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Two problems launched Steele’s career, he said: the underperformance of women and minority students on cognitive tests in academic settings, and what he called the “diversity problem,” or the difficulty that arises when trying to make a situation comfortable for everyone, while at the same time integrating different groups.

“Everyone experiences a stereotype a couple times a day,” Steele said, highlighting the thrust of his speech.

“Identity contingencies,” he said, are the identity questions central to daily existence. For example, Steele said he developed an identity contingency the moment he first discovered he was black. “If you have to deal with things in situations because you have a certain identity, that identity will be important to you,” he said.

“Most psychologically impactful identity contingencies are those that in some way threaten the individual,” he said, while explaining that “stereotype threat” is the most important identity contingency.

Steele then described the experiments he conducted to gauge stereotype threat in schools. One discussed female performance on math tests. In this experiment, psychologists gave mathematically-adept, high-school level men and women a difficult math test. The results showed that women performed much worse than the men because they “experienced a different type of frustration” when faced with difficult problems. As the women became frustrated, they grappled with the fear of conforming to a gender stereotype, while the men were unaffected. The psychologists then conducted the experiment again and they told the subjects that women generally perform well on this specific test, and the women’s scores increased dramatically.

Steele then asked, “What makes the threat really stronger and what makes it weak?”

Steele said that “people that show this effect the most are the strongest. . . . They are the ones that care the most . . . , have the most skills . . . , the ones that try too hard.”

“Identity threat is intrinsic to most diverse settings” and it is “the default state of affairs unless something is done to reduce it,” Steele said. “Some level and salience of identity safety cues in a setting can foster trust even when other cues in the setting might suggest otherwise,” he added optimistically.

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To watch news report about very interesting research by Sian Beilock and Allen McConnell building off of Claude Steele’s work, click on the video below.

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For a sample of related Situationst post “A Rose by any other Name Might Become a Judge,” The Gendered Situation of Chess,” The Situation of Gender-Science Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situational Bind,” The Situation of Gender and Science,Stereotype Threat and Performance,” “The Gendered Situation of Science & Math,” Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

Posted in Education, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Andrew Papachristos at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 4, 2009

SALMS Logo Small 2 for WebsiteOn Monday, October 5, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Professor  Andrew Papachristos entitled “Why Do Criminals Obey the Law: The Influence of Law and Social Networks on Active Gun Users.”

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Our findings suggest that while criminals as a whole have negative opinions of the law and legal authority, the sample of gun offenders (just like non-criminals) are more likely to comply with the law when they believe in (a) the substance of the law, and (b) the legitimacy of legal actors, especially the police. Moreover, we find that opinions of compliance to the law are not uniformly distributed across the sample population. In other words, not all criminals are alike in their opinions of the law. Gang members – but especially gang members with social networks saturated with criminal associates – are significantly less likely to view the law and its agents as a legitimate form of authority. However, those individuals (including gang members) with less saturated criminal networks, actually tend to have more positive opinions of the law, albeit these opinions are still overall negative.

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The event will take place in Pound 200 at Harvard Law School, from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.  For more information, e-mail

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see”The Legal Situation of the Underclass,”The Situation of Criminality – Abstract,” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Why Criminals Obey the Law – Abstract,” and Tom Tyler on “Strategies of Social Control” – Video.”

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

The Situation of Narcissism in Politics

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 3, 2009

Mark SanfordSharon Jayson of USA Today has an interesting piece on why many politicians seem narcissistic.  We excerpt the piece below.

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“Politicians are different,” says Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who’s writing a book about narcissistic men. “How many of us would have the desire, much less the ability, to promote ourselves ceaselessly? You have to do that as a politician. It’s an amazing level of self-love … and a need for affirmation.”

Most recently in the news was Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, whose extramarital romance with a woman in Argentina spurred investigations into his spending habits. And remember Eliot Spitzer? He was forced to resign as governor of New York last year; his extramarital dalliance involved a prostitution ring. James McGreevey, former governor of New Jersey, resigned in 2004 after revealing his adultery with a male aide.

“Ambition and narcissism are occupational hazards for all political leaders,” says Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at City University of New York and author of books dealing with psychological issues and political behavior. “Infidelity is a byproduct of narcissism.”

By definition, narcissism is “excessive self-love” and stems from a mythical youth who fell in love with his own reflection. In recent years, it’s become a buzzword with myriad other meanings — from egotism to selfishness to hubris. Traits associated with narcissism aren’t all negative: self-confidence, leadership ability and power. Many say those drawn to politics are risk-takers anyway.

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To read the rest, click here.  For a related Situationist series, see Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Jon Ensign, and Now Mark Sanford: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation.

Posted in Life, Morality, Politics | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

George Lakoff on the Metaphorical Situation of Moral Politics

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 2, 2009

From University of California Television: “UC Berkeley professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics George Lakoff explores how successful political debates are framed by using language targeted to people’s values instead of their support for specific government programs in this public lecture sponsored by the Helen Edison Series at UC San Diego.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Metaphors,” “Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?,” and “Your Brain on Politics.”

Posted in Ideology, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Caring

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 1, 2009

fall foliageFrom the University of Rochester (press release):

Want to be a better person? Commune with nature.

Paying attention to the natural world not only makes you feel better, it makes you behave better, finds a new study to be published October 1 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“Stopping to experience our natural surroundings can have social as well as personal benefits,” says Richard Ryan, coauthor and professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester. While the salubrious effects of nature are well documented, from increasing happiness and physical health to lowering stress, this study shows that the benefits extend to a person’s values and actions. Exposure to natural as opposed to man-made environments leads people to value community and close relationships and to be more generous with money, find Ryan and his team of researchers at the University of Rochester.

The paper includes four experiments in which 370 participants were exposed to either natural or man-made settings. Participants were encouraged to attend to their environments by noticing colors and textures and imagining sounds and smells. In three of the studies, participants were shown a selection of four images on a 19 inch computer screen for two minutes each. Half of the subject viewed buildings, roads, and other cityscapes; the other half observed landscapes, lakes, and deserts. The urban and nature images were matched for color, complexity, layout, and lighting. In a fourth study, participants were simply assigned at random to work in a lab with or without plants. Participants then answered a questionnaire assessing the importance of four life aspirations: wealth and fame (“to be financially successful” and “to be admired by many people”) and connectedness and community (“to have deep enduring relationships” and “to work toward the betterment of society”).

Across all four studies, people exposed to natural elements rated close relationships and community higher than they had previously. The questionnaire also measured how immersed viewers were in their environments and found that the more deeply engaged subjects were with natural settings, the more they valued community and closeness. By contrast, the more intensely participants focused on artificial elements, the higher they rated wealth and fame.

To test generosity, two of the studies gave participants a $5 prize with the instructions that the money could be kept or given to a second anonymous participant, who would then be given an additional $5. The second participant could choose to return the prize money or keep it. Thus, subjects had nothing to gain if they chose to trust the other participant, and risked losing their money.

The result? People who were in contact with nature were more willing to open their wallets and share. As with aspirations, the higher the immersion in nature, the more likely subjects were to be generous with their winnings.

Why should nature make us more charitable and concerned about others? One answer, says coauthor Andrew Przybylski, is that nature helps to connect people to their authentic selves. For example, study participants who focused on landscapes and plants reported a greater sense of personal autonomy (“Right now, I feel like I can be myself”). For humans, says Przybylski, our authentic selves are inherently communal because humans evolved in hunter and gatherer societies that depended on mutuality for survival.

In addition, write the authors, the richness and complexity of natural environments may encourage introspection and the lack of man-made structures provide a safe haven from the man-made pressures of society. “Nature in a way strips away the artifices of society that alienate us from one another,” says Przybylski.

Lead author Netta Weinstein says that the findings highlight the importance of creating green spaces in cities and have implication for planners and architects. Incorporating parks and other representations of nature into urban environments may help build a stronger sense of community among residents, she explains. By contrast, “to the extent that our links with nature are disrupted, we may also lose some connection with each other,” the authors warn. This alienation may help explain other research showing that urban as compared to rural dwellers show more reservation, indifference, and estrangement from others.

On a personal level, Weinstein says the take home message from the research is clear: “We are influenced by our environment in ways that we are not aware of,” she says. Because of the hidden benefits of connecting with nature, people should take advantage of opportunities to get away from built environments and, when inside, they should surround themselves with plants, natural objects, and images of the natural world. “The more you appreciate nature, the more you can benefit,” she says.

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To watch portions of an interview of Richard Ryan, click on the video below.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “Well-Being Is a Walk in the Park,” and “Some Situational Sources of Longer Life.”

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Life, Morality, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

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